Africa 2013

Phase six - The Deserts

We left the humid, rainy west coast behind and plunged into the centre of Africa and deserts once again. It was nice to be dry, but the engine cooling problems returned with a vengeance!





Monday September 23rd - Garoua, Cameroon to Moundou, Chad

The commandant kindly picked us up again at 0830 and drove us back to the airport. He explained that the only taxis in town were motorbike taxis, which would be impractical because of our luggage. We arrived at the airport at the same time as a Brit, Bruce, and his South African colleague who were flying the Caravan. They worked for a Canadian survey company, with this particular aircraft being based out of South Africa. They would come into country for two month stints, and then have a month off back at home. Bruce shared horror stories with us of passing through Sudan, and bade us to be careful, especially with our laptop computers; apparently the customs personnel had a penchant for waving them around and then dropping them.

Bruce and I visited the tower to file our flight plans and, in my case, pay the fees. Everything was taken care of in one place, for once, which was nice. Our fees came to a total of $1; when I presented my smallest note, a $20, there was consternation and much patting of pockets. They soon decided that given the lack of change, our fees would be waived on this occasion, and they bid us farewell with a smile. A quick ride back to the apron to refuel, and we were taxiing. Three Piper Cubs were flying tight circuits on a small dirt strip directly north of the main runway; a peculiar thing to see a flock of little two-seaters in this location. We waited for a gap in the traffic and set off on our 160 nautical mile hop to Moundou in Chad.

We flew initially at 7,500ft, but then decided that we might as well descend lower, given the complete lack of traffic or radar surveillance. We descended to 1,000ft above the ground, and cruised at low level across the vast scrub forests and plains of north Cameroon and southern Chad. Every now and then a tiny village would appear, just a few native huts gathered around a central clearing and surrounded by agriculture. It was fascinating to think of the way of life of these people, living off the land almost as people have for millenia; we were separated by just a few hundred meters of air, but might as well have been on different planets. A few seconds and they were out of sight forever, and I found myself wishing that we could just touch down and talk to them, and learn something of what it was like to be there.

It was not to be, of course, and some time later we made radio contact with Moundou and were cleared to land. The airport was surprisingly new; evidently a major injection of money had been recently received. The large apron was freshly tarmaced (as, for that matter, was the runway) and painted with markings for aircraft up to B737 in size. The man in the airport office called a car for us; however, when said car arrived the price demanded was $100 a day to spend the next three days with us. This seemed a little unreasonable; there was evidently a monopoly on car transport given the lack of taxis, as in Garoua.

The price was negotiated down to $30 for a ride to the immigration police in town, and then to a hotel. We found the correct police location on our third try, and presented our passports to the authorities. Everyone became very excitable, the driver was called and interrogated, and it was eventually decided that the head immigration would take responsibility for us and the "taxi" driver could go on his way. Our new assistant drove us to a hotel and (second try lucky, the first was full) ensured that we were settled in, and promised to return later that day with a Chad sim-card for our phone, and our passports. It was uncomfortable letting the passports go with someone we didn't know, and I was thankful that I had another one; perhaps I'd be able to smuggle the passport-less Sophia out of the country in a large suitcase if the need arose.

After they left, we enquired about internet. Disaster! There was none here, but their other hotel did have it! The hotel hailed three motorbike taxis and bundled us and our luggage onto them, as well as a member of staff to help out. 5 minutes later we pulled up at...the first hotel we'd tried! Oddly enough, it turned out that they were full. We took advantage of the very slow connection for 10 minutes, before heading back to base on another fleet of moto-taxis. It was evidently time for lunch; it took a good two hours to get a portion of fish with chips, but it was worth the wait. This done I took the chance to phone work and catch up; it was almost two months since I spoke to my manager rather than emailing, and it was good to get up to date!

To my surprise, our immigration assistant turned up later that evening, and presented a sim card. The passports, however, would take another day. We decided that the next day we'd acquire the passports and make a quick visit to the hospital which was almost next door to the hotel; this done, we'd depart. A rather tedious evening was spent watching Chinese TV and catching up on offline work.

Tuesday September 24th - Moundou, Chad

Our man turned up that morning, complete with passports. Great! It was $30 per visa, which was a bit steep for aircrew, but we were hardly Chad experts and in no position to argue the case. On the plus side, the visa was colourful and looked very nice.

Sophia headed to the hospital while I remained at the hotel. It was only going to be a quick equipment drop. However, some time later I received a text; "They say I can do some teaching here tomorrow; can we stay another night?" Fine by me; I settled in to relax. Sophia appeared some time later, and picked me up to head into town and find an internet cafe. This failed entirely, and we ended up back at hotel number one to take care of the essentials, as well as have some lunch, before another moto-taxi ride to our accomodation. After the initial conviction that this mode of transport was a sure way to an early grave, I was actually starting to enjoy them.

The afternoon was again spent killing time around the hotel. It would have been great to leave it and go for a walk, but we'd been strongly advised against wandering off on our own by all we'd met. We couldn't expect the same level of security as at home, particularly when we were so easy to identify as out-of-place foreigners. Dramatic thunderstorms came through during the evening, the electrical activity removing our final source of entertainment, the television!




Wednesday September 25th - Moundou, Chad to Sarh, Chad

Today was the day we'd escape from Moundou. Sophia headed off to give her training at the hospital, which apparently had the most advanced maternity unit we'd seen on our entire trip (Shell IA excepted); even better than Obio! No-one could tell her where the money had come from. It was telling that most of the equipment was still unopened in its boxes; all the advanced technology in the world is no use if nobody there is trained to use it.

Meanwhile, I checked out of the hotel a little later and moto-taxied to the airport to prepare the aircraft. As it turned out, Sophia and I arrived at about the same time; it didn't take long to file the flight plan and prepare the aircraft. Problems arose, however, when we camr to pay the bill. In addition to a $32 charge for landing and parking from ASECNA, the aerospace body, we were presented with a $100 charge from the airport. Allegedly, there was a $50 fee every time a passenger was dropped off or picked up, and they considered Sophia as a passenger. This incredibly high charge seemed to be a way to cash-in from the oil industry and other private operators; indeed, it didn't seem that any scheduled flights came, despite the good facilities.

We reached something of an impasse here, with the unfriendly official behind the desk refusing to accept that we might both be pilots; despite being presented with both of our licences, a copy of the manifest listing two pilots, and numerous receipts from previous airports listing "2 crew, 0 passengers". Sophia dug her heels in, quite rightly, and refused to pay. Eventually, with the help of the air traffic controller as translator the fee was waived and we made good our escape before the fuming official could come up with another objection. The thought had crossed my mind earlier to just jump in the aircraft and flee, but given that we'd be heading to another location in Chad that seemed like a really bad idea.

As we took off on runway 04, an oil industry turboprop was cleared to land on the reciprocal runway 22. The tower had planned it carefully, though, and there was no conflict. This time we climbed to only 3,500ft for the flight, enjoying the views as we went along. Parts of the landscape were just as devoid of human intervention as parts of the Sahara had been around Mauritania; not a single sign of human existence could be made out in the forests below. Occasionally one came across something quite incongrouos, such as a large freshly tarmaced runway in the middle of nowhere. It was not on any of the charts, and there were no buildings or people present. The nearest town was miles away.

The only wildlife we saw were herds of cattle dotted here and there, often clustered around a muddy watering hole. Not a single elephant, hippo, or the like. My friend James, who was desperate for me to take a photograph of a hyena for him, would have to wait a little longer. We were cleared into Sarh from 30 miles out and landed smoothly on the dirt runway; our first of the trip! The apron was tired and overgrown, with clearly no commercial traffic visiting; indeed, clearly not much of anything at all came to Sarh.

A military man, once again, escorted us to the terminal. The airport director welcomed us, and spoke good English, which was a very pleasant surprise. Although our French was getting pretty good, it was still quite mentally taxing using it so much every day, particularly with everyone speaking so fast. He let us know that he'd be posting a police guard on the aircraft, as the location was not secure, and told us he'd see us the next morning for our departure. After the drama at Moundou, this friendly man was a very welcome change.

We hopped onto a couple of moto-taxis (we felt like old hands on these by now) and sped off towards the hotel we'd been recommended, the "Beau Sejour". We were welcomed and seated in the restaurant with a free bottle of water, before being informed that unfortunately all of their 23 rooms were rented out long-term to a Canadian oil company. However, the owner also owned a vacant house nearby we could stay in if we wanted to. He drove us to a large gated villa and showed us around; it was almost empty, with a few plastic chairs in the main room, and just one of the four or five bedrooms made up for someone to use. Given our lack of other options, we decided it would do nicely for a night.

We dropped off the baggage and headed back with the owner to the main hotel for lunch. Once again, it was the ubiquitous :"Filet du Capitaine avec frites". This fish certainly seemed to get around, everywhere from Senegal through to Chad and no doubt further still. We were served tea afterwards ("The English must always have tea after a meal", said our host), and then shown around the hotel compound. The Canadians were really moving in. They'd converted a few rooms to offices, installed temporary cabins for storage and their own dining hall, and were in the process of putting up an enormous satellite dish for an internet link. The owner was busy building another block of rooms to cater for the demand. They had even brought in their own ambulance; the true oil company way, it felt nice how they look after their people.

We relaxed in the restaurant for a while, and the chef then came to accompany us by moto-taxi to an internet cafe. We cruised around on our little fleet of three for a while, before it became clear that there was no operational cyber cafe, and headed to our rather strange villa to spend the afternoon instead. After a few hours we were collected by the owner, and driven to the main hotel for dinner. We sat with two employees of the Canadian oil company, based out of Calgary, who worked here in 1 month shifts; 1 month in Chad, 1 month off at home. Apparently working with the locals was quite a challenge; construction quality and safety were non-existent, and the costs were higher than in any other country that they'd worked.




Thursday September 26th - Sarh, Chad to Abeche, Chad

We were collected, somewhat later than stated, from our accomodation and placed onto moto-taxis for the ride to the main hotel. Here we were served a simple breakfast of bread, jam, and tea. Perfect! The owner of the hotel drove us from here to the local hospital for a brief visit, and some equipment donations, before dropping us at the airport. The plan was to fly to Abeche in eastern Chad, and only an hour from our stop at Geneina in Sudan; the Sudanese were expecting us at mid-day, and with Sudan being two hours ahead of Chad, we'd need to be close by to have any chance of getting there on time.

The official at the airport office was helpful, processing our flight plan for us and preparing the bill. We were a little dismayed when told that we'd need to pay $12 for landing, and a further $9,600 for one day of parking. Deciding that we should probably challenge this, we determined that instead of putting the aircraft weight as 2 tonnes in the calculation, he'd elected to use 2,000kg instead. The bill was quickly reduced to a more palatable $22 overall. Negotiations in the military office were not so simple, with the officer in charge wanting to bill us a $60 "security fee". With the help of the tower personnel, this was halved.

We rolled down Sahr's dirt runway once more, making sure to keep the aircraft moving any time that anything more than idle power was applied to minimise the risk of stones being sucked up and dinging the propellor. The flight to Abeche would take around three hours. We flew at 3,500ft to enjoy the views; the countryside was covered in sparse forest, with a multitude of small bare sandy areas; we wondered what could have caused them, as they all seemed to be located in the centre of groups of the same kind of tree. An hour or so into the flight we passed a nature reserve, listed on the chart as an animal park, but we didn't see any animals at all.

As we neared Abeche, the temperature rose steadily. We were flying north, in the general direction of the Sahara once again. We flew over herds of cattle and camels as we arrived at the airport, which had to one side of it a large military area; old shipping containers had been used to create walls around the various compounds. We parked over the far side of the apron from the terminal, where there were some rings in the concrete to tie the aircraft down. A few other aircraft were in attendance; two twin turboprobs, one of them in UN markings, and a Cessna 206 in the livery of the francophone charity "Aviation Sans Frontieres".

After we'd secured the aircraft, the driver of the airport bus took us to some accomodation nearby. It was only a few minutes walk from the airport, and was a spare room in the compound of a UN Agricultural program that had three beds available for visitors. We were amazed to find that it even had an internet connection! Soon after arriving we took a tuk-tuk ride to a nearby restaurant for yet another dinner of fish/chicken and chips, and then into town to try and withdraw some money. Despite visiting three banks, their ATMs were all either shut down or out of order, so we decided we'd have to try again in the morning.

Back at the compound, we discovered that the lights did not work; but the internet was fine, and even the air conditioning functioned (somewhat). We spent the evening sitting in the dark, drinking a very nice bottle of liqeur that Sophia had purchased some weeks before in advance of our flight to Sudan the next day; we'd heard that this kind of drink would be emptied out onto the tarmac if discovered, so decided not to risk offending anyone on our arrival!




Friday September 27th - Abeche, Chad to Geneina, Sudan

Sophia headed off early to try and acquire some currency again, and I made my way to the airport to prepare the aircraft. Despite being before 9am, the temperature was already well over 30 degrees. As I tidied the cabin, the fueler came over to say hello again; we'd met him on arrival yesterday, and having spent three months in the UK studying, he spoke excellent English and seemed to be keen to practice it. When Sophia arrived, not long after I did, I headed over to file the flight plan and pay the landing fees.

As I was doing this, a motorcade of about 15 SUVs and pick-up trucks swept into the airport and arrayed themselves haphazardly near the terminal; all kinds of people jumped out and wandered around waving excitedly to each other. I was told that a local dignitary had arrived, and was awaiting a flight. Soon, another UN twin turboprop arrived, this one in the colours of the "Humanitarian Air Service". All kinds of people got off; they looked like they might be displaced persons from the locality, and then the local dignitary and his entourage boarded. About half of the vehicles in his extravagent motocade had also been in UN livery, or badged as "donated by" various bodies. It was interesting to see the uses that these donations were being put to; I couldn't help but think that they were probably not intended to be used for stroking local chief's egos when they drove around.

After this circus had subsided, I was able to cross the apron again and ready us for departure. We were cleared to taxi to the holding point, and then wait as yet another UN turboprop touched down. Given the fact that there was only a single taxiway off of the runway, I was curious as to the controllers plan, especially as he'd also cleared the other "VIP" turboprop to line up behind us. In the event, the arrival was told to taxi past and make a 180 on the runway, clearing the way for our little Skylane; luckily, the third aircraft had not yet started its taxi. We took off on runway 09, and didn't have to change heading at all; the runway was pointed directly at our destination of Geneina, just under 100 nautical miles away.

It was difficult in the hot dry air to keep the engine oil temperatures within limits, although flying at reduced power meant we never exceeded the maximum. It was noticeable too, especially on the take-off roll, how the slightly higher elevation (about 2,000ft above sea level) of Abeche, and the hot air, greatly decreased the aircraft performance. With a headwind, the flight to Geneina took a little over an hour; we made contact about 40 miles out and were cleared directly to runway 04, despite the brisk wind being from 140 degrees. I asked for, and was granted, permission to use runway 11; much closer to being into wind.

Geneina has two airport, very close to each other. One, the larger, has a single large, tarmac runway. However, it has no fuel, and is apparently only used for domestic flights. The other has a pair of 6,000ft dirt runways; but is equipped with jet fuel, and can handle international flights. A strange setup. Apparently, the only international flights to ever come are special NGO charters, given that Darfur is not much of a tourist destination and not many people could afford commercial flights even if they were available. We were informed after arrival that we were in fact the first private flight to ever have landed there.

The airport we were headed to was, then, exclusively used by military and NGOs. As we flew down short final, a few people who'd been idly wandering over the runway noticed that an aircraft was coming and increased their pace significantly. We were directed to parking and tie-downs close to a fleet of 6 or 7 enormous UN helicopters, and our welcoming committee. This turned out to be 20 or so local dignitaries, medical staff, and military personnel as well as a choir of around 40 local women, with a banner welcoming Dr Sophia Webster, as well as a song and dance to greet us.

After the welcome was complete, we were bundled into a pickup truck with armed police riding in the bed and taken for a meeting with the Minister of Health for the region. Most of the welcoming committee from the airport (minus the military and the choir) were also in attendance. The Minister for Health, and the Chief Obstetrician, both gave speeches to welcome us and explain something of the health situation in the region. The challenges brought on by the conflict in Darfur were pronounced; in the local region alone they had to cater for more than a million "Internally Displaced People" as well as several hundred thousand refugees from over the border in Chad. Outside of Geneina, it was unsafe to travel by road through almost the entire region, and of course the poor road infrastructure only compounded the issues that people faced in accessing care.

Sophia then gave an excellent speach explaining the project in more detail, and with the meeting concluded we were taken to our accomodation in the UN compound to rest before dinner. The compound was small but comfortable, with an accomodation block of three bedrooms, a kitchen, basic bathrooms, and some offices. It was equipped with power, air conditioning, and internet; but only 12 hours a day, it seemed, due to power shortages. After settling in we even found that there was a washing machine and eagerly loaded our laundry; when travelling in these more "interesting" places hygiene and cleanliness are very challenging (the facilities are certainly never properly cleaned, and dirt and bugs are to be found everywhere, even in the hospitals!) Hitting the "On" switch unfortunately overloaded the power and shut down the entire compound, but before long the ancilliary generator was brought online and our very troublesome laundry was completed.

After a few hour's rest we were collected by our escorts and taken for dinner. We drove through the centre of the city, passing a couple of UN convoys; enormous military trucks full of soldiers, flanked by pick-ups mounted with heavy machine guns. A half-overgrown track took us to a small dirt parking area where we dismounted and followed our hosts on foot. We emerged into a clearing, with the occasional mango tree scattered around, and a large sheet spread out underneath one; on this sheet, 20 or so of the local doctors and other medical figures were seated waiting for us to join the outdoor meal! Plates of food were quickly brought and spread out in the centre, and all tucked in; the local food was excellent. We were told that this was a fairly regular gathering for a Friday.

After dinner we went for a walk in the nearby "wadi", the riverbed which was now nearly dry as the rains receded. It seemed to be a popular place for picnics, football, and just going for an evening stroll. From here we were taken up to the hills overlooking Geneina, which offered a commanding view over the entire city. Once could go and walk around the old Sheikh's mansion, which had been ransacked during some of the more violent period of the Darfur conflict and now lay abandoned. All too soon, it was time to get back to the compound; apparently as foreigners we had to be secured by 8pm for our own safety...

Saturday September 28th - Geneina, Sudan

A quiet day in the compound; the idea had been to catch up on work but that power and internet were so unreliable that this was not a terribly practical plan. We received news that getting fuel the next day would be difficult, but after some work together with our agents in Khartoum and the UN staff we located two good sources, so did not have to be worried about being stranded in Geneina for want of Jet-A!




Sunday September 29th - Geneina, Sudan to Khartoum, Sudan

An early departure was planned, as usual in these areas, to try and avoid the heat. Our little convoy wound its way back to the military airport, where numerous UN helicopters were being prepared for flight. Sophia took the luggage to pass through security scanning, while I prepared the aircraft and supervised the refuelling. Once again we had an audience of 20 or so people watching us get ready for flight. Despite the full load of fuel we used only a little of the dirt runway to get airbourne, and climbed out towards the east. The aircraft's "low voltage" light was still on during the climb; this usually extinguishes during the takeoff run when the engine RPM gets high enough to properly drive the alternator. The instruments showed that the battery was being charged, albeit at a slower rate than normal, and the warning light went out after a few minutes. With all the electrical trouble we'd had before, I elected to keep a close eye on it.

The first hundred miles of the route took us over a small range of mountains, before flying over the cit of El Fashir. The airport here was extremely busy, the vast majority being UN traffic. Numerous helicopters were coming and going, as well as a couple of Ilyushin 76 cargo aircraft. The sanctions against Sudan apparently make it impossible to operate US manufactered aircraft, so Russian models are extremely common.

Between El Fashir and Khartoum is just empty desert; much the same as between Geneina and El Fashir. At our altitude of 9,500ft it was impossible to contact any ground stations over the radio so we flew on in peace and quiet. About 150 nautical miles out of Khartoum, I heard some electrical noise over the intercom; an immediate glance at the ammeter showed the needle flickering between charging and discharging, before settling a few seconds later on "discharging". Moments later the low-voltage warning light came on. Here we go again...

We shut down all non-essential electrical equipment, and pulled the circuit breaker to the alternator. Switching the engine control to mechanical backup mode lost us about 10 knots speed, but at least it would now keep running should the battery run out! I was concerned that we had no contact with Khartoum; an electrical failure for an unknown reason (even if we had our strong suspicions) always holds the potential for further complications, so it would be good for someone to know our situation. Additionally, while there are procedures for loss of communications if power to the radios ran out, I preferred not to arrive at Khartoum International entirely unannounced; it always seems hit and miss in Africa if flight plans are even transmitted to the destination.

With no contact over radio with Khartoum, I managed to enlist the help of a British Airways 777 over the international emergency frequency, 121.5. They were incredibly helpful, and when they couldn't contact Khartoum over the VHF either they used their satellite phone instead and managed to get through that way to pass all our details on to ATC at our destination. A while later we made direct contact with Khartoum, and they cleared us for the visual arrival to runway 36 while we were still quite some distance away.

Approaching Khartoum, the landscape changed dramatically. In much the same was as in Egypt, the river Nile was marked by a lush band of green either side of it, as people irrigate the land with the readily available water. As we came onto final approach it was possible to see the point at which the Blue and White Niles meet to form the Nile proper, out beyond the airport. Coming closer still to the runway, we could see no fewer than 7 fire trucks which had been deployed for our arrival! Landing was normal, now that I was used to the tendency of the engine to cut out when pulled to idle throttle in mechanical mode, and we followed the marshaler's car to our spot on the apron. As soon as I stepped out of the aircraft I was greeted by our handler Mohamed, and the head of safety for the airport, and whisked away to the airport offices to write my report of the event!

The writing of the report was a fairly quick and simple event. The subsequent filing and distribution, which for some reason I had to hang around for, took a little longer. We were informed that we should submit another report, of the diagnosis and repair of the failure, which the safety department would analyse before clearing our aircraft for flight again. This was an added layer of hassle that we could do without, especially if the problem turned out to be more than a simple broken wire. Mohamed and I then stopped at the Bluebird Aviation hangar to check for mechanics who could help out, but being Sunday no-one was around. We headed, then, to collect Sophia and meet our host for the next few days, Dr Halla. Conveniently her apartment was just a ten minute drive from the airport, and before long we were sitting down to an excellent dinner, just what we needed after yet another exhausting day.

That evening Halla took us out for a drive around the city of Khartoum. It was the most modern and developed city we'd visited so far, and very reminiscent of Cairo. We took in all three rivers, as well as much of the city's architecture; both the colonial buildings such as the University of Khartoum, and the more modern structures such as the Chinese-funded "Friendship Centre" where a celebration was underway for the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Tour complete we were taken for icecream, a rare treat that we'd not seen in a while!

Monday September 30th - Khartoum, Sudan

I woke at 9, with Mohamed our handler due to collect me at 10. He'd told me that there was no point going earlier as no-one would be at work yet. Over breakfast I met Sophia's friend Amie who had flown in on Egypt Air, arriving at 3am, and would be spending the next few days with us before flying with us to Ethiopia. Mohamed picked me up on time (quite rare in Africa!) and we drove to the airport. His English was excellent, for good reason it turned out; he had lived for quite some years in the UK, and was even resident in Cambridge for a couple of years during the time I had been there. We had plenty in common to talk about, and I thoroughly enjoyed his company.

After a visit to security to get me a "pass" (which turned out to be my name written on the back of a spare sheet of paper, with a stamp put next to it) we were driven airside by Wail, a mechanic working for the locally based DAL group. Their offices were in the Bluebird hangar. Through various sources we had identified a company on the field who operated Cessnas, albeit Cessna Ag-Truck crop spraying aircraft. Nonetheless they were our best bet, and so we went to enquire whether they could help us. They were very welcoming and had us bring the aircraft over to their hangar; fortuitously we had been parked only about 30 metres from their facility so we pushed the aircraft over without starting up. Before long we had the cowling off and had identified the problem; not one, but two broken wires this time!

This turned out to be an easy fix, and we soon had everything connected back the way it should be. A quick engine run-up confirmed that things were working again, and before leaving for the day we elected to remove the aircraft battery for charging to ensure that we had enough power to start up again for departure!

That evening we went out to the shops nearby; everything seems to stay open very late in Khartoum, probably because the heat wipes out much of the day time. Shopping with 4 girls went as one might expect, but I did at least manage to find an electronics store to amuse myself. On the way back we stopped in at a fast food restaurant near the apartment; despite having already had a good dinner, Halla was always adamant that we should be eating more! Her children told us that fast food was one of the things they missed from when they lived in Britain; apparently the options in Sudan were not up to standard. From the chicken that I had, I was inclined to agree.

Tuesday October 1st - Khartoum, Sudan

Once again, Mohamed collected me at 10 to head to the airport. First task was to complete our report of the repair, and submit it to the safety department. I wrote up an official looking document in Microsoft Word, together with photographs documenting the fault and repair, and we took it for submission. The head of safety seemed well pleased, and asked if we could send him the photographs for use in his own report; I just managed to stop Mohamed forwarding the emailed copy that I had sent him and the mechanics in Europe, with the email text describing how I had omitted the second wire and any mention of prior problems from the report to keep things simple!

Report submitted and, thankfully, accepted we headed to the aircraft for fuel. Airport rules stated that we could not take fuel outside the hangar, so we had to push the aircraft 20 metres onto the main apron, refuel, and then push it back to the original starting place. A group of ten or so airport ground staff watched us with amusement.

From here, it was time to visit the Bluebird hangars again. We had informed the aircraft owner more than a month ago that the engine was using more oil than expected, and that we'd need to be replenished in Sudan. He had promised to have a box shipped to us, and had recently informed me that it could be found at Bluebird. Unfortunately, nobody at Bluebird had ever heard of the owner or the very specialist oil that we needed. I elected to email for more information that evening so I could find exactly who I needed to talk to; without oil, we wouldn't be getting far.

Finally, we headed back to the ADS maintenance hangars to replace the battery. I flicked on the electrics to ensure that all was in order; disaster, a new warning light had come on! This time it was the "14V Fault" light, indicating an issue with the low voltage system that runs in parallel with the main 28V system. With no time to fix the matter that day, we arranged to return the next day for diagnosis and, if we were lucky, repair.

The original plan had been to depart the next day. However, with technical trouble, no oil, and no Ethiopian permit it was clear we were going nowhere. The permit delay was slightly absurd; the Ethiopian CAA had a few weeks previously requested a phone call from the medical contacts in-country to confirm that we were expected. Sophia had sent this request on to the professor she'd been talking to, who had then proceeded to completely ignore it. He would not return emails or even answer his phone; even after expanding the request to several other members of the organising committee of the conference Sophia would be attending, no-body would lift a finger to make a simple phone call. It took intervention by some other conference attendees, who arrived in the country and tracked down the local staff face-to-face, before this triviality was taken care of!

Wednesday October 2nd - Khartoum, Sudan

On this occasion, I was dropped at the airport by our hosts and met up with Mohamed. First task was to carry out a careful inspection of all wiring in the tail of the aircraft, where the battery and voltage inverters were housed. All was found to be in order, so I elected to carry out a ground run to see if the issue would clear up with the alternator running. As it turned out, even before starting up the engine the warning light that was present the previous day remained unlit today; it seemed that a few cycles of power were required to reset the system after the battery had been entirely removed. It was lucky that the apparent problem had such a simple solution.

Now, the oil; talking further with Bluebird it turned out that the package was to be carried out from Europe on the Falcon 50 private jet belonging to DAL group. Unfortunately it turned out that this jet was in Geneva for maintenance and there was no set date yet for it to return. The shipping of oil had it seemed, despite over a month's notice, been a complete failure. SOme other maintenance work was also to have been carried out on the aircraft at this stop, but it turned out that the mechanic who was going to do it was not even in the country during our stop. At this stage I would probably have been more surprised if something had actually worked as promised, rather than yet another problem.

We still had sufficient oil on board to reach Nairobi, so in parallel with the efforts to have oil delivered there (which I had no confidence in happening) I started making enquiries about renting a replacement aircraft from Kenya onwards to ensure we weren't stranded.

The permit for Ethiopia had, thanks to hard work from Sophia and the permit agent Mike Gray, been granted. This was to be our last night in Khartoum, then, and Amie and I went out for an evening walk with Halla's oldest son, all the way to the banks of the Nile. This was evidently a popular evening destination, for cars were parked solidly for streets around. Along the river bank tables and chairs were set up, with small stalls selling tea and other refreshments. Sadly, as with elsewhere in the city, the ground was littered with rubbish which rather spoiled the sights.



Phase Seven - The Plateau

Click here to access the seventh part of the trip report; Ethiopia and Kenya.


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