Those magnificent men — and women — in their vintage flying machines tackle a 7,000 mile trip across Africa: what could possibly go wrong?

The Vintage Air Rally, held over five weeks in November and December last year, aimed high. Mixing together more than ten vintage biplanes with modern aircraft on a challenging 7,000nm trip across Africa, from Crete to Cape Town, was always going to be a stern test of pilots, machines and organisers. Ambitious events were planned along the way, including black-tie functions with diplomats and air shows entertaining thousands of spectators, and the schedule required clearances to fly through ten different countries, each of which presented its own idiosyncrasies.

Brussels-based organiser Prepare2Go had spent two years on the fine planning detail, making preparations and gaining permissions to fly through each country, some of them less stable than others. Two turbine aircraft would be in the group, a Cessna Caravan and an R66 helicopter, so both avgas and jet fuel had to be available at the stops.

The participants included three Travel Air 4000s (out of only forty that survive), the oldest a sprightly 88 years; four Tiger Moths; a Stampe SV.4B; a Bücker 131 Jungmann; a Stearman; and a wartime era Piper L-4 Cub. It was possible just getting to the start line in Crete would be too much for some of them, never mind the onward journey. Daily mileages were planned up to about 475 nautical miles, but the biplanes’ limitations meant many legs were much closer to 200.

The crews were all experienced, but how would a bunch of people adventurous enough to fly open-cockpit biplanes the length of a continent take to being shepherded around as a tour group?

Unsurprisingly, not everything went to plan. The three Travel Airs were shipped to Europe from the USA, assembled in the UK and then flown to Crete. One of the entrants, Pedro Langton, who lives in Vancouver and California and was representing Canada, was remarkably sanguine about the fact that the engine of his 1928 Travel Air broke its crankshaft on final approach to Cannes airport.

He landed safely and then set about finding a replacement radial, arranging for it to be shipped from the USA to France, and having his mechanic come out to Cannes to help him fit it. Alaska-based pilots Nick and Lita Oppegard, in another Travel Air 4000, also flew from the UK to Crete. “This whole trip’s been worth it if we did nothing more,” said Nick before the start.

Considering the season in Europe, a remarkably high proportion of the participants were present and correct at the Sitia start line. One exception was Maurice Kirk with his Cub, long a thorn in the side of aviation, and other bureaucracies (as well as a former drinking buddy of the late actor Oliver Reed), who was delayed by weather and forced landings on his way from the UK to Crete.

An Antonov An-2 biplane was slowed so much by adverse weather that it did not catch up with the rest of the rally until Egypt, which caused a few problems as the aircraft had been earmarked to carry some equipment for other crews.

While a new Waco YMF-5, flown by German distributor Johannes Graf von Schaesberg, with Fabian Graf von Einsiedel in the front seat, blurred the distinction between old and new aircraft, there was no doubt about the two matching new Bushcats?cheap ($65,000), rugged, South African-made aircraft that conform to US Light Sport rules?in distinctive zebra-striped zip-on clothing. Team Bushcat also provided a Cessna Caravan, which was to perform part of the freight-carrying duties. A taildragger Pipistrel Sinus motor glider and two Robinson helicopters, an R44 and an R66, were also among those starting on time.

Briefings included the use of the yellow electronic ‘bricks’ that acted as both emergency locator beacons and timers for the competitive part of the rally, allowing a comparison of actual flight times with estimates. “Remember to turn them on when you start and, most importantly, turn them off when you land,” urged Prepare2Go founder and boss Sam Rutherford. Simple enough, you would have thought… He added that this was the start of ‘African aviation’, where rules and practices might surprise those more used to American or European flying.

As if to prove that, news of the rally’s clearance to fly into Egyptian airspace came first via the local taxi driver, who passed the information on to Rutherford as an after-dinner conga swallowed up pilots and organisers alike.

The first day’s route, from Crete to Egypt, would be the longest single over-water crossing many had made. Rutherford, a former British Army Air Corps helicopter pilot who, with his wife Beatrice De Smet, runs Prepare2Go, said the Greek coastguard would be standing by under the initial part of the route, and after that the helicopters flying at the back of the loose formation would act as sweepers.

But for the R44 at least, the leg was at the extent of its range, even with an extra bladder tank of fuel that Sarah Chevenix-Trench, piloting the helicopter along with husband Paddy Wills, described as having an unruly, loose-limbed drunk in the back seat! And the lack of the An-2 made itself felt. “We need a raft plan,” said Rutherford. “Our own raft and lifejackets are on the Antonov.”

Many pilots in the wholly single-engined fleet were tense as they set off over the Mediterranean. Similar machines stuck together?the Moths quickly formed a tight group?and the 123.475 common frequency helped work out flight levels that would provide a tailwind. First sight of dusty brown Egypt after some two and a half hours of bright blue sky and deeper blue sea came as a significant relief. “Pilots tell a lot of jokes when they are nervous,” said Alaskan pilot Nick Oppegard.

“As we got closer to the African shoreline the jokes stopped.” An exuberant wing-waggling low pass over the Mersa Matruh runway by the Travel Airs and Stampe, which had travelled in loose formation, was authorised by the Tower but apparently not much appreciated at the semi-military airport. And the next day it emerged that a number of competitors had not remembered to turn off their yellow bricks overnight. Some could not work out how to turn them on again, which did not bode well for the scoring system (and disappointed followers online).

Flying over Egypt the next day, first following the coast and then uninterrupted desert, the route passed near El-Alamein, where von Schaesberg’s father had been taken prisoner in the Second World War. Rutherford’s team had secured permission to end the day with a biplane flying around the pyramids at Giza and landing almost at their foot?unprecedented in eighty years.

The Belgian/French team of ‘Kiwi and Frog’?Cedric Collette and his wife Alexandra Maingard?flying the Stampe would perform the honours. Kiwi would fly in, with an Egyptian official, then Frog would reclaim the front seat to fly from Giza back to 6th of October airport, where all the aircraft were to spend two nights.

Cairo traffic delayed the other entrants?on a bus and in a few classic cars?but eventually everyone was able to witness not only a biplane buzzing one of the African continent’s most distinctive sights, but also a prop spinning in close enough proximity to herds of Egyptian media to make any British health and safety official quail?and not a fluorescent vest in sight. Even that historic landing was not without incident. “My first attempt was a bouncer,” said Collette. “I had to go around again.”

On the rest day some pilots visited the pyramids while others checked their aircraft. Dusseldorf-based Ingo Presser, owner of the Bücker, investigated an oil leak, Langton made sure his new engine was bedding in, and the Bushcat crews were seeking to squeeze a bit more performance out of one aircraft.

The rally continued south and east. A promised low pass along the Nile in Cairo?seven bridges and 1,500ft?failed to materialise due to poor visibility and a delay for essential maintenance on some aircraft. A second planned leg, from Hurghada to Aswan, was scuppered by slow refuelling but the wait did allow the garden chairs carried in the Caravan to be put to good use in an impromptu campsite set up around the aircraft.

The late-arriving Stearman showed up the next morning, resplendent in bright yellow US Navy training colours, but it wasn’t until the morning after that the AN-2 joined the group at Abu Simbel, enabling everyone to set off for the less restrictive airspace of Sudan. On the rest day in Meroe in the Kush area, some visited the Nubian pyramids, smaller and steeper than the ones at Giza. Then on to Khartoum where Maurice Kirk landed short of the runway with what he described as an ‘engine failure’?another incident in his flying life.

On the rest day at Khartoum, the R44 crew tried unsuccessfully to fish out a length of refuelling nozzle that had fallen into their tank, and Sudan’s first airshow had been planned, but permission was withdrawn. The next day’s route would take the rally on to another country but the quick fuel stop in Damazin turned into a lengthy wait for Kirk. According to Rutherford, one of the flying vet’s GPS units was not working and he did not know how to use the other. Plus his compass was broken. Unsurprisingly, given these navigation challenges, Kirk was lost. Surprisingly, though, when he finally made contact with Damazin, Rutherford was able to talk him in.

And so on towards Gambela in Ethiopia, where clearance to land had come through only the night before. However, by the time the Caravan, last in the loose formation, was ready to depart, the clearance had been rescinded. The Caravan, with Rutherford on board, stopped so that he could talk to Ethiopian air traffic control?and clearance was re-obtained, but only for the Caravan. Unfortunately, the rest of the aircraft, all of which were in the air, were not so lucky. Propelled by a twenty-knot tailwind, they were too late to turn around, and as their fuel had already been delivered to Gambela, which is not normally a point of entry to the country, it seemed clear to most that they were expected.

Not quite?on nearing the airport, the Tower ordered them to return to Sudan. After a stressful interchange, they declared a fuel emergency and landed?only to have their passports, phones, tablets and computers taken away, and find themselves confined to the rather limited facilities of the terminal building. Not exactly the rapturous greeting, involving song, dance and local musicians, that had been the norm until then.

The involuntary stay lasted more than fifty hours, while different arms of the Ethiopian government failed to resolve an increasingly embarrassing incident, especially when pilots and organisers, using hidden phones, started to mobilise not only western diplomats but also the press. Eventually the authorities released them to fly further into Ethiopia, before turning south for Kenya?though they elected to go via the most direct route out of the country, crossing South Sudan to Lokichogio in Kenya. Rutherford later looked on the positive side: “From a team-coming-together point of view, people will probably remember it as a high point.”

By this time, Kirk had been excluded from the rally and should not have been in Ethiopia at all?but had tagged along to Gambela. Over South Sudan he had yet another engine failure and was forced to land, puncturing a tyre in the process: the end of his involvement in the rally, but the start, for him, of another adventure in getting his injured Cub out of South Sudan.

The participants’ next leg was along the Rift Valley to the 7,000ft elevation Eldoret, giving some cause for concern over aircraft performance in hot and high conditions. Then more drama came en route to Nairobi. The Stearman suffered an engine failure and overturned in the ensuing forced landing?fortunately without injury to its crew, but wrecking the aircraft.

Now without Cub and Stearman, the rally based itself at Nairobi’s Wilson airport, for the Kenyan capital’s first ever airshow, over the national park in the centre of town. One of the Bushcats landed at a specially constructed runway in the park, and some of the biplanes pleased the huge crowd with flypasts.

Next stop was Kilimanjaro, and decision time about whether to fly into a strip at a giddy 8,000ft on the lip of the giant Ngorongoro crater. Among those who opted to do so were some of the Travel Airs and Moths, while other pilots took a less ambitious route by truck from a strip 4,000ft lower at Lake Manyara. Langton said landing on the edge of the crater was one of the highlights of the trip, and he was proud to have the African record as the oldest aeroplane to have landed there.

The following day saw a steep descent to the continent’s east coast, white sand beaches and the spice island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous province of Tanzania. After that came a rich mix of landscapes?baobab trees, bush, forest, parks?and increasingly exotic wildlife as the rally wound its way inland over Tanzania and into Zambia. Kusama airport saw huge crowds and, just after most aircraft had left, a sudden storm that casually lifted and moved the Caravan, fortunately without damage but it was a taste of the power of angry African skies.

The teams notched up another landing mishap at Kawa in Zambia when the Pipistrel landed heavily enough to damage both propeller and landing gear but again no pilot injury. Leaving the Pipistrel behind to be repaired (it rejoined in Botswana), the rally headed for Lusaka and another airshow, then to Victoria Falls on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border. The anticipated photo opportunity of vintage biplanes framed by the falls did not quite live up to expectations as the lowest clearance available was much higher than expected.

Flying out of Zimbabwe to Botswana, said Langton, “The wildlife suddenly seemed to really multiply. I had to remind myself I wasn’t at the zoo. The numbers of elephants, zebras… it was wonderful.”

Then at Maun in Botswana another mishap: a violent overnight storm pushed the Botswana Tiger Moth?the only one registered in the country?into overly familiar contact with the Robinson R44. In the morning the crews of the two aircraft discovered one of the Moth’s lower wings wedged under the helicopter’s right skid, and the R44’s tail boom wedged awkwardly over the rear fuselage of the biplane. This looked like the end of the rally for the Moth and R44.

The R44 crew undertook frantic negotiations with engineers and loss assessors but, with 75 hours already flown from Denham in the UK, the R44 was near to the Robinson rebuild time of 2,200 hours/twelve years, so eventually it was declared a write-off. Its pilots elected to continue on to the Cape Town finishing line as passengers?having travelled so far, they were reluctant to miss seeing the rally through to the end.

The Moth pilot, Brett Warren, flying with his daughter Sarah, had earlier said he needed to slim down his fleet, saying he always ended up using his Husky anyway for regular low-level flights between the south and the north of Botswana. This perhaps was not quite what he intended.

Pressman’s Bücker was the first of the vintage aircraft to land at the finishing line at Stellenbosch, by Cape Town?within the hour of its expected arrival, amazingly enough, given Ethiopian and other delays. But the overall rally trophy went to Pedro Langton and his Travel Air?a popular decision. Apparently laid back about the competitive side of the rally, the American was secretly confident he would do well. He is keen to share with others a simpler age of flight?he takes up “loads of people” in his Travel Air, and found expanding the horizons of people he met the most satisfying part of the rally.

The coveted Spirit of the Rally award, meanwhile, was won by Alaska pilots Nick and Lita Oppegard, in their Travel Air, for enthusiasm that refused to be quenched.

The participating aircraft certainly captured the public imagination in Africa and conjured the spirit of an age when every flight was magical?and engine failures common. But, just as Langton had done, the pilots merely rolled up their sleeves, repaired their aircraft, and finished the task they had started.

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