Tracing History in the Sahara Desert
On the 2nd of June 2011, we will set off from Rotterdam in a Maule MXT-7-160 and fly, over a number of days, to Luxor in Egypt. Basing out of Luxor, we shall then fly into the Sudan, to Wadi Halfa, to visit a site of historical interest, and then return to Luxor before flying the aircraft back to the UK.
This webpage will show updates and photos as we progress, as well as some information about the planning involved in such a trip.
I first became involved in the flight when a friend of the aircraft owner posted a message on the PPRuNe forums asking for a pilot who was interested in a flight to Egypt. The owner wished to fly his aircraft into Sudan, but given that he is now reaching a distinguished age, he did not wish to tire himself out in flying all the way there from the UK. He needed a pilot to fly the aircraft down and meet him in Luxor, where he would join the flight by commercial airline. I and a few other pilots expressed interest, and in late December 2010 myself and one other pilot travelled to Popham Airfield to meet the owner.
The aircraft was in the hanger, awaiting some new parts to make it airworthy, but we went and had a look around it, and discussed the proposed flight. The original plan had been to fly the aircraft on to Kenya after visiting Sudan, and sell it there, but it turned out that there was no market in Kenya for a low-powered variant of the Maule, which is what this was. Hence, it was decided that the aircraft should return to the UK again after visiting Sudan. Originally the idea was for one pilot to fly it down, and another to fly it back; however, all of the other pilots dropped out for one reason or another, and I elected to fly the entire journey myself. The return route would be different to the outbound route, so I would after all be covering new ground on the way back.
The flight was originally planned for February 2011, to coincide with a trip being planned by Prepare2Go, who were taking 7 or 8 light aircraft from Europe to South Africa and back. They would stop at Wadi Halfa in Sudan, where we wanted to visit, and so we could accompany them on the outbound route. This would offer an advantage in terms of companion aircraft, and also the local knowledge and expertise of Sam from Prepare2Go. World events intervened, however, and when the "Trans-African Safari" set off Egypt had begun their revolution and the airspace was closed. The safari rerouted through Libya (only just making it out before it followed in the footsteps of Egypt, and we were left to reschedule our flight for later in the year, when the political situation had died down. A date was set for a June 2nd departure, and planning began in earnest.
It soon became clear that the forced delay had been a blessing. There was a lot to do! Firstly, the aircraft; the new engine parts were fitted, but this still left a lot of work to be done. By the time we came to depart, additional fuel tanks had been installed in the wings (offering an extra 4 hours flying time), the fuel pump had been replaced and the radio repaired. A "cigarette-lighter" style power point was also fitted to the panel to power our GPS unit.
Aircraft aside, there was also the matter of route planning, permitting, and other paperwork. A number of airports along the route had strange opening hours, which would give us tight timings on some of the legs to ensure we did not arrive out of hours. In the US, an airport is open 24/7 and operates quite happily with no staff present; but for some reason, European airports are so different that they can only be used during set, tightly controlled hours...
GA in Egypt is very expensive and difficult unless you have good contacts there. Fortunately we did, in the shape of Eddie and Ahmed, two Cairo residents who have made it their mission to promote GA in Egypt by assisting visiting pilots with every element of their time in the country. They provided us guidance in which airports to visit, how to avoid outrageous fees, which handling agents to choose, and even assistance in organising hotels and acquiring fuel!
Flight through Southern Europe, and especially once you hit Africa, can be made difficult by the fuel situation. Avgas is not available in many locations; just 6 or 7 airports in Greece stock it, and 2 in Egypt. A number of these airports require prior permission to visit, and in Egypt you really need a handling agent to assist you at the airport, not to mention ensure that unscrupulous officials don't charge you higher than normal fees! For flight in Egypt and Sudan you need special permits for each flight; in Egypt this was arranged by our handling agents. In Sudan, we had to arrange even more; Wadi Halfa is not an international airport, and therefore customs and immigration had to be specially arranged in addition to the permit. This was done by Prepare2Go.
The visa requirements should be carefully checked before travelling outside of Europe. Being a British citizen I am able to acquire a visa on arrival in Egypt; and a useful rule in Sudan is that aircraft crew do not require a visa if staying for less than 72 hours.
I elected to book hotels online in advance. I found hotels by looking on google maps, or by using a site such as hotels.com. I would check both the hotel website and the booking websites that I found them through in order to find the best rated and, more importantly, the most favourable cancellation policies! In most locations I was able to book hotels that allowed you to cancel before the afternoon of the day of arrival for no charge; ideal for the weather-dependent pilot.
Before the flight, I ensured that all required equipment was available, and purchased some new gear. VFR charts were not available for Greece, Egypt, or Sudan, so I acquired some ONC charts, and also IFR charts for these areas. Navigation would be done using these charts, the Garmin 430 GPS in the aircraft, and my portable Garmin GPSMAP 296. In addition to these items, we would be carrying a hand-held VHF radio for emergencies, as well as a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). A PLB can be activated in event of an accident and broadcasts a GPS-derived location and distress call via satellite to the emergency services.
As we would be flying over a lot of water, some specialist survival gear was required. For the flight from the UK to Rotterdam I elected to wear my dry suit. The rest of the time, as we'd be over the relatively warm Mediteranean sea, we elected to do without dry suits, and carry life jackets and a life raft, as well as a floating "ditching grab bag" that emergency gear could be packed into and easily taken with us out of the aircraft should the worst occur. Additional safety gear included a lot of fresh water, high-energy food, and chocolate brownies!
10 days before departure, the aircraft was airworthy and I travelled to the UK to fly it. I flew with an instructor, who pointed out some of the peculiarities of the aircraft, and then flew with the owner to a fly-in event an hour away. In total, I flew 3.5 hours in very windy conditions, which was invaluable in becoming comfortable with the aircraft, and well worth doing, even though it was not technically required by the law, or by the insurance.
May 28th - May 29th: Pre-flight positioning; Popham to Rotterdam
Departure was planned for June 2nd, a Thursday, and a public holiday in the Netherlands. To make the most of the time available, we wanted to depart from Rotterdam, so the weekend before this I flew to the UK to pick up the aircraft and return it to Rotterdam. On Saturday May 28th I collected the aircraft from Popham, and flew it to Biggin Hill. I landed just behind a Cessna Citation private jet. As it rolled out, the controller passed it taxi instructions; she was met with a terse reply of "I'm still rolling out, you can talk to me when I have my speed under control".
Turning off the runway, he came back on the radio and pompously offered the controller permission to speak. In the mean time I had landed and, my speed already "under control" by the first turn off, was on my way to the apron from the opposite direction to the Citation who was still being rude to the controller. Having had enough, she ordered the jet to hold position and wait while my little Maule taxied past in front of it and was parked first in prime position by the terminal; being rude doesn't get you anywhere!
I have decided to call the aircraft, registration G-BUXD, "Bucky".
Early on Sunday morning I returned to Biggin Hill. My father dropped me off, and my Aunt (who would be flying with me on the trip) came along to see the aircraft. We spent some time mounting the new HD Video Camera on the wing strut, giving a great view forwards without the distortion of the windshield. With the aircraft ready, I taxied to the self serve fuel to top off the tanks; the fueling apron at Popham is on a slope, and it had not been possible to refuel fully there.
The takeoff roll was short, given the 15 knot headwind, and I took off and turned 180 degrees towards the East. The wind was behind me all the way, meaning I could pull back on the power and still enjoy 115 knot ground speeds. Coasting out over Manston, on the East coast of Kent, I was asked to relay a message to a Belgian aircraft with radio trouble that was not able to hear Manston. He finally read back the message correctly, after a few tries; he couldn't even hear my transmissions properly despite being only a few miles away. I heard him again later, struggling to make out instructions from Ostende Radar.
Before reaching Dutch airspace, I was required to descend below 1300ft; Holland insists that any aircraft wishing to fly higher than that must have a Mode S transponder, and Bucky only has a Mode C. A swift run up the coast brought me to Rotterdam; technically Holland bans aircraft without Mode C from any controlled airspace, but I had arranged permission from Air Traffic Control for a one-off visit. The flying club was organising handling and parking for me, saving a lot of money over the commercial handling agents. I tied Bucky down in the allocated space, the prime spot just outside the club's front door, and locked him up for the night.
Day 1 - Rotterdam to Cannes
The day started off badly, when we arrived at the airport at 8am to find that the flying club was still closed. We attempted to gain entry to the airport through one of the standard airport gates, but the lady on duty would only let me through; no passengers. In typical Dutch bureaucratic style, passengers would not be allowed in without a boarding card! I went through alone and taxied the aircraft down to the club and pre-flighted, ready to get under way as soon as the club opened and passenger entry was permitted. After the club was unlocked at 9, we packed up the aircraft and took off for our lunch stop at Joigny; our original lunch stop had closed to visiting traffic the day before, so we had re-planned for Joigny only 50km or so away.
The weather for the flight down was superb, although we had to stay low to avoid controlled airspace and put up with the bumps from the thermals below. We rounded Paris at 1500ft, although it was invisible in the haze, and approached Joigny; as luck would have it, 30 seconds ahead of us was a KitFox microlight piloted by a locally based friend of mine who we were meeting for lunch. We followed him in to land (mine was a little "sporting", given the crosswind and the fact that I was still getting used to the aircraft!), and parked up alongside. Renaud and his 3 year old son Jeremy had come to join us, and we sat on the slopes of a vineyard eating our sandwiches in the sun, and waiting for someone to come and unlock the fuel pumps. In the end, no-one did come to unlock the pumps, so we flew the 15 minutes south to Auxerre and filled up with AVGAS. With full tanks we were very heavily loaded, but the aircraft shrugged it off and we headed off on the long flight to Cannes.
The flight to Cannes took us down the large valley that holds Lyon (a fueling stop on our trip the previous year). The weather had become poorer, and we were barely clear of the clouds at 2,500 feet. All around the high ground was obscured by cloud, and we were happy when it began to break up and let us climb to 4,500ft to clear the high ground on the way to Cannes. There was a strong headwind by this time, and we crawled the last hour at about 65 kts, finally descending into Cannes and landing alongside an apron full of gleaming private jets. We refuelled after our 4 hour flight (wherever possible we refuel on arrival, to ensure faster departures), and waited for 40 minutes for a car to finally come and take us to the terminal; we were not allowed to walk as it would have involved crossing the runway. We walked the 10 minutes to the hotel and settled in. The hotel was entirely forgettable, having been chosen purely for its proximity to the airport, and having failed to find a single open restaurant we dined at the local McDonalds and turned in.
Day 2 - Cannes to Scalea
We woke early, to find that it had rained heavily in the night. Leaving shoes on the windowsill to air turned out to have been a bad idea. We packed, and managed to find a period between rain showers to walk back to the airport. We felt a little out of place filing through the departures area in company with the private jet passengers, and were swiftly bussed off to Bucky who had spent the night parked on the grass next to three Dutch Cessnas. It turns out Bucky is not 100% water proof, but thankfully the leaks are all in non-critical areas!
We taxied to the south facing runway and took out across the bay, gamely lumbering into the air heavily loaded once again. Our route took us south across the bay to join the standard route from the South of France to Corsica (where we spent three nights the previous August when on our way to Tunisia in the Diamond DA40-TDi), and after a while we were cleared to climb to our desired level of FL55 (roughly 5,500ft). There was a significant headwind, and we made only 70kts as far as Bastia on the north coast of Corsica; we flew on overhead, and continued towards Rome, picking up speed slowly as we went. The Artificial Horizon decided that now would be a perfect time to fail, toppling slowly away from the horizontal. The Directional Indicator was suspect as well, but it was not immediately clear if the failure was of the AI itself, or the vacuum system; while low, the suction pressure was indicating barely into the green arc.
We covered the AI with a piece of paper to eliminate the distraction, and continued low level at 1000ft past Rome and followed the VFR route into Sabaudia, where we met local pilot and Flyer Forum member Riccardo (also known as AfricanEagle). Sabaudia is a small 500m grass strip, with deep ditches at both ends of the runway; this rather concentrated the mind after the long tarmac strips of the previous day but the short field ability of the Maule shone through and we used only half the runway or so. Riccardo met us at the aircraft, and after introductions and reminder to use our windshield sunshield for the first time, drove us to a fantastic local restaurant for a lunch of seafood and wine (although I, of course, remained on the water!)
We returned to the airfield after lunch and Riccardo called our next stop, Scalea, to let them know that we were on the way. We added 30 litres of fuel, wanting to stay light for takeoff on the short runway, and swiftly climbed away and set course for the 180nm flight to Scalea. A short distance down the coast we came to Naples, and received clearance to fly the low level route across the city, over the international airport, and around Vesuvius. We flew directly over the excavations at Pompei, and then inland to cut through the mountains and descend to the plains of Salerno where my grandfather had landed with the Allies during the second world war. The plains now look so different to how they must have then, now being covered with towns and glasshouses for agriculture.
Further down the coast we flew over an archaealogical site, where a friend of mine had been working. They'd wanted aerial photos of the site for some time but had been unable to afford them, so we made a few circuits snapping away at everything we could see, and hoping that we were photographing the right things! From there it was a short flight to Scalea where we were met by a friendly Italian man and his 8 dogs. After refueling us, he called us a taxi into town and we headed for the San Matteo Palace hotel - cheaper then our rooms in Cannes, and so much nicer! Dinner, after a walk around the steeply sloping streets of the beautiful town, was in a traditional Italian restaurant near the shore, and we turned in early ready for our long flight the next day.
Day 3 - Scalea to Sitia
I had struggled hard with my planning for the days flight from Scalea to Sitia, on Crete. The aircraft had not been performing at the promised 105 kts airspeed and 30 litres of fuel burn per hour; we were averaging more like 85 kts, and 35 litres, a significant difference. The available fuel in the new auxiliary tanks was also suspect; they claimed 55 litres each but having run them both to "empty" on the gauges, they only took 40 litres each when refueling. This meant that nearly an hour's fuel might be sloshing around unuseable. Planning at 90kts, and 35 litres an hour, meant we'd need nearly 6.5 hours of fuel; barely more than that available in the tanks. Complicating the matter was a scarcity of refueling stops, and early closing at Sitia; if we wanted a fuel stop, it would mean taking two days to get to Sitia, not one. After weighing the options and checking the wind forecast I elected to go for it; we had diversion possibities 100nm, and 50nm, from Sitia if we really needed them.
So, we took off at 8.30am for the 580nm flight to Sitia. If all went to plan we'd arrive with 30 minutes to spare before closing time. We began the long slow climb to FL95; but gave up at FL75 and elected to cruise there instead. At 2500rpm, with the mixture well leaned, we were achieving 95kts ground speed, a good start. One hour in we'd averaged 80 kts, which was satisfactory given the climb, and we set off over the sea to Greece. Speeds climbed steadily, and we averaged 100kts or more for the rest of the flight, 110+ in the last couple of hours. The water leg towards Crete was difficult; the haze obscured the horizon, and we had no Artificial Horizon to refer to; I was glad to finally begin the descent into Sitia with plenty of fuel in the tanks. We'd managed 5 hours fuel out of the mains before even touching the auxiliaries, so landed after nearly 6 hours with a good 2 hours fuel to spare .
Refueling was done from barrels, and organised by an Australian who had moved to Greece and ended up working at Sitia airport. He was planning to return home soon given the poor state of the Greek economy. The taxi ride into town was short, and the hotel pleasant; only 2 minutes walk from the harbour and many tarvenas along the waterfront. We enjoyed a traditional Greek dinner as the sun went down, surrounded by stray cats who all had their eyes on my fish.
Days 4 through 7 - Sitia
We woke late on our first morning in Sitia, exhausted after 20 hours of flying in 3 days. The weather was perfect for a stroll along the seafront. We attempted to take the bus to a nearby village, but it turns out they don't run on Sundays, so we relaxed on the beach for a while before returning to the hotel to prepare for dinner. A perfect day on Crete, which was, it turned out, repeated the following day as well! In the evening we climbed the hill to visit the remains of a Venetian castle that sits above the town, and enjoys a dramatic view across the bay.
Throughout our second evening in Sitia, I was awaiting updates from our Egyptian handlers on the status of our permit to fly into the country. At 1am the final update came in: "We hope to have it by 9:30am tomorrow". We waited at the aircraft the next morning for word to come in, but no joy...the airport closed at 11am, and we were forced to return to the hotel. 1 hour later; the permit arrived! Bad timing, and we had to move on to "Plan B"; the same route, but two days later on the 9th, as our refueling stop at 6th October is closed on Wednesdays.
So, back to the hotel where they were surprised to see us! We reclaimed our rooms and headed to the palm groves at Vai for the afternoon; they are beautiful but unfortunately a little commercialised, and very busy even outside the main tourist season. The road there is brand new though, as are the buses; you can see where all the development money from the northern EU countries gets spent! Of course, this cash influx has not stopped them ruining their economies and even in Sitia there is a nightly protest in the main square against the government and its economic policies. We see very few people actually working though, and a huge number of people lazing around and enjoying life; fun, but perhaps contributing to the overall economic troubles...
The required permits came through mid-day on the 8th, so we were set for departure the next morning. Ahmed filed our flight plans for us from Cairo, and together he and Eddie arranged fuel and refreshments to meet us at 6th Otober airport when we arrived. We enjoyed our last day in Sitia on the beach, with another fantastic Greek dinner before turning in; I was certainly going to miss the food here! Iain, the Maule's owner, had been waiting for us in Luxor since the 6th so it would be good to finally meet up with him; although significant problems with the Sudan permit were beginning to rear their head with just a few days to go.
Day 8 - Sitia to Luxor
We arrived at Sitia airport unreasonably early, and I made my way to the control tower to book out. We were charged for 2 extra days parking (at 1.60 Euros per day, not unreasonable), and the airport manager happily told me that he'd received our flight plan and that we were good to go. We made our way back to the aircraft and loaded up in a now familiar routine, before taxiing out and taking off. We were flying on an IFR flight plan this time (although would remain VMC, given our lack of Artificial Horizon), as we had been informed by Ahmed that VFR flight plans would not be accepted; I've heard differing views on this but we were very happy to accept Ahmed's advice, and things did indeed go smoothly. We climbed to FL85, the minimum altitude that Cairo would accept us at, and set course for the reporting point to enter the Cairo FIR (Flight Information Region - Egyptian airspace, basically). Athens Control handed us off to Cairo, but we were still 200 nautical miles out and could not make contact; a passing British Airways flight helpfully relayed our messages for us, though. The haze was thick, and I flew on instruments, using partial panel as we still did not trust the attitude indicator; a combination of turn and slip indicator, vertical speed indicator, and altimeter were more than enough to comfortably cruise straight and level, particularly given that the sea was always clearly visible when looking down! A couple of hours later we were descending into the thick smog and oppressive heat over the sprawling city of Alexandria.
We landed on runway 04 after being vectored to an instrument approach, and taxiied to the apron. We were met by a pair of National Aviation vehicles (our "handling agents"), and six Egyptians who buzzed around the aircraft, chocking our wheels with chocks that would have been more appropriate for an Airbus, and surrounding the aircraft with traffic cones. Moments later a full size bus turned up, more suited for emptying an airliner, and we were driven the 100 metres to the terminal building. Our passports were taken away by the agents for visas and I was given a cursory quiz by customs, who had a brief look in the top of Annie's bag before moving on to more important matters like the Royal Wedding and the recent Revolution. An hour later, during which Ahmed phoned in and arranged for our landing fees to be waived, and we were back on our giant bus to the aircraft for the short flight to 6th October Airport.
After takeoff we were once again sent up to FL85, which was again a slow affair; although we had burnt off a few hours fuel, the hot air reduced aircraft performance. We were directed in towards Cairo before being vectored back out to 6th October, and enjoyed perfect views of the Cairo Pyramids as we passed overhead. The hand-off to 6th October was complicated by our being given the wrong frequency by Cairo Director, but after a few minutes circling overhead the field at FL60 we established contact and were cleared to descend and land. Curiously, 6th October Airport seems to be named after the starting date of a war in which Egypt initially did well, and were then thoroughly crushed. I'm not sure why they want to remember it, but maybe they have their reasons.
As we taxiied in to park, Ahmed Eddie and their friend Daniel walked out to meet us. They came bearing cold drinks and cheeseburgers, which were very well received, and we rested in the cool air of the terminal while their engineers serviced our vacuum system in an attempt to fix the instrument problems we'd been experiencing. This done, our three GASE friends vanished and re-appeared with 120 litres of fuel in jerry cans, which we siphoned into the aircraft. A short delay then entailed while we waited for our flight plan to come through, and we headed back out to the runway with seconds to spare for our 3 hour flight to Luxor. Throughout our entire stay Ahmed had been rushing around non-stop arranging and organising; he's a busy man! He managed to organise to have most charges waived however, and troubleshot all kinds of flightplan problems; we were lucky he was there.
We climbed overheard the field to 4,000ft before being cleared on course, and intercepting the airway that would lead us to Luxor. We were taken way out into the desert as the Nile curved away and disappeared, and for two hours cruised across the vast, empty Sahara. Every now and then a pristine tarmac road would cross our route; where they went to, and how they keep them clear, is a mystery. We didn't spot a single vehicle. An hour out from Luxor it was getting strangely dark, and then my GPS beeped; "Sunset, switching to night mode". It turns out that, while I had checked sunset times and confirmed they were in local time, my source had failed to mention that these times were Egyptian summer time; which had been cancelled this year, meaning my times were an hour out. We flew on into the twilight and reapproached the Nile as lights winked on along the riverbank, and then Luxor came into view ahead. We landed in darkness, and were taken to our hotel by our agents at National Aviation where, after a long journey across Europe and Africa, we were reunited with Iain, and enjoyed a leisurely dinner at the hotel in 30 degree heat.
The one problem from our day occurred at 6th October; after refueling, the fuel caps on the left wing were not replaced. As we taxiied out, they fell off, un-noticed. Thankfully they were visible in Eddie's photos; on the wing one moment, and gone the next, so the seach area is small and we have high hopes of retreiving them!
Days 9 and 10 - Luxor
We settled in to the very comfortable Sheraton hotel (a bargain at 37 Euros per night!), for two days off from flying. Iain and Sam were continuing to work on the permits, but it was seeming very likely that we wouldn't be heading into Sudan; one option was simply to take of and fly there without a permit, hoping for the best, but the prospect of a Sudanese jail cell rather outweighed the possibility of success from my point of view. Additionally, with the poorer than hoped performance from the aircraft in terms of range, and the strong headwinds we'd face on the way back, the fuel situation for the flight looked more marginal than first expected.
Luxor, however, was not a bad place to spend some time. We relaxed on the first day, reading and enjoying some time off. In the evening we went on a sunset cruise across the Nile to Banana Island, crewed by an Egyptian man who assured me that his name really was Bob Marley. Anything's possible. The island was covered in, unsurprisingly, banana groves (as well as plenty of other fruits), and Bob leapt into the crocodile pit (which was devoid of crocodiles) and located us a catfish as a sort of consolation prize. It flapped around all over the place and covered us in mud before we threw it back. We were presented with a bunch of the bananas, much smaller and sweeter than normal bananas, and sat and ate as we chatted with Bob. The revolution, he said, had really slowed tourism, and June was normally a slow month anyway. We were his first customers all day.
We puttered back across the river and dined with Iain in the hotel restaurant, listening to tales of his earlier flying days. He has had a fascinating time, from advertising copywriter to airliner operator, and we enjoyed his stories well into the night before retiring to bed.
With still no news on our clearance, we rose early on our second day in Luxor to visit the Valley of the Kings. The state of tourism there was hinted at by the fact that we were the only people on the tour, and we headed off in a comfortable bus with our tour guide, Eraky. He had studied Egyptology for several years in Cairo and London and was extremely knowledgeable, as well as having an entertaining grasp of English phrases such as "silly buggers". All of the vendors trying to press tourist tat on us, for example, were "silly buggers". We were informed that all the vendors were Chinese, but they looked remarkably Egyptian to us.
The Valley of the Kings was much smaller than I had expected. It's impressive how many tombs are packed into such a small space. The newly built visitor centre has a transparent 3D model of the valley showing the tombs and it is amazing to see the depth and ingenuity of some of the designs! We visited three tombs, across the whole range from shallow horizontal to extensive deep excavations. One of the most amazing features is how strong and vibrant the colours are on the decoration even after all this time. After a few hours in the Valley, we returned to our bus and drove the long way around to the Memorial Temple of Hapshepsut. The heat was blistering by now and we stuck to the shade, hurrying from shadow to shadow! Our final stop was at the house of Howard Carter, one of the discoverers of the Tomb of Tutankhamun; it was preserved just as it would have been when he was there, and it was fascinating to see how they lived and imagine oneself there back in that time!
By that evening the permits had still not appeared (through no fault of Prepare2Go, it turns out), and we ate an excellent Indian meal (in Egypt, yes) before turning in. The next day, as usual, would be an early start to begin our trip back Northwards.
Day 11 - Luxor to Cairo
The aircraft owner, Iain, accompanied us to Luxor airport to at least catch a glimpse of his aircraft after its long journey. Our handling agents collected us from the hotel and led us swiftly through the large terminal to the departures lounge. As we looked out the window to the aircraft, alone in the middle of the giant apron and with its wheels dwarfed by three sets of airliner-scale chocks, the agents established that Iain was not actually going to fly with us. This caused great consternation and rapid-fire Arabic discussions, as it turns out people who aren't flying are not technically allowed through to the lounge. A story is established, that Iain has forgotten something and needs to return to the hotel, and one of our agents disappeared off with him as we were transported back to Bucky on board another giant bus.
Refueling was carried out from a bowser that looked like it was left over when the British left Egypt more than 50 years ago. Given our lack of fuel caps for the auxiliary wing tanks, I put only a small amount of fuel in them and fill the mains. At nearly $5 per litre, there's no reason to fill up with more Avgas than needed, anyway! The flight would be slow, given the strong headwind, but we did not have much further to go after arrival at 6th October Airport, where our expert ground crew would be waiting with all the fuel we needed!
As we took off, our route took us over the archaeological sites which we had visited the day before. A request to ATC to allow us an orbit to gain height before the high ground was granted, and by pure chance took us perfectly overhead the Valley of the Kings and the Memorial Temple of Hapshepsut. After snapping few photographs, and marveling at how close the two sites are when viewed from above, we continued climbing into the stiff headwind and set course for the 4 hour flight to 6th October. We soon left the Nile valley and headed directly towards Cairo, crossing the desert for several hours. It seems vast and empty, and mostly it is; but sometimes one crosses a highway, seemingly newly built and extending from horizon to horizon. Of course, sometimes this horizon is not so far away, given the haze that arises in the desert when the air and land seem to blend into one; one is required to keep a regular check directly below, and refer to instruments, to ensure that the aircraft is remaining straight and level. This was more difficult given the lack of a reliable artificial horizon, but still entirely possible and routine using only the other instruments.
As we drew closer to Cairo, more signs of civilization began to appear; first some quarries in the middle of the desert, then the Nile valley began to come back into view. Soon after entering the Cairo control zone we were radar vectored towards 6th October. I had elected to run one tank as low as possible on fuel on this leg; given our lack of caps on the auxiliary fuel tanks I wanted to be sure how much fuel I could really get from the mains. A few miles from 6th October, still at 8500ft, the engine spluttered and ran down; a swift change to the other main tank, still half full, brought it straight back to life. Interestingly, the aircraft would carry on running for a good half hour after the fuel gauge reached empty; something I never planned to rely on!
After an uneventful landing at 6th October, we were met by the GASE ground crew who turned up with 175 litres of fuel for us. The security team at 6th October were used to them by now and they made it through to the apron without too much trouble; we didn't even have a policeman watching our every move this time! Ahmed obtained permission for myself, Eddie and Dan to go and look for the missing fuel caps - a thorough search produced nothing, but as we were giving up a call came from Ahmed telling us to return immediately. Thinking that security had decided we couldn't look any more we hurried back; to find that Ahmed had located one of the caps with an airport worker! The final cap never surfaced, but three would do nicely.
Cap recovered, we refueled with our siphon from the jerry cans, and then ensured all fuel caps were securely in place. The plan now was to reposition the aircraft the 30 miles to Cairo International; the ladies would go with Eddie and Dan in the GASE bus, and Ahmed would fly with me to Cairo. Ahmed, an aviation enthusiast, was more than competent to handle the radio for me, with the added bonus that he could chat in Arabic to the controllers. Our route took us over the pyramids and into Cairo International from the East, landing on the Northern-most runway between airliner arrivals. As we taxiied off the runway, an exchange took place between Ahmed and the controller in Arabic. It turned out that the controller had been asking how big our aircraft was; he was confused because he could not see us! We followed the follow-me car to parking, only pausing while it chased off after a truck who had crossed our path without authorisation and give him a ticket. I felt sorry for him; like the ground controller, he probably wasn't expecting to have to look for such a tiny aircraft!
We sped through the terminal and Ahmed's friend dropped me at our hotel, complicated only by the fact that it had changed its name between booking our room and actually arriving. The ladies arrived in the bus shortly afterwards, and we spent a couple of hours freshening up before meeting back up with the GASE team for an evening and dinner in Cairo's Souk. Usually bustling with tourists, this was quiet and empty just like Luxor. The vendors seemed less pushy than the last time I was here though; perhaps having an Egyptian with us put them off! We had a long, enjoyable dinner with the GASE team and regretted that we could not stay longer. Maybe next time!
Day 12 - Cairo to Rhodes
As usual, we were up early. Ahmed collected us from the hotel and returned us to the GA terminal at Cairo. We said goodbye here to one of our crew, Juan, as she was taking an airline flight back to Holland due to work. The remaining two of us made our way through to the aircraft. A note for anyone traversing Cairo International; if you want to take advantage of the "Crew only" discount at Cairo, make sure both people have their licences with them!
As we took off from Cairo, Eddie was on his balcony nearby hoping to spot us. Unfortunately we turned out to the right too soon for that, but he still heard us on the radio replying to Cairo's request for us to expedite our climb; I had to tell them that we were low powered, heavily loaded, and doing the best we could! We flew for 100 miles North across the Nile delta; the scale of development is awesome. What in the UK might be villages, in Egypt are closely clustered cities with hordes of high rise buildings. We coasted out and set course over a carpet of scattered cloud towards Paphos on Cyprus; we had originally planned to go directly to Sitia but decided that with our limited fuel the headwind was too strong for comfort. We descended through the scattered cloud to Paphos, where we refuelled at a painful 3.13 Euro per litre, and were stung for over 300 Euros for handling by Swissport ; I suggest avoiding Paphos unless you really have to!
Another smooth flight took us to Rhodes for our night stop. In Greece, several handlers have made agreements with Greek AOPA for special GA rates for AOPA members. As a member of US AOPA I was able to use these and benefit greatly with both Swissport and Olympic; if you want to do the same, check the Greek AOPA website and call the handlers first to check things are still the same! We refueled on arrival as usual and headed to a hotel recommended to us by Sam from Prepare2Go. His suggestion was good, and the Mediterranean hotel was very comfortable and great value! We seemed to be in what passed for Rhode's Norwegian area, and we dined at a local restaurant with a pianist playing such classics as "Zorba the Greek" while thoroughly inebriated Scandinavians danced and hollered. I used to think that the Brits were scary travellers but these guys took it to a whole new level!
Day 13 - Rhodes to Dubrovnik
We climbed out of Rhodes to an initial cruising level of 2000ft as we passed the airspace of Kos to the West. This gave a perfect view of the many Greek islands as we passed, and indeed, the controller instructed us to fly using some islands as waypoints. When flying in this area take along a map that lists them; my IFR chart did not but my VFR GPS did! Before too long we approached Athens, and were directed around the main internaional airport by ATC before being cleared to head North over the hills into the small private field of Ikaros.
A check of the airfield website the night before had revealed that this airport was open 365 days a year with Avgas available, and only a 6 Euro landing fee; perfect! Our suspicions were first aroused when we received no reply over the radio on approach. After landing we taxiied to one of the little aprons, situated either side of the terminal, and parked up. It was like we had found the Marie Celeste of airports. Dirty tea mugs were on the counter in the tower, and an open book was on the table in the main building. The shutters were still up. However, the field seemed to have been abandoned for a long time. It was clear that the place had once been lovingly tended and was now falling into disrepair; metre high thistles around the nicely sculpted borders, and the one aircraft parked up looked decrepit and like it hadn't moved in a long time. The last Avgas, in barrels on an overgrown apron, had been filled a year previously. The contact phone number from the website was a mobile that was turned off. We tried everything we could think of to find out what was going on, but could not make contact with anyone from the airport or AOPA Greece, so we replanned and flew for Kerkira airport on Corfu to the West of the Greek mainland. We had to stay south of our planned route, along the coast, to avoid the cloud and rain showers over the mountains and it occurred to me that if we had been following our original plan, crossing the mainland much further north, we'd probably have had to give up for the day.
At Kerkira we were met by Olympic handling who confirmed the AOPA discount, and then led us through the airport procedures in a whirlwind of efficiency. Annie dealt with the fueling, making sure they followed my instructions, while I was taken through the various airport offices to pay our fees (45 Euro total), file the new flight plan, etc. In record time we were back at the aircraft and requesting startup for the final flight of the day, up to Dubrovnik in Croatia.
The flight took us up along the coast past Albania, which is a very inhospitable section of coast. Cruising at 4500ft, the engine began to run rough. Given the outside temperature and the visible moisture nearby in the form of cumulus clouds along the coast, I suspected carburettor icing and applied carb heat to deal with the issue; sure enough, the problem cleared up and we continued, with carb heat on until we got to warmer air. A few minutes later, the rough running returned, and with carb heat already applied I checked for nearby airports. The closest was actually in Italy; 50 miles away across open water! "Sod that", I thought, and decided to descend for warmer air and stay close to the flatter country and beaches that we were approaching. Instinctively, the first thing I did for the descent was push the mixture to rich; and the problem vanished! Of course, I should have done this sooner, but when the carb heat cleared the problem originally (due, no doubt, to the less dense air returning the fuel-air mix to a more appropriate ratio) I had assumed my original diagnosis to be correct; it was a great lesson never to take anything for granted. I'm not sure why the mixture became too lean in the first place, given that I had not adjusted it, and our cruising altitude was constant; maybe a wiser pilot knows.
We descended into Dubrovnik, crossing the border from Montenegro as we did. The approach was straight in and we quickly handled the refuelling and packed our bags, to be driven to the terminal by a handling agent who appeared to be channeling the spirit of Ayrton Senna. Luckily we survived the bus ride and caught a taxi to our hotel in town, enjoying one of our best meals of the trip at a nearby restaurant before turning in. For once, we were not planning an early start!
Day 14 - Dubrovnik
After three long days of flying from Luxor, a day off was very welcome indeed. I slept in late enough to meet Annie for lunch in early afternoon, and then spent a couple of hours planning the next days flight through the Alps. It had become plain that Bucky was no hot-rod rocket ship, so I wanted to be sure that we were conservative with our mountain flying plans! Helpfully, on the reverse of the Jeppesen VFR/GPS chart for Austria, the numerous "GAFOR" routes through the Alps are printed. These routes are numbered, and the forecast for each route can then be looked up for free through an account on homebriefing.com. The forecasts are given in a simple format: routes are marked as "Open", "Passable", or "Closed" in 2-hourly intervals. It couldn't be easier to read them! I decided that we'd fly from Dubrovnik along the coast, then head inland over Slovenia to Klagenfurt in Austria. We'd land there and assess the Alps, which might be a bit convective by midday, and decide whether to progress through or to wait a day, or even fly around the lowland towards the East. Planning done, we ventured to the bus stop to explore the old town of Dubrovnik.
It was clear which bus to take, because apparently every other tourist in Dubrovnik was also taking it. We ran to catch it, having been slightly delayed by my stop for a Nutella crepe and an ice-cream to chase it down (hey, we were on holiday), and squeezed on for the 15 minute drive to the Northern gates of the old town. To the left as one enters is an entry to the walk around the old city walls; Dubrovnik has a fascinating history and has at times been a city-republic. The walls are enormous and would certainly make an attacker think twice, coupled with the city's location perched on the cliffs! It is possible, for a small fee, to follow the walk along the walls around the entire city, which takes about 90 minutes, and is an absolutely essential thing to do if you visit. We spent well over an hour wandering along the tall, steeply sloping walls that follow the terrain's contours and give an excellent view down into the city. The photos tell the story far better than I can in words! As we came to the end of the walk, a thunderstorm was coming in from the south, and we hurried down into the town to find a covered restaurant for dinner. I was glad that Bucky was tied down safely at the airport! We dined under a large umbrella near the main square, with several duelling guitar players from surrounding restaurants competing to see who could attract the most attention; the rain held off in the end, and we squeezed on board the sardine-bus back to the hotel. Tomorrow would be, you guessed it, an early start...
Day 15 - Dubrovnik to Klagenfurt
Transit through Dubrovnik airport was swift and cheap, just the way I like it. We took off towards the North and flew straight out at 1000ft, passing the old town of Dubrovnik which looks just as great from the air as it does from ground level. We climbed to the lofty altitude of 1500ft after that, and followed the Adria1 VFR route along the Croatian coast; these routes are marked on the Jeppesen VFR/GPS charts. The coastal route is absolutely stunning, all crystal clear azure waters and picturesque islands, with the occasional yacht anchored in a secluded cove. The more popular coves must be marked as such on the sailing charts, as yachts were squeezed into some nearly as tightly as we had been squeezed into the bus on the previous night. As we flew, Annie read out interesting snippets from a book she had purchased the previous day; we learnt about the Chinese cultural revolution, the Tienanmen Square massacre, and the Egypt-Syria-Israel war. Flying can be both fun and educational.
The flight up the coast took two or three hours, after which it was time to start climbing as we arrived at the European mainland. We could say goodbye to the life jackets for a few days, at least. We passed over Slovenia at ever increasing altitude, being told to keep clear of the airspace around Ljubljana. It's great how flying takes you over countries that you know nothing about; I had no idea that Slovenia was so beautiful and mountainous. We topped out our climb at 7500ft to clear the ridge of mountains that marks the Austrian border, and descended into Klagenfurt for our lunchtime stop. Fueling was quick, with only the mains being filled to keep our weight down for the climb through the mountains; although the cloud over our predicted route had looked ominous on the way in. The GAFOR charts concurred, with routes 60, 61 and 62 (our chosen route) being marginal, and changing to closed before too long. The decision was easy; let's spend a night exploring Klagenfurt!
It was nice to arrive somewhere in the early afternoon, rather than the evening, for once. We found a good hotel on the lakeshore, 5km from the town centre, and made our way through the park to a café at the water's edge for lunch. The lake was full of pedal boats and swimmers enjoying the sunshine, so we sat for a few hours reading and making the most of the good weather before walking into town to find dinner. We saw countless locals as we walked into town, all of whom seemed to be running, cycling, or roller-blading; Austrians are evidently very active people!
The town was not as touristy as many of the places we had been, and the choice of restaurant was limited, so we ended up in a Sicilian pizzeria which turned out to be superb. The owner spoke no English, and we spoke almost no German, so we sat and chatted with him in French as he had been brought up in Switzerland; his main topic of conversation was telling us how the other Italian restaurants in town were frauds run by people with names like Schmidt, and he was the only proper Italian in town!
Day 16 - Klagenfurt to Charleroi
Early next morning I checked the GAFOR charts, and of course had a look out the window, to assess our chances of crossing the Alps. It didn't look good, with cloud being fairly low and studded with rain showers, so Plan B was put into action; instead of 100 miles across the Alps to Salzburg, we would fly 250 miles around the low ground via Vienna, ending up in the same place. The weather around the low ground was quite good, as was the radio reception; surprising at low level in such mountainous terrain! The first half of our route followed the A2 to Vienna, and it was fun to track the road from above as it ran through long tunnels and across sweeping viaducts. It would be a great road to drive along some time, but this is the curse of flying; nearly everywhere you pass seems to invite a return for a longer stay, which would take more than lifetime to complete if you gave in to every temptation!
I had only filled the main tanks and Klagenfurt, wanting to be a bit lighter in case we were heading through the Alps, so after a few hours flying it we stopped at Wels airport to refuel. The airport was small and friendly, with a well furnished pilots' lounge and a well stocked hangar with some interesting aircraft. The airport manager told us that the weather in Germany, along our proposed route, was poor; but luckily he had a space available in his hangar for the night for a high price. The weather reports along our route suggested otherwise, so we disregarded his salesmanship and paid our fees ready for departure. On the counter was a book written by a local pilot about his "Around the World" trip in a homebuilt Glasair aircraft. His first leg had been from Wels...to Luxor! He covered the ground in rather less time than we had done.
Our next leg took us across the border, and a couple of hundred miles into Germany to Mannheim. On our frequency were a number of aircraft going the other way, from Mannheim to Salzburg, and they turned out to be a group of 7 or so aircraft from Rotterdam! We heard one of our flying club aircraft on frequency and passed them our regards, happy to meet a local so far from home. On the ground at Mannheim we met the last of their group, who were waiting for a part to fix their aircraft and were as surprised as we were to meet a fellow flying club member. We had some lunch in the airport café while waiting for our flight plan to be processed, and chatted about our trip with the Tower controller who was on his break. The food was a far cry from what can be found in some British airport cafés - breaded fried Camembert with red berry sauce! With our takeoff time approaching, we made our way back to the aircraft for the last flight of the day.
I had intended to fly all the way to Headcorn in Kent to drop off Annie, but when I called the airport there and asked for permission to fly in I was met with the response "You're joking aren't you?". After we established that no, I was not joking, he asked where I was calling from and learning that it was from Germany informed me that the weather a few hundred miles West was not at all good with driving rain, strong wind, and low cloud! Next time, maybe I'll check the weather before making the call and not the other way round but never mind; we looked at the weather now and replanned from Charleroi in Belgium, about as far as we could get without getting into the really bad conditions. It was only a 170 mile flight, which was welcome because a good half of it was through light rain and bumpy conditions; safe flying, but not much fun and certainly tiring.
We snuck into Charleroi between arriving and departing RyanAir flights (Brussels South, they call it), and parked up about half a kilometre's walk from the tower. Once we made our way over there, the man on the desk informed me that they needed to see all the aircraft's documents, and would I mind walking all the way back to get them. "The tower forgot to tell you before you came over" he said; great. This was the only airport that had asked to see any of the aircraft documents, and seems to be symptomatic of small regional airports who attract a few low-cost flights a day and suddenly think they are the new equivalent to Heathrow. Eindhoven is a prime example of this, but thankfully Charleroi had not yet adopted the punitive pricing and rude staff that are found at Eindhoven! Once the airport staff had completed their somewhat pointless-seeming photocopying of our documents, we managed to find a taxi to take us to the closest hotel, and had an early dinner before what we hoped would be our final day of flying.
Day 17 - Charleroi to Popham
The weather forecast for the final day of the trip suggested that, unsurprisingly, an early start would be our best bet. Charleroi, continuing their self-important attitude, were the only airport of the trip who not accept payment on the day but would only invoice us by post. They could not tell me what the exact price would be, either, but did at least indicate that it would not be stupidly high. We shall wait and see! The wind was gusting up to 25kts or more as we took off, and started threading a path through and around the rainshowers that would be a feature all the way back to Popham. A 30kt headwind made the trip slow going. We were flying into Lydd, as Headcorn insist on the pilot phoning for a briefing in advance and did not open until 10AM Belgian time which would kill any chance of an early departure. We were given quick clearance through Lille's airspace en route, and coasted out over Boulogne for the short 30 mile crossing to Lydd. The landing was sporting but uneventful, given the high and gusty winds, and we met Annie's friend at the terminal and had breakfast in the restaurant while we waited for the OK from immigration to leave the airport. This was given, and I taxiied out to the runway, now solo again, for the 85 miles back to Popham.
This leg was slow again given the headwind, but short, and I was happy to let it drag out a bit. It would be sad to say goodbye to Bucky after such a long trip! 10 miles out from Popham I called up on the radio and received the airfield information and was informed of a heavy shower approaching the field. Indeed, it arrived at the field at about the same time I did, but seemed to have dampened the wind a little so I make an offset approach to runway 26 through the downpour, turning at the last minute to avoid the petrol station and line up with the runway. A firm landing concluded the trip and I taxiied back to the hangar where Iain met me and we put Bucky back under cover.
Home at last
Although we did not make it into the Sudan, it had still been an incredible trip. We had flown more than 65 hours in just over two weeks, with our longest day involving 8 hours in the air, and a couple of others with more than 7. Our longest single flight was almost 6 hours, much longer than my previous record of 4 and a half! In the final days I had broken the 600 hour total flying time mark, too, an average of 100 hours a year since gaining my licence.
There was still the open question of the task in Sudan for which we had flown the aircraft down for in the first place. Perhaps next year we'll give it another go...
© Ross Edmondson 2013