Saturday, January 10, 2015

There's no smoke without fire....


It's 4pm Bangui time, over 4 hours of flying done today out to the northern limits of the Country for our plane to Kabot.

The alarm went of just before 6am for an early departure out this morning for a flight back to the first destination I went to when I arrived a week ago. Wow it's gone fast. So Kabot. It's a bush strip the surface is kind of sandy shale and it's quite long so shouldn't be too much of a drama. I arrived with the trusty driver Freddie and pre flighted the plane in short time, filed the flight plan and before long I was welcoming the passengers, 3 of them and then loaded up the cargo I also had today .

Start up done, the engine is running , it's already getting warm with sun gently working its magic. Lined up runway 35 next to over 100,000 refugees litterally 25 meters from the side of the runway, full throttle and we are rolling. It was a max weight plane so she was a sluggish little lady on this early start but once she got going we were rolling, a bit of back pressure and we are heading for FL075 with a flight time of 2hours estimated. 
The visibility at take off in the Bangui area was petty awful but once about an hour along track I could see the ground and make lots of bush fires in the area. It's pure forest as far as the eye can see but I counted over 20 fires that I could see from this altitude. I suppose Mother Nature is hard at work regenerating the forests below.
It was quite nice being able to see for once and I am building up more of a picture of how it all looks around the county as I fly more and more. 
The forest disappeared and the ground looked more and more like desert bush and it was time to descend into Kabot. I had calculated a 26 mile decent with the speeds we were getting, so it was nose forward and time to get in. I spotted the strip from about 5 miles out got us to 500ft above the ground for an inspection and then lining up, for the very red dusty strip . A cheeky bit of turbulence on final but this nicely powerful plane and touchdown was wasn't too bad at all. And we were in. I was under a bit of time pressure as I had to get the plane back as early as possible for another flight with a different pilot that was going out straight after I got back, so I managed a turn around of passengers and cargo and start the engines again in 9 minutes, beat that Mr Ryanair !!!
Without further a do it was an empty leg back to base at Bangui at FL085 in relative calm seeing once again the extent of the bush fires raging away. 
The arrival back to Bangui was pretty sweet as I got what amounts to a 40nm long final straight in which chopped 20 minutes off the leg. 
Once in the aircraft was refueled for my colleague to head off on his flight.
I had a chat with Freddie the trusty driver who seemed a bit down and he informed me there had been a nasty car accident at the airport just after I left that morning and 3 of the guarding soldiers had been killed when their personnel carrier had turned over.
I grabbed lunch on the way back from the airport and realized how early it was so time for a stroll around the city centre and the market which I really haven't had chance to do. 

I strolled around the humdrum of the back street sellers with their fruit, veg and fish, I even had a guy trying to sell me concrete..... Couldn't figure that one out. I ended up mooching up passed where the street kids who my friend john used to help out were and they came to say hi. My heart litterally goes out to these guys they are all around the age of thomas my son and they are begging for their food in a dusty street. Fate must have been smiling as a guy was passing with a hand cart selling water melon. I asked him for his 2 biggest and he cut them up for me and I gave wedges of fruit out to the kids as we sat in the park for 5 minutes watching the chaos of these young lads lives litterally living by the minute just trying get through another day. 
I picked myself up and left the young lads to their fruit and walked up the road to a Lebanese barber I had been passed a couple of times and decided it was time for a trim. 

His barber shop is called Facekoop and I will post a picture and you'll get the joke. I'm actually sitting in the queue at the barbers as I write this as the barber is negotiating a deal for a batch of huge Cohiba cigars he's just brought in from Lebanon, it seems he strikes a hard bargain, I hope the haircut isn't going to be such a hard negotiation. 






Friday, January 9, 2015

WWF flight to the bushiest bush

The day started early here with alarm going off at 6am and off for a morning tea and croissant at my favorite Libyan cafe. We were planning a passenger and cargo flight to the deep bush in a wildlife reserve far to the west of the country flying over parts of The Congo taking 3 passengers and cargo for the WWF (world wildlife fund).
After filing my flight plan and getting the weather information I realized it was going to be another SVFR flight due to limited weather we have to request permission to fly in this low visibility. Flight plan filed and the the weather chaps were their usual jovial selves and it was time to preflight my steed. It usually takes 15-20 mins to get her ready for the off so with fuel check, paperwork checked and ready for the off I realized the passengers still weren't here. A quick phone call and I find out they are running late. I could have had that pain Au chocolate aswell at the cafe !!
They eventually arrive and I have to weigh them and all of their luggage and pack them into the aircraft ready for the off. After giving them a briefing it was time to start up and get into the sky. Clearance gained and we are off in to the murky skies and turning west rising up slowly to my planned altitude of FL095 for the 1hour 40 flight. As I got further and further along the route the murk gradually dispersed and for the first time since I've arrived here I've actually got to see some of Africa below me. 
With 28 miles to go which was my calculates top of the decent it was time to get ready and get into Bayanga airstrip. I've not been here before so it's going to be intersting as I've seen pictures and there's not exactly much of a runway to play with. 
Fortunately my calculations had been right we dropped right onto the top of what looked like the field so I had a good look at it and could see the telltale signs of the white trucks waiting for me next to the landing site. A big arcing left turn and I am preparing the aircraft for landing and I'm lined up. 
As I get closer I now realise what my colleague was telling me was very true as he told me the strip was very rutted like a farm track that a tractor had driven along in the wet and there were 2 huge ruts and I needed to try to line the wheels up to land in them to avoid pretty big problems. As I got closer the reality hit me that it's like threading a needle except the thread is weighing well over a ton !!
 The palms did get a bit sweaty on short final but we got there and my colleague on the flight said he was really impressed how I got in first time with such a heavy load onboard. 
As I taxied on up to the large gathering of people I started noticing quite a few armed soldiers with AK47's in their hands and felt a little twitchy as they didn't seem too happy. I shut the engine down and decamped to find out that they weren't too happy at all as the WWF hadn't communicated to them that we were coming, with some slight fear that we weren't going to be able to leave I got out my trusty bag of sweets and started offering them to the soldiers and had a chat about their favorite subject , football. They laughed at me when I said I thought Aston Villa would finish higher than Chelsea in the league this year........
The tension seemed to ease and I unloaded my passengers and loaded up the returning passenger with his cargo and it was time to get out of there. 
Taxing down the rutted track certainly focused the mind on what the take off was going to be like, a quick 180 on the runway and I hit full power and we were hurtling down a track that would have been fun in a 4x4 but a Cessna 206 is slightly different .
It was with a bit of relief that the airspeed gauge hit 65 and it was time to pull back and get airborne leaving the armed guys behind with a wave we were heading back to Bangui and a late lunch, once again a my little Lebanese cafe......







WWF flight to the bushiest bush

The day started early here with alarm going off at 6am and off for a morning tea and coissan at my favorite Libyan cafe. We were planning a passenger and cargo flight to the deep bush in a wildlife reserve far to the west of the country flying over parts of Chad taking 3 passengers and cargo for the WWF (world wildlife fund).
After filing my flight plan and getting the weather information I realized it was going to be another SVFR flight due to limited weather we have to request permission to fly in this low visibility. Flight plan filed and the the weather chaps were their usual jovial selves and it was time to preflight my steed. It usually takes 15-20 mins to get her ready for the off so with fuel check, paperwork checked and ready for the off I realized the passengers still weren't here. A quick phone call and I find out they are running late. I could have had that pain Au chocolate aswell at the cafe !!
They eventually arrive and I have to weigh them and all of their luggage and pack them into the aircraft ready for the off. After giving them a briefing it was time to start up and get into the sky. Clearance gained and we are off in to the murky skies and turning west rising up slowly to my planned altitude of FL095 for the 1hour 40 flight. As I got further and further along the route the murk gradually dispersed and for the first time since I've arrived here I've actually got to see some of Africa below me. 
With 28 miles to go which was my calculates top of des decent it was time to get find and get into Bayanga airstrip. I've not been here before so it's going to be intersting as I've seen pictures and there's not exactly much of a runway to play with. 
Fortunately my calculations had been right we dropped right onto the top of what looked like the field so I had a good look at it and could see the telltale signs of the white trucks waiting for me next to the landing site. A big arcing left turn and I am preparing the aircraft for landing and I'm lined up. 
As I get closer I now realise what my colleague was telling me was very true as he told me the strip was very rutted like a farm track that a tractor had driven along in the wet and there were 2 huge ruts and I needed to try to line the wheels up to land in them to avoid pretty big problems. As I got closer the reality hit me that it's like threading a needle except the thread is weighing well over a ton !!
 The palms did get a bit sweaty on short final but we got there and my colleague on the flight said he was really impressed how I got in first time with such a heavy load onboard. 
As I taxied on up to the large gathering of people I started noticing quite a few armed soldiers with AK47's in their hands and felt a little twitchy as they didn't seem too happy. I shut the engine down and decamped to find out that they weren't too happy at all as the WWF hadn't communicated to them that we were coming, with some slight fear that we weren't going to be able to leave I got out my trusty bag of sweets and started offering them to the soldiers and had a chat about their favorite subject , football. They laughed at me when I said I thought Aston Villa would finish higher than Chelsea in the league this year........
The tension seemed to ease and I unloaded my passengers and loaded up the returning passenger with his cargo and it was time to get out of there. 
Taxiing down the rutted track certainly focused the mind on what the take off was going to be like, a quick 180 on the runway and I hit full power and we were hurtling down a track that would have been fun in a 4x4 but a Cessna 206 is slightly different .
I what with a bit of relief that the airspeed gauge hit 65 and it was time to pull back and get airborne leaving the guys behind with a wave we were heading back to Bangui and a late lunch, once again a my little Lebanese cafe......







Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Paris we are thinking of you today....... #jesuischarlie

I just heard of the awful news coming out of Paris where journalists and police have been killed doing their normal daily job.
My heart goes out to all of my journalist and photo-journalist friends whom I had the pleasure of working with from our Paris Bureau for so many years.
It kind of brings home a little bit the idea of security and what it really means, and also I am sure that security here will be beefed up even more as the security force here is French in this French speaking country just recovering or trying to recover from its own civil war between Muslim and Christian factions.
Today was my first aid flight , flying cargo, we stocked the plane up to the gills with water purifying materials and many other things needed in daily by the NGO's to keep helping the local displaced communities.
We flew for nearly 2 hours due west to Berberati, which has a nice long bush strip, we flew flew at FL085 to try and get above the inversion cloud layer which was a lot less severe than yesterday we actually were able to see the countryside below, and the destination was in gorgeous sunshine and I landed on to the gravel strip and as I taxied in we were great by the locals who came to help unload the cargo and wish us a happy new year. Everyone I meet here is so polite, I have made a point of saying hello and greeting everyone I see, the children seem to like to see the plane arrive and have a joke with the strange english guy trying to speak French.
The women here seem to dress in the most amazingly colorful outfits they are amazing , I have decided to wait a little while until I get settled in before I start taking lots of pictures as I am sure I will have plenty of chance over the coming weeks, I just don't want to be inappropriate.
We managed to offload the cargo in 10 minutes and we had a empty leg back to Bangui, the plane's performance was incredibly different for the return and we were at FL095 in no time and a nice cruise  all of the way back to Bangui.
It was with a bit of relief today that we were given number one to land from 25 miles out, unlike yesterday when we were number three and then had to hold for emergency UN medical evacuation helicopters to squeeze in too......
Once on the ground it was time to refuel and get the plane ready for tomorrow's sortie and head back with trusty Fred driving back to the hotel.
Due to the 9pm curfew I need to get fed and watered before then and off for an early night before tomorrow's flight.
Unfortunately my laptop computer has died today so I am having to write from my iPad and thus far I can't manage to upload photos from it to the blog, but I have some nice ones from today so hopefully can post them tomorrow .
(just figured it out but can't move them so they are at the bottom)
Thinking of my friends in France this evening on such an awful day, stay strong .
#jesuischarlie





Monday, January 5, 2015

Beware Citizens on the Runway.........

Approach into Bangui
So here I am. I've arrived.
The Central African Republic.
First Impressions.........
Certainly not as bad as I was expecting but also very different from what I was expecting in many ways, but mostly the weather. I had expected as we are in the dry season to have a lot very dry heat, but yes its warm, in the region of 34 degrees most days. But, ever since I have arrived I haven't really seen the sun as there is this lingering dry season fog which pretty much means we can't see too much, even the tops of the local hills. This is obviously hindering our mission to fly a lot as you can imagine.
My hotel and home for the next 5 weeks
Anyway in a chronological order this is how I got here.
DAY ONE Saturday
Upon leaving Brussels the first flight was a 2.5 hour hop to Casablanca which coincidentally flew right over my house in Limoges late in the evening. Upon landing at Casablanca it was a 5 hour wait there until the next flight which is an over night to Camaroon which dropped some passengers off at 6am, we sat on the ground for an hour with lots of jostling for seats with seemingly little respect for allocated seating and the one bag for hand luggage and then a 2 hour flight to Bangui which is when I realized that I wasn't going to get any further sleep than the 3 hours or so I had managed and it was time to let the anticipation rise for the impending arrival into my new world for the next 5 weeks.
I could feel the engines start to throttle back and could see that we were starting our decent for my new home, the anticipation rising with every thousand feet.
I was in the window seat and could gradually start to see the ground through the cloudy mist to down to the point where I could start to see the roof tops of village huts/shacks and then suddenly I was pulled out of my revery by the engines going back to full power when we were at all of 300ft above the ground to execute a missed approach/go around due to, as the captain described it, "Citizens on the runway"...............
The street near my hotel
Around we went to setup a new approach and this one was successful as we touched down with a Positive Landing, (Heartly Thud) as I peered out of my little window I could see the tens of thousands of tin make shift tents and huts which form the enormous refugee camp which is next to the air field.
With the hearty thud came the realization that I am here with a job to do and there are certainly enough people needing some help, time to get on with it.
After being passed through and army field tent for an Ebola test, through the military check point and I then noticed this really is a military installation with machine gun positions on the roof and spaced out around the field, along with tanks and a lot of armed personnel, it was into arrivals and pick up the luggage, I then got to meet the current head of mission here and he got us squared away with our local driver/fixer called Freddie........off to the Hotel.

John with the street kids......
I've stayed in worse and I've stayed in better....... mustn't grumble there are plenty of people in this country who are living under cardboard sheeting to escape the elements, I've got a hotel room with electricity most of the time, and even air con some of the time. There is even a swimming pool but I am not sure its been used too much since there were civil war goings on here.

The weather briefers
DAY 2 Sunday 
Up nice and early this morning after some well needed sleep and to the local cafe for a bite to eat on the way into the airport and it feels like the first day in a new job. Being the new boy and not knowing really much about where I am.
The apron
The arrival at the airport is slightly different than I am used to in Limoges, in between the military check points, the slalom of the anti suicide bomber concrete blocks and the gum placements it only takes half an hour and we are in.
My new ride
I have been shown around by my new colleague John De Kanter who's a great guy, a 747 pilot from Holland and I'm here to replace him as he heads back to Europe. I'm kind of disappointed he's heading off as he's good to get to know, informative and also very calm in the surroundings here which rubs off.
I've been introduced to the weather briefing system here and the flight planning and I got a good intro to the plane.
The fog has been lingering like sticky glue but we managed to get up and do some local flying for me to get a feel for the new plane, we did some touch and goes etc, it feels like a great plane to fly and I really enjoyed it, landing it in the Bush is going to be a whole new story though I am sure.

Day 3 Monday
Previewed for my first outing with John to the north of the country to fly some aid workers out there, the only problem is the darn fog again, an inversion layer stretching up to 7000ft and vis down to 1km and 400ft.
The airport road to work
This is John's last full day here so when we realized there was not going to be any flying what so ever, we went with our trusty Freddie on a tour of the local area so that I could get familiar with where we are and meet a few people as well.
John introduced me to some of the "Street Children" that along with a friend he has been helping during his time here in Bangui. These are kids of between 6 and 10 or 11 who literally live in the local park. He was telling me that him and his friend invited all of the kids for a xmas lunch and a game of football on xmas day....... awesome. Well john introduced me to "The Guys" as he calls them and we gave them some sweet biscuits from the bakery that he'd bought when grabbing a bit of breakfast and we argued who was the best between Barcelona and Real Madrid at football with them..... I couldn't believe that they had no idea who Aston Villa are...... I have decided I must educate them in this.
As John is leaving tomorrow I have assured him that I will help keep at eye in the young guys and most importantly teach them all about Aston Villa and the 1982 Cup final win, and to forget all about Messi and Ronaldo.
The machine gun placements next to the runway

We've finished the last of the handover and technical briefing here so John is packed and ready to head off tomorrow and I am prepping for the flight I will do tomorrow with another colleague to try to complete the flight which was cancelled today......
Wish me luck.











Refueling time with a hand pump

Getting a pilot report on the weather

Our base









Up and away again..... heading North, a long day and then home.....

At Starbucks in Beirut, thinking about where I'd like us to go away holiday this year The phone rings..... "Can we leave to...