Africa 2013

Preparation for the flight

C182 TDI

In early 2013, I heard through the grapevine that a British Obstetric Surgeon was intending to fly through Africa in a light aircraft, and offer medical training and supplies in countries along the route. Having always been fascinated with the idea of a long flight through Africa, I got in touch to find out more, and see if there was any way I could help with my experience of flying in Africa to date. Dr Sophia Webster and I ended up getting on well, and discussing the trip in more and more detail - before long, I was asked if I would come along as an experienced pilot to deal with the aviation side of things. While Dr Webster held a Private Pilot's Licence, she had relatively few hours of experience and more importantly would need to be devoting most of her time to the medical mission rather than flight planning. On a trip like this, two pilots to share the load just makes sense.

Once I had agreed that yes, I would like to go (which was not a difficult thing to convince me of) things started coming together remarkably quickly. Within the space of a few weeks the aircraft lease was organised, vaccinations acquired, flight to Europe booked, and visa and flight clearance process well under way.

The mission, and the route

My area of expertise is aviation rather than medicine, but before long I found myself learning a lot more than I ever expected to about maternal mortality in child-birth. The death of the mother during pregnancy and delivery is incredibly rare in the developed world, but still sadly common in much of the developing world including much of Sub-Saharan Africa. As an obstetric surgeon with a keen interest in Africa, Dr Webster planned to travel through those countries in Africa with the highest rates of maternal mortality to offer training and equipment to combat the problem. Her website, at Flight For Every Mother, gives more details of the medical mission.

In addition to the direct provision of supplies and training, engagement with my employer revealed a company-led project underway throughout Africa to form a network of tele-medicine through the region. The ultimate goal would be for doctors in remote locations to be able to log on to a website and be instantly connected through voice and video link to an experienced doctor elsewhere who could consult and advise on problems encountered. So far the company had developed the technology, designed to work over very low bandwidth connections, and was in the process of building the network of doctors both inside and outside of Africa. The flight was identified as an excellent way to publicise this project and build the network, and contact was established with VSee, based out of California, who came onboard to offer advice, equipment, and even personnel.

Of course, my participation would have been entirely impossible without the support of my company. I'm lucky enough to work for a large multinational who believe strongly in their employees taking part in charitable work outside of their jobs, and is willing to support them with the required time to do so. In particular, my line management were extremely helpful with guidance about how to arrange the time off, as well as advice on preparation and safety (they are well traveled through work). Several other colleagues in my branch of the company were instrumental in putting me in touch with the right people to get buy-in from the global publicity and health organisations, and to all of these people, I am extremely grateful!


IFR charts for Africa

Unsurprisingly, there are significant challenges when planning this kind of flight. The first is the choice of aircraft; the unavailability of AVGAS cuts out 99%+ of the general aviation fleet. We ended up leasing a C182 that had been converted to an aero-diesel engine produced by SMA - this runs on jet fuel, which is available anywhere. It comes with the added advantage of better fuel economy leading directly to increased range.

The number of different countries to be visited also presented a challenge. In total, 25 different African countries would be visited over a three month period; each of this countries has different entry requirements for aircraft and crew. Mike Gray, of White Rose Aviation, was employed to organise overflight and landing clearances along the entire route. With his decades of experience, we were able to feel comfortable that permits would not be something we had to worry about. As well as permits, visas for myself and Sophia had to be organised. Some countries make visas available on entry, but others had to be organised in advance; thankfully, Sophia and her family were able to take the time in London to visit a number of embassies and organise visas in advance. Despite advice that we would not be able to get visas without having commercial airline tickets, we found that this was not the case and the required visas could be procured.

The route was primarily chosen with Sophia's medical contacts in mind. As a result, at the majority of stops we already knew people on the ground who would be able to help out with accommodation, transport, and safety advice for the locations we were visiting.

Other varied tasks included procurement of charts; VFR charts were not available for the majority of the route. We acquired IFR en-route charts, and approach plates, for the entirety of Africa from Jeppesen; these came in three thick 2" binders. It was amazing to think that we had full details for every airport on an entire continent in our hands!

Phase One - flight through Europe

Click here to access the first part of the trip report; the journey south through Europe.

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