It is extremely hot, we have been flying for 1,5 hours. I already made five touch and go’s, at five different airfields. I just came from Rooiberg, a private grass strip. It has power lines at the end of the runway, over which the aircraft could only barely climb in the current density altitude. Rundu Bundu, the next field, gets visible. I descent to 200ft AGL to make a runway inspection. Out loud: ‘The approach is free of obstacles, it’s a gravel strip, I don’t see any potholes, just some giraffes on the runway… ehr what?!’ I continue the low pass, descent a bit lower, but the giraffes don’t move an inch. They just stare at the brightly coloured Cessna 172 that approaches them. This is Africa!
Curiosity regarding bush flying, vague plans to travel to Africa as a low-timer, and hunger for new skills and flight experience outside of Dutch airspace got me in South Africa. I am ready for a week full of adventure at Sky Africa. Sky Africa is situated at Brakpan airport (FABB) since 1981, at half an hour drive east of Johannesburg International Airport. The team is specialized in bush pilot training courses. It is also possible to build some flight hours, affordable and in a fantastic environment. Frequently pilots from Lufthansa, TAP and Qantas come to Brakpan during their layover, to rent an airplane and make a nice bush trip.
Back to basics
The first two days of the course consist of the ‘foreign license validation.’ I meet my instructor Glen, an ex-airforce pilot with thousands of hours of experience flying at the South African bush. The program starts with several briefings: the rules of the Johannesburg TMA, high altitude operations and precautionary landings. When Glen concludes that my theoretical knowledge is sufficient, I am allowed to start preparing my first flight in the African airspace. It is back to basics: no GPS, no assistance of VOR radials or other navaids, but purely the map, pilotage and dead reckoning. With the map spread out on the table I juggle with my calculating disc and plot the route. We will fly for 2,5 hours and visit several landing strips. I force myself to remember all landmarks for my cross country check tomorrow, where I also have to make a diversion.
Racetrack or runway?
Upon arriving at the airfield the next morning, I understand the presence of several dixi-toilets right next to the Brakpan runway: it is time for the monthly car-race. When there is air traffic, the race gets temporarily suspended. Peculiar, but for the flying club it is a good source of income. In the clubhouse I take the mandatory Air Law exam, and prepare for the check flight. Unfortunately the wind picks up, and is out of limits to use runway 18-36. However, there is also a grass strip at Brakpan, direction 03-21, that has not been used for ages. In fact this strip is not even included in Brakpans Airfield Information. Is it an option to use the strip? I jump into an open truck with my examinator, and we drive over the grass strip to inspect it. The grass is of medium length, and there are not too many humps and potholes. Runway 21 it is, let’s go!
This illustrates the mentality of the pilots at Sky Africa. The grass strip is very short, the only way to take-off is by early rotation, taking flaps, and building speed in ground effect. So there we go. Next to the normal parts of a CPL check, I also have to show a spin and spiral dive recovery, and pass for ‘low flying’. I have to fly at less than 50ft AGL, soaring over the fields with a high power setting and the nose trimmed up. Love it, where else would this have been possible?! I am satisfied, and so is the examinator. There are no rules ‘from throttle to bottle’, so when we return at Brakpan he pours me a nice glass of ‘Suid-Afrikaanse’ wine. I can now operate as PIC on any South African registered single-engine piston.
Now the adventure truly takes off. My instructor knows the nicest landing strips, with the most wonderful names: Klipriver, Zebra, Driefontein, Bierman Estate… every few minutes I make a touch and go at a new strip, always preceded by an accurate runway inspection. It is important to notice obstacles in the climb direction, at the end of the runway. This is of more importance than I initially realized: because of the heat and the high elevation there is hardly any climb performance. On full power we hardly exceed a 200 ft per minute climb rate. I practice several techniques: short-field take-offs and landings, different slopes, softfield- and crosswindlandings. It is an intensive way of flying, and I can quickly log 50 landings. I experience a lot of fun and freedom while flying, and increase my self-confidence. Here you learn to fully control your airplane, to learn its limits and work with them.
The last night of the course we land at Kunkuru; a beautiful lodge in the middle of the bush. We will stay for the night. Approaching Kunkuru we announce our arrival. The rangers assure that the runway is free of wild animals. This is no luxury: earlier that day I almost filetted a springbuck with my propeller. Despite an extensive runway inspection, the springbuck jumped onto the strip immediately after my touch and go, while I was climbing out. In this way the course teaches me the specific skills required for bush flying. I also learn several facts about survival, wildlife, and technical maintenance; every bush pilot should for instance be able to change a V-belt, in case he gets stranded somewhere.
The week passes by so fast. The moment arrives of my last full stop landing at Brakpan. Through my headset I hear Glens voice: ‘Now that was beautiful darling.’ And that is exactly my thought: what an amazing experience!
Bush pilot course information:
My bush flying course took place at Sky Africa. They offer standard programs on a C-150, C-172 C-182 or a Piper Cherokee. In consultation you can also create your own program, to your personal needs and budget. I chose for more flight hours, and a less luxurious stay. Besides Sky Africa there are many other schools and flying clubs that offer bush pilot courses.
A foreign license validation maintains valid for 60 months, or until your own license expires. The validation consists of a written Air Law exam, a general flight check with an instructor, and a cross country navigation flight with an examinor. This check is approximately equal to a CPL exam. If you are not completely current, it is recommended to have a check-out flight first. Finally you can shorten the time for paperwork, by sending all documents in advance. That way your license will be ready when you arrive in Africa.
Earlier I wrote and published this article in Dutch, it was printed in a Dutch aviation magazine. The article inspired some pilots (low-timers and airline captains) to contact me. Some decided to take a bush flying course themselves! I figured that it would be worth translating my article, and to publish it on my website. Perhaps, more people get inspired to have a bush pilot experience. If you do, please let me know? Finally I would like to share this Youtube video, which completely inspired ME back in 2012 to research about bush flying and take the course 🙂 :
I definitely feel inspired after reading this, not just to get into bush flying, but to also get out there, and live a full and rich life. I feel the richness in yours after reading this experience. I intend to live the same way as well.
What a wonderful experience you must have had Eva with the bush flying. Definitely having your runway “occupied” by giraffe is not something common but I am sure it was a wonderful adventure.
I was also impressed to find out that the bush flying is so “raw”, without GPS, assistance of VOR radials or other navaids. It is like at the beginning of the aviation, using only the map, pilotage and dead reckoning.
It must be pretty visceral to consult only the map and computing using only the calculating disc in order to figure out the root.
Being used to all sort of technological advanced navaids, it must be pretty hard to remember all landmarks for the cross check.
I enjoy reading your blog very much!