Learning to Wing It Over Africa's 'Huge Zoological Park' - Zimbabwe

This flight school promises spectacular sights, heart-stopping moments, and unique runway hazards

"Look out for elephant droppings in the runway," shouted Neil Beevers, my young instructor, over the noise of the Cessna's engine. "They dry in the sun. Hitting one is like flying into a brick wall. And you'd better buzz the airfield first to clear the zebras off."

I brought the Cessna 172 in low over the Bumi HIlls to a rough gravel airstrip nestling by the edge of Zimbabwe's Lake Kariba. The shoreline was mottled with hundreds of hippopotamus wallowing in the shallows. I throttled back and made a low pass over the landing strip, scattering warthogs, impalas, and zebras with the buzz of the propellers. It was clear to land.

Coping with the unexpected is central to mastering the African flying technique.

To Zimbabwean pilots, big game grazing on the runway is barely worth comment.

The official aeronautical guide to Zimbabwe warns: "Flocks of migratory birds such as the Abdin stork may be expected on most aerodromes in Zimbabwe. The noise of an aircraft engine is not always effective in clearing these birds from the landing area."

Despite such unusual risks, Zimbabwe is paradise for the trainee pilot. The skies are empty of other aircraft, the sun seems perfectly fixed in the sky, and a devalued currency means fewer dollars per flight.

Moreover, the country is teeming with wildlife, making every cross-country flight an aerial trip through a huge zoological park.

At the Caberfeigh Estates in central Zimbabwe, a picturesque game lodge set amid 20,000 acres of mopane trees and waterholes, we drove an open-top, all-terrain vehicle among the large herds of elephants, wildebeests, and impalas.

Stroll too close to the water's edge, and you risk becoming lunch for a hungry crocodile.

From Bumi Hills, it's a two-hour flight west to Victoria Falls. Scudding through the cloudless African skies, we passed over Starvation Island, where thousands of animals were marooned in 1958 after the government dammed the Zambezi River, inundating 2,000 square miles of bush and creating Lake Kariba.

Many animals perished, but thousands were saved by conservationists, including Rupert Fothergill, who dropped food onto the island. The ghostly trunks of drowned trees still rise from the shallow waters.

The first sight of Victoria Falls is the spray, visible a dozen miles away from 5,000 feet. Some 18 million cubic feet of water pour over the mile-wide lip of the waterfall each minute, creating a permanent cloud of mist named mosi oa tunya (the smoke that thunders) by the local Kololo people.

Around Devil's Cataract, a miniature rain forest has sprung up; the green canopy of ebony and mahogany trees makes a stark contrast to the surrounding sun-baked bush.

David Livingstone, the first white explorer to see the falls in 1855, waxed poetic when writing home to Europe of his find.

He wrote: "The morning sun gilds these columns of watery smoke with all the glowing colors of double and treble rainbows. The evening sun, from a hot yellow sky, imparts a sulfurous hue and gives one the impression that the yawning gulf might resemble the mouth of the bottomless pit."

We circled the falls at 1,000 feet and watched as the burning sun angled into the immense curtain of water. Sure enough, as the rays hit the spray, the crevasse was haloed by the resplendent hues of a double rainbow.

Pegasus Flight Training is arguably the best flying school in Africa. Based at Harare's Charles Prince Airport, the school shepherds its students through an intensive five-week training program, culminating in a private pilot's license flight test.

Students come to Pegasus from every continent, but language and cultural differences soon disappear into the arcane acronyms and jargon of pilot-speak. Within a week, my own conversation had become something of an alphabet soup.

Whatever a student's nationality, learning to fly requires determination. It's tough to concentrate on the principles of drag, lift, and thrust when the angry roar of a Turbothrush crop sprayer fills the classroom.

Student pilots must pass three written exams covering navigation and meteorology, aviation law, and radio theory, but classroom lectures are broken up by several hours of flying a day.

Instruction begins with a lesson on safety checks. "When checking the aircraft on the ground, always make sure the keys are removed," warned Francois Bezenet, the ground school lecturer at Pegasus. "If the propeller fires accidentally, you'll be saying 'Look, ma, no hands!'"

The cockpit of a Cessna 172, a single-engined four-seater, is alarmingly small, and the instrument panel is just a handful of dials and buttons - a far cry from the computer-driven flight deck of a modern airliner.

"By the way," said Francois, "never trust the fuel gauges - they rarely work."

"No parachute?" I asked in vain.

But flying a light aircraft demands accurate judgment. Fly faster than 150 m.p.h. and the wings could break off. Pull on the flaps in a steep dive and you risk sheering them off. Fly too low over the open country, and the wheels could catch on a power cable.

Trainees soon grow accustomed to the rapid rush of adrenaline. On Day 1, Neil handed me the controls minutes after take-off, saying, "It's all yours." My knuckles blanched in fear and I felt the sweat dripping down my neck. What did I know about flying? What was I doing risking my life in this contraption?

But the learning curve is steep. By Day 3, I had mastered the intricacies of dirty stall and recovery. Day 5, and I was up with Derek Hall, a part-time instructor who usually flies Boeing 737s around the nether reaches of Africa.

Derek had perfected a kind of feet-up-on-the-dashboard insouciance: a flurry of hands and the Cessna was veering on its back at 120 m.p.h.; another quick flurry and we were straight and level. "Right, let's see you do that now," he drawled.

Learning to execute such maneuvers usually takes place in a Delta Seven Zero, a 20-by-30-mile zone marked "Danger" on aeronautical charts to keep other aircraft at a safe distance. In theory, trainees should have the freedom to make early mistakes, but a planning glitch left this zone sandwiched between two military firing ranges. "Stray into either and you could be shot down," warned Derek.

Ian Dyson, an easy-going Zimbabwean who set up the Pegasus Flight Training seven years ago, explained his method of teaching new pilots. "Flying itself is pretty easy," he said. "Most people learn to handle an aircraft within a short period of time. The bulk of our program consists of learning how to recover from emergency situations."

His technique is to confront pilots with potential dangers from the start. Climbing away from Charles Prince Airport on a day soon after my arrival, Ian knocked my hand from the throttle and shouted "engine failure" at a height of 200 feet. The correct procedure, I learned later, is to put the nose toward the ground and keep up speed, pull on full flaps, brief your passengers, and pick a spot to crash land. All in about 15 seconds.

But the excitement of engine failure was nothing compared with the full spin. I had been yearning for this moment, but Neil thought it wise to demonstrate first. Stalling the aircraft 3,000 feet above ground, he yanked it on its back.

We lurched sickeningly; the windshield filled with whirling fields and lakes as the ground rushed up at 2,000 feet a minute. If he remained in the spin too long, the aircraft would autorotate into the ground.

Two revolutions later - an eternity - Neil kicked back the rudder, pulled the nose up and powered back up to straight and level. I was dizzy with G-force as the nose came to the horizon. "Okay," he grinned, "your turn."

Just two weeks into my training, I had learned how to land without crushing the nose wheel or dipping one wing into the ground.

Neil contacted the control tower on the radio. "Tango Whisky Oscar continuing, one on board," he said, and jumped out of the plane. I was on my own.

I struggled to remember my safety checks. Did I have sufficient fuel? Was my radio working? Would I remember how to land? Turbulence tossed the aircraft around in the heat of an African afternoon.

"Brakes on and off, undercarriage fixed, flaps away," I murmured to myself, reassured to hear my own voice through my headsets. I spotted another aircraft approaching from the west. I called the tower and struggled to decipher the thick African accent. Was I No. 1 to land, or No. 3?

It was bumpy, but I wrestled the aircraft down in one piece. I taxied slowly to the apron and felt the tension drain from my body. Elation took over; within minutes I was soaring on a surge of delight. Someone had trusted me with a valuable aircraft, and I had brought it back safely. I was grinning insanely as Neil came up to shake my hand.

He understood. "You'll never experience another feeling like this in aviation," he said. "You'll remember this moment for as long as you fly."

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