Africa 2013

Phase one - Europe

Before setting off on the trip, there would be a bit of time in Europe to prepare. I had to collect the aircraft from Belgium and ferry it to the UK, where we'd spend a few days getting ready. We'd meet at Cranfield airport two days in advance of setting off south where the main sponsors, Clearblue, would hold an event, and we could spend time with the families before departure.

Aircraft ferry and final preparations

Sunday July 28th - Arrival in Belgium

The flight from Pittsburgh to Belgium was relatively uneventful. After a nervous 3 hour delay in Philadelphia, unsure whether the flight would actually happen that day or not, we boarded with relief and had a thoroughly uncomfortable ride on an antique Boeing 767 belonging to US Air. We arrived in Brussels around mid-day, and I settled in for the two day wait before collecting the aircraft; originally supposed to be ready on the 28th, it was now delayed until the 30th.

Ghent Castle Canal in Ghent

Monday July 29th - A day off in Ghent

I met up with my friend Keiko in Ghent, who had traveled down from The Hague. We spent the time exploring the town which was in the middle of their annual festival; a large celebration with bands playing in all the squares, street markets and the like. It was good fun to visit, but we did find ourselves wishing that we could see the city without the bustling crowds, and large temporary stages; they did detract from the beauty of the old buildings. Highlights were the old castle, which has been authentically restored and is almost all accessible, as well as a boat trip around the canals of the city where the sure-to-be-a-hit game of "Pigeon" was invented.

Tuesday July 30th - Aircraft collection

After a late morning departure, the train journey over to Charleroi was smooth. The previous day it had been agreed that I would aim to get to the airport at 3pm, and that we'd speak sometime after 10am to confirm. In the end, I didn't manage to make contact until after 3pm, by which time I was already hanging around the station in Charleroi. Further engineering delays on the aircraft, followed by poor weather, meant that the aircraft did not arrive until nearly 8pm, and I was not airborne until nearly 9pm; much too late to get to my planned destination of Biggin Hill before closing time, especially with the 30kt headwind I was battling.

In the USA, an airport is seen as similar to a road; a part of the nation's infrastructure. As a result, all airfields tend to be available 24 hours a day; many are not attended at night (or indeed at all), but there is no need for anyone to be present for an aircraft to use a strip of tarmac. Even at night, lights can be operated easily by the pilot over the radio. In much of the rest of the world, including Europe, unnecessary regulation coupled with the effects of those people who buy houses next to airports and then complain that they can hear aircraft have led to a ban on radio-controlled lighting, and short operating hours for most airports. As it was, the only open airport by the time I got to the UK was Southend, a long way from home, but at least in the right country.

Wednesday July 31st - Visas

I met with Sophia in the morning in London in order to apply for a couple more visas. The first, Ivory Coast, required us to be present in person to have fingerprints and a photo taken; more strict than even the USA, it seems. It turned out that we did not have all the documentation; because we were not arriving by scheduled flight and hence had no ticket, they wanted more paperwork than normal. Luckily Sophia had her laptop and a mobile internet connection, and we were able to make a hotel booking there and then (without even needing a credit card) and paid the man in the office the requested £1 to print out two copies. The lady behind the desk then took Sophia's application, but for some reason left me waiting for another two hours; it turned out that she had crossed me off her list as "completed" by mistake and then went off to a meeting. Sophia left to get to the Nigerian High Commission and submit my documents before they closed; the joy of having two passports! All going to plan, we'll be able to send a representative to collect all three passports, my two and Sophia's one, on Friday.

Southend Airport

Thursday August 1st - Flights to Cranfield

Thursday morning was bright and sunny with barely a cloud in the sky; perfect conditions for flying. I was dropped off at Southend along with my mother, who would be flying with me for the day. We cleared security quickly and, kitted out in our mandatory high-visibility vests, strolled across the tarmac to the aircraft. I pre-flighted especially carefully, as this was the first time I'd had the aircraft to myself without being rushed, and I wanted to ensure I became fully familiar with it. In addition, I had to carefully inspect for any pre-existing damage so that we would not be charged for something we didn't do! By 11am we were ready to depart, and took off on runway 06 headed for Peterborough Sibson Airfield.

We flew on a direct course for Sibson at 2000ft; the air was not too bumpy, and the visibility perfect. Our course took us towards Stansted, and after a short conversation with Essex radar we were given clearance to pass directly overhead, between two landing Ryanair 737s. From there we flew past many of my old haunts; Duxford, Cambridge, and RAF Wyton where the Cambridge University Air Squadron is based. Sibson was quiet, and we landed on runway 15; just 500m of grass, which concentrates the mind when one has been flying from at least 750m of tarmac for the last year or more!

Stansted Airport

Sibson is a picturesque field, with a small flying school and a parachute centre. We sat in the lounge and I worked on further flight planning using the conveniently provided wifi while we waited for Sophia and her mother Pauline to arrive. We'd be flying from Sibson down to Cranfield, just a 30 mile trip, but it was important that Sophia arrive by air as the primary sponsors, ClearBlue had arranged to have a reception party including photographers to meet us as we taxied in. We loaded up the mothers; a nice touch to make the first flight of "Flight for Every Mother" with them on board; and set off for the short and uneventful hop to Cranfield. As we turned off the runway we found that they'd managed to persuade the airport to take them out to near the threshold and get some video of our arrival; thankfully I made a fairly good landing!

We parked up, and spent a few moments having photographs taken and answering questions. While Sophia carried on talking with the greeters from ClearBlue I chatted with the airport representative, who informed me that Cranfield had very kindly arranged for our landing and parking fees to be waived in aid of the charity trip. We thanked them, and after securing the aircraft were driven to the offices of ClearBlue. Most of the employees had turned out for a reception, with a banner welcoming Sophia and even cupcakes with "Flight for Every Mother" logos on them! Group photos, speeches, and on-camera interviews followed before we headed for the hotel.

That evening we took the chance to catch our breath at the Embankment Hotel in Bedford. They were very kind and donated a night's free stay to both Sophia and I in support of the project. A colleague of Sophia's showed up to deliver her malaria medication, and after some time sat by the river getting to know each other's families we turned in.

Weighing equipment

Thursday August 2nd - Final preparation

With participants and families gathered in Bedford, we spent an hour in the morning at ClearBlue, planning what still needed to be done. I split off together with my father, and shopped for last minute items (tie down ropes for the aircraft, and so on) before heading out to the aircraft. We met up with Steve and Lucy (Sophia´s father and sister) and spent some time planning how we´d load the aircraft, as well as organising fuel. Steve and Lucy took some time to painstakingly adhere the website address to the aircraft.

Later in the evening, back at the hotel, I sat down with the charts for the UK, France, and Spain and planned our flight for the next day. It would be a straight shot South past London, along the French coast, and finally a right turn into Bilbao. A total of 588nm should mean a flight time of a little less than 6 hours.

At 8pm my sister arrived from London, and the eight of us sat down for a goodbye dinner. The disco from the wedding that was taking place in the hotel thankfully shut down at a reasonable hour and we went to bed early, ready for the official departure to Africa the next day.

The beginning - South through Europe

Group photos

Saturday August 3rd - Departure to Bilbao

We arrived at the airfield a little before it opened, but the staff were already around and let us in to load the aircraft. We weighed the gear one last time and found that we had 150kg of supplies in total. Carefully distributed within the aircraft, we were still within our weight and balance limits. The time came, at last, to say goodbye; a few group photos later and Sophia and I started up the aircraft and headed for the runway.

Group photos

It turns out that the families had not taken into account the time to queue for takeoff behind a couple of other aircraft, and were not fully acquainted with light aircraft identification. They waved wildy, shared emotional hugs, and took countless photos of the departing Cessna; which was unfortunately not us. As they were walking back to their cars a very kind man from the control tower ran after them, to point out that we'd not actually taken off yet, so they rushed back just in time to do it all over again. Apparently, it was much less emotional the second time around.

We set course South at 2000ft to remain below the airspace around Luton and Heathrow. Being a beautiful Saturday morning, there was quite a large amount of other traffic buzzing around, including plenty of gliders; we weaved a course around a number of locations to keep clear of the launching winches that power the gliders up to 1000ft or more. As we tracked further South towards Southampton the coastline came into view, and we accepted a radar service from Solent Radar as we climbed up to 6,500ft over the Isle of Wight before crossing the Channel. Even as we passed over St Catherine's Point, the coastline of France was just visible in the distance.

The French Air Traffic Controllers gave excellent service as we passed down the entire Western side of the country. We were handed off from controller to controller, with seamless clearance through the various sections of airspace we passed through, as well as a traffic service to alert us of any other aircraft nearby. Around 90 minutes from Bilbao, our relaxed cruise came to an end; the "Low Voltage" warning light had illuminated. A quick assessment of the situation suggested an issue with the alternator; although, trouble shooting quickly demonstrated that the alternator itself was still operating. Whatever the reason, the battery was no longer receiving a charge, and that meant that our electrical systems were at risk of shutting down.

Shutting down all non-essential systems such as aircraft lights brought the drain on the battery down to a minimum. The SMA aerodiesel engine fitted to our aircraft has an electrically powered Engine Control Unit, which we bypassed by switching to the mechanical back-up; the engine will stop running if the ECU shuts down, so switching to mechanical back-up is a sensible precaution and also removes further load from the battery. Running in mechanical back-up mode limits the available power, so we continued our flight in good conditions at a slightly reduced speed.

An hour later, we approached Bilbao under a scattered layer of cloud. We flew a slow downwind leg to allow a Lufthansa flight to land ahead of us, before touching down well down the runway to avoid his wake turbulence. A "follow-me" car led us to a parking spot more commonly used for mid-size regional jets, and the handling agents from Servisair met us as we shut down. We had to wait some time for fuel, as they were dealing with several airliners before turning their attention to us. The first fuel truck they brought was too large, and they had to go away and locate a smaller one that would have a hose that was not too big to fit into our filler port. Even then, they insisted on being shown the part of the aircraft handbook that specified Jet-A as the fuel; they'd never encountered something this small that didn't run on AVGAS.

To investigate the electrical issue would first require a look under the cowling to spot any obvious issues such as loose wiring; but here we ran into a problem. The tool we needed to remove the cowling, a simple screwdriver, was the one thing we'd forgotten to bring with us in the rush of departure. Servisair, who were proving themselves extremely helpful and professional, came to the rescue and collected us from our hotel to take us to the supermarket so we could buy the tools we need. We ate at the hotel, and didn't sleep until late after working through all of the required planning for the next day, and other issues that always come up in preparation for stops down-route.

Sunday August 4rd - Grounded in Bilbao

An overcast sky in the morning stopped us feeling too bad about being earth-bound for the time being. The breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express was surprisingly good, and with our hunger satisfied and clutching our newly purchased tools we took the shuttle bus back to the airport. Servisair met us once again and led us through to security, where we hit the first problem of the day. The men at security were adamant that our dangerous tools would not be allowed through security unless we were licensed mechanics; which we, of course, were not. Arguments that pilots are permitted to carry out some of their own maintenance fell on deaf ears. Avoiding the temptation to point out that we hd a folding knife in the aircraft already, so we'd hardly be trying to smuggle a pair of pliers through to perform nefarious deeds, we eventually negotiated a truce whereby we gave up our hammer, security saved face, and we could still proceed with our precious screwdriver. I was reasonably confident that we wouldn't need a hammer anyway; it had come as part of the tool kit. In retrospect, we could probably have predicted that attempting to carry a hammer through airport security might have caused a few raised eyebrows.

On arrival at the aircraft I set about removing the cowling. Having taken the top half away, we performed a careful inspection of every wire we could see. It turned out that one of the cables attaching to the alternator had come snapped at the bracket where it joined the alternator itself; so, although the alternator was working fine, the battery was not receiving any current. We were pleased to discover that it was a seemingly easy fix; but less pleased to discover that on a Sunday, absolutely nowhere to procure the replacement part or have it fitted would be open. A mechanic from Iberia came to offer assistance, but could not find the exact part needed, and so we returned to the Servisair desk to consider our options.

It turned out that one of the Servisair representatives was learning to fly at the flying club across the airfield. While there was no light aircraft maintenance facility at Bilbao, he did know that a mechanic was coming the following day to work on the club aircraft. He managed to get through by phone, and we described the problem to the mechanic who asked us to taxi across the field and meet him at 9am the following day. At last, the problem was in the hands of a professional!

With nothing else to be accomplished on the aircraft front that day, we returned to the hotel. They were moderately surprised to see us again but fortunately still had rooms available. We spent the afternoon catching up on emails, updating the websites, and running through our planned schedule to tweak the time at various stops as well as allow for the lost day in Bilbao. Sophia did a little research on Bilbao and discovered that it is in fact a very pleasant tourist city, with such sights as the Gugenheim museum. We couldn´t leave without seeing at least some of the city so we made the most of the delay and spent the evening in the city centre; being a Sunday evening many places were closed, but we found a cafe by the river to have a drink in and spend a little time unwinding after the non-stop activity of the last few days!

Monday August 5th - Bilbao

We departed the hotel early to get to the airport for 8am. Servisair took us straight down through security, which was only slightly less time consuming than the previous day; this time, the required paperwork was apparently not in order and we had to wait around for it to be corrected. After arriving at the aircraft we loaded the cowlings into the Servisair van; there was no point in re-installing them just for the taxi across the field to the aero club. The van, with Sophia and the cowlings, sped off as I called for clearance to start the engine, and tried to fire up. The engine would turn over, but not catch. I informed tower of the problem and shut the systems down again before trying to contact Sophia and Servisair. Unfortunately, Servisair were not answering, and Sophia had left her phone in the aircraft!

All I could do was wait. After 45 minutes or so, the Servisair van returned; this time with two mechanics on board. They poked and prodded around the engine and declared that the alternator cable was a very easy fix. The battery, however, would need a two hour charge. A phonecall to the mechanics in Holland who look after the aircraft confirmed that a charge should fix our problems; when the battery is too low the Engine Control Unit will not allow the engine to receive fuel as it thinks there is an electrical problem, even though the starter will turn the engine over. Another symptom was that the alternator became very hot after just a few seconds of turning the engine over, even though it was turned off; the mechanics were unclear about this issue so we'll charge the battery and see how we go.

15:00 update. The connection to the alternator was repaired, and the engine fired up as normal with the freshly charged battery. However, this revealed the major problem: the alternator is dead, probably as a result of a short circuit while the loose end of the broken cable waved around and contacted the alternator housing. We re-fitted the cowlings, and fired up again under battery power to taxi Quebec Romeo over to the other side of the airport where she has been tucked away in the flying club hangar for the time being.

A phonecall to the mechanics in Holland organised for a new alternator to be shipped directly to Bilbao by the manufacturer. It should arrive before mid-day on Wednesday. Jose and his team from FlyBai flying school will remove the old alternator on Tuesday and have everything ready for the new installation to ensure we can get away in the quickest possible time.

So, we settled in again for another 2 nights in Bilbao. Being a little tired of the Holiday Inn, we used to book a hotel in the city centre. We selected on of their deals where you are given a significant discount, but not told what hotel you'll be in until after you book; you're initially just given a run-down of the approximate location, facilities, and star rating. Imagine our delight when we booked, and found that we'd be spending the next two nights in the other Holiday Inn. On the plus side, at least it is not too far from the city centre!

Tuesday August 6th - Bilbao

We started the day with, after all the hassle and lack of sleep of the previous days, a well deserved lie-in. After lunch we made our way to the laundry, and then down to the old town of Bilbao. The Holiday Inn was high up on the hill, with the old town stretching out below, and we wandered for a while taking in the sights. The majority of the old town seems to be pedestrianised, with a lot of restaurants with seating spilling out into the street. We settled in to eat at one of these places, and both plumped for Bacalao, a local delicacy that my friend Juvy had recommended. It wasn't too bad; simply another way of preparing cod. In true relaxed Southern European style the meal took about 3 hours to get through, primarily due to the exceptionally long gaps between courses, and there wasn't much to do when we got back other than fall into bed.

Wednesday August 7th - To Africa (or not...)

The new alternator had been shipped on Tuesday, and I had spent much of the evening refreshing the DHL tracking page to see how it was doing. Waking up on Wednesday I was pleased to see that it had made its way through Paris to Brussels, and was reported as having just arrived in a city only an hour from Bilbao. Of course, my vision of it being rushed to a van and delivered straight to us did not materialise, and it was a further three hours before it arrived at FlyBai a little before noon.

Jose and his crew took just 30 minutes to get the new alternator installed. In trepidation, I fired the engine up and flicked the alternator on. Success! The battery showed charging, and all warning lights were extinguished. After running the engine for a while to charge the battery, I shut down and we reinstalled the cowlings. Sophia was happy to hear the good news, and we immediately called our friends at Servisair to take us over to the terminal where we filed our flight plans and paid the considerable bill. Finally we passed through immigration, which consisted of a policeman taking a cursory look at our passport and saying in Spanish "Seems ok".

We arrived back at FlyBai ready to load up and say our goodbyes. This plan hit a snag when we discovered that everyone had gone for lunch and left most of the school locked. We decided that we could at least load the aircraft, and made several trips to and fro to carry all the gear that had been removed during maintenance to access the tail section where the battery is located. This done, we twiddled our thumbs (and delayed the flight plan) to ensure that we could say a proper goodbye to our friends. They wandered in a little while later and very gallantly refused our attempts to pay them for their work and hospitality. With the FlyBai crew waving us off, we started up and departed runway 28 headed South to Rabat.

There were towring cumulus clouds and rain showers all around the airport and extending South, so we were careful to steer around them and stay visual with the rising terrain. We leveled off at 8,500ft for the long cruise across Spain. The tower at Vitoria airport accepted our handoff from Bilbao approach and gave us weather and traffic information as we tracked towards Madrid, and were cleared through their airspace and onwards. Suddenly, though, disaster - an angry red light on the instrument panel announcing "Alternator Failure". We couldn't believe it. At least this time we knew exactly what to do, and before too long we were running with minimum electrical load and mechanical back-up mode for the engine control.

With the reduced speed in mechanical back-up mode, Rabat was no longer an option; we would not arrive before sunset, which is the end of legal VFR flight in Morocco. Even without this consideration, I was not at all confident in the light aircraft maintenance support that we might find south of the Mediterranean. Not far off of our route, however, was the airport of Jerez in Southern Spain where I knew a very large international flight school was based. If anywhere was going to have a decent engineering department it was there, so I announced our situation to ATC and they cleared us directly in. The tower was very considerate and gave us priority into Jerez, with school traffic being instructed to hold clear of the airport to allow us a direct approach. They even had the airport fire trucks scrambled and standing by at the side of the runway as we landed.

The landing was uneventful, even given the engine's propensity for shutting itself down when the throttle is reduced close to idle in mechanical mode. We followed the "follow-me" car to the apron near Flight Training Europe, and wandered over to see if anyone was around. It was 8pm by this stage, but given the number of flight school call-signs that we'd heard on the radio we knew that there had to be some kind of activity still going on at the school.

As it turned out, we had landed on our feet once again. We were greeted by Mike and Navid, from England and Switzerland respectively, who were both instructors at the flight school. They immediately sprang into action to help us out, organising accommodation at the home of a ground school instructor, and then driving us there. They also arranged for me to be driven back in the morning to see the head of engineering, who Mike emailed to let know I'd be coming. They couldn't have been more friendly and helpful!

Roger, the ground school instructor, and his wife Honor owned a huge villa in the centre of Jerez. They had a number of apartments set up for visitors, of which we were given one for our stay. Honor pointed us in the right direction, and before long we were drinking beers and sangria and enjoying tapas, wary about the potential electrical issues to be sorted out but relieved to be surrounded by such supportive people.

Thursday August 8th - Maintenance in Jerez

I caught a lift to the flight school with Roger on his way into work at 8am. Security, who had been remarkably unhelpful the night before (they refused to let us leave the flight school, instead walking all the way across the airport to leave via a gate near the terminal) were much more accommodating this time; I still had to wander all over the terminal, visit 4 different offices, and pay 14 Euros for Menzies Handling to drive me 300 metres though.

Before long I bumped into Mike, and we eventually tracked down the head of maintenance, Carlos. FTE is a very large commercial school, and as such, they went to great lengths to ensure that everything would be done in accordance with the proper rules and regulations. They took the view that they could not officially work on our aircraft, but that one of their mechanics would be perfectly free to work on it on his own time, using their tools and facilities. This seemed like a very reasonable approach to us and we happily accepted. A phone call to Aeroskill in Holland to describe the symptoms had led to a preliminary diagnosis, and so I settled down to wait until 3pm, the time at which the mechanic and facilities would become available.

I was waiting in the hangar at the prescribed 3pm, and Carlos and his mechanic were right on time. We headed out to the aircraft with a ground power unit to get her started. Taxiing the 200 metres to the hangar was as much of an ordeal as getting through the terminal, with the requirement to follow a "follow me" car, and about 10 minutes discussion between me, the tower, and parties unknown about where I was taxiing and how they could organise it. Eventually, though, the airport authorities were convinced that FTE really had invited me to take my aircraft over, and moments later I was parked at the FTE maintenance hangar with the cowlings stripped. The problem was immediately obvious, and exactly as Aeroskill had predicted; the alternator auxiliary lead had snapped, probably as a result of being left under slightly too much tension after the alternator replacement. It was a quick 5 minute fix, and a ground run demonstrated that all symptoms of the problem had been eliminated. The same hassle with the "follow me" car occurred to return to parking, but at least this time my battery was charging while I waited.

When I returned I found that Sophia had had a productive day with planning, contacting people down route, and so on. She'd even been to the shops and prepared a dinner of meats, cheeses and salads to enjoy on our balcony that evening! With the aircraft repaired it was easy to relax and look forward to being on our way in the morning; finally, Africa was at hand.

Phase Two - North Africa

Click here to access the second part of the trip report; the journey through North Africa.

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