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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Don't chat at airports!

'Some fact, some fiction, some copyright, some left, depends on how much tea I've had'

Flight Log Friday the 9th October 2009.

Kigoma, Tanzania

I have now wallowed in Central East Africa for over 2 years. I landed in Kigoma on the 1st August 2007 and, totally delighted by the languid mix of Lake, centuries old lack of real economic development and abject cleanliness, I hunkered down for a few weeks till my dollars ran dry. And run dry they did, while I wallowed in the ultimate lakeside pool with a view at Kigoma Kambas.

By early September, Ida had then been in Nairobi fo r 10 months and home cooking and the cats beckoned, so I took the Great North Road back up to Kenya.Whilst finding suitable storage hangering for Daxi proved a challenge, the characters I met in the process made it all worth while. I also absorbed a huge amount of local history. After all, it was near here that Henry Stanley met David Livingstone in 1871 and the immortal line "Dr Livingstone, I presume" was uttered.
Kigoma is the poorest region in Tanzania, with a per capita annual income of US$ 210, and the population growth rate is the country's highest..Except for rapid population growth, some aspects of village life in Kigoma have changed little.
Being close to the Rwanda/Burundi area it has also inherited up to half a million refugees many of whom have remained. Walking around the town, however, belies this particular history. The Rwandan genocide may have devastated the lives of many many lakeside people but today, it is no more than a distant memory. In Rwanda, life is better than ever and an uncanny sense of peace and prosperity reigns. There are lots of reminders though in the way of concrete memorials that dot the main cities and towns but healing in the minds and hearts of the people has taken a strong path in the receding years. Much of the last 2 years can be seen in my website and the rest on this blog.

I got back to Kigoma with 2 days to liberate Daxi and do all the necessary paperwork. Not being akin to bribery (the norm here too) things take a lot of South African charm to get done.
But finally I was up and away, heading for the much talked of Kasaba Bay, about an hour and a half's flight down the other side of Lake Tanganyika....or so I thought. Sitting at the airport having a last cuppa Tanzan tea I got into a chat with a delightful septuagenarian, one Peter Hazelhurst.
It turns out he flew as a navigator in DC3s based at Mwanza in the 50s. With a cheeky grin coming from having survived life's adventures by the skin of his teeth, Peter recounted how the goonybird had in fact saved his life. "The plane stalled and we would have crashed but for sliding off the side of a mountain and regaining enough airspeed to get aloft again."
But the tales of flight didn't end there. It turns out, after my 4th cup of tea, that Peter did the first wingsuit jumps in South Africa in 1958. This was reported in the Sunday Times of 9 February 1958. He was 21 years old at the time and had only 33 normal parachute jumps. Today you are required to have 500 jumps before being allowed to try out a wingsuit. He kept this extreme experiment secret. In 1955 a French man by the name of Leo Valentin died in front of 10 000 spectators while demonstrating his wingsuit in the UK. A humble Peter Hazelhurst did not want to subject another crowd to the possibility of the same fate.

Peter told me he did three jumps over Grand Central from 5 000ft AGL and that on his 3rd and most successful jump he managed 15 seconds of fl ying time before opening his parachute. In 1958 he told the Sunday Times in an interview that he had a hard time controlling the suit made from canvas, but he could make small turns by shifting his weight around inside the suit. After the article in the Sunday Times, he told us that CAA stopped this nonsense as the CAA saw it as far too dangerous an activity.

One thing led to the next and I only got airborne by 15h30 local time, and believing that I had enough daylight for a 1 and a half hour flight I headed off, totally inspired by Peter and singing softly to myself.."Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and ....."

Climbing to 11000ft was slower than expected and by the time I was still 20 min from Kasaba Bay the sun was already searing orange through my right side window. I immediately opted for a precuationary landing which in itself would be in low light. As I descended in a too rapid slip turn I wondered how on earth I had managed to get myself in this precarious situation. Not once on the entire trip had I faced this level of flying risk, and through my own laxness!

But the flying gods were with me and I found, almost glowing in the dusk a piece of sloping but clear dusty terrain and with a wobble of the wheels and my heart, I got her down, for a night in the tin can, in the bush.

FLight Log 10th October 2009

Up at daybreak to check for obstructions and any damage and to ensure I could use the cool morning air for a minimal ground run liftoff.
As it happened, I had landed on a slope, which though precarious for last night, could be used to my advantage on my departure.
A thorough system check revealed that no damage seemed to have been sustained the previous night. With some considerable finesse, if that can be said of turning a 2 ton tail dragger, I manoevered Daxi to face the short downhill slope into the morning darkness. I strolled ahead looking for anthills and other latter day landmines and waited for the dawn. Oh, for a cup of tea now, but I had not expected to be camping in the bush so...another reminder of what to pack next time.

Then, sun up to give me sharp shadows to navigate my liftoff, I slowly throttled up and with the stick fully back I trundled down the hill. It seemed almost instantaneous, the takeoff, almost taking me by surprize. But the real surprize came when I tried to lift the gear and flaps. Nothing happened! There was only one alternative now - head for Kasaba Bay with what I had under me...a DC3 in full landing trim with a mystery fault. I was reminded of Amelia Earhart's last fateful flight where only on the shaky black and white film of her takeoff do we see the aerial wire being ripped off from the belly of the plane. Did my new problem happen on departure? I would never know. Now I needed to nurse Daxi southwards at 80knots with the engines overworked.

I could not afford to subject the plane to such continuous stress, but needed to keep going, so I used my time to recheck all systems. Finally I after resetting the electrical fuses I managed to breathe new life into the undercarriage and with an almighty heave and shudder, the copious wheels lifted up into her belly, shortly followed by the welcome squeel of flaps up.
Was it home James now....surely my trials were over. I gradually dropped to 2000ft above the water which itself is 2700ft above sea level. Gliding happily now over Lake Tanganyika I suddenly was filled with a feeling of being well between the heavens and the deep. This after all is the deepest fresh water reserve on the planet (almost 1.5 km deep) and holds some 1 sixth of all the fresh water on Earth.
I radioed in and got permission to land on RW24. This was the safer approach, being from the water side. The other side was rising ground and I was not keen to risk a fault creeping up on me.
Coming in with full flaps and slowly I nursed Daxi towards the well defined but short airstrip. The wheels going down seemed a little different this morning, but I was now quite tired and anxious to get back to terra firma.
It was wise to have made a really slow and low approach. The wheels had only partly emerged and when I landed they held me for just long enough to slow down to 20kts then collapsed back up into the plane's belly. I ground to a sickening halt, surprizingly smoothly if I may say so myself.
Now I just had the embarrasment of climbing out of a rather low DC3 and greeting the tourists who were now clearly going to reassess their confidence in flight!

Tomorrow is another day. I guess I am doomed to be a lake dweller fo another few months.......unless Insurair has an agent and large bank account here!

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