Flying a Dream Aircraft Tundra from Vereeniging to Kenya

By Derek Bird

"It's normal to talk to yourself at times like this" I told myself, in and out of cloud and rain over Malawi at night in a single engine aircraft. Perhaps owing to my instructing background, I found that pattering myself helped keep me focused. Passing my nineth hour in the air for the day, I was well aware that fatigue was something to be mindful of. Realising the less-than-ideal situation I was sitting in, my mind wondered back to how I ended up here over Africa in the dark in mid-December.

About a month prior, I had returned a missed call to an unknown number; unusual for me but as it had tried 3 times to reach me, I guessed it was worth ringing back. The reason for the call became obvious. "Derek, remember when you dropped past our hangar in Nelspruit 3 months ago and casually asked about the yellow bush plane in the corner? How would you like to fly it to Kenya?"

Having spent weeks in a Cherokee doing circuits with students, the chance to do some real flying was quite appealing. "gimme 5 minutes," I said (this was more to not sound too excited and play it cool than anything). I called back 4 minutes later and said "sure, I'm keen. Send me the details."

Early December saw me return to Nelspruit in order to do the conversion-to-type and ferry her across to my hangar at FAVV in order to give her a once over and get her ready for the trip. A thorough morning with John Herbert on the lady, and I was rated and, on my way, back to Vereeniging.

The aircraft in question is a Dream Aircraft Tundra. A Canadian Kitplane with only this particular example flying in the country. This one being a bright yellow taildragger. Up front, she had a 3-blade variable pitch prop attached to a nice Lycoming IO360. The aircraft has some pretty aggressive manual flaps for short field ops. For cruise, the flaps can be raised into a 5 degree "reflex" state. All in all, this gives the plane a very modest cruise speed of 105 KTAS. So, this certainly was not going to be a quick ferry.

I found the plane to be docile overall and with no nasty traits, although, the spring steel main gear didn't make for prize winning "greasers" for most of my landings.

Planning for the trip was somewhat less hassle than I thought. Based on advice from people who had flown that way, I determined the route and was expecting to do it over a period of 3 days. White Rose was the agency used to assist with all my permits and I found them particularly efficient: - they got the permits without much fuss at all. I packed a few Jeppesen approach and airport charts, a few maps and my iPad with Foreflight on it. This with the EFIS should be more than sufficient.

Day 1 Vereeniging to Lilongwe
December 17th 2020 saw me starting up just after dawn at Vereeniging, South Africa. Aircraft loaded with four spare jerry cans of fuel, countless bottles of Energade and protein bars - my staple diet for most of the next few days.

Route for Day 1 was Vereeniging to Kruger for fuel, customs etc and departing Kruger to Buffalo Range in Zimbabwe for more fuel . Next was Lilongwe, Malawi to clear customs and fuel and then final night stop at Club Mak on Lake Malawi.

Right off the bat the weather was playing games, that I would learn would last until top of decent into Kenya. Although not too bad, I did do some bobbing and weaving to try and remain VFR until safely landing at Kruger International Airport. The staff there were quite friendly and helpful, well until the SARS officials decided that everything from my style of handwriting, to the wording of documents was an issue. After some chatting and to-and-fro, it was deemed that I was actually allowed to fly the plane and everything was in order. Departing, now a good hour behind schedule, I got airborne out of Kruger and headed onwards to Africa.

An hour out of Kruger I encountered cloud. A lot of cloud. Working on the principles of "no pilot has collided with the sky" I opted to climb. And climb I did. All the way to Fl115. In this heavily laden bush plane, it took a considerable amount of time. Punching in and out of gaps in the cloud, I continued onwards and upwards. Staring at the EFIS for a full hour and half flying instruments as best I could to make sure I do not end up a statistic.

Instrument flying at the best of times is taxing and hard work, but when you use what I can only describe as the worst electronic EFIS imaginable it becomes even more so. The delays in processing of attitude changes onto the EFIS made things VERY interesting. You would make a change and 10 seconds later it would register the change. The "synthetic vision" ground overlay behind it also changed at a different rate to what the actual instrument did, which took quite some getting used to, to avoid vertigo and disorientation. Finally, the cloud thinned out and the weather improved into Zimbabwe with a relatively uneventful approach and landing into Buffalo Range.

Buffalo was a nice runway, South of Harare, with fuel and ATC, but most importantly, a toilet! Expecting all sorts of trouble with the security and apron people, I got out of the aircraft and waited to see if my spine was still able to return to its once straight shape. I pondered how long bureaucracy would delay my departure for the next leg.

It is at this point that I realised my perceptions of African Airports may be somewhat skewed. The Zimbabwean airport staff were most helpful and friendly and did everything they could to get me on my way soon. There was a lot of cloud building and they suggested I leave as soon as possible. A quick trip to chat to ATC, get flight plans sorted and I was back in the plane taxiing out. Upon lining up, the storm I had been racing to beat caught me and dumped rain on the field such that I sat on the runway unable to see to taxi back, and unable to depart. 10 minutes passed, then ATC said I could go for it in a short break in the rain. Throttle forward, tail up and an early turn to avoid the next cell. I was on my way. The next 3 minutes was left, right, up and down around patches of cloud, downpours of rain and some real nasty looking cumulonimbus clouds. Rounding one particularly large cell did provide some lovely views of rainbows and a nice African backdrop. I was starting to relax into my journey and appreciate the adventure.

Flying lower on this part of the leg, I looked at the interesting hill and rock formations of Zimbabwe and pondered what the locals were doing on a Thursday afternoon as I flew overhead in my little plane. Many of them came out of huts to wave me on my way.

My joy started to fade somewhat as I started doing the calculations and time checks. Time waits for no man, and I was no exception. All the delays now meant daylight was unlikely to last as long as I would need it to. Club Mak had no night facilities and Lilongwe did not allow VFR after sunset. As our ol' friend Murphy would have it, I also now had a 10-knot headwind and more weather on the horizon.

The Tundra has a 6 hour no-reserve endurance. Based on my fuel burn and calculations, I would arrive at Lilongwe at 5 hours 10 minutes -pretty darn close to a fuel crisis. The other problem was my ETA put me at 20:45 local - well past sunset and airport closing time. Decision time.

Harare was behind me; also, a night landing by the time I got there but at least open. Imagining the permit changes, delays and additional costs, and thinking back to the weather I had just worked my way around, I opted to continue. I would sleep in the plane if had to. At least it was closer to my destination. So, lights on, mixture lean as much as I dare, settle in and go for it.

Africa is dark at night… Africa at night with weather; even worse.

After what I thought was a rather breath-taking sunset under my left wing, the weather decided to once again rear its head. Thankfully, nothing hugely convective, but some cumulus and light rain made for interesting flying. All my effort was now focused on staving off fatigue and keeping the plane on even keel in the pitch darkness.

Crossing into Malawi, still essentially flying instruments, I radio'd Lilongwe tongue-in-cheek as I assumed that they would/should be closed by now. Would I be landing at a closed aerodrome without runway lights? What sort of drama was ahead? But then again, given the fact that fuel would be near minimum and I was fighting weather, I would be happy to land anywhere to be honest.

Pressing the PTT I gave my best Top Gun style voice and fire off a request "Lilongwe ZU-MUD , Tundra with you to land" or something along those lines that sounded particularly American and cheesy.

Looking at the fuel and time to run, tanks dry in about an hour and I still had 10 minutes to run. Nothing visual outside the window; Great, this will be a dodge landing of note!

A small prayer along the lines of "Please let me not drill a hole in Africa today".

Just then the radio crackles to life "Last caller say again".

"Lilongwe ZU MUD is a Tundra 10 minutes out, your joining and landing please". I basically blurted the call back to them in my haste and surprise at my luck.

I advised them I had filed VFR, and after a small chewing out from them, they advised me to route inbound and I was cleared to the base leg. The fact that I had IFR plates and was able to route to the fixes did help my cause.

Turns out a corporate charter had run into weather (the weather I was stuck in earlier that day) and diverted to Lilongwe, so the tower had stayed open and was waiting for them to land. It seemed I was not going to "drill a hole in Africa today" after all. Prayers answered, I thought.

After a less than graceful arrival, I taxied onto a deserted main apron. Not a plane or sign of life. I tumbled out of the aircraft and was happy that it was done. Doing the flight folio revealed 10 hours flying since I left FAVV.

A car arrived with an apron manager, McLeod, was how he introduced himself. Owing to my fiasco and late arrival, I was once again wondering what was instore for me. Yet again, I was shocked. This man was the friendliest human I have ever met. He sorted out customs for me (even though it was after his shift), got a taxi driver that he said could be trusted and took me to a nearby lodge. As I had no arrangements at Lilongwe, I was quite happy for the help. He assisted with my departure the next day as well. I owe him a lot for that night, but he didn't ask for a cent.

Day 2 Lilongwe to Dodoma
Not the greatest start, suffering from dehydration from the previous day, I was feeling less than enthusiastic for the 5-hour leg ahead of me. I vowed I would hydrate properly today, even if it meant doing unspeakable things into an empty bottle during the flight.

The routing for the day would be relatively easy, just one long leg from Lilongwe to Dodoma, Tanzania. Of course, the trick here is it would take me up the length of Lake Malawi and again had me close to limits with regards to fuel if I had weather. McLeod sped me through the airport paperwork and soon had me on the apron prepping my machine. Getting airborne, I steered the yellow peril out towards the lake. Within 5 minutes I was weaving and bobbing around rapidly building clouds. The speed at which weather can build as you get towards the equator is quite impressive, although more alarming than impressive when you are alone in an aluminium kit plane.

Soon, I was passing the shores of the lake and on my merry way. Merry perhaps not the best word. The lake is big. Very BIG! I would have preferred to route along the shore and then cut across at the shortest point, but this posed a significant fuel problem, as even a 10-minute increase in the leg put me too close to reserve. I had the 4 jerry cans filled and was ready to land on a road or field if I absolutely had to make it, but would prefer not to. Direct to destination was best, so I would fly almost along the middle of the lake from bottom to top.

I climbed to FL075 and leaned the plane out. Changed my tank and flew on. Once in the middle of the lake, I started to realise just how rough a Lycoming can run. I am pretty sure I felt every vibration that plane made for that hour and a bit. Thirty minutes in and time to change tanks. Not a chance! We will fly another 30. Tank changes seemed risky when I looked at all that water underneath. Eventually the shores appeared on the horizon. The shores and some weather again. Darn, this weather was getting to be a pain. Well, at least the lake was behind me. Almost as if fate wanted to just spice up the flight, at that point, my eyes caught a flashing red item on the EFIS. Red is never good.

Oil pressure shooting up at an alarming rate. Huh? Engine seems fine. Oil leak of some sort would cause the pressure to drop? A blockage somewhere perhaps?

Fuel flow shooting up to 50l an hour. Two warnings now. I was simultaneously fault finding and wondering if Lake Malawi had Crocodiles in it. More flashing and the engine parameters turned off completely. The plane soldiered on and the Lycoming purred as before (actually felt a little smoother than over the lake).

EFIS failure. Brilliant! No swimming for now at least, but a pain in managing the flight. Rebooting a few times got the primary display back but I had no fuel flow or temps for the remainder of the day. A lot more weaving in and out of rain was the order of the day. Three hours in and I worked out Dodoma would be doable, with an hour reserve and I would make it well before sundown.

Arriving late Friday afternoon in Dodoma, I got a friendly welcome from ATC and shut down next to a 206 at the fuel bay where the happy pilot wanted to chat about the bush plane from South Africa. The customs and apron staff came out to meet me and were once again very friendly, with the former offering me a ride with him to my hotel as it was on his way.

A night at the not-so-new 'New Dodoma Hotel' and I was ready to take to the home stretch.

Day 3 Dodoma to Nairobi Wilson Airport
Arriving at the airport, I was probably a good kilogram or two lighter than before thanks to the amount of fluid drained from me by the savage mosquitos during the night.

Fuel and customs done; I was about to leave when the Tanzanian CAA stated I had yet to pay the US$250 for navigation fees. After trying to explain that I believed the clearing company arranged it, I gave it up as a lost cause and caught a taxi to town to withdraw the cash, taking off an hour later again as a result. The night rest had done wonders for the EFIS, as well as parameters worked as expected for the rest of the trip.

Weather was better and I was quite excited about finishing the journey, although a little anxious as I had heard Wilson airport was extremely busy and the ATC could be a pain. Anyway, I was sure I would be fine.

The last day held major adventures, but a near pass to Mount Arusha and seeing Kilimanjaro on the Horizon proved to be highlights.

Into Kenya I contacted Wilson, again trying to sound as Top Gun as possible, I was cleared to Wilson. The toughest part of the whole ATC with Wilson was trying to explain what a Tundra aircraft was.

Thinking that the new owner of the aircraft may be watching, I used every ounce of focus I could muster to ensure that this last landing was a "greaser". The effort paid off with a perfect "wheeler" landing and a nice, controlled lowering of the tail straight on centreline (albeit well past the start of the runway). A nice way to end off the adventure. A little bit of attitude from customs, but overall quick and easy and then a taxi across the airport to her new owner.

The owner who wanted to, understandably, do a circuit with me immediately in his new toy, but was denied the opportunity thanks to Kenyan CAA paperwork (a little to my relief).

Three days and twenty hours of flying later, I unloaded my luggage and some suspicious looking bottles of "Energade", cleaned up the machine and secured it. My time with the Dream Tundra was done.

A very comfortable night stay at the Aero club accommodation at Wilson and I was on the way back with the airline the following day. Staring out the windows on the return leg, I could spot many of the areas I had been over albeit a lot lower down and actually in the clouds we were now soaring over. I thought "this is way easier, but a heck of a lot less of an adventure."

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