Mountain Flying in Kenya

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If you ever have the time and money and find yourself abroad without anything to do, why don’t you get an airplane check ride and tour the area in style? Back in 2002, my ESL school had just gone bankrupt and I was out of a job so I skedaddled off to Kenya to visit my sister.

Of course you probably have a few questions already such as visas, prophylactic medication for malaria and yellow fever etc, but since I want to keep this short, I’ll cut out some of the more mundane aspects of my adventures and cut to the chase. 

When I had properly settled in at my sister’s beautiful home in Nairobi (some call it Nai-robbery), I began to enquire about flight training. That search led me to the Wilson Airport. A few details about Wilson Airport: It is a class D airport and control zone.  Its elevation is 5600 feet, and at an average day time temperature of 25 degrees Celsius that equals a DA of 8000 feet!  It has two paved runways, the longest one being north-south and the shorter one running east-west. For some reason the north-south runway, being the longer of the two and the closest to the GA ramp, was hardly used. It may have had to do with the fact that just south of the airport was Nairobi National Park. Can you imagine the pre-take off briefing? “In the event of an engine failure and airborne just after take off with insufficient runway remaining I will maintain control and avoid obstacles, packs of hyenas, prides of lions, and any other wild animals by making gentle turns. And by the way, I (the captain) will be the last to leave the airplane with the hopes that all carnivores waiting outside the wrecked fuselage will have dined sufficiently well prior to my egress.” 

All joking aside, this was an airport that had seen an accident or two. Just take a walk through their airplane junkyard right next to the flight school. We spent the afternoon entering aircraft and trying to determine what had happened. In one UN registered Dash 6 there were two distinct bullet holes in the co-pilot’s side window reminding us that the Sudanese Civil War was happening just north of the Kenyan border and that even the UN wasn’t welcome.  There must have been at least 40 aircraft there and nary a one put there by the students from the neighboring flight school. It was a very real reminder of the dangers of flying and I bet a few of them were put there due to the pilots’ disregard for density altitude.

After about 5 hours of mountain training, I was ready to go on some solo cross-country flights. My first flight included my brother-in-law and two of my ESL students. We planned on flying north, keeping the Aberdere Mountain Range (14,000’) on my left and Mount Kenya (23,000’) on my right, crossing the equator and then heading south on the western side of the Aberdere Mountain Range down to the Masai Mara game park. I figured 10,500 would be a suitable altitude and with my weight and balance done and full tanks, I preflighted my Piper Archer 180 and filed my flight plan.

Holding short of runway 32 with my run up complete and engine mixture leaned, I was given take off clearance and away we went. I got airborne no problem but once I got out of ground effect the stall horn started blaring away. Even when I lowered the nose and kept a very small climb attitude I still heard the horn. By the time I had cleared the airport zone I was still very low at 1500 AGL and had my brother-in-law take control as I milked the engine mixture control for any extra bit of power. That was my first scary encounter with the dangers of density altitude and not the last on this flight.

We finally leveled off at 10,500 feet and got on our way. There was quite a bit of Caravan and Dash traffic heading to and from the Sudan, which began to peter off as our flight progressed. Apparently the best time to fly up to the Sudan is either early morning or during the heat of the afternoon when everyone is sleeping or too lazy to fire a gun.

After dodging virga all the way through the Aberdere and Mount Kenya corridor, I started to relax and enjoy the scenery. I tried not to let the thought of an engine failure creep in to my mind because this hilly region of Kenya didn’t really lend itself to a safe forced landing. Once past the highest parts of the Aberderes, I began to descend and head southwest down to plains of the Mara. We flew over soda lakes with thousands of flamingoes startled into flight. We saw the occasional hippo head peeping out of the water and continued further south. One of my checkpoints along the way was a big volcano, which initially I had put my track line right over but with some friendly advice erased it and put it a couple miles off.  As I flew next to this huge volcano I saw the wreckage of one or two aircraft in its belly. Apparently a fair amount of lift is lost directly over the volcano due to the effect of wind and the suction created by the volcano’s cone. I guess I should mention that these were extinct or dormant volcanoes and not producing any lava or ash.

Flying over the Mara was awesome and we saw hundreds of giraffe, zebra, caribou, and wildebeest as well as small groups of elephants and lions. It felt nice to be over flatlands again despite the types of animals down on the ground looking hungrily up in the air for dum-dums to fall from the sky. 

We began our long arduous climb back up to 10,500 feet as we headed east towards Aberdere Mountain Range and Nairobi. We were almost level at altitude when we crossed over the tall escarpment separating the Aberdere Range from the plains of the Mara. It was at this point while looking down at the top of the escarpment a couple thousand feet below me that I noticed our VSI showing a descent of 1500-2000 feet per minute. Since I was already doing our best rate of climb and descending I figured I had about 45 seconds before we smacked down onto the rugged foothills. Fortunately, once I’d gotten over a mile or two past the edge of the escarpment, the downdraft stopped being so uncivil. Once again my passengers were somewhat oblivious to the near-death experiences I was seemingly having every couple of hours.

A volcano or two later and I was back in touch with Wilson Tower. One missed approach and I was safely down on the ground, wondering how I was ever going to survive at the rate I was going. The next few flights went remarkably well in part due to my increased experience, lighter loads, and better planning. 

In my experience, pushing the envelope isn’t always the brightest idea as the envelope has a big friend called Physics and he doesn’t like stupid, arrogant pilots.

Happy landings,

Lance

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