An intrepid biplane rally across Africa

The daring pilots in the Vintage Air Rally risk not just their prized aircraft but their lives, as they follow the cross-continent flight path of Africa’s 1920s aviation pioneers. Rohit Jaggi reports

Three aircraft written off, the exclusion of a maverick pilot, detention for two days by a jumpy African government – if one were looking for adventure, the Vintage Air Rally could certainly be said to have provided it. Though in all fairness, the basic concept of elderly, open-cockpit biplanes flying nearly 13,000km at low level over breathtaking but sometimes inhospitable scenery, from Europe to the tip of South Africa, could hardly be described as unambitious.

The Crete2Cape rally was aimed at aircraft built before 1950 – although that date was stretched a little – and attracted a host of entries from owners of the wood, wire, tubing and cloth biplanes that were state-of-the-art for most of powered aviation’s first half century. But the journey started long before the pilots were waved off at Crete’s Sitia airport in November 2016. Sam Rutherford, the Tigger-like head of Brussels-based event planner extraordinaire Prepare2Go, started preparing in earnest two years earlier. 

Cédric Collette and his wife Alexandra Maingard land near the pyramids of Giza in their 1950 Stampe SV4-B biplane
Cédric Collette and his wife Alexandra Maingard land near the pyramids of Giza in their 1950 Stampe SV4-B biplane | Image: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

The idea was to follow in the flight path of Africa’s 1920s aviation pioneers down the east of the continent, stringing together 10 countries in five weeks. The limited fuel range and basic instrumentation of the 11 old aircraft would dictate flying only short legs in good visibility. The biplanes’ capabilities would also entail flying low – all the better for seeing the sights. And because this was not intended to be a white man’s jolly through the heart of black Africa, the plan was also to raise money for local and environmental charities.

Travelling alongside would be about the same number of more modern aircraft, including two helicopters: some for the experience, some to lend support to the vintage planes – by carrying spare parts and oil, for example. Those who signed up with old aircraft were from many points on the globe – Canada, the US, Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Germany, Botswana and South Africa – so getting their planes to the start line was an adventure in itself. Pedro Langton, a former film cameraman and studio owner who lives in Vancouver and southern California, had his 1928 Travel Air 4000 biplane shipped to the UK and reassembled at Shoreham airfield on the south coast. Flying it across Europe, his engine broke catastrophically as he was on the final approach to Cannes airport. He set it down safely, but thereafter followed a fast and furious spell of locating and buying a replacement engine, flying it over from the US and then installing it.

Advertisement

A younger aircraft, a vast Antonov An-2 Soviet-era low-tech biplane, failed to make it to Crete in time, delayed by bad weather in Europe. Its slow speed meant catching up would be difficult – which was a problem as the plane had been earmarked for baggage-carrying duties.

The tension in the final briefings before the rally started was palpable. The three-hour flight to the coast of Egypt would be the longest over-water crossing many pilots had attempted – and, for some aircraft, close to the edge of their range. Around the briefing room were current and former professional aviators, venture capitalists, farmers, an aircraft manufacturer, a plane importer, entrepreneurs, husband-and-wife teams, father-and-daughter teams… everyone with their pilot’s hat on, focused on the best plan for a day on which they were running the risk of losing their aircraft, or even their lives. But Cédric Collette, pilot of a small Belgian 1950 Stampe SV4-B biplane, summed it up: “If you want to do something you love, then you have to accept that small amount of risk.” 

The rally flies over Nairobi National Park
The rally flies over Nairobi National Park | Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Planning cuts the risks. But plans are easily upset in Africa – as the rally was to find in Ethiopia. First, though, came the Mediterranean: on the day an almost bathtub-calm stretch of bright blue under a dome of unbroken paler blue. It was the sort of weather British aviators can usually only dream of – apart from a headwind. If that persisted, fuel for some aircraft would be very tight. 

I flew with Nick Oppegard from Alaska in his Travel Air 4000. The front seat, usually occupied by his wife and co-pilot Lita, can accommodate two people, but a raft and grab bag of emergency equipment were my companions.

The US Team Eagles biplane flying over the Karima pyramids in Sudan
The US Team Eagles biplane flying over the Karima pyramids in Sudan | Image: Beatrice de Smet

Generally, as soon as they are over water, pilots of single-engine aircraft start hearing signs of incipient distress in the motor. But the Travel Air’s radial hummed flawlessly. And our group – three Travel Airs and the Stampe – found an altitude that gave a modest tailwind. As we crossed the coast at 1,900ft, Oppegard’s voice came over the intercom. “Every day I fly, I think of the billions of people who have ever lived and the infinitesimally small number who have been able to see the world from this perspective,” he said. “It’s a true privilege.”

The next day, on to Cairo. Rutherford’s team had managed to obtain permission for one aircraft to land on a stretch of straight road just by the pyramids in Giza – the first time in 80 years a biplane had been so close. The Stampe was the winner of the draw, and its flight attracted huge local and international interest. A pattern was set: local enthusiasm; demanding flying, in which heat and altitude had to be carefully considered; downtime for maintenance and repairs on the aircraft; and plenty of variety in topography, vegetation and wildlife as the rally wound its way through places dripping with history, such as Luxor and Abu Simbel.

A welcoming committee in Ad-Damazin, Sudan, where the rally refuelled
A welcoming committee in Ad-Damazin, Sudan, where the rally refuelled | Image: Beatrice de Smet

When the Antonov, the baggage and another entrant, a 1940s Stearman biplane, caught up in Egypt, black tie events with ambassadors and ministers became easier – in Crete and Cairo some men had resorted to wearing hotel slippers with their dinner jackets, as their smart shoes had been left behind on the Soviet packhorse.

But then the rally crossed from Sudan into Ethiopia and, following the plan, landed at Gambela. The airport said the pilots did not have permission to land. Aircraft, phones and computers were impounded, crews confined to the terminal. It was more than two days of injera, omelettes and sleeping on a luggage carousel – the floor was alive with cockroaches and frogs – before that little problem was resolved. One ministry had given permission to land but another, for internal reasons, had rescinded it. 

A biplane at Baragwanath Airfield in Johannesburg as part of the Vintage Air Rally airshow
A biplane at Baragwanath Airfield in Johannesburg as part of the Vintage Air Rally airshow | Image: Safodien/AFP/Getty Images

Maurice Kirk, a UK veterinarian and maverick flyer known for his run-ins with rule-makers, had also caught up. But he first suffered an engine failure and then got lost in Sudan. By now, without adequate navigation equipment or even a working compass, he was reluctantly ruled out of the race. He did tag along further, but got lost again after Gambela and damaged his second world war Piper Cub in a forced landing in South Sudan.

There was more. On the way to Nairobi the Stearman was written off, without injury to its occupants, after an engine failure. But there were also highs: an air show in the heart of Nairobi National Park that was spectacularly well attended; special dispensation enabling some aircraft to land on the edge of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater; flying over the white-sand beaches of Africa’s east coast; dropping into Zanzibar. The further south, the more abundant the wildlife – flying at low level provided a unique view of elephants, zebras and other animals most entrants had only seen in zoos. Then at Maun in Botswana one of the four 1930s Tiger Moths on the rally – in fact, the only Moth based in Botswana – was blown into the R44 helicopter by a storm when they were parked. Neither could fly further.

The biplane carrying South Africa’s team flies over Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe
The biplane carrying South Africa’s team flies over Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe | Image: Beatrice de Smet

It was not the end of the mechanical issues. Langton’s Travel Air required repairs to its tail in South Africa. But its pilot, whose laid-back California style belied impressive piloting skills, received compensation for his efforts – and a Bremont watch – when he was declared overall winner of the rally. At the end of the day, Rutherford said, “although we crashed some aircraft, they were all insured and everyone was fine. And everybody achieved something amazing.”

He is well into preparing for the next big Vintage Air Rally – starting in March 2018 – from Ushuaia in Argentina to the US. The current plan is for a purer rally, restricting entries to planes built before the end of 1939, with no modern aircraft apart from the organisers’ own small logistics fleet. As for pricing, one option is to keep the same level as for Crete2Cape – $10,000 for vintage aircraft owners. Rutherford reckons those entrants typically spent about $40,000 more on fuel, oil, parts and shipping their aircraft to and from the rally.

The rally participants assemble in Mersa Matruh, Egypt, after making the challenging sea crossing from Crete
The rally participants assemble in Mersa Matruh, Egypt, after making the challenging sea crossing from Crete | Image: Beatrice de Smet

And if you don’t have a qualifying aircraft? Steven Moth, director of UK-based vintage plane specialist Spirit in the Sky, says he recently looked at a 1929 Travel Air 4000 that “needs some work but will be a £115,000 aircraft when finished”. Tiger Moth prices, he adds, “range from about £45,000 through to £85,000 at the top end”. Spirit in the Sky, meanwhile, has on its books an enclosed 1935 Waco four-seater for about €95,000. And Stearman open biplanes, which were built from 1934, are often listed by Courtesy Aircraft in the US for $130,000 or less.

Flying them is another matter. Sophisticated portable equipment can make up for a lack of navigation instrumentation. But taildragger biplanes are less forgiving of ham-fisted flying – and landing – techniques than modern aircraft. I’ve flown many of the types of aircraft that were on Crete2Cape – delicacy of touch and lots and lots of practice are the keys to safe, enjoyable flights.

Advertisement

The scenery that the Americas rally encounters will be different, as will the people. But the challenges for both machinery and airmanship will be the same. Likewise the sense of achievement for those who make it to the end.

Advertisement
Loading