Updated: Oct 9, 2020
FOREWORD by Telani Lithgow:
Alistair earned his PPL in February 2020. Four months later he was an International Aviator. Alistair arrived at our doorstep at Pietermaritzburg Aero Club two years earlier, leg in a cast, determined to learn to fly, (part-time). Having grown up in the bush in Botswana, surrounded by large open spaces, Alistair is charming, and determined, with a larger than life personality. I thoroughly enjoyed training him.
PPL in hand, he went to Jo'burg to get a Taildragger rating and convert to his little red Vagabond, which was stationed up north. The Corona Virus lockdown delayed his plans and played a pivotal role in the events that followed. For those who don't know, South Africa's biggest International Airport is OR Tambo. Small aeroplanes just do NOT fly there. Not usually. Alistair, with his freshly minted Private Pilot License, and his Taildragger endorsement still drying in his logbook, set out alone to fly himself home. What an adventure!
Here is his story:
“Hurry the sun is setting fast” my instructor hastily says down the phone. I press my foot further to the floor of the hired car. It has been a very busy day already, but there are still a few more vital parts to fall into place if we are to stick to our rendezvous with OR Tambo the following morning. (I heard they have some busy airspace or something above them). None the less I ponder for the hundredth time the importance of these next few steps and what it has taken to get here as I screech around the off-ramp, racing for Wonderboom Airport.
First step. Drop off hire car.
Second step. Meet my instructor on the apron.
Third step. Throw everything into the plane.
Fourth step. Take off for Rand Airport.
Fifth step. Execute a perfect landing in front of everyone at Rand.
Sixth step. Tuck my aircraft safely away in a pre-arranged hangar after filling her up.
Seventh step. Check into pre-booked hotel.
Eighth step. Receive final approved ‘Slot list’ for OR Tambo and file flight plan.
Ninth step. Shower to wash the haste of the day off.
Tenth step. Get a nice early night to be fresh and ready for the epic adventure ahead.
“Brupppupuup. Brupppupup” I hear to my horror as I sprint across the apron at Wonderboom, still trying to pull my reflective jacket over my shoulders. There in front of me stands my instructor Richard, pulling on the prop trying to get her started. (Bear in mind, this 1949 beauty has no electric starting system). He obligingly steps aside and in no uncertain terms, tells me to get the thing started! He has already been trying for 10 minutes prior to my arrival, but he has flown her from Nylstroom while I brought down the hire car. She is hot and bothered and like a girlfriend after a long hot day, she has a headache and is simply “not in the mood”. Desperately, I pull through the prop, again and again while Richard catches his breath. While my hands and brow start to sweat, I watch out the corner of my left eye as the sun slips further and further down until it disappears along with my hopes of sticking to our well-crafted plan of being at Rand Airport before nightfall. Richard explains to me the ‘issues’ of flying a plane at night with no lights, I tell him I have a headlamp if that helps? He steps away to make some calls. I keep hanging on the prop like a monkey desperate not to fall, reminding myself that “this ‘spinny’ thingy can bite”. My muscles begin to ache and for a brief fleeting moment she coughs, splutters and dies. I persist, ignoring what I can hear as Richard talks on the phone, explaining how we will need a tow, some gas and a place to sleep at Wonderboom. By now the airport and city lights are on and fuel has started to drip out the front of her nose. Flooded! I take a step back, panting with a sick feeling in my stomach that all of these months of planning, organizing, fretting and dreaming have amounted to nil.
Richard comes over and explains that someone is on the way to tow us to a hangar. I try to put on a smile and thank him for making an alternative plan. As I see a car approaching, headlights and hazards on, I say a prayer of thanks that at least the “little red pepper” won’t have to be left out in the cold. Richard’s friend Pierre arrives and I politely thank him for offering to come out and help while he connects up my tail wheel to be towed back to the hangar. As we go about our business, a ‘fancy’ jet lands and Pierre casually explains that that was none other than the Minister of Police. At least his plane was making a noise, otherwise South Africa would really be in trouble then! Once the tail wheel was secured, I was instructed to “get in and steer’’. (These old goats still had a sense of humor)! I must admit, getting towed backwards under the glaring airport lights, knowing that some dignitary was perhaps watching me unceremoniously being carried away, didn’t exactly fill me with confidence for the big day tomorrow. (Little did I know that would not be the last time a dignitary would watch me ‘vacate a runway’ in an unorthodox manner). I was grateful as the darkness slowly enveloped us, albeit the remaining orange flashes of Pierre’s hazards and I took a moment to try and have a laugh at the outrageous turn of events.
After a rather lengthy ‘taxi’, we arrived at an enormous hangar.
The flight school doors were wide open for us, revealing a variety of aircraft inside that made even “my lady in red” seem under dressed. There was a sparkling Grand Caravan, a handful of Sling’s and Magni Gyro’s, a Kodiak, an Extra 300 and a rather ominous looking “Vampire Fighter Jet”. I believe it is NOT used for ‘ab initio’ training. Oh, and in the corner was a rather smart looking Yamaha 100cc scooter. I will park next to her I thought. (One has to know your ‘punching weight’). After carefully positioning her under the wings of the Caravan and the Kodiak, we entered the office to be met by some of the most polite, helpful and friendly staff from FlightCare Flying School. Pierre introduced us to Dean and David and we were welcomed with genuine warm hospitality that is a rarity these days. We were offered coffee, Avgas (paid for of course), a desk to work from, access to a landline phone (filing flight plans over the phone I was to find out, is a lengthy process during these ‘Covid -19 days’) as well as pizza being ordered for us! Richard really does have the most amazing contacts, testimony to his personality and long-standing involvement in aviation.
After a bit of the normal ‘pilot chit-chat’, we stepped outside to see out of curiosity if she would start. By now she must have cooled down in the chill night air and after ‘priming’ her she fired on the first pull. What a relief albeit a little late! We returned back inside and I very apprehensively started scribbling on my empty flight plan, under the watchful eyes of four experienced pilots, holding in their laughter while this freshly ‘winged’ (passed my check ride on Valentine’s day a few months prior), newbie aircraft owner, pretended to know exactly what acronym to fill in the equipment column for my very under-equipped aircraft. With all sincerity though, they were all incredibly helpful and after a 30-minute waiting time on the phone, (it was already 20:30) I was eventually able to start mumbling my way through the flight plan to the woman on the other end of the line. After getting a short while through it, she paused when I told her my intended first stop was OR Tambo. She then asked me if I had my slot clearance. Crap! I had forgotten about the slot clearance! I quickly explained that it was already all “taken care of” by the agents I had hired to do so. She asked me to standby while she checked. She then asked me to confirm my registration again. (I guess people have the habit of reading their registrations incorrectly sometimes?) The pen began to slip through the sweat in my fingers. “I am sorry Sir, but we have no record of your slot approval”. I needn’t explain the severity of the strain on my nerves at this stage.
I politely asked her if she wouldn’t mind staying on the line to prevent me having to listen again to that ‘waiting music’ every call center loves to "calm" you with. She was amazingly kind and understanding as she patiently waited for me to raise the supervisor of the agency on my cell phone. Despite the late hour, he dutifully answered, apologized for the inconvenience and jumped to resolving the situation in a most timely manner! Before I knew it, I was being given my flight plan reference number and I was one step closer to, I suspect being the first hand-propped, non-transponder equipped aircraft to be allowed into OR Tambo. (Special dispensation was granted given the circumstances and the fact that this was a “Self-repatriation flight of a foreign national”) I would also like to assure you, I tried every other more ‘suitable’ airport in the north of the country to fly out of, but they were all closed to international travel due to Covid 19. I suspect this will be a first and a last in my lifetime and I am incredibly grateful for the authorities who allowed me to use their beautifully wide and well-maintained runway 03!
After locking up, we were all kindly driven by Dean to a recommended Bed and Breakfast nearby. After a healthy feast of pizza, I excused myself before I fell asleep in front of everyone with a triangle of pepperoni and cheese hanging out my mouth. I finally managed to wash off the “haste of the day” and was soon collapsing in a pile on the bed. I will say however, that it took a while to ease the nerves enough to sleep, but I finally drifted off, reflecting on all of the last-minute training, maintenance, paperwork and logistics we had crammed in during the last few days prior to this!
Something woke me up that night, I suspect my not fully recovered nerves and I reluctantly rolled over to check the time. 2:25 a.m.! Great! Three hours of sleep! Fine, I thought, I will just roll back over and fall asleep again. I am not exactly sure what it was, but between the thoughts of ATC Control tower instructions, 747 wake turbulence, the possibilities of choosing a taxiway instead of a runway to land on (don’t laugh, I would not have been the first) suffice to say, sleep would not come. My alarm was set for 4:45 am in preparation for our legal ‘15 minutes before’ sunrise take-off. I grudgingly went about getting up and rehearsing my thoughts for the day ahead. After about four hotel ‘Ricoffee sachets’ later, I was feeling about ready to float down into SA’s biggest airport in my neat little “Piper Vagabond”. I must admit, the fact that Richard so kindly offered to accompany me for this leg of the journey (to be honest, I gave him no real choice) made me feel a little better about it all. Bang on time, Dean arrived with a smile to pick us up at 5:30. After loading the plane and ‘pre-flighting’, despite the brisk cold morning, I managed to start her on the third or fourth swing. I guess her headache had long passed and before I knew it, we were saying our heartfelt thank-yous and goodbyes and were trundling along on our long taxi back to runway 29.
Under a peach and orange sky, I pushed the throttle full forward and we began to creep down the runway. I could feel her tail was heavy and was reluctant to lift, but after some steadfast encouragement, the tail lifted and our airspeed climbed. I rotated just at over 60kts and the runway slowly released its hold on us. As we climbed, we both acknowledged that she was heavy knowing though, that I simply had to have that the fuel on board if I was to reach Francistown comfortably. What followed next was a breath-taking view of Johannesburg as I have never seen it before. Through the sun-kissed mist and smog in the calm morning I watched as we passed over the small mountain ranges surrounding Wonderboom, the Voortrekker Monument, Johannesburg’s CBD, the ‘Soweto Towers’ and many more recognizable landmarks. Richard very kindly managed the radio work while I snapped away with pictures and GoPro videos. He knew full well that I would have my hands full when he disembarked at O R Tambo International. I hardly think those images I took will do it justice, but it was a sight I will never forget and as we slowly climbed to 7000ft, I said a quiet prayer of thanks for getting this far and for a safe journey ahead.
My moment of quiet reflection was interrupted by a not so amused control tower voice explaining that we had left our inbound call too late, but after explaining that we had done exactly as instructed by the tower personnel the day before, he settled and cleared us to land runway 03. After slowly descending towards a rather open space, we asked what intersection he would like us to vacate the runway from. He advised us to use "Hotel" and so this enabled us to do a long and extended ‘low fly by’ past the first terminal buildings, only a few meters above the runway. What an experience to have and something I will remember to the day I die. As we watched our intersection come into view (we had a map in hand and so were counting each one we passed, I slowly eased back on the throttle and she drifted down. My wheels touched the ground a little harder than I had hoped and a small bounce occurred. When they touched again, I planted them with the stick and we commenced our ‘roll out’. I should have paid more attention as to why she dropped so willingly, but before I knew it, her nose was creeping and her ‘heavy tail’ was fast trying to not only catch up, but to overtake; something all tail-dragger pilots fear happening.
My hurried ‘corrective’ footwork brought her back to center, but my inexperience and lack of finesse resulted in inputs that were slightly too much and she veered the opposite way. I distinctively remember yelling out “Brakes!!” my subconscious thoughts revealed by being forced out, betrayed by the fright. It’s hard to say exactly why I blurted out loud, but I think it was in many ways to jolt my feet into action, perhaps even a desperate plea for Richard to help? Whatever it was, he curtly responded that he had no brakes, a fact I knew all too well as they are only on my side, but fear can allow a sense of irrational denial to sink in. I will take a quick moment to say that for any pilot, this was an incredibly invaluable lesson to learn and something I think we should all be very aware of, especially us low time pilots. In that moment of “oh s***”, I think one has to train to stamp out denial and give a precise response to resolve the situation. Easier said than done I know. It all happened in a flash, but those few seconds of bringing her back under control and the short time to reflect back on what had happened while we taxied to our apron, allowed me to learn a very good lesson that I hoped not to do again. I had no idea this lesson would serve me so well in the very near future. As we exited the runway I checked the GoPro on the wing and in the cockpit, they were both still recording and perhaps one day, when the embarrassment has worn off a little, I will share that video so that others might see how quickly things can happen, especially when the aircraft is heavy.
Pulling up to our parking bay, I was humored to see a group of ground staff and pilots of a charter company photographing and smiling at this peculiar arrival on the apron. I guess this really was a first. After a not-so-centered parking (the line was painted ‘skew’), the signal man crossed his arms for me to shut down. After a quick Mag check, I pulled the throttle and mixture back and she shuddered to a stop. There is always that moment of pleasure as your ears stop reverberating and for a few seconds, all is calm. I was grateful for the way things had turned out despite not departing from Rand Airport as originally planned. Although our pre-arranged agent’s bus had not yet arrived, I was relieved to be on the ground. I took comfort in knowing that one more stage of my journey back home to Botswana was done. After calling the same supervisor from the night before (despite the now early hour), a mini-bus was shortly dispatched to pick us up. We chocked the plane and placed cones around it, making her more visible to the ‘big boys’ I guess. We then hopped into the ‘combi’ to go clear customs etc. It was a weird feeling being transported away from her, looking very lost and forlorn on the apron. I hoped to be back with her soon in order to have as much time as possible, lest I run into similar starting issues as the day before. We arrived at Richard’s domestic gate and he got out turned to face me, smiled with his hand extended to shake mine and earnestly wished me a safe flight. I could see the smile on his face hid a degree of concern and could hardly blame him. This was after all a young man, who having only recently got his wings, having only even more recently got his tailwheel endorsement and only even more recently completed his conversion on to his own aircraft, was about to leave on an approximately 540nm international flight with an aircraft which cruised just over 80kts. He was not in an easy position and nor was I, but our original plan for his experienced son to fly up with me had been kyboshed due to Covid-19 and Botswana closing her borders to all non-citizens and residents. He knew that I simply had to get back home to work and it was very likely that if I left the plane in South Africa, I would not see it again anytime soon. I had already been stuck in the country for months during the 'lock-down' and once my repatriation permits and clearances to fly were given, there was very little that was going to stop me. No matter how nervous I felt as the mini-bus door slid closed behind Richard and I began to feel very alone. I swallowed hard and I am grateful to say that in moments like that, a strange sense of calm comes over me knowing that there is just simply no other way and I was going to have to get through this, one way or another.
I asked where I was to clear immigration and the gentleman driving picked up the phone to call the office. After talking about various ‘procedures’ he hung up and explained that I needn’t go into the building as my documents would all be submitted to home affairs. Another measure to assist with the curb the spread of corona I assumed. I was told they had my ‘Gen-Dec’ (General Declaration) forms etc and we could proceed back to the plane. My inner values of punctuality appreciated the sentiment, my bladder did not and so after a quick stop at a very empty but familiar waiting lounge (Air Botswana uses the same gate) I was back in the bus, soon expecting to spot my aircraft through the tangle of aircraft undercarriages. Red really seems to stand out on the apron, (or the cargo ramp was not as busy as usual) and I was happy to once again see her and be ‘pre-flighting’ for the next leg of my journey ahead. I also moved my heavy clothes bag from the luggage compartment and tightly secured it with the passenger seat belt beside me.
I got hold of ground control and requested permission to start. This they approved, but I thought it only prudent to advise that this would be a hand prop start and apologized for any inconvenience caused. He was very polite and understanding this time, I believe, because he had seen the little red dot ‘flutter’ past his tower earlier. This was definitely no normal heavy arrival. On that note, I want to quickly add that when applying for our slot, we received an email explaining that we had to produce a “noise certificate” before being granted clearance. How do you politely explain that an aircraft with a documented MAUW of 499kg’s (original specs) does not qualify for such a certificate? Whatever we said in the end seemed to work and permission was granted. And so thus I believe, the first ever “Piper Vagabond” was allowed to touch down at OR Tambo. (Thank you Covid)!
Not wishing to face the same embarrassing outcome of the day before, I decided to try not “prime” the engine before starting. After I had pulled the prop through, to my utter relief she fired on the second stroke. I was slowly beginning to get to know the aircraft and her quirks despite only spending a grand total of 5 days with her! I hurriedly raced around to ‘catch’ the throttle in case she wanted to cut, but she happily rumbled on patiently waiting for me to get in. By now one might realize that I am not ashamed to admit I do not have hours and hours of experience behind me and that in many ways I am quite happy to laugh at my own expense. But to hop in my plane, crawl over my strapped in bag (only one door on the Vagabond), slide across to my side, start to strap myself in and ‘secure the cockpit’ only to hear a high pitched whistle over the sound of the engine from a ground crew member pointing at my wheels. Well one can imagine the embarrassment of climbing back out over my bag to remove the chocks from the wheels! All the time acting like I completely meant to do that and that I was always going to come back for them later. That minor technicality behind me, I again called ground control and requested a “push-back’’. I can’t think why they never acknowledged the call? Come to think of it, my radio had been giving a few issues only days before. Realizing that I would probably manage without the “tug”, I then requested taxi instructions, correction, I requested, “progressive taxi instructions”, as I was sure as heck not going to make the mistake of taking off from taxiway Alpha.
My radio remarkably crackled to life (gremlins) and the very polite man in the tower held my hand all the way. He even asked me if I was okay with an “intersection departure”. I hardly thought I needed to backtrack 03 and so I thanked him and advised that “Hotel” would again be fine. (Why change a good thing right)? After my power checks and “TMPFSIGH” routine, I was cleared to enter and "take off 03, right hand out…” en-route to my next way point “CZV”. I lined up as straight as an arrow (this time they had painted the lines straight) and pushed the throttle forward. I was relieved to feel the change in weight (I had warned Richard about having that last slice of pizza) and soon her tail bum was rising as I eased the stick forward. I then gently pulled back and my wheels left South Africa for what I hoped would be for some time. Slowly climbing out, I then executed my right turn and was once again guided by the nice man in the tower. He got me around Waterkloof Airspace (I knew it was there but was just testing him) and before long, I was handed over and soon Cullinan Dam was passing below me. What happened over the next couple of hours was a combination of intense concentration, immense joy and wonder at the scenery beneath me and the utter feeling of truly being on ‘cloud nine’ (just a metaphor, guys!) I know to stay away from those ‘fluffy things’ on a VFR flight.
Coming up towards Nylstroom again, I was broadcasting my position on 124.8 when I was very surprised and touched to hear my name being called by a pilot who I had met whilst doing my conversion with Richard. “Alistair, you made it buddy” Jaco said and wished me all the best for the trip ahead. It was a small gesture, but it meant the world and gave me an extra dose of courage for whatever lay ahead. I slowly watched as the smoky blue grey mountains of the Waterberg came into view. After looking at the winds the night before, I had been advised to fly low level all the way, but of course began to climb well ahead of the rocks in front of me. Even then, I was surprised how ‘quickly’ they come when one is trying to climb and although I had plenty of height and power available, by the time I reached them, the details of the rocks were rather sharp as my shadow crept over them. Another lesson or ‘experience’ to tuck away, I thought.
Soon, I was flying over some magnificent valleys and mountains and although I had good tail winds low level, I naturally climbed as available options to put down in became less plentiful and terrain became increasingly rough. On a quick observation note. There are some incredibly beautiful, mansion-like houses placed right on the verge of great valleys in what seems to be the middle of nowhere!? I resolved to visit there someday and meet the audacious characters who build ‘mansions in the sky’. After following a large river (I forget the name) to the north-east of Ellisras, I knew I would be getting close to the Botswana border. After a short while, I spotted some Gemsbok in the ‘veld’ below and soon after that, like a pastel green snake, the Limpopo River slowly crept towards me. As I came overhead, I snapped a quick pic of the river passing just under my left wing. I was finally home! No matter how I put this plane down now, I was going to be on home soil.
I followed my course to ETMIT which was my next waypoint and raised JHB North again as instructed when overhead. They gave me the relevant frequency for Gaborone East and bid me farewell. I changed over and tried to raise them. I had been told to try Gaborone West if no response from Gabs East and so after trying Gab’s East numerous times, I switched and tried Gab’s West to no avail. After continuing a short while and continually broadcasting on both frequencies, I decided to call JHB North again for a radio check as well as to see if they could perhaps relay a message for me. She instructed me to just keep trying. I then decided to climb a fair bit higher, but was met with nothing more than headwinds and more radio silence. Deciding that I might as well proceed in silence but faster, I descended once again and was welcomed with sometimes 15 knot tailwinds. I might add again that I have no charge system in this plane and so was reluctant to deplete my batteries by unnecessary power-hungry transmitting repeatedly trying to raise Gab’s. I therefore decided to monitor both ‘unmanned’ and Gab’s for any transmissions whilst keeping a careful eye out. It was silence for a long time and although I occasionally transmitted my position on ‘125.5’, I opened my window and took to enjoying the familiar scenes of Botswana passing below. After some time, I could clearly hear traffic talking to Gab’s although I couldn’t hear their return transmissions. After I guessed their conversation was over, I tried to raise the traffic to politely ask them to relay a message for me. They acknowledged my call sign but explained that I was hardly readable. I tried a few more times but decided to leave it be as I was low level and ‘unmanned’ had been very quiet. I also hardly expected any GA traffic to be operating at that height along my intended route, especially given the current GA level of traffic during Covid.
I passed to the west of Selebi Phikwe and had an almost uncontrollable desire to deviate back south-east and see the beloved koppies of the Tuli Block again, even if only from the air. A million memories came flooding back of my happy times spent exploring those hills. While I pondered on everything that had happened over the last few years since I had left that magical place, I saw a fairly large and shallow dam approaching on the other side of a ridge. Deciding that the ‘altitude’ was misting up my eyes, I pushed the nose forward and dived over the ridge, low level on the deck to clear my thoughts. On reaching the other side of the dam, I gently pulled up and watched as a herdsman outside his hut squinted his eyes into the sun to ‘see the noise’ which had sent his flock of goats scattering. Although I did not mean to disturb his or the goat’s peace, the image of the little white figures running across the red earth put an enormous smile on my face knowing that each familiar passing image below, reminded me of why I was so desperate to get home.
I spent the next while soaking up the small hills and generally flat ‘scrub mopane’ below, interspersed by the occasional rural hamlet and ploughing fields. As I neared Francistown, (which was to be my fuel stop en route to Maun) I watched as the earth below got more and more populated and soon, I was about to enter the CTR boundary. I called in and explained that I had been trying to raise Gab’s to no avail and apologized for arriving un-announced. I was then given my instructions to join and land. I began to contemplate the runway and winds I was given and I had researched the airfield well the night before as it has two runways intersecting each other. I had also been told by Richard to watch out for crosswinds there and so was relieved to hear winds were moderate. As I neared the field, I heard in-bound traffic calling their imminent arrival at the CTR boundary to the NW. I had to laugh at my luck of having hardly heard a squeak the whole flight after crossing the Limpopo and now, it seemed as though I was going to have to ‘share’ the runway. By the prolonged “uhhhhh, roger’’ that I heard from the tower, I knew this guy must be coming in fast and that I would be told to orbit. True as Bob, “Uhhhhh, Uniform Kilo X-ray, I have your visual. Commence two slow left orbits and keep a look out for inbound traffic. You will now be using runway 11”. I guess he saw by the size of my plane, that I was unlikely to be needing the larger runway 13.
I started a large left orbit, taking my time to minimize the rate of turn and by the start of the second orbit I still could not see the traffic. I decided to take the time to ask again what the winds were like as he had already changed my runway and I hardly felt like any more surprises. Winds were still okay and so I continued my orbit. On rounding the end of my second orbit, I spotted the traffic and advised the tower as such. He explained that I would shortly be cleared to land, but I decided to extend my downwind to give a bit more time for any wake turbulence to settle. Now here is where I was to learn another very valuable lesson. Do not doubt your gut feeling, do not trust that the tower always knows what’s best for you, and most importantly, do not believe that a large jet crossing your runway only at the ‘slow stage’ of his roll out will affect your air movements that much. I think it was a number of things that made me decide to commit to my landing directly after the tower cleared me to land, instead of continuing my extended downwind as originally planned. I had been orbiting for a while already and knew I was a bit pushed for time as Maun Tower was closing at 16:30. I was nervous and also deduced that the tower, who already knew I was trying to avoid any crosswind components if possible, would not have told me to land if there had in fact been any real concern for wake turbulence. Would he?
I had also seen the now landed traffic pass my runway intersection at a low speed roll out and so I turned base and then final. I slowly settled the aircraft down towards the runway, trying very hard not to let the nerves of the previous landing get to me. She was a lot lighter after using a fair amount of fuel already and we floated for a while. I began to feel as though I was a bit high and so I reduced power further. She began to sink quite rapidly and soon I was taking power again to ‘stretch’ the approach, annoyed when I realized I had put myself behind the drag curve again, despite being told by Richard to not get into that position as I had done so on a previous landing whilst training. I began to ‘fiddle’ and soon I was flaring with too much juice behind me and we ballooned ever so slightly. It was enough however to extend my flare and I dropped with a bump on the tarmac just before the intersection of the two runways. It was not an unmanageable bump and despite my lack of experience, I thought I recovered fairly well. No sooner had I breathed a slight sigh of relief than all hell broke loose. To this day I will not know how much my ‘newbie’ feet had to do with this or how much turbulent air from the landed jet was waiting to welcome me to Botswana, either way my nose veered very sharply right. I immediately applied left rudder and she dutifully responded…too well. It was all happening again, but this time there would be no ‘blurt outs’ from me or guidance from Richard. I clenched my teeth and dug my right foot in hard on the rudder pedals and brake. She yanked back with a screech of tires and a horrible dip of the nose, but at least she was pointing fairly straight again. However, just because she is pointing straight again, does not mean there is no continuation of force coming from the rear. Before I knew it, her tail was wanting to rush up past me again. Another boot full of left rudder and brake settled her a bit and I straightened her out between my two feet for the last stage of my roll out. I was extremely shaken but tried to restore some level of dignity by joking in Setswana about the bad wake turbulence. The man in the tower sounded genuinely concerned when he asked “all okay on board?” I told him all was well and proceeded to ask for taxi instructions to the fuel pumps as I needed to refuel before my last leg to Maun. Little did he know that I just needed somewhere more private to change my rods!
It had been a horribly close shave and although I will genuinely raise my hand and admit if it was my fault, I sincerely think that my underestimation of the remaining wake turbulence had caused such a rapid turn of events. The Piper Vagabond’s are supposedly renowned for their “twitchy ground handling” characteristics and I can attest to that, but I suspect in my case, these incidences were perhaps exacerbated by my simple lack of experience. Whatever the reasons for both of these ‘sub-par’ landings, I had been able to save them on both occasions and I was proud of that, but as one can imagine, I was now dreading my arrival in Maun as I shakily shut down the aircraft in front of the tower as instructed.
I was told to await the arrival of a health official who was not so amused to find that I would not be sticking around for quarantine and that I had strict instructions not to enter the terminal building to clear customs. I explained that I had a rendezvous with his colleagues in Maun and that I was sure to be carrying out the mandatory quarantine there. As he begrudgingly took my temperature and a few other details, the jet that had so nearly caused a “real headache” for myself and the plane had backtracked and was now taking off. He muttered that he did not know what that landing and now take off was about as no one had got off or on the aircraft. I asked him who it was and he sheepishly told me it was the President! What were the odds!? I had heard almost no traffic thus far and the one aircraft that was, I believe a major reason for my sidewinder landing, was none other than the President in two minds whether to stay in Francistown or not! I am not sure whether it was the weather there or him watching through his window as a tiny red toy plane skidded desperately across the runway, but either/or, I think he decided Francistown had some weird stuff going on and that he had other urgent business to attend to. Either way, I took it as a good omen that the president was there to welcome me home and I shook my head in humored disbelief. The health official looked amused at my face, but he completed his writing in relative silence and turned back to the terminal wishing me well. Great! Another ‘hot start’ just for that, thanks a bunch!
I again contacted the tower to ask permission to start and proceed to the fuel pumps. I also added that I had to “hand prop” and that he should not be alarmed. He asked me to say again. I repeated “hand prop”, he replied with a safe bet answer; “Roger”. Arriving at the fuel pumps I was greeted by the sight of a large friendly looking man with a clip board in hand. I again reluctantly shut down knowing I had been lucky thus far starting her even whilst hot. I scrambled out over my bag again and was immediately faced with a thousand apologies. Oh no, what now I thought!? “Sir I am very, very, very sorry but the generator is tripping when we turn on the pumps. I assure you it has only just begun to happen”. My heart sank with the thought of having to call back my health portal friend from earlier to take him up on his lovely offer of quarantining in Francistown. I couldn’t believe my luck and begged him to please make a plan. He got on the phone to his boss and was soon asking me if I had enough fuel remaining to reach Maun? Yes, I thought much like the President, I like to land and inspect the runway of Francistown International, only to backtrack, turn and take off again! “No, I am afraid I do not have enough fuel to reach Maun and this is why I am parked in front of your pumps”
I forced myself to politely explain whilst clenching back a fury of frustration and fire. My first 15 minutes back in Botswana had been very colourful thus far, but my patience and nerves were strained and so when he passed me the phone to speak to his boss, I in no uncertain terms told him I would be refueling here and I would be departing to Maun. I must give them both their dues; they were incredibly polite and apologetic and promised to sort it out as soon as possible. While I opened my oil filler cap to check the oil levels and to leave it open to help cool the engine (a tip David from FlightCare, who was also from Botswana, had given me the night before), a young gentleman from Civil Aviation Botswana arrived and explained he was also an electrician. I must admit I was dubious, but I busied myself with re-arranging the aircraft as well as ‘dip sticking’ my underpants to make sure all was still in order. Satisfied with the outcome of both tasks, I quickly went about ramming an old sandwich in my mouth (with my other hand of course, one can never be too cautious) as I had not eaten the whole day. I also took the opportunity to wet the sand behind the pumps and automatically re-hydrated knowing that the Great Makgadikgadi Salt Pans lay ahead.
After about 20 minutes the CAAB officials hidden talent came to light and the pumps were turned on without a hitch. Things were finally looking up! I gauged from the used fuel already that I needn’t fill the main tank and both wing tanks as well, but erring on the side of caution and not enjoying the prospects of getting low on fuel over the pans, I decided to fill her right up again while I had the chance. I paid the fuel attendants and thanked the man for his timely rescue. I once again told the tower that I would hand prop to start. This time he knew an appropriate first response to that was “Roger” and soon I was lined up on runway 29, facing down the same direction I had been so close to doing so before whilst landing 03. This time I knew how she would handle with full tanks all round and so I patiently waited for the old lady to ‘get off her seat’ before building up enough airspeed to rotate. She was indeed heavy, but she appreciated the gentle touch and I was comforted knowing I had ample fuel for the journey ahead. (What’s that age old adage about “you can only have too much fuel when you are on fire…”?) Whatever it was, I felt confident that this next home stretch would be the most enjoyable. I was not wrong.
I can only ever remember flying over the Salt Pan’s in a small aircraft once before, when a good friend of mine Dave, flew me in a C150 from Mashatu to Maun some 5 years back. Apart from mocking him on how slow we were flying; I also remember thinking to myself what an incredible feeling it must be to fly one’s own aircraft low level over the Pans. Little did I know I would be doing that and just as slow 5 years later! I had also seen pictures of my father landed and camping on Kubu Island decades before with us kids, when rules of flying seemed to be far more relaxed, but I cannot say I remember those trips. Nonetheless, I was filled with an unbelievable sense of joy as they grew bigger and bigger across my windshield. I knew that I would be passing through restricted airspace and running it past an anonymous pilot friend of mine via text, I decided to drop down and enjoy the pans low level. I knew that Covid 19 had brought all tourism to a grinding halt and although the Pans are remote and vast at the best of times, I truly felt I had them all to myself. I eased down even lower watching my plane’s shadow behind me growing larger as it tried hopelessly to catch up.
Nothing was going to stop me in this moment in time and I beamed from ear to ear as the white earth rushed by below me. Ahead lay miles and miles of emptiness, interspersed with tussocks of grass islands, and further on some were laden with tall stands of palm trees. To say the scenery, dazed in the afternoon sun was breath-taking from the air is an understatement. It was quite honestly a visual and emotional overload. I could see ahead of me two black dots running and instantly recognized them as ostriches. I dipped my wing to look out the open window as I swooped over them, their remarkable legs and feet kicking up clouds of dust as they ran. I strained my eyes into the sun ahead of me; nothing. Sheer beautiful nothing.
I remembered the days I had spent on a trip bouncing along the open roads of the pan’s in an old 2F Land Cruiser years before, exploring and pushing on into the ‘unknown’ and that feeling of adventure and sheer exuberance of youth came rushing through my veins, warm and comforting, knowing that I truly was blessed with a remarkable and beautiful life. I felt incredibly grateful for all that I had experienced thus far and for all those who had helped me so much on my journey into aviation. All the months of phone calls, emails and texts, begging and pleading with every possible department to get me home in my own aircraft, all the frustration, anger and disappointment, all the mixed emotions of leaving and coming home. All of them seemed to vanish as I darted along the flats, now watching the occasional ancient Baobab bulge beneath me as it passed. I recognized some of the old tracks I had driven on all those years before, some of the stands of trees used for shade to have brunch under and I truly knew what Dad meant when he said “flying helps you put the pieces of the puzzle together”.
It’s hard to put in words what feelings or emotions those moments of awe filled me with, but as odd as it might sound, flying like a bird truly grounded me. I knew I was where I was meant to be, I knew I had made the right, albeit hard decision of loaning the money to buy this aircraft. (despite my pride and already strained finances). I also knew what I always suspected would be the case, hard times will come and go and it is when the darkness leaves, even if only for a few seconds, life reveals the most magnificent and vivid colors reflected up against your wings. My life events just before the opportunity to see my childhood dream of flying come true, were dark and broken ones and my first ever flight lesson was quite literally conducted with a cast on my leg. I can honestly say that aviation and the people involved, brought me through some of my darkest times when I had lost all hope, it had given me purpose and something to try for again. It was not an easy journey, but as I pulled up the nose and roared up into the sky leaving the last of the Pan’s behind me, I knew I had made it and whatever comes next, it was all worth it.
I had called the Francistown tower after take-off there and asked them to please call Maun Tower to tell them I might be running late due to the delays with the fuel pumps. This he kindly did and he had gotten back to me saying that I was to proceed to land ‘unmanned’ if no response from the tower. I was a little relieved to hear a voice answer me as I approached Maun’s CTR boundary and he gave me my joining instructions. I looked at the time and by the sound of his voice, I knew it was best I didn’t dawdle no matter how tempting it was to ask for a short diversion so that I could see the flood waters in front of my farm. He had kindly waited for me and I also knew there might be a few health officials also waiting on the ground and so I forgot those wishes and lined up for runway 08. How many times had I slowed my vehicle to watch planes fly over the road under Maun’s approach path? Now, here I was all alone, watching the shiny tin roofs of Maun gather beneath me. I wondered if anyone I knew would be there to see me land and this also helped me in my resolve to not to repeat any of the previous touchdowns. As I came over the perimeter fence, I felt everything was set up just right and I gently closed the power as she willingly reached down to meet the tarmac of her new home. My wheels greased softly in a perfect three pointer landing and I barely felt the transition from air to ground. Apart from a slight deviation left and then right for a flock of Plovers on the runway (a mistake I will not make again), she held herself straight once more, eager to park and rest I am sure. For an ‘old girl’ she had done remarkably well and had not missed a beat.
I was instructed to vacate the runway and follow the health official’s directions who were already walking towards me. It was a very odd sight arriving at Maun International and seeing not a soul around among all the multitudes of aircraft, patiently waiting for this ‘corona cloud’ to pass. There was however an absolute ‘welcome party’ for me in the form of a couple dozen, reflective cladded mix of health officials, immigration, police, and whoever else seemed around and available to do something at the quiet airport. I had explained to the tower that I had already arranged to meet the health officials at Helicopter Horizons hangar as the owner Andrew, had very kindly offered me the temporary use of his premises. The man in the tower explained that I should sort this out only after following the portal personnel’s directions and after which I was then told I was free to “taxi by discretion as I want to knock off”. I therefore begrudgingly followed as the ‘lumo party’ confusingly pointed and waved me in the opposite direction as planned. Arriving at their 'selected' spot, I held hard right rudder and brakes and opened the throttle wide to turn her around toward the original vacating direction, trying in ‘subtle’ ways to show them this is not what had been arranged. I was definitely not risking possible starting issues so close to the finish line and also to prevent my pilot friends from finding her on the apron the next day I kept her idling, put on my face mask and hopped out to greet them over the convenient noise of the engine. I politely explained that I had to keep her running as she had to be “hand propped” to start, to which a synonymous nod of heads confirmed that they too had no idea what I was talking about. They got their own back with a barrage of questions being fired at me, whilst temperature guns were pointed at my head, passport details taken without anyone touching the book, rather treating the dirty pages I held in my hand like a poisonous adder. An obvious trainee lady asked me some pretty peculiar questions under the strict and slightly embarrassed correction of her supervisor when she asked my nationality after having just looked at my passport.
Another official asked me a question to which I replied, but he was struggling to hear me over the noise of the engine and so I leaned in a little closer to repeat myself louder. Well I might as well have thrown that fictional adder in his face he recoiled so fast away from me! Seems they don’t trust the face mask after all when it comes to our “new boogie man” corona. Turns out the question wasn’t so important after all and soon the excitement around the arrival of a self-repatriation flight in a tiny red fabric can, from a dark and dangerous land far away, began to die down. Slowly some other important business became apparent as feet shuffled awkwardly towards the terminal building, realizing I guess that this wasn’t such a big deal after all. I was grateful for the official presence awaiting my arrival and I know they were all doing their jobs. I think that at the end of the day they realized I was just a young citizen desperate to come home to the bush, his dogs and his beloved farm and during some pretty absurd times, had chosen to rather take a challenging and adventure filled flight, than give up on his plane to hop on a "normal" repatriation flight.
As the last of the questions were asked and the final instructions were given, I was told I was free to proceed to the hangars, but I was to wait for some officials to get there to make sure I didn’t touch or hug anyone or anything before securing the plane. Our dear family friend Hal was not yet there and so I took the time to stretch my legs and achy muscles whilst soaking up the most beautiful sunset to greet my arrival home. An ambulance arrived with two lovely nurses wrapped from head to toe in ‘battle attire’, waiting to load me up and take me home for self isolation. After explaining to them that I was still waiting for someone to arrive and if they could please tell security to let him in despite the late hour, they agreed and left me to unpack the plane. A short while later a CAAB car arrived to tell me that I had a “Tati” waiting for me outside but of course I was unable to see her. My beloved aunty Daph had waited all this time to see me come overhead, but had just missed my landing as I had been 20 minutes late and so when I didn’t arrive, she had left to see if I was at the hangar already. In that time of course I had landed and taxied over behind the terminal after all of the official proceedings. Nonetheless, she had given the nurses three neatly wrapped bags filled with all manner of goodies that only she could spoil you with and I am still munching away at the selection of sweeties and delicious Botswana biltong she left me. I also received a copy of my father’s latest book, Ashes in the Sand to help ‘escape’
and pass the time during my two-week quarantine. Shortly after that Hal arrived and I was incredibly happy to see him again, although I could not shake his hand in greeting and immense gratitude for once again “coming through for me”.
After strict instructions from the health official not to “share any surfaces” with Hal, we both decided it was easier if I just left him to it and I threw my things in the back of the ambulance and hopped in for my ride home, relieved this time I was entering an ambulance without a bone sticking out of my leg. As I watched the hazards light up the darkness of the street outside, through the tiny window above my head I saw as the main Maun street came into view and in between the flashes of street lamps, I saw the familiar glimpses of a road I knew so well. It was a surreal experience as I turned back to watch the two-car convoy following me, their hazards also on as we headed for home. I was incredibly fortunate to be allowed to self-quarantine at home and I was also incredibly fortunate to find two full oxygen bottles to suck on in the back of the ambulance! I am only joking...
There were three.
As I write this, I am sipping on a warm cup of tea, in what is actually technically my tenant’s house that we finished building for her last year. She very kindly offered me the use of it as she is in Holland and due to the fact that earlier this year I had moved back out to a tent on my ‘farm’ 25kms out of town. My farm is tucked away in a wild, shady forest along a perennial river and I thoroughly look forward to spending the next few months developing it before having to return to work. I am very grateful for the use of this house and that I could at least spend some time on this special piece of land before it is sold. I have been going through some of my pictures and footage of the trip that I managed to capture and I am looking forward to sharing some select clips with everyone. I am also looking forward to getting back to my “lady in red” and taking her up to see the Okavango from above, a sight I think she never expected to be shown!