|My involvement with "OJ6" began when Ralph Garlick telephoned from Cape Town to say that he had just bought an ex-Botswana Defence Force Strikemaster. The aircraft was standing at Humberside Airport in the UK and would I be interested in an all-expenses-paid tour of Africa?!
I first met Ralph and co-owner James Craven in the summer of 1997 when I was flying the MiG 15 (G-OMIG), in which they had a share. This
aircraft did not suit their ambitions to start jet flying, so they sensibly traded across to a Strikemaster, an ideal aircraft for their purposes. I confessed to not knowing much about the Strikemaster (I trained on Jet Provosts during my RAF training in 1981), but that I would give it some thought. Ralph managed to talk me into the trip and so preparations began.
Jeppesen's were contracted to handle all the over-flight, landing and diplomatic clearances.
I had considered trying to do this myself, but using their professional services was a sensible, if somewhat expensive, decision.
In truth, we could not have made the trip without their, or similar professional's, expertise and contacts. I would do the flight/fuel planning, check NOTAMs and weather, and submit flight plans en-route. In addition to running around getting visas and jabs, I also had to make a detailed representation to the UK CAA (at the time the aircraft was on the UK register).
We would need to operate instrument flight rules (IFR) for some sectors and although I held an ATPL, the aircraft was on a UK permit to fly and extremely restricted in terms of IFR flight. Much work would be required to bring the aircraft up to an acceptable standard to be granted an IFR exemption.
From Cape Town Ralph kindly posted all the aircraft manuals, the fax machine was rarely quiet and the telephone bill eye watering.
Other jobs for the would-be ferry pilot included; detailed route/airfield/alternate planning, insurance arrangement and the sorting of safety and survival equipment. We had given ourselves about 8 weeks to get all the preparations complete and there was much more to do than at first appreciated.
The first task was to move "OJ6" from Humberside to Plymouth where Barry Pover would carry out some radio modifications, install a GPS and prepare the aircraft for the ferry.
On 12th January, after a spell of poor weather, I was finally able to get underway. The first flight went reasonably well apart from some avionics snags and the known limitations of a two-digit VHF radio. The performance was much better than I had anticipated; a Jet provost this was not! I knew
straight away that this aircraft was going to be fun.
The weather was poor at Plymouth, so I diverted to Exeter and stopped the night. The next afternoon the weather improved enough for a short flight to Plymouth and into the hands of Barry Pover. There were 3 weeks to go before our scheduled departure date. Barry Pover is fantastically knowledgeable and deeply passionate about British jet aircraft. He is also one the most resourceful and professional aircraft engineers I have ever met. Barry did much above and beyond that expected. His dedication to the task of dispatching us on time was certainly appreciated, but more importantly I felt totally confident about the airworthiness of the aircraft. A 6,500-mile flight, over often-hostile terrain, in a relatively old single-engined aircraft, is an undertaking not to be taken lightly. If there had been even the slightest doubt about the aircraft's ability to reach Cape Town, I know Barry would not have allowed us to go.
I flew three shakedown flights from Plymouth and Exeter and a number of snags showed up.
The majority of problems were dealt with relatively easily, but most serious of all was a failure of the fuel transfer and isolation circuits. This meant that fuel would not feed from the wing tip or drop tanks: a showstopper!
Time was running out and we hit bottom several times as successive attempts to trace and fix the problem failed. It was only through Barry's single minded determination and sheer hard work that the problem was overcome and we were able to set off, albeit three days late but still within our
09 February 1998
It was a cold yet clear morning as "OJ6", with myself at the helm and Ralph beside me, set off from Exeter en-route Cape Town.
An hour later, we were back at Exeter. The French had turned us away because they couldn't interpret our SSR. London Control was receiving our squawk, but the French were having none of it. This was positively our last day to start the ferry and I was gutted.
Barry and James were quickly on the scene and out came the toolbox. "OJ6" was never fitted with SSR so a new installation had been made and
flight-tested satisfactorily the day before. The system checked out again so we put it down to an unlucky combination of low altitude, extreme range and aerial blanking. After a refuel and a re-file, we set off again. This time there were no such problems.
It was all systems go and we crossed the Channel and on into France.
Flying along airways at 29,000ft in some of the busiest airspace in the world was something to which I was accustomed. There were contrails everywhere!
Ralph was awestruck and he wasn't saying much. I kept a close eye on his oxygen "doll's eye" and nudged him from time to time. The workload was fairly high with no autopilot, minimum IFR instruments and only basic radio aids. ATC we very interested in our type and ultimate destination and helped enormously with direct routings. After about an hour and a half, the Alps came in to view. The weather was magnificent and the view breathtaking as we began our descent into Turin.
Following good service from Turin, in less than two hours we were underway for Bari. Again this sector was flown on airways, but because
of our late departure from the UK, mostly in the dark. The night landing at Bari was satisfying chiefly because I felt we'd made real progress. We had 1,150 miles behind us and I was starting to get used to, and enjoy, the aircraft. I felt we could go all the way.
Also... we were in Italy; one could smell the pasta and taste the Chianti!
10 February 1998
One of the problems, which we anticipated during the ferry, was getting oxygen.
Barry Pover had equipped us with a multi adapter which he assured us would connect virtually any oxygen bottle in the world to the Strikemaster's system. For "world" that should read "the world, except Italy"! Without oxygen a re-think was required. We quickly re-filed and re-calculated that we could make Heraklion by flying visual flight rules (VFR). It meant flying at the highest VFR flight level that would give us a cabin altitude of 10,000'. The forecast for Heraklion was poor and the later part of the sector saw an ongoing calculation of fuel reserves to allow a diversion north in the event that we couldn't get in.
The forecast was accurate: wet, windy and a cloud base about 150' above VOR/DME minimums. The Greek Air Force came to the rescue with oxygen; our next
sector to Luxor was one of the longest and impossible without it. By the time we left Heraklion, we were thoroughly damp, cold and looking forward to a bit of sunshine. Apart from some thunderstorms in the Cairo area, it was an uneventful flight. The turnaround in Crete had taken much longer than anticipated and our landing at Luxor was again in the dark. We headed for the Luxor Sheraton and a well-deserved cocktail, another 1,300 miles behind us.
11 February 1998
In many respects this was to be the low point of the trip. I awoke feeling a little fragile in the tummy department, and breakfasted on bottled water and Imodium. When I called for engine start, ATC knew nothing about us! Given the "fees" we had just paid out, I was less than pleased. The prospect of unstrapping and traipsing off to ATC, in that heat, to sort it out made me wonder how Ralph had ever talked me into going. It didn't help that my tummy was still trying to decide which way to empty itself. I was feeling awful.
Thankfully, ATC were willing to accept our flight plan on the radio, but we still sweated in the heat for over an hour before we were cleared to go.
Arrival in Jeddah was unremarkable, but it was too good to be true. After a good turnaround and a pleasant lunch of bottled water and
Imodium, we started up and taxied. I had real problems understanding the clearance. In spite of pleading numerous time to "say again slowly", I just couldn't figure out what the controller was on about. He was losing patience with me and I was close to being sent back to dispersal. I guessed at the clearance and read it back anyway. To my surprise he accepted it and off we went.
About half an hour into the flight an American corporate aircraft relayed from Jeddah that we must return there because there was no fuel for us in Asmara. We had already pre-paid for our fuel there; we also knew from the NOTAMs that there was no 100LL in Asmara. Perhaps this was the cause of the confusion. I asked the American pilot to relay these facts to Jeddah.
Within five minutes he came back to say that there was definitely no jet fuel in Asmara; we were forced to turn back.
Another expensive excursion to Jeddah! A quick phone call to Asmara confirmed the fuel was waiting. "Where are you, we expected you by now" was the thread from the Eritrean on the phone.
It was dark again when we got to Asmara. The weather wasn't brilliant either, but at least we were staying on schedule.
We arrived so late that as we taxied in, they turned off all the lights and went home. The silence was deafening!
One little man did wander across about an hour later to take us through customs. The adventure was concluded with an unpleasant taxi ride in a cab with no windows and full of exhaust fumes. We dined that evening on beer and toast. I was feeling much better now.
12 February 1998
The Eritreans could not have been kinder of more helpful, and we got under way in good time bound for Addis Ababa.
It was a relatively short sector flown VFR and at low level (250 feet) across some of the most rugged and inhospitable terrain in Africa. There were also some of the most breathtaking valleys and gorges I have ever flown down; proper Star Wars stuff.
In Addis, we encountered our only brush with officialdom. I was taken through the airport by the agent to pay landing fees and promptly abandoned. When I tried to get back "air side" the customs man was not pleased that I had not had my visa stamped on entry.
I was led away to a dark and dirty office where more officials appeared. I must confess to being afraid.
In the end it seemed I had done nothing wrong and was free to go, albeit $50 worse off. Meanwhile, Ralph was having a bit of game getting the oxygen bottles replenished. In the end he removed them and carted them off to Ethiopian Airlines main servicing bay where Barry's adapter proved
itself indispensable again. A quick check of the weather in Nairobi and we were off again, using most of the very long runway.
The leg to Nairobi was the longest and most devoid of en-route diversions. Moreover, the weather report obtained in Addis was a tissue of lies. We had planned to land at Wilson, but the thunderstorms really were spectacular and on seeing the runway lights at the International Airport, about a mile and a half out, decided to get on the ground quick and sort out the details later.
Given a sector safe altitude in access of 15,000ft, the ADF to VOR/DME approach flown entirely in cloud (lumpy stuff at that) down to minimums was one I shall always remember. In Nairobi, we stayed in a fantastic ex-colonial hotel and met up with James who would go the rest of the way with me to Cape Town. The hotel had the best shower in the world, James had a supply of fresh clothes and I wallowed in luxury.
13 February 1998
We had planned a short break in Nairobi but due to our late departure from the UK, we had to press on. With James aboard, we set off for Dar-Es-Salem.
Most of the legs from now on were short enough for us to go at VFR and at low level.
The summit of Mount Kilaminjaro was obscured by cloud but the rest of the weather was perfect. Part way into the flight, I remarked to James that it was surprising that we had not seen much wildlife. Within minutes of saying this we were rewarded with the most spectacular scene as we overflew literally thousands of elephants. For many miles the best of African wildlife passed beneath us. There were one or two large, isolated thunderstorms
to dodge going in to Dar-Es-Salem, but the detour along the beautiful Indian Ocean coastline more than made up for the extra mileage.
It was very hot and humid in Dar; we were both ringing wet within minutes. The turnaround went swiftly and we were soon on our way to Lilongwe.<
To the west of Dar, the line of thunderstorms had grown in the midday heat and presented a wall of weather of the like I have never seen. There was no way over, under or around so we battened down the hatches and decided to press on through.
Lacking any weather radar, I chose to penetrate where the tops were visibly lower and after about 20 minutes we emerged on the other side. The crossing had been nail biting at times, but we were lucky and apart from some icing and occasional moderate turbulence we had survived. It was then clear all the way to Lilongwe. I had been mindful that being a military aircraft the Strikemaster was much more highly stressed than a civilian type. That said the decision to "press on" through these storms had been a mistake, both naïve and serious. We should really have gone to the pub in Dar and tried the next morning, before the storms got going.
I learned about flying from that! The contrast in weather (it was pleasantly warm and dry) with Dar-Es-Salem was welcome, the Malawi's were very friendly and we decided to call it a day. We had considered getting to Harare but such a pleasant night was had that this was vindicated as one of my better decisions.
14 February 1998
The route to Harare was again flown at low level over hundreds of miles of lush green rain forest. The canopy was broken only by rivers and lakes filled with Hippopotami and other wildlife. Eventually, this gave way to agricultural land and buildings reminiscent of many places in Western Europe. We didn't need a map to tell us we were in Zimbabwe.
After Lunch in Harare, it was next stop Johannesburg.
This was a straightforward transit at medium level with radar control and ATC all the way: quite in contrast to the last few days. We landed at Lanseria where we both met up with old school friends and were treated to a very pleasant evening of dining and reminiscing.
15 February 1998
The last day of the ferry flight was probably the most straight forward of all. Flying over SOWETO was interesting mainly because I could not have imagined its sheer size otherwise. On arrival at Bloemfontein we had enough fuel to "bash" the circuit thus giving James the opportunity to play with his new toy. Bloemfontein is just like being in the Netherlands 6,500 miles removed.
The leg to Cape Town was nearly routine by now. Many well wishers were there to meet us and when I climbed out of "OJ6" for the last time, I kissed the ground.
Many people had been generous and supportive during our preparations. That goodwill extended to just about everyone we encountered during the ferry.
Next time? I would do some things differently, but I would do it again.
At the end of our journey, Barry Pover flew to Cape Town to meet us. He had been on the end of the phone day and night during the flight and his flight to South Africa was the icing on the cake. How can I describe the pleasure I felt, after 6,500 miles, in handing over one serviceable Strikemaster to a very proud Mr. Pover?
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