Skyhawk Aviation

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Anatomy of a Regional Night Stop: Part 3

We had arrived in Dar es Salaam, and parked on a remote stand of the congested apron.

As my right-hand man carefully manouvered around the various parked aircraft, a freighter 747 from Europe was busy off-loading what appeared to be three brand new Eurocopters (or Airbus Helicopters, as the company is now known), all neatly wrapped in bubble wrap. A coat of arms was visible, but meant nothing to me.

Someone has money to spend…

We complete a bizarre u-turn park next to the 747 at the behest of our marshaller, and end up stopping exactly backwards in the parking bay if we were to take the Jeppessen chart seriously. Anything goes in Africa, and the park brake was set without any known damage being done.

During the descent to land, we had obtained updated weather forecasts for Johannesburg and our alternates, Lanseria, Durban, Maputo and Blantyre, as we have to give our ground engineer our fuel figure for the early morning departure the next day.

We spend a lot of time making excruciatingly serious decisions on what basically amounts to duff gen (poor information).

We have no confirmation of our actual Zero Fuel Weight (ZFW) at this stage, and sometimes our weather service produces forecasts that are akin to a horoscope with numbers.

Said horoscope called for some mist with 4000 meters visibility, and overcast at 500 feet in Jo’burg when we are due to get back there. Hardly tragic due to Category 2 landing capability at ORTIA, which allows us to land with 300 meters viz. However, the whole forecasting process I regard as somewhat sort-of-maybe-iffy-accurate.

The lack of updated ZFW leaves us with no choice but to use the estimated figure we have on our outbound SITA. If we have to, we can order more gas in the morning, but we certainly can’t de-fuel here.

We had been through the motions of applying ourselves to the task of fuel planning, and decided on a figure of 11.4 tonnes of paraffin for the morning.

This is duly communicated to the ground engineer, and we complete all the post-flight paperwork. The passengers have trooped down the stairs, and security and engineering staff are on board. Standing in the forward galley chatting to our station manager, the humid heat coming through the open forward door makes my uniform trousers feel clammy. The air-conditioning system is belching condensation from all of the vents like thick white smoke, descending to the floor.

We should consider navy shorts to complement our open-neck shirts we have for these destinations…

A short bus ride to the terminal sees us sauntering through customs and immigration, while our passengers queue for attention. No passports required, as all our information is on the GENDEC (general declaration) produced by immigration in Jo’burg. We are barely afforded a glance by the officials, and we are back outside in the heat, tracking down the hotel transport.

Once in the mini-bus, I try to ascertain our expected travel time to the hotel from the driver, as the traffic is utterly unbelievable at this time of the evening. I get a wobbly-hand gesture, which can mean anything. However, from years of experience, I am prepared, and produce a couple of chilled beers (dragged from home, and put on ice during the descent), which generally eases the trip somewhat.

For those who have not visited Dar during rush hour, it is a sight to behold. It also pisses one off immensely, as the impromptu involvement of police officers as points-men at the major intersections defy any form of logic whatsoever.

The main road out of town is parallel to the coastline, while two major roads from the harbours cross over, heading inland. The dimly-lit intersections, with their one or two lonesome traffic lights, are confidently manned by a cop with a single baton. Picture an incredibly busy, chaotic dual carriageway intersection, with one guy calling the shots.

I have sat waiting at one intersection for over half an hour, as the crossing traffic gets priority over the main road. On at least four occasions in the past, I’ve had to delay the next day’s departure as we are legally required to have 10 hours in the hotel. The longest I’ve sat in the crew transport was an hour and forty-five minutes to travel the 14 kilometers from the airport to the hotel…

Third World traffic chaos is one thing – however, the completely insane antics of the motorcycle drivers in Dar are a study of human behaviour in itself. One actually becomes numb to the impending fatal accident that surely has to happen right now – but suddenly doesn’t.

There’s the white-collar guy getting a chauffeur ride on the back of that old Honda, while dangling the briefcase from one hand and gesticulating and closing the deal on the cell phone with the other. Then comes a guy in to oncoming traffic with his head bent at a crazy angle while he careens his mount between trucks while having his phone wedged between shoulder and chin – probably closing the deal with the first guy…

At least it’s not raining. Then it takes three times as long.

Our oasis appears in the darkness – a South African owned and operated hotel which is a favourite spot for expats to have an evening tipple or four while waiting for the traffic to subside…the irony…

The standard rooms are issued in strict seniority. I get the big one, and head upstairs for a quick change and catch up with emails on the hotel wifi. Although we have around two and a half hours before the ‘8 hours bottle to throttle’ kicks in, I am determined not to waste the free drink voucher, as well as to see who of our ex-colleagues whom have taken the Fastjet contract are around.

Downstairs, I spot a few familiar faces in the crowded restaurant and bar area. This results in joining the Fastjet crowd for a little while, with the required comparison of life as a contract pilot. They’re having fun, but the grass is only greener for the simple reason of the abundance of manure.

Shortly after, the best part of the trip happens – seared tuna, medium rare.

With the hotel discount, and the freebie drink voucher, the bill comes to around nine US dollars. I can live with that.

The rented bed provides around seven hours of sleep, which is ample considering the easy day we had yesterday. I’m first at reception to settle my bill and pen my required signature to the hotel contract bill for the rest of the crew.

Breakfast is normally out of the question at 4 am for me, but it’s free, so I’m in.

Back into the same mini-bus and we’re off to the airport. Same distance, but this time it takes only 15 minutes, as the city is slowly awakening in the dusty pre-dawn twilight.

There’s still a few kamikazi motorcyclists around to keep us entertained.

The first, but totally expected irritation for the day is the bizarre double security checks that most African airports seem to use. Entering the terminal building requires the tedious process of: laptop out – shoes off – cap off – belt off – BEEP – “I must search you, Sah.”

Buggerroff. I’ll keep removing stuff until the beep stops as I have a ‘thing’ about being fondled by a twit for the privilege of going to work.

This is then repeated after we cruise through immigration to the departure ‘lounge’, and we do it all again. I feel so safe and protected…

I put on my most professional pose as we troop through all the waiting passengers in the holding area at the air bridge, which connects with nothing, as we walk down its external stairs to the apron and take a bus to the aircraft, which is where we left it eleven hours ago.

The sun is about to appear over the sea to the east of the airport, but already the aircraft cabin is hot and stuffy. Ground power is on, although the APU is off, as the ground staff knows this uses precious fuel. My priorities are simple. Weather update, ZFW changes, fuel update, start the APU for the air conditioning, and COFFEE. Hofmeyr, thank you.

I start a brisk cockpit setup while the FO does the walk-around, as the station manager is always itching for an early departure. The passengers appear, queuing and peering into the cockpit from the top of the stairs. It is for this reason I leave the sun-shades down on my side as I do not feel the urge to be a natural science exhibit.

True to form, the loadsheet arrives just before doors close, and it reveals we are one tonne heavier than planned. This means we will burn more fuel, and calling the fuel bowser will result in a delay. We were expecting this, and I had cunningly added an extra 200kg of fuel on to my fuel order last night, so we will still depart with all planned reserves intact, despite Africa.

Had we ended up lighter, we would be flying fuel around the continent for no First World reason, except that we cannot take every eventuality into account all the time.

Listening to the tower frequency during our pre-flight preparation indicates a 50/50 chance of either runway. Maybe 05 (off over the sea) or 23 (off in the direction of JNB). They require different speed and thrust requirements, as well as departure planning through the FMGS (Flight Management Guidance System).

We plan, and brief, for both runways. This is a threat in itself, as there is a limit as to how much useful information one can retain in the short term.

The doors are closed in record time, and we are suddenly ready, around 20 minutes ahead of schedule. From our parking bay, there is no push-back required, so when we have our start clearance, we are on our way. Only when we get taxi clearance do we know which runway we will be using, and it turns out to be our second choice of runway 05. This means a longer taxi as well as longer departure routing.

C’est la vie.

The secondary flight plan is activated on the MCDU, and all navigation and take-off performance items are changed at the push of a button. It’s an Airbus, and I get it that this is higher-grade stuff for the Boeing guys…

My turn to fly.

Engine start is normal so we are off. Or not. A locally based ATR 42 has also started their engines, but has not called for start. They are pretty much in our way to taxi, so we query with the tower, who repeat their initial instruction. We let all concerned that the ATR is not avoidable, and the ATC silence lets us make our own plan again. The ATR calls for, and receives, its taxi clearance while its baggage door is still open, and we all wait until they are actually ready. That’s a hundred kilograms of fuel down the tubes, as we have both engines running.

There is always a lot of ATC training taking place on the Dar tower frequency, which adds to the potential for confusion. With the ATR long gone, it took a few attempts to get a coherent re-clearance for our taxi out to runway 05.

This routing takes us past the extremely busy general aviation apron, with its varied assortment of aircraft types from C182s to Caravans and King Airs. I’m always amused at the registrations of most of the aircraft. It appears to be a bit of a contest as to who can come up with the wittiest three-letter word with the call-sign.

The Tanzanian pre-fix of 5Y- is then followed by the likes of DAD, GUN, DOG, FLY, FUN, BOB, JOE and so on. I suppose it’s an official way of ‘naming’ the machines.

We have two Caravans waiting at the holding point ahead of us. We have no idea where they are going, and what plans there might be to separate us. Our ATC clearance, as expected, arrives at an inopportune moment, and necessitates a re-brief before we can read the before-takeoff checklist.

Our preceding traffic both get airborne with a low-level left turn in the general direction of Zanzibar, which suits us, as we will be turning south. Our barely decipherable takeoff clearance is issued, and after we both confirm with each other that we concur with the content, we’re off.

I rotate straight into the rising sun, with sunglasses and sun visor at the ready. Despite the fantastic flying conditions, I call for Autopilot 1 to be engaged, as the into-sun visibility makes hand-flying not the wisest choice.

We turn out right at 400 feet and commence the clean-up and climb to Flight Level 360. A quick glance at the MCDU lets me know our ETA for Johannesburg as well as the all-important fuel reserves. All looks good, and I can start to relax a bit.

Settling into the cruise at FL360 heralds the offer of breakfast from the cabin crew. Dar has to be the home of Weird Stuff in terms of airline catering. The fruit is fine, but the spinach, spicy chicken-like item and boiled yam is somewhat daunting, and I give it a miss.

The en-route weather is good, all contingencies are taken care of, and the flight becomes a simple matter of time.

We pass through Mozambican airspace and then into the wonderfully reassuring radar environment of the South African UIR (Upper Information Region of the FIR). The ATIS at ORTIA announces some low cloud but good visibility, so the plan for a normal ILS landing on runway 03 right appears to be viable.

A normal descent, approach and a semi-decent touch-down ensue, and we find our parking bay around half-an-hour ahead of schedule.

Not so entirely useless, as per the original passenger’s assertion that I mentioned in the first article…

A quick stroll through customs, and a walk back to our Ops building, sees me off for the rest of the day. This allows me time to drive through to our primary alternate, Lanseria, to do some advanced instruction in my Twin Commanche.

Sucker for flying.