Today (Tuesday 22 November 2016) is our last day in Sudan. We are supposed to reach Ethiopia tonight and in particular Gambela, a little town in the West of Ethiopia, close to the Sudanese border. Two flights are scheduled to reach the Ethiopian border:
Khartoum-Ad Damazin (250 nautical miles) and Ad Damazin-Gambela (220 nautical miles). A loooong day! And the night before we did not go to bed very early as we were invited for dinner at the British embassy in Khartoum. The dress code was “black tie” but since Cedric and I have almost none of our clothes with us since the beginning of the rally (cargo organisation problems in Sitia, Crete), we decided to wear the local outfits!
Cedric and our friend Nick from Team Alaska:
Wake up call is 3:45 am. We are at the airport at 5 am. All planes were refuelled yesterday but Cedric (and a few others) need to work a little bit on the planes. Our propeller is a little bit damaged. Brett, who is the captain of the Tiger Moth of Team Botswana, and a mechanic, helps Cedric repair the tip of the propeller. We should be fine but need to keep an eye on its condition…
We are all ready but wait another hour to get takeoff clearance from the Sudanese aviation authorities. This takes time. We are in Africa and time here has not the same importance than in Europe. We are finally cleared for takeoff “in formation” from Khartoum at 7 am. As you can see, you need to get up at 4:00 to be airborne at 7:00….
We have the chance to fly over the capital, heading south, with a beautiful morning light. It is still cool and pleasant outside.
After a few minutes, we leave the frequency of Khartoum tower and we will be free from any radio contact until we approach Ad Damazin (HSDZ). We decide to cruise at 2000 feet above ground level, to start with, as we have a great tailwind at this height! It is a long flight to our next stop and we are eager to get there ASAP, for refuelling, and continue our journey through Ethiopia to Gambela, where we will spend the night. We fly in formation with other biplanes…
As we leave Khartoum behind us, we start to see a very different scenery from what we have enjoyed so far. We are flying south-east right in the middle of the two Niles. The Blue Nile is to our left. The White Nile is on our right hand side.
We overfly thousands and thousands of kilometres of crops. All is green below us! Quite amazing. We only see flat lands and crops for 30 minutes.
Then comes the savannah. The colour of the lands change and we start to see thousands of acacia trees. We also see some small villages along the way, we decide to go down and orbit at 500 feet above ground level to say hello!
We are now all safely landed in Ad Damazin. The local people came to the airport to meet us. We shake hands and we are welcomed with water, nuts, music, songs, and dances. The people’s skin is very black here. Much more than in Khartoum or in the Nubian State (north).
Fuel is now done. Our journey has to continue. Another 220 nautical miles to go till Gambella. As from now on, we will be able to use SkyDemon again. SkyDemon does not cover Egypt and Sudan so we used Air Nav Pro to navigate through these two countries so far. SkyDemon cover all the other countries in Africa.
We take off from Ad Damazin around 13:00 local time, when heat is at its peak. We are not unhappy to be airborne and to leave the oven of Ad Damazin!
As we approach Ethiopia, the scenery changes dramatically. The vegetation becomes increasingly dense, it now covers everything below us, and the ground is quite high. The Stampe needs to climb till 6500 ft AGL. Visibility is extremely poor. There are several forest fires under us which makes the atmosphere very hazy.
As we are about to enter the airspace of Ethiopia, we hear on the radio that we have no clearance to get in. We need to fly along the border, southbound, but still on the Sudanese side, until we are allowed to penetrate the Ethiopian airspace by the aviation authorities of the country. After 30 minutes, we still have no clearance. We reach the point where going back to Ad Damazin is not possible anymore, due to the lack of fuel to fly back. The situation becomes even more complex when Cedric and I lose radio contact with the other planes and the air traffic controller. We seem to suffer from a radio failure. Cedric tries several frequencies, nobody answers us anymore. Complete silence. On the top of that, the charts on our iPads would not load properly! Therefore, our sole means to get out of this situation is to keep a close eye on the two biplanes flying a little bit ahead of us. The visibility is poorer and poorer as we fly through the smoke of several forest fires. No choice. It is very hot up there, turbulent and the ground is not so far from us… We must not lose visual contact with the two Tiger Moths in front of us! But they are flying a little bit faster and they are becoming as small as mosquitoes to me. As I am flying this leg, I decide to open the throttle even though Cedric is not very happy with the fact that we fly at a higher power. But if I lose contact with the two biplanes in front of me, we end up in a very tricky situation! We have no radio and we still don’t know if clearance to enter the country has been given or not! Suddenly, I see one of the biplanes making a u-turn and flying back in our direction! The other biplane follows behind and I can see a third one now, also coming back towards us! I then realise that they have probably understood that we had lost our radio and they come to fly closer to us! What a nice solidarity! Our biplanes will stay very close to each other until we land in Gambela. Our Stampe is the last one of this formation and we land just behind Team Canada, without any radio communications, making sure we keep a good separation with the preceding traffic.
We are in Gambela, so are all the other planes of the rally. The tarmac is pretty much empty, apart from two big Russian Iliouchines flying for the World Food Programme (WFP). An Ethiopian soldier comes to our plane and asks Cedric and I to quickly walk towards the terminal of the airport. We are so exhausted that we do not step out of the cockpit immediately. The soldier becomes nervous, he says we have no time to take our staff out of the plane. We follow his instructions and join the other pilots inside the terminal…….
As Sudan is now behind us, I would like to finish this post by giving you a summary of the speech of the Minister of Culture and Tourism of Sudan who welcomed us in Ad Damazin today:
“We are delighted to welcome you all in the State of Blue Nile. We know that most of the biplanes which arrived here participated in WW2. But today they came here with a message of peace. We would like you to know that the State of Blue Nile has a lot of potential and attractions. Loads of wild animals, Tigers, Lions, Girafes! It is also a great place for cultural tourism. There are hundreds of different tribes to discover. Thank you for coming here, thank you for being curious about us, our people, our country. Please tell your friends and families that the State of Blue Nile is a safe place.”