Taff's Flight Diary

It's Thursday 21st October 2010 and whilst I’m sitting on a flight departing Johannesburg to Heathrow I decided to write up my Cape Town flight attempt whilst things are still fresh in my mind.

I would describe myself fairly set in my ways as far as aviation is concerned but the development programme of our Glasair opened my eyes to some of the latest technologies available...  this especially relates to the engine. Mr Lycoming might make a tractor engine - but with the right mods it's a hell of a tractor engine!

Glasair at Southend

Glasair in Southend Hangar

The Glasair in ATC Lasham's hangar at Southend (John - Southend Team)


We decided to adopt a one stop strategy for refueling and the halfway point was Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.  This had a higher risk factor, but if successful would establish a record very difficult to beat. To do this meant developing an extremely efficient aircraft and power plant combination with an MTOW of 2200lbs, the maximum allowed in FAI Class CIb.  The range had to be 2700nm with acceptable reserves. Weight was everything. I deliberately lost 15lbs in weight (the most difficult part!) down to 160 lbs, no parachute, no storm scope, minimal survival kit.

Southend To infinity and back

The Glasair at Southend (John - Southend Team)

The Flight

Record flight

The Glasair moving out and taking-off at Southend (Les - Southend Team)

The 19th October brought a French Controllers strike.  Fortunately I had two supermen on my side Tim Lester and Mike Woodall of Flight-Assist (UK Ltd) who persuaded the French Controllers to let me go at 0909z west around Paris due to the sporting nature of the flight. It was 80nm longer than my previous flight plan but at least I could start.

Tailwinds provided a great start (26 LPH at 180kts) and my flight down through Europe and over the Mediterranean was uneventful. The controllers allowed me to 'straighten out some of the curves' as the things were so quiet due to the strike.

Crossing the African coast and over the Atlas Mountains went well with light headwinds (mixture richer) and on to the Sahara. My JPI FS450 worked well and proved extremely accurate (down to 0.2 ltrs/100ltrs used).  I used the 'fuel used' figure to switch tanks leaving just a couple of litres – I wasn't brave enough to let it run dry!  Dwindling daylight saw me at Tamanrasset.  By Nigeria the combination of my purring engine and total blackness turned me to my iPod prepared by my daughters (first tune 'All alone am I'  – not funny  Katy & Sam!) I used a simple pocket calculator to double check  my fuel usage and figured with 200 nm to go I would make Abuja with enough reserve, to get me back north to Kano which I knew to be clear of cloud.

Arrival at Abuja

Alan and Simon ('The A Team') with airport staff at Abuja (taken by mobile phone)

I arrived at Abuja at 0005z bang on the money with my refueling team from the Real Aeroplane Co poised with barrels of 100LL and a rotary fuel pump; I had used less than two barrels of fuel!!  Incredible!  Two hours later I was on my way again, launching off into a foggy black hole getting the best climb possible at MTOW with an OAT of 30º at a runway elevation of 1200' (you can work out the density altitude yourself!)

And here it went horribly wrong

This take off situation is an instant point of no return. You need continuous full power (especially at Abuja that has formidably placed rock formations 2500agl at both ends of the runway).  The oil temp indicator went to max and stayed there with cylinders over 400ºC.  I reduced the climb rate to 100'/min as soon as I dared but the temps took a  long time to come down. I was cooking the engine!  The engine was still running but it was not the engine I had been so proud of coming from the UK.  There was a curious vibration & reduced oil pressure even worse still I was around 10kts short on cruise.  I have been involved in racing cars – both building and driving for the past few years and have come across detonation problems on a few occasions.  I'm sure that this was the problem. I made the decision to continue as T's & P's stabilised and headed south to the coast.  (The jury is out on this one but we are looking at fuel samples.)  A couple of hours into the flight daylight returned, showing extensive fog along the coast, with solid CB activity everywhere (forecast had only said isolated) although no lightning activity.  So what to do?

I poked my nose into the cloud and instantly the Dynon (attitude indicator) became my world. Torrential rain stopped the ASI and started coming into the cockpit despite the well fitting canopy seals. To my eternal discredit I entered a second one with the same result. This situation was surreal. Too intent to think of being scared I seemed to be totally disconnected from the outside world; my only aim in life was to maintain a/c altitude. After another dose I headed east, inland, abandoning my coastal flight plan planning to rejoin it further south.

The problems kept coming... 

The Spider track unit died in a puddle and the radios refused to transmit.  The Garmin 430 GPS stopped working and the autopilot would only follow the heading bug.

Thankfully the Garmin 695 GPS continued to work, dutifully keeping me clear of controlled airspace.  The next fifteen hundred miles were solid cloud with no sign of the ground, I didn’t care this was luxury compared to my CB experience!  I headed down to Brazzaville then south towards Eros Airfield at Windhoek in Namibia (this was my planned alternate if I had run short of fuel).

The cloud slowly cleared as I flew over Angola and at this stage I realised my stop at Eros would be the end of my dream.  Combined engine, instrumentation, radio and GPS problems meant the odds were too highly stacked against me. I landed at Eros at 160030 - a total time of 31 elapsed hours from Southend and some 4 hours from The Cape despite my loss of airspeed and a 200 mile CB detour.  I must say I was gutted when I made the decision to end the record attempt there, disappointed more for my long suffering friends at Southend, Abuja and The Cape than for myself, and upset about my engine.

A one stop strategy is possible within the rules.  I had always said that my chances of success were only 50%. I haven’t changed my mind. I have also said I would give it my best shot and wouldn't let it haunt me if I failed  - I shan't. Bad for me but good for Alex Henshaw, Chalkie Stobbart and Steve Noujaim. Would I do it again? Most definitely yes! It was high adventure in the purest form. Could I go through all the expense and cost  - in time as well as money  - no.  It took over my life for 12 months.  At 64 I am content with the result and have asked the FAI to ratify Southend to Eros (FYWE) as a world record.  After all it is only 3.5 hours short of The Cape!

I have left G-OPNH at Eros and will fly it back next year when weather permits, I shall probably have a bash at the northern record.  The local maintenance outfit run by Peter Hartmann of Aviation Centre in Windhoek kindly agreed to hangar the aircraft, boroscope the engine and fix anything broken, I look forward to flying it back into Southend.  I had bought the Glasair as a tool for the job and to sell after the flight.  I left her in Peter's hangar with a tinge of sadness, such a great little aircraft.  What's happened to me? I don’t even like composites!     

How did I pee? Believe it or not this is the most commonly asked question. OK- I used a gel filled bag called Travel John and got out of my seat and turned round to face the rear – a difficult manoeuvre considering the room available, (practised a few times in the hangar to the amusement of my colleagues) but it worked. I refuse to go into any more detail.

The Team

Huge thanks must go to the many people without whom a flight of this nature would not have been possible: 

Ann (My Wife) whose unfailing support made it possible.

The Real Aeroplane Co Breighton – especially Ian Ross the Chief Engineer for his knowledge, expertise and invaluable advice and to the volunteers who helped during the refit.

Robert Fleming – Real Aeroplane Co owner - whose Sat phone and Spider Track I drowned.

Chris Turner - PFA Inspector

The Southend Team - Les Clark & John Jinks - also ace polishers

Ian Dorling - Base Manager (and true aviation enthusiast!) and his team at ATC Lasham whose high grade maintenance outfit looked after us at Southend. 

The A (Abuja) Team - Alan Marsland & Simon Ducker (who were going to dress up as pink bunnies and disappointingly didn’t!)

Wahab Ifabiyi of Skyrouting Aviation Abuja

The Cape Town Team - Ian Ross (Real Aeroplane Co Chief Engineer) & John Dixon who waited and waited – but in vain!

Tiann Kotze of Signature Flight Support Cape Town

Dave Butler – ace website man

Tim Lester and Mike Woodhall of Flight- Assist (UK) Ltd

Peter Hartmann Windhoek

Robert Momsen of  Scenic Air  Eros Airport  Windhoek

AnnaLize Zwiebel of ‘Wings over Africa’ who looked after me at Eros (hotel, immigration, etc)

David Davies MP for help with Nigerian visas

Geoffrey Boot FAI records for his help with the form filling!

Final mention must go to Frances Donaldson and  the LAA who endeavoured  to accommodate and approve all the modification applications. 

And for all the moral support I got from everyone.

Thank you one & all.

Around here however we don't look backwards for very long.  We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.  (W. Disney)