Touring in Africa (August 2016)

On average, around two or three PPL/IR Europe members make a significant journey to Africa each year; significant in the sense that they go further than countries bordering the Mediterranean. So, while for individual members these journeys may be one off adventures, for our organisation as a whole, mainland Africa is a comparatively common place destination!

Some go as part of an organised group; for example, Prepare2go, run by Sam Rutherford, has organised biennial visits from Europe to South Africa over the past few years and one author of this article participated in his Libya tour in 2010. A prime advantage is that someone else does all the hard research work in organising route, clearances, handling and fuel (Avgas) and such group travel can have the advantage of being fun and allow you to get to know like minded pilots. The main drawback is that you are tied to a timetable that may not suit and the journey proceeds at the pace of the slowest aircraft; if your aircraft encounters technical problems the rest of the group has to leave you behind in order to maintain the schedule. 

The alternative is to make one’s own arrangements and this article gives guidance on these. The authors have made two trips together to Africa in the last two years; one to Kenya in early 2014 and one circumnavigation of the continent at the beginning of this year. While this does not make us experts, it does give us some recent practical knowledge of what is involved. There are a number of different aspects involved – route, fuel availability, overflight and landing clearances, handling and any servicing requirements for the aircraft together with useful ancillary equipment. We shall deal with each in turn although to a significant extent, many are interdependent.

Three possible routes from Europe to Cape Town

First route; assuming a trip to southern Africa is in prospect, there are essentially three potential ways across the continent. The first and most direct, as followed by Alex Henshaw when setting up his long held London to Cape Town and return record flight in February 1939 only recently beaten by Steve Noujaim in his RV7 in 2010, goes south through Algeria to Niger and then Nigeria and thereafter continuing south down the west African coast. Sam Rutherford has also followed essentially this route northbound in his biennial Africa tours. Unfortunately, in the last couple of years, transit through Algeria has become more uncomfortable and banditry is active in Niger and northern Nigeria so, in our view, this part of the route is presently best avoided.

An alternative is to fly through Morocco and Mauritania to Dakar in Senegal and then head eastwards through Mali and Burkino Faso to join the more direct route in southern Nigeria and thence proceed down the western coastline of Africa.

Dakar is quite far west; it is also possible to take more of a short cut through Mauritania to Mali and Burkino Faso. Landing and overflying permits are easily obtainable for any of these countries as well as all countries south of Nigeria. On our most recent trip, we essentially followed this route although instead of stopping in Morocco, we landed in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. This had the advantage that we did not need Customs and so no handling was required on departure from Seville in Spain and also avoided potentially timeconsuming bureaucracy in Morocco.

The third option is to take an easterly route down through Egypt, Sudan and Kenya. Once in Kenya, there are a number of variations on a generally southward theme, depending on what you may wish to see on the way.

Refuelling from barrels using our portable hand pump and filter in Douala

Possibly more important than choice of route, unless you can use jet fuel, is the availability of Avgas and relevant here is the range of the aircraft you will be using. In broadest terms, Avgas can be obtained on both eastern and western routes but the eastern route is generally regarded as the easier for this. Putting a little more flesh on this, those countries on the western route formerly under French influence tend to be better for Avgas and at more reasonable prices. In some places, forward arrangements need to be made and fuel prepaid for. Again Sam Rutherford at Prepare2go can help here. Presently there is no Avgas available between Douala in Cameroon and Luanda in Angola and indeed, in Luanda, our own prepaid Avgas nearly failed to materialise! Once into Namibia and of course South Africa, Avgas is readily available at usefully cheaper prices than in the UK.

Climbing out of Khartoum, following the Nile northwards.

The easterly route is easier for Avgas although you do need to make prior arrangements for it in Khartoum and Lokichoggio in NW Kenya. It is reputed to be very difficult to obtain in Addis Adaba. Once in Kenya and beyond, availability should not be a problem and prices are reasonable.

Perhaps the best tool for planning the route is just a spreadsheet having columns for origin and destination airports with ICAO codes, takeoff, enroute and landing times (local and UTC), timezone, sunset and sunrise times, distance, etc. One can take a simplistic approach with regard to cruise speed by simply reducing it by an appropriate amount to allow for a headwind on all legs. This allows one to supply the handling agents with arrival and departure times that can confidently be achieved and avoid arrivals and departures in the dark; although runways are well lit, sometimes one has to park in a remote, unilluminated, spot which would have been more difficult in the dark. For example, to reach the refuelling depot in Douala, Cameroon, one has to taxy down a potholed, disused runway and through narrow gates, barely wider than the wingspan - tricky enough in daylight!

It is worth noting that where you buy Avgas in barrels, then once the sealed barrel is opened, you generally have to pay for the whole barrel, whether or not you use it. The spreadsheet comes in especially useful here to calculate a refuelling schedule that uses the maximum quantity of fuel from each barrel uplift. The barrels we bought were not always in date but provided they were still sealed and the colour looked ok, we considered them safe to use. A partially full, already open barrel should be used only with caution because of the risk of water contamination particularly in humid climates. You also need to carry a suitable pump and delivery hose to get fuel from barrel to aircraft with an appropriate electrical earth line and fuel filter. Although it is generally a good idea to refuel on arrival, sometimes it just is not possible and one just has to go with the flow! It is also worth avoiding refuelling in the dark as holding a torch as well as hose and filter can be surprisingly difficult! Fuel is usually paid for on delivery and cash is really the only way; on the western route, north of the equator, we could pay in Euros and generally everywhere else including all of the eastern route in US dollars. Thus one needs to carry a considerable cash sum and so should find good hiding places in the aircraft to store it whilst remembering to remove it all when having the aircraft serviced! In South Africa, a BP card works for some airfields and in Namibia, the usual credit cards were accepted.

With the exception of South Africa and for IFR flights Morocco, prior landing and/or overflight clearances are required for all countries. These are best obtained through specialist agents. We used and highly recommend Mike Gray of White Rose who has been in the business for nearly forty years. Mike can also often recommend and/or arrange handlers although, with one exception, we chose to find our own handlers. Another possibility worth a mention is GASE, an Egypt based organisation set up a few years ago by Eddie Gould and Ahmed Hassan, with the intention of making GA flight easier and cheaper there and in adjoining countries. For flights in that region and the rest of the eastern route, they are worth considering and in some places, they will put you in touch with locally based pilots to help out with the formalities rather than going through a more expensive handler.

This brings us on to handling. In many countries in Africa, particularly the more southern and eastern ones, you can self handle without problems. In the more northern countries however, handling is obligatory and necessary to deal with the airport bureaucracy, Customs and Immigration people and liaison with the refuellers. Arrangements need to be made in advance and be prepared to bargain down any handling price quoted; sometimes you will be successful and other times not. A good handler can be well worth the cost in smoothing your passage particularly through the larger and busier airports. We found handling agents at each airport on our route predominantly by simply searching on the internet and emailing them for quotations and Avgas prices and availability. In two cases, at Douala, Cameroon and Luanda, Angola, we used Perpare2Go to arrange fuel and handling because of the difficulty in finding a reliable agent and Avgas supply; when the fuel supplier at Luanda, Senangol, refused to give us the barrel we had already paid for, Sam Rutherford and his team were very helpful in obtaining it from elsewhere although we lost a day (and a good night's sleep!) on the schedule.

The aircraft you fly will be a vital factor in determining your route. In principle, the longer its range, the better. We used one of the authors’ Beech Bonanza for both trips; it is fitted with long range tip tanks giving an absolute range of around 1,350 nm and many of the legs flown were in the 800 to 900 nm range. Certainly the trip can be done on the eastern route with aircraft of lesser range but refuelling arrangements will be more frequent and consequently the trip may be more expensive. The western route will be more complicated unless spare fuel can be carried in the aircraft; we know of some people using aircraft with low compression engines approved for mogas operation successfully using an Avgas/ Mogas mixture. These circumstances also encourage a group fly out where expensive transport of Avgas supplies can be shared out between a number of participants.

Fuel pump, hose, filter and static cable all fits into the two plastic boxes.

The aircraft should be fully serviced before departure and if EASA registered, you will need to have a basic 50 hour check carried out en route. Provided no compliance with any ADs is required, this can be signed off by the PIC as the South African engineers do not have the appropriate EASA qualification. We take some very basic spares – tyres, inner tubes and oil and air filters – on the basis that if anything more complicated is required, then this can be quickly fedexed out. If you use multigrade oil, then you may need to take out sufficient for the 50 hour oil change.

It is worth mentioning that one should take an adequate supply of water for consumption in flight - long flights are surprisingly dehydrating and there is often not an opportunity to fill up with clean bottled water at each stop. Similarly, we usually had lunch in flight and dried fruit and cereal bars are ideal. An emergency supply of food and water really is a necessity and not to be overlooked in case your aircraft should let you down and you are stranded in a remote location until help can arrive.

A rather minimal selection of spares parts for the aircraft.

Navigation will be primarily GPS based; VOR, DME and ADF exist but often with large geographical distances between them and the ground based radio aids do not always work. If your aircraft only has one GPS, then a portable spare, whether it be an iPad or dedicated Garmin unit is useful to have. ATC frequently asked for ETAs for every waypoint in their area, not just FIR boundaries and the new Garmin GTN boxes have a very useful feature in that entering the airway and exit point will automatically load all intermediate waypoints with their ETAs. Apart from a few very short legs, we flight planned IFR throughout and used a Jeppesen African trip kit which gave us the necessary charts on the iPad Jepp FD and Jepp TC apps, as well as the Avidyne MFD chart presentations in the aircraft. It is also worth noting that SkyDemon has VFR maps for a number of African countries.

Dark clouds of the ITCZ above the island of Principe

If you go to South Africa, then an inevitable part of your journey will be two transits of the ITCZ. Both our African trips have been made in February, when the ITCZ is well south of the equator. Research and trip reports of others show that the western route is likely to produce worse weather and so it turned out to be. That said, overall our transit was less fraught than we anticipated; the most stormy areas were easily avoided using the stormscope and returning on the eastward route northwards through the ITCZ towards the end of February was comparatively straightforward; there were certainly some large CBs around but generally isolated and thus avoidable. As the calendar year progresses, the ITCZ moves northward and covers a rather wider land area so we would anticipate rather more problems with a transit in the northern summer months.

South Africa has its own tailored form of “Homebriefing” available for internet flight planning. This is available to non SA pilots for flights within and departing South Africa and is free to sign up and use. Otherwise once out of Europe, we wrote out our flight plans on the traditional form and gave these to the handler to file. Permit numbers should be quoted in field 18, together with EETs for crossing FIRs. Most African countries are not up with the finer points of PBN and complicated transponder equipment so field 10 – Equipment – is best filed as S/C with no additions in field 18.

North of the ITCZ, the weather is generally fair but with much dust in the atmosphere, very hazy and with no clear horizon, particularly on the western route. Instrument approaches are necessary; generally ILS is available and some out of the way places have quite complicated RNAV approaches. South of the ITCZ again takes you back to clear weather with rather better visibilities but with fog and low cloud along the ‘Skeleton Coast’ in Namibia and occasionally bad weather in the South African winter. Occasional winter depressions moving eastwards in the Mediterranean can generate sandstorms in Egypt and Sudan. Generally, we started and completed our flying as early in the day as possible, particularly where afternoon thunderstorms are the norm. On this general theme, we advise not too ambitious a timetable. One four to five hour sector a day with an hour at the airport before departure and an hour or so after arrival refuelling the aircraft and dealing with the various formalities worked well for us. Occasionally we needed to fit two sectors in and usually these required night landings and late arrival at our overnight accommodation.

It is not necessary to get any visas in advance. On many occasions, no one looked at passports and the only document required for both aircraft and crew is a GenDec – General Declaration – with the appropriate Customs stamp. If you use a handling agent, they may generate the form for you but take plenty of spare ones along as often multiple copies are required. Most of the time when passports were looked at, no visa was required nor stamp put in the passport. Egypt and Kenya insist on charging you even for a transit visa but this can be obtained on arrival. At Khartoum, your passports are retained at the airport so you need to have a colour copy of the particulars page available to take to your overnight hotel. If you travel as crew then except for Namibia, South Africa and Kenya, you should dress as flight crew – this applies to non pilot members as well!

We have a satphone fitted in the aircraft linked to an exterior aerial; although we did not use this much, it proved very useful on the odd occasion, generally when we were running behind schedule and needed to alert our handler or hotel at our destination. For family and friends, we have a Delorme tracker unit, which transmits our position every ten minutes via a sat link. While we can Bluetooth output to an iPad which gives a height and speed readout in feet and knots, rather irritatingly remote users can only see this data in metres and kilometres/hour. We tried to get Delorme to fix this bug before our departure without success. Garmin have recently taken over Delorme so perhaps a fix will now be forthcoming.

While southern Africa is a frequent destination, time or inclination may dictate other preferences. For example, you can just fly out to Kenya or Tanzania and visit a game reserve or two; most will have their own airstrips where you can land, but in Kenya at least, you need to include these as part of your overall Kenya landing permit. On the western side, the Bom-Bom resort on the island of Principe in the Gulf of Guinea offers a very pleasant holiday destination but fuel (of any kind) is unavailable.

We hope this article will encourage more people to visit Africa in their own aircraft and are happy to provide more detailed information to any PPL/IR Europe members contemplating such a trip. We also recommend Robert Limb’s excellent narrative on the trip he made two years ago.  Robert gives excellent guidance on routes and places to see.

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