Monthly Archives: January 2013

Africa: A low-time pilot’s heaven, but it’s not for the timid

I had a recent e-mail exchange with a young pilot who is just finishing up her commercial and is wondering about the next step in her quest to build time and find a job flying. She wanted to know if Africa was the next logical move.

Her question made me realize that a lot of new pilots have probably contemplated the same idea so I thought I’d throw this post out as something of a public service.


Cessna 402c I flew in East Africa.

I spent the better part of 2009 flying a Cessna 402 in East Africa. The experience was, in a word, magnificent, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. That said, the experience also remarkably challenging and it’s not a decision for the feint of heart.


Yours truly at right, and at left, James, the Tanzanian pilot who was training me. James had more than 10,000 hours in his logbook.

Africa, like northern Canada, is a pilot’s heaven: There’s an endless expanse of geography but very little in the way of infrastructure or roads, so the airplane is king. And because it’s out of the way, and because there’s so much flying, jobs for low-time pilots tend to be more plentiful than in more populated European or North American centers. Catch on with the right operator and you’ll build a lot of time quickly and have a tall tale or two to tell.

That said, the events that unfold if you go — in terms of safety, lifestyle and job availability — will vary wildly depending on the country and region.

I worked for a private company that had holdings throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They used the 402 to ferry their senior executives to their various plants and businesses. The airplane was based in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania (about 2.5 million), on the coast of the Indian Ocean, and its maintenance base was at Wilson Airport, in Nairobi, Kenya.

I deliberately targeted Tanzania for a flying job. Unlike, say, Kenya, it’s much easier to convert your licence there and get a work visa. That said, I needed a lot of help from my employer regarding the latter. Tanzania is also very safe for locals and westerners and it’s more or less politically stable. It’s massively corrupt, like most countries in Africa, but it’s stable.

The time we went was at the height of the economic downturn and small airlines, afraid of what the impact was going to be on the tourist season, were very reluctant to hire.

Generally speaking you won’t get a job in Tanzania with 250 hours and a newly minted commercial ticket. But you will have a very solid shot with 1,000 hours and multi-IFR rating. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t go with less than 500 hours. I went with 400 hours, multi-IFR, and struggled. But keep in mind those hour minimums slide depending on how robust the economy is and how much demand there is for pilots. Minimums also tend (or tended; the situation might have changed since I was there) to be lower in Botswana than Tanzania. They tend to be quite a bit higher in Kenya.

My Tanzanian pilot licence.

Keep in mind that job availability and the willingness of a given country to grant a work visa will directly relate to how many home-grown pilots there are in that country. Each country, and each airline, is predisposed to hire its own citizens. So a country like South Africa would have very little interest in foreign pilots, just as, for instance, the U.S. would; by and large they have enough of their own pilots and immigration and work regulations will reflect this. When it comes to convert your licence, be prepared for pedantic, rule-obsessed bureaucrats who often see it their mission to obstruct, rather than aid, your quest to get licenced, Usually the firm you work for will help out and smooth the process.

The flying is spectacular, the vistas as magnificent as you’d imagine. I was allowed to ride right seat in a Caravan on a trip into Ruaha National Park and won’t ever forget the baby elephant grazing at the side of the dirt strip or the two giraffes that bounded across the threshold as we taxied out for departure (I’m kicking myself to this day that I didn’t bring a camera on that trip). Trips to Nairobi for maintenance meant flying past Kilimanjaro, a sight I never tied of witnessing.

But you won’t get much much IFR approach practice because nearly all the approaches are visual. Be prepared for being out of radio contact for long stretches. Often position reports will be made via relay from an aircraft flying higher than you (hence its reception distance is greater). Be prepared for very poor weather briefings and the thunder storms can be doozies. If you run into engine trouble, well, let’s just say that your odds of being found quickly are far, far lower than they would be in Canada or the U.S. or Europe.

Air Traffic Control can be a bit of an issue. In South Africa ATC is of a North American or European standard; it’s excellent. Kenya, meaning Nairobi, is also good, and dependable. Everywhere else … well … keep your wits about you. I was cleared final once at Dar at the same time, place and altitude as a converging Cessna Caravan. The Caravan and I worked it out, but no thanks to ATC and there wasn’t so much as an incident report about it. I know of another pilot who was once cleared to an altitude below ground level.


We — as in my wife and I — went to Africa with two young girls, then aged 1 and 3 (my wife — @tasneem_jamal — was working on a novel based in part in the region and needed to experience it). We never felt threatened, never felt unsafe. Quite the opposite. I’d suggest the same would be true in Malawi and Zambia.

I had some iffy experiences in Kenya, however. Kenya is far more western, its infrastructure far more developed than Tanzania, but its police are not only corrupt, in some cases they’re dangerous. Police in Tanzania are corrupt, too, but they’re benign. Being white, and western, in the post-colonial political political scene that is Africa, more or less offers a layer of protection.

That said, being white, and western, also makes you something of an economic target. Be prepared to be stopped by police on the road and asked for a bribe. It’s common, and the assumption is you have money. Usually, $10 or $20 later you were on your way. The alternative, which is cheaper, is to refuse but then be forced to spend the day at the police station. Be prepared to pay more for a taxi ride if you’re white than if you’re not (my wife is South Asian, and she did all the taxi cab flagging when we were there and saved us a lot of money).

Generally there are two economies in most African countries. One for locals and one for westerners. The latter is, of course, hugely inflated mostly because westerners tend to work for big companies or NGOs that simply pay the going prices and accept it as the cost of doing business there.

Our apartment in Dar.

Our apartment in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. We lived on the upper floor, in the unit to the right.

We lived in a comfortable, modest, two-bedroom apartment with air conditioning, but paid $1,500 U.S. a month. Western, i.e., processed, food was incredibly expensive: $15 for a box of Special K cereal, $4 for a can of tuna. Locally grown fruit and vegetables, however, were incredibly cheap and the flavour far, far surpassed those you’d buy in Canada in February.

Some airlines, such as Coastal in Dar es Salaam, have subsidized housing for their pilots.

No matter how nice your place, prepare to do battle with mosquitoes, bugs — the largest, most aggressive cockroaches you’ve ever seen — and rats. We actually had a rat take up residence in our car.

This will sound funny but absolutely bring white pilot shirts and epaulettes, both first officer and captain stripes. You have no idea how much hassle they’ll save you when it comes time to go through security at airports. And the pervading culture is that, well, pilots dress like pilots, otherwise they’re not pilots.


Some local hospitals in Dar were ok, but some were frankly, terrifying, and I don’t terrify easily. However good, western-style, care was available at the Aga Khan Hospital. But for complicated, serious problems, a flight to Nairobi was required. And for very serious issues, a flight to South Africa or even Europe would be your answer.

Vroom, on Daddy's new motorcycle.

Motorcycle — Indian made — I rode in Dar. My then-three-year-old is on the back. Goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This as much of a ride as she was ever allowed.

I bought a small motorcycle when I was there and used it to get to and from the airport. The roads and traffic are dreadful/dysfunctional in a way you cannot begin to comprehend until you’ve experienced it. Requires enormous patience. The roads are so filled with pot holes that a 4×4 is almost a necessity. Traffic is often so bad that vendors set up kiosks at the side of the road and do a brisk business from waiting cars. On the major routes, hawkers walk the line of cars selling everything: food, toys, flashlights, ironing boards, clothes, draperies, etc., etc.

If you’re serious and interested in going, drop by and check out their Africa forum. There’s a ton of useful, up-to-date information and the pilots who are there are usually happy to share advice and tips. But remember to do a search first on your topic before you post a question, or cranky responses will unfold.

I’ll put up another post soon about some of the flying/cultural experiences we had there. Any questions, feel free to contact.








The airplane was based in Tanzania

Porter Airlines girds for battle

Porter Airlines today announced its third interline agreement in the past sixth months, this one with Singapore Airlines. It’s a development that that adds yet another layer of intrigue to the fascinating competitive jockeying taking place among the Canadian big three — WestJet, Air Canada and Porter.

porter1Porter, for those who don’t know, flies Q400 turbojets out of Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport (CYTZ, formerly known as City Centre and the Island Airport), located right downtown via a short ferry ride. It’s attractive service if you’re a businessperson or if you live in Toronto’s city core. It saves having to make the miserable drive out to Pearson (CYYZ), a commute that’s particularly dreadful if it’s at rush hour. Porter’s airplanes and terminal are modern, the service is good. You can fly Porter from Toronto to Montreal, Chicago, Boston, Washington, New York and Halifax, just to name a few destinations.

Singapore flies into Newark’s Liberty International (KEWR), as does Porter from Toronto, and that’s where the two airlines will swap passengers (an interline agreement allows passengers to travel on both airlines using one ticket; it’s less formal than a code-share agreement, which allows airlines to sell seats on each other’s aircraft).

The three interline agreements that Porter has signed have to be viewed in context of the service Air Canada has recently added out of the Island and the service that WestJet plans to eventually introduce to Toronto with its new regional, Encore. Encore will run Q400 service to what will almost certainly be many of the same destinations as Porter, except it will do so out of Pearson.

Porter’s great strength and weakness is it flies out of the Island rather than Pearson. The strength is it’s convenient service if you live downtown. Porter’s glaring weakness, however, is that, unlike Air Canada and WestJet, you can’t connect to other airlines from the Island or to the vast networks both Air Canada and WestJet operate.

(While Air Canada also has a handful of flights to Montreal from the Island, it will never amount to the robust schedule that Porter has — nearly 90 flights a day — and will continue to focus its operation out of Pearson).

So. The three interline moves Porter has made are defensive in nature, and they’re smart defence insofar as they begin to add to Porter’s network and convenience.

WestJet plans to use Encore as a feeder to its mainline, which goes across Canada and much of the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean using 737s. While it won’t be able to offer the downtown convenience that Porter can, it will be able to connect to places Porter can’t.

But Porter’s interline deals put in place structure that will begin to erode WestJet’s advantage. If they get more, and they likely will, that advantage erodes further.

Porter also has interline deals with South African Airways and Qatar Airways. South African flies into Washington’s Dulles (KIAD), as does Porter. Qatar flies into Dulles and Montreal, as does Porter.

So Porter now has three airlines under its belt, and has taken three airlines away from WestJet as possible partners. WestJet has been aggressively adding code share and interline partners in the past few years.

The Singapore deal has the added bonus of allowing Porter to tweak Air Canada’s nose. Singapore and Air Canada are already partners via the Star Alliance. Here is one of Air Canada’s partners signing an agreement with one of its local rivals. Moreover, Singapore doesn’t fly into Toronto, or Canada, for that matter, and relies on the Star Alliance to do so. So Porter is mowing Air Canada’s lawn with this one. And by the way, South African is also a Star Alliance member, so this is the second time Porter has pulled this off.

Aviation geeks are, of course, watching to see how this plays out. Once WestJet enters the market with its Q400s (it likely will set up a regional hub in Calgary before Toronto and the announcement of its initial schedule is due in the next few days), there will be a great deal of price slashing and many more seats suddenly available in the marketplace. Will Porter be strong enough to weather the coming storm? Porter’s announcement of its interline with Singapore appears to be part of its determination to shore up of the bulwarks before the winds begin to howl.

Three can’t miss fly-in destinations

A post intended to warm a pilot on a cold winter’s day:

I have three fly-in missions in mind once more hospitable weather returns. If I can pull off even one of them this spring/summer/fall, I’ll be insanely delighted.

In no particular order they are:

  • The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, at Washington’s Dulles International Airport (KIAD).
  • The National Museum of the U.S. Airforce, located in Dayton, Ohio.
  • And Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in order to see the Packers (naturally) play.

I’ll start at the top.

I have been to Washington several times, both as a tourist and for work, and have visited the Smithsonian aviation museum at the National Mall. It’s only magnificent, and includes aircraft from seminal moments in aviation history, including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Apollo 11 command module. Want to touch a rock from the moon? You can do it there. Hard to top.


The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.

But I’m willing to wager that the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, which opened in 2003, is indeed a topper and more. It was constructed to house all the other sensational aircraft the Smithsonian had in its collection and couldn’t display because it didn’t have room. The Udvar-Hazy Center was designed to fix that, with more than 350,000 square feet of display space. It’s 10 stories high and has 169 aircraft on site. There are plans under way to double its size.

I became interested in visiting last year, when my employer gave me a beautiful coffee-table book about it — The Nation’s Hangar —  as a gift. The plan — it’s his fault, after all — is to drag him there with me.

Negotiating the airspace in the D.C. area, will be, no doubt, a terrific learning experience. The area is protected by an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) and a flight plan is a must.

One-way from my home airport: 325 nm, estimated en route in a 172: 3 hours.


The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

The second destination, the U.S. Air Force Museum, is located on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. It has 17 acres of display space and more than 360 of what it terms “aerospace vehicles and missiles.” Ok. Yum.

A colleague from my days working as an editor at The Globe and Mail newspaper pointed it out, and it’s been a gleam in my eye ever since. Everything I’ve read about it suggests it will be  spectacular (and if anyone reading this has already visited, I’d love a PIREP …)

Apparently private aircraft aren’t allowed to land at the air force base, so it’s necessary to fly into Dayton International (KDAY) and then get a taxi.

One-way from my home airport: 294 nm, estimated en route in a 172: 3 hours.


Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. Photo courtesy of the Packers.

The final destination, storied Lambeau Field, will be a bit of a project in a 172 given the annoying existence of these large bodies of water called the Great Lakes and the aircraft’s lack of an extra engine. meaning I’d have to plan across the top of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and then south into Green Bay. I’d plan early autumn in order to keep odds of good weather in play.

It would be, no doubt, a spectacular flight, topped by a date with the Packers. Green Bay’s airport is Austin Straubel International (KGRB). I was amused to discover they have a specific departure procedure for general aviation aircraft on Packers game days. Must be a fair bit of traffic.

One-way from my home airport: 463 nm and approximately 5.5 air hours.





Candid camera: The things your luggage has seen

Imagine when you checked in for your flight that you could jump on the baggage conveyor belt and go for a sight-seeing tour. What would you see?

Here’s the answer, courtesy of Delta Airlines and YouTube. A year or so ago, Delta took a suitcase, inserted several cameras into it, threw it on the belt at the airport, and then posted the result. Enjoy the journey! (Big thanks to my friends Aidan and Geoff for pointing out the video).

The little airlift and its precious cargo

You’ve heard about the Berlin Airlift, the mammoth air freight service that sustained the citizens of West Berlin through a Cold War blockade in 1948-49. This is the story of the Brantford airlift, a considerably more modest, but nevertheless remarkable, logistical undertaking that shepherds precious cargo — 50 to 60 Ontario special needs kids — to and from their schools and homes every weekend.

Bearskin Metroliner

Aircraft lined up on the Brantford ramp, awaiting their cargo of children for transport. Note the sign in the foreground, indicating route of that particular aircraft.

It begins, like clockwork, each and every Friday, when four Bearskin Airlines Fairchild Metroliners shoot the approach for 05/23 at Brantford Municipal Airport (CYFD) and touch down around noon. The airplanes are promptly met by YFD staff, marshalled into a smart line on the ramp, serviced and fuelled. While their pilots talk shop and nosh a quick bite at the airport’s restaurant, the children begin to arrive.

The children hail from all over the province and are the raison d’etre of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Provincial Schools Branch: eight boarding schools set up around the province whose mandate is to educate students who are either deaf, blind or who have learning disabilities. It’s more cost effective for the province to fly students to and from centralized schools than to build schools in each community. Hence the airlift.

Brantford happens to be home to one of those schools — the W. Ross Macdonald School for students who are visually impaired, blind and deafblind. Brantford airport is the conduit allowing its students to get to class and maintain contact with their families.

Mark Culshaw, general manager of the Brantford Municipal Airport.

Mark Culshaw, general manager of the Brantford Municipal Airport.

“It’s a remarkable program and we’re delighted to play a part,” says airport general manager Mark Culshaw. “A lot of people know about the Ross Mcdonald school, but they may not know how aviation fits into what it does”.

The logistics of the program are managed and coordinated by Skyservice, the charter airline and aircraft management company. Skyservice, which has one employee dedicated full time to the program, subcontracts the actual flying to Bearskin, whose Metroliners criss-cross Ontario with scheduled service each day.

( contacted Skyservice for comment but they stated that terms of their contract with the province prevent them from speaking about it; the Ministry of Education also declined comment).

The children arrive with guides and they and two Brantford airport staffers help ensure the proper kids get on the right aircraft. Each Metroliner (pressurized turboprops that seat up to 19), has a unique routing depending on the children involved each school term. Generally, one aircraft goes to Ottawa, one to Pembroke-North Bay-Timmins, one to Sudbury and a fourth goes to Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. The Ottawa flight picks passengers up in Ottawa, flies them into Pearson (CYYZ), where they connect to an Air Canada Jazz flight to Windsor.

On Sunday evening, the Metroliners once again spool up their engines, take to the sky, and the process is reversed as the kids travel from their homes back to their respective schools.

Brantford is something of hub for the program, with kids transferring to and from different aircraft.

“We do everything we can to ensure it all goes as smoothly as possible,” Culshaw says.

The program, says Culshaw, is one of the airport’s most important, generating economic activity in the form of landing fees, fuel and services worth $55,000 per year.

But it’s the frequent fliers carried by those Bearskin airplanes that fills Culshaw and his staff with a sense of mission and accomplishment.

“We’re helping kids, getting them home for the weekend to be with their families,” he says. “What could be better than that?”