This was it: my first charter flight as a commercial pilot on my ace with two victims, I mean passengers, from New Zealand. Typically for the end of August in Jozi, the sun was shining, it was slightly windy and hazy, and we would have a bumpy ride until we got over the reddish inversion layer.
File photo. Not the culprit aircraft
The take-off was unspectacular and with the two pac firmly placed in the last two seats of my Piper Seneca III, a turbo charged, nifty, somewhat bitchy six-seater with two counter rotating props, I thought happily of the long flight ahead.
Late August the first rains hadn't set in yet, the earth was scorched by a long and typically dry winter. Looking down on the grey and beige nature after leaving Gauteng behind, I thought: "This is going to be a looooong day." Looking back, I had no idea just how long, otherwise I could have complained more in my head, a favourite past-time of pilots. In fact, moaning and groaning endlessly is a big part of who we are, I don't trust non-complaining pilots. We are a confused bunch who talk of nothing else but aircraft and aviation when we're on the ground, but after reaching at least 10,000 feet, the recommended minimum height for a sterile cockpit, we talk mostly about members of the opposite sex whilst flying.
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Upon reaching cruise altitude I looked back and shouted at the passengers as loud as I could: "All okay?" trying to elicit a favourable response by holding up my thumb. Yep! Under the blankets flowing over the blue fabric seats, two hands shot up with the thumbs up and then quickly went back under cover. It was actually dam cold. Having leaned the mixture to an efficient 86 litres per hour, and settled on 31 inches of manifold at 2,500 Revs per minute on the props, I switched on the 3-axis autopilot. This little aircraft had no heater and worse: no aircon and no pressurisation. That was another thing: my fuel planning was such that we could stay at approx. 8,000' without wasting too much fuel or loosing too much speed and still safely reach our destination with favourable winds. Or that was the plan, anyway. When passengers are from coastal regions or live at low altitude, I never go over 8,000' altitude if terrain and routing permit, because that would lead to them getting headaches and they get overly tired for up to two days due to oxygen starvation. Hypoxia is worse for people who come from low lying areas because they just don't have enough red blood cells to make up for the low pressure of the air which means they don't transfer enough oxygen into their lungs with every breath. Acclimatisation happens within a few days though, and after that we travel at 10,000' to 12,000' for no longer than 2 hours of the flight, as per aviation law. These two Kiwi were from the bay of Islands or something like that.
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I could hear the ice of the cooler box being shuffled around over the rhythmic noise of the humming engines. This normally never happens on such a long flight so soon after take-off. The pax in the wheelchair was helping himself to some water and juice. He was lucky because he could pee in a bag at any time. His wife and I would have to wait. I had once weed into a bag on a ferry flight and realised half way through the pee, that 4 coffees and a bottle of water won't fit into the bag. Jinne, that was the biggest knyp of my life, but I managed to stop the flow just in time…haha, thank goodness I was alone at about 7,000' between Bloemfontein and Kimberly. A female pax once had to wee into a checkers plastic bag on a flight from Lanseria to Bloemies, due to terrible headwind, the little Cessna 172 just couldn't win. She had to pull down her pants in front of her business colleague. Dear God I felt sorry fer her.
Not as sorry as for the beautiful blonde bombshell that a colleague of mine flew from Lanseria to Slaapstad. He made sure to look strong whilst handling the luggage and kept his chest out and bum tight and was generally uber friendly, which is quite against his normal demeanour. The pax had brought their own pizzas in boxes and had declined the expensive catering normally associated with charter flights. About half way into the flight Captain Nielsie gets a tick tick tick with a pointed index finger on his shoulder from the back.
"Ja, boet, sorry, but the lady needs the loo urgently, some topping on the pizza was off."
"We've just passed Bloem, I could turn around and we could land there in about twenty minutes, no problem. This will delay our arrival in Capetown by at least one hour, though."
In that moment the most godawful smell permeates the aircraft and is so pungent that it seems to come from inside one's own nose. The Captain and the oke turn around and see the blonde doing a number two into one of the pizza boxes in the back of the little jet in the row between the beige leather seats. Her mom is handing her some Kleenex Tissues.
"Listen, so now we can just carry on according to flight plan, hey? I mean the worst has happened already, so…"
"Ja. Dis bad. Jaaa. Just carry on. Sorry man. Jinne!"
Needless to say, he could not look into her eyes upon arrival in Cape Town. She didn't seem particularly sexy anymore then.
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Gosh, wasn't this typical. While listening to the engines humming and monitoring the instruments and gauges, the mind wanders to all sorts of places and memories. After thinking of the Pizza it was time for breakfast though.
Chicken Mayo Sandwiches and Cheese and Jam on Brown. Lekker. With it a flask of coffee, I can hold it in for 6 hours. Tried and tested…
We had passed the main alternate airport to our left: Francistown in Botswana. Popular place with the pilots because they always have AVGAS and the paying of landing fees and pax tax was computerised and quick. The Chinese had just built this massive terminal and already the doors for international arrivals weren't working a week later. They had also built the new soccer stadium visible from the field which was out for tender for demolition, as it was regarded as unsafe. Since no extra passengers were recorded since the renovations, the little shops inside were closed and it was a typical African-Chinese collaboration story that had benefited only the select few during construction.
Flying over the vast and empty landscape was the adventurous part of the flight. All the old maps of the pre-independence times were highly unreliable as most of the old little airfields of previous towns and farm dirt strips were overgrown or used as Millie patches by self-subsistence farmers. I loved the immense nothingness that one flies over in many parts of Africa. Especially the national parks and other wildlife areas. Makes one feel small and unimportant.
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The winter heat warmed up our little aircraft and pretty soon it was time to initiate the bumpy and gusty descent. I was quite ecstatic to actually hear a voice in the tower at Kariba and being told that yes, the pre-arranged fuel was indeed still available. That last info made my heart jump for joy. After many hours of sitting and monitoring and hearing almost no one else on frequency, I told myself to get myself together for the approach and landing. I circled the128m high, double arched Kariba Dam wall that held the water for the 663,000 square km catchment area.
The Runway is aligned exactly East / West and at an elevation of 1,706 feet and 1,650m in length and tarred, it was twice as long as needed, especially since we had burned a lot of fuel. The wind favoured the westerly direction runway and I set myself up for an easy left downwind and checked first stage of flaps plus gear down. Pax looked quite relaxed and they still had their seatbelts on. On base I set 25 degrees flaps and kept turning onto final approach for landing, handling the gusts and the windy turmoil. The deep voice in the tower gave me landing clearance and instead of gently gliding onto the tarmac, as per usual, we slammed the Earth so hard that the aircraft bounced back into the air quite high and I immediately added power to 35 inches manifold in order get away from the ground pronto and set flaps up in stages for a go around and tried again. What the eff just happened??? Told tower: "ZS-… Going Around."
Shouted to the pax in the back: "We're going around and we'll try that again!"
Their shocked recently paled white faces stared back at me in silence. I hope they still had all their teeth fillings after that non-landing. Gosh I felt bad for them, I mean the oke was in a wheel chair already and here I was messing about.
So, I set myself up again and aligned the aircraft on final approach 27. One needs to keep things a bit tight in the turn there due to a koppie on the extended centre line and this time I double checked everything. Therefore, when I again set flaps stage two, this time I quickly realised the culprit for the completely effed up landing, the flaps setting had rolled through to 40 degrees on its own. Full flaps on the Seneca gives it quite a low nose attitude, which immediately explained the hard three pointer previously. At full flaps one needs to hold the nose up with a bit more back force on the stick and more trim! So, I pulled the flap lever back up and checked the setting to the left at 25 degrees, as needed in this particular aircraft. Relieved to have found the culprit, I landed as gently as in butter without landing clearance, as the tower had stopped talking to me since the hard landing. Maybe he was arranging an ambulance and a fire brigade, or calling his mates to come watch, in case the next landing really ended up in a proper crash.
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I opened the rear door and the Kiwis came out of the aircraft in relative silence. They each lit a cigarette with shaky hands right there on the apron and after a few deep drags asked: "So, ahem, how long is the drive to the camp? You know, just as a general info." These poor people were regretting having booked a two-week safari with chartered aircraft and single pilot at their disposal, for sure. I looked at them both and said: "I'll phone the lodge and find out. Trust me, if I were you, I wouldn't want to fly with me anymore either!"
"Come into the shade of the terminal building and I'll call their offices to find out. I'll quickly run up to the tower as well and pay fees and taxes." I gave the lady a toilet roll in case there was no paper in the terminal and jogged up the stairs of the tower.
"Howzit!" I said to the tall Shona sweating in his tower office with a spectacular view over the runway and the vast darkish waters of the famous Kariba Lake beyond. "I'll only pay for one landing, hey? Not two!" I grinned at him trying to make a joke.
"That's ok. Fill this out and what is the maximum take-off weight for your Aircraft and type?"
"2,155Kg, PA 34-200T and I have two passengers only."
After everything was duly noted in his very neat and legible hand writing, Dollars were given and of course no change available. To make conversation, while he was writing, I asked: "So listen, the landing… I mean how bad was it? Ever seen anything like it?"
He stopped writing, looked up at me sideways from his desk and very seriously and earnestly said: "I will pray for you!" and returned to filling out the forms.
"Gee Whiskers." I thought. "That's bad. Eish!"
"Oh, and another thing." I had to clarify this. "Did you no longer hear my transmissions after the go-around? Because I could no longer copy any instructions but I could hear myself talk in the headset."
"Yes." He said. "I could no longer hear your transmissions after the bounce."
Now I had a real problem. "Maybe some of the cables came loose due to the impact." I thought aloud. "Ok so are you expecting any other traffic today?"
"Ok, cool. Then please just give me take off clearance etc for Mana Pools East and I've got a handheld for emergencies which I'll use for landing that side, in case I hear any other traffic. I'll try and figure out the problem once we get to the camp."
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Once back on the grass behind the tower I snuck in a little stressed ciggie, myself. "No comms for the next few weeks in Zim and Bots is probably no problem but getting back into SA airspace will be a challenge!" I thought to myself as I sucked the ciggie finished in two drags. "Hopefully the blerrie handheld works well enough!" I thought. I had charged the thing just in case, had tested it once two years ago in the air, but had never actually needed it before.
"Oh well, let's do it, Murphy's stinking law on my first solo charter." I talked some courage into my heart, as I dialled the lodge's offices to find out how long the drive to the camp was.
"About a day or two at this stage, the roads are dry but in a very bad condition. Why are you asking?"
"Just out of interest, nothing in particular. Also just wanted to check there'll be a vehicle waiting for us at the strip and I'm busy with refuelling and expected time of arrival unchanged in about an hour."
"Great stuff. Everything is organised. Your guide Livingston is already waiting for you at the strip with the Landy and I am sure he's chasing the game off the strip even as we speak."
Refuelling done and dusted I went to fetch the pax and told them that driving was no option: "So sorry for that. On the upside, its only half an hour's flight and then we're there. I know what the problem was with the landing and it won't happen again. And the scenery coming in over the Zambezi River is absolutely stunning. You've never seen so many hippos or big crocs in your entire life!"
They looked at each other and the lady said: "Ok. We trust you. You've got two children…No worries, ey?"
Two very brave Kiwis. I must say. I noticed that the toilet roll had a lot less paper squares on it. A lot less…Jokes.
The next landing was silky smooth, as per usual. Thank God. As were the rest of the landings for the entire trip and for the rest of my flying career thus far. By the way, the faulty comms was a problem for another day.
Lying in bed that night listening to one or two bell frogs ringing, the crickets chirping and the hippos laughingly grunting, I was in awe of what aircraft undercarriages can handle. The only other time in my entire career where I had bounced an aircraft was on my first solo cross country on a hot and high airfield many moons ago. At least then I was alone and only some idiot with a handheld radio mentioned on frequency, for everyone to hear: "well recovered student pilot!"