Category Archives: Heart-Stopping Stories

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

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?”



Guns, coyotes and pickups: pushing small tin north of 60

photoIf you want to work flying a big piece of aluminum in Canada then you pretty much have to do a time-building apprenticeship at a little airline up north. How far up north? Well, as a senior WestJet pilot once said to me: “So far up north that Timmins seems like it’s located in the balmy south.”

Which is precisely the reason I found myself inĀ northern Saskatchewan last autumn working for a small airline.

The understanding when I took the job was that I’d be working as a dispatcher for a few weeks, maybe a couple months, until a spot on the flight line came open. It soon became apparent, however, that a few weeks was, in fact, going to wind up as six or seven months.

I have a wife and two young kids who remained in southern Ontario. We did the math and quickly realized that the cost-benefit analysis of me working 3,500 kilometers northwest wasn’t working for us. It was one thing to absorb the immense challenge of being away, and the load my absence put on my loved-one, if I was flying and building time. It was quite another to spend a winter in the near-Arctic behind a desk or fuelling airplanes. To make a long story short, two months after I started, I pointed the Edsel south-east and a three-day drive later, was happily back in Kitchener.

Those two months, however, were as rich as they come, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Met some great people, some remarkable characters and some terrific pilots. Bear, moose and deer sightings were as common as New York taxi cabs. And frankly experiencing the culture of a small, northern operator is something every Canadian pilot needs to witness first hand. You will see some things you won’t see everyday at CYYZ.

Fer instance.

It’s a Friday afternoon. All the flights are back. The airport is dead quiet. I’m standing in the reception area with a remote in my hand, at the tail end of a day on the dispatch desk, staring up at the television in the corner and watching CBC news, killing a few minutes before I lock up and close.

Then. BANG!


I now am figuratively hanging onto the ceiling tiles by my fingernails, trying to figure out (a) what the noise and (b) where it’s coming from.

Then again. BANG, BANG. BANG, BANG.

I turn, in a near panic, my heart in my mouth, and there, standing outside, knocking on the window, is one of the senior pilots — let’s just say his name is Ron — and he is holding in his left hand a coyote by the tail, dripping blood, and in his right is a hunting rifle. He is looking at me through the window wearing a cat-ate-the-canary grin.

Here’s the thing. In a lineup of people to play Daniel Boone, I’d be the one in Doc Martins,, designer glasses, sipping a dark-roast latte. My idea of wilderness is everything north of Toronto’s Steeles Avenue. I was smart enough to know then and there I wasn’t in Kansas any more.

The coyote was spotted when Ron was landing that late afternoon. Wildlife on the runways, I was learning, is a common thing up north and can be a serious hazard. A few days earlier there was another coyote sighting. The company tug, a bonnet-less jeep, was promptly produced, and a dispatcher, three pilots and the aircraft groomer, all armed to the teeth, loaded up up and set out to do battle. The silhouette of the vehicle rolling up and down the runway, weapons pointing every direction, reminded me of a scene from Mogadishu.

For most of the pilots working there, that kind of thing was just business as usual. Most were from western Canada and rural life, guns, pickup trucks, big dogs, well, that’s just the way folks live. For me, well, I can feel the post-traumatic-stress yips coming on even now.

Somebody please get me a tall, non-fat, cappuccino.












Space, the final frontier …

K. I’m going to toot my own horn a bit, and am because it’s not often this Earthling has the opportunity to interact with Extraterrestrials.

Shortly after Christmas I was happened to come across a photo of the city of Toronto that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted from the International Space Station. I was in awe. I read a few of Commander Hadfield’s tweets and decided to send him two of my own. They went like this:

Much to my surprise and delight I woke the next day to find he marked as a ‘favorite’ the second of the two.

A_eABfOCQAA95u4.jpg large

The cities of Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada, taken by astronaut Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station.

And then a little later in the day he tweeted a photo from space of the city in which I live, Kitchener, Ontario. Here it is.

My interest in the space station was first piqued by a YouTube video sent to me last month by the aerial photographer for whom I work. It was a “tour” of the space station narrated by the outgoing commander, Sunita Williams, I thought I might watch it for a minute or two and ended up watching the entire 25 minutes. it’s well worth the view.

And by the by, if you haven’t seen the recent brief Twitter exchange involving Hatfield and another Canadian, William Shatner, aka Captain James T. Kirk, it’s fantastic, as are the tweets that followed it.