Before setting off on the trip, there would be a bit of time in Europe to prepare. I had to collect the aircraft from Belgium and ferry it to the UK, where we’d spend a few days getting ready. We’d meet at Cranfield airport two days in advance of setting off south where the main sponsors, Clearblue, would hold an event, and we could spend time with the families before departure.
I arrived in Belgium a couple of days early, as it turns out, because the aircraft that was meant to be ready for me now had a two day delay. I passed the time in the historic town of Ghent with a friend of mine from the Netherlands, a very relaxing period before the hectic weeks to follow. We spent the time exploring the town which was in the middle of their annual festival; a large celebration with bands playing in all the squares, street markets and the like. It was good fun to visit, but we did find ourselves wishing that we could see the city without the bustling crowds, and large temporary stages; they did detract from the beauty of the old buildings. Highlights were the old castle, which has been authentically restored and is almost all accessible, as well as a boat trip around the canals of the city.
After a late morning departure the next day, the train journey over to Charleroi was smooth. It had been agreed that I would aim to get to the airport at 3pm, and that we’d speak sometime after 10am to confirm. In the end, I didn’t manage to make contact until after 3pm, by which time I was already hanging around the station in Charleroi. Further engineering delays on the aircraft, followed by poor weather, meant that the aircraft did not arrive until nearly 8pm, and I was not airborne until nearly 9pm; much too late to get to my planned destination of Biggin Hill before closing time, especially with the 30kt headwind I was battling.
In the USA, an airport is seen as similar to a road; a part of the nation’s infrastructure. As a result, all airfields tend to be available 24 hours a day; many are not attended at night (or indeed at all), but there is no need for anyone to be present for an aircraft to use a strip of tarmac. Even at night, lights can be operated easily by the pilot over the radio. In much of the rest of the world, including Europe, unnecessary regulation coupled with the effects of those people who buy houses next to airports and then complain that they can hear aircraft have led to short operating hours for most airports. As it was, the only open airport by the time I got to the UK was Southend, a long way from home, but at least in the right country.
I met with Sophia the following morning in London in order to apply for a couple more visas. The first, Ivory Coast, required us to be present in person to have fingerprints and a photo taken. It turned out that we did not have all the documentation; because we were not arriving by scheduled flight and hence had no ticket, they wanted more paperwork than normal. Luckily Sophia had her laptop and a mobile internet connection, and we were able to make a hotel booking there and then (without even needing a credit card) and paid the man in the office the requested £1 to print out two copies. The lady behind the desk then took Sophia’s application, but for some reason left me waiting for another two hours; it turned out that she had crossed me off her list as “completed” by mistake and then went off to a meeting. Sophia left to get to the Nigerian High Commission and submit my documents before they closed; the joy of having two passports! All going to plan, we’ll be able to send a representative to collect all three passports, my two and Sophia’s one, on Friday.
The next morning was bright and sunny with barely a cloud in the sky; perfect conditions for flying. I was dropped off at Southend along with my mother, who would be flying with me for the day. We cleared security quickly and, kitted out in our mandatory high-visibility vests, strolled across the tarmac to the aircraft. I pre-flighted especially carefully, as this was the first time I’d had the aircraft to myself without being rushed, and I wanted to ensure I became fully familiar with it. In addition, I had to carefully inspect for any pre-existing damage so that we would not be charged for something we didn’t do! By 11am we were ready to depart, and took off on runway 06 headed for Peterborough Sibson Airfield.
We flew on a direct course for Sibson at 2000ft; the air was not too bumpy, and the visibility perfect. Our course took us towards Stansted, and after a short conversation with Essex radar we were given clearance to pass directly overhead, between two landing Ryanair 737s. From there we flew past many of my old haunts; Duxford, Cambridge, and RAF Wyton where the Cambridge University Air Squadron is based. Sibson was quiet, and we landed on runway 15; just 500m of grass, which concentrates the mind when one has been flying from at least 750m of tarmac for the last year or more!
Sibson is a picturesque field, with a small flying school and a parachute centre. We sat in the lounge and I worked on further flight planning using the conveniently provided wifi while we waited for Sophia and her mother Pauline to arrive. We’d be flying from Sibson down to Cranfield, just a 30 mile trip, but it was important that Sophia arrive by air as the primary sponsors, ClearBlue had arranged to have a reception party including photographers to meet us as we taxied in.
Departure was delayed a few minutes as the BBC World Service wanted to interview Sophia! That done, we loaded up the mothers; a nice touch to make the first flight of “Flight for Every Mother” with them on board; and set off for the short and uneventful hop to Cranfield. As we turned off the runway we found that they’d managed to persuade the airport to take them out to near the threshold and get some video of our arrival; thankfully I made a fairly good landing!
We parked up, and spent a few moments having photographs taken and answering questions. While Sophia carried on talking with the greeters from ClearBlue I chatted with the airport representative, who informed me that Cranfield had very kindly arranged for our landing and parking fees to be waived in aid of the charity trip. We thanked them, and after securing the aircraft were driven to the offices of ClearBlue. Most of the employees had turned out for a reception, with a banner welcoming Sophia and even cupcakes with “Flight for Every Mother” logos on them! Group photos, speeches, and on-camera interviews followed before we headed for the hotel.
That evening we took the chance to catch our breath at the Embankment Hotel in Bedford. They were very kind and donated a night’s free stay to both Sophia and I in support of the project. A colleague of Sophia’s showed up to deliver her malaria medication, and after some time sat by the river getting to know each other’s families we turned in.
With participants and families gathered in Bedford, we spent an hour the next morning at ClearBlue, planning what still needed to be done. I split off together with my father, and shopped for last minute items (tie down ropes for the aircraft, and so on) before heading out to the aircraft. We met up with Steve and Lucy (Sophia’s father and sister) and spent some time planning how we’d load the aircraft, as well as organising fuel. Steve and Lucy took some time to painstakingly adhere the website address to the aircraft.
Later in the evening, back at the hotel, I sat down with the charts for the UK, France, and Spain and planned our flight for the next day. It would be a straight shot South past London, along the French coast, and finally a right turn into Bilbao. A total of 588nm should mean a flight time of a little less than 6 hours.
At 8pm my sister arrived from London, and the eight of us sat down for a goodbye dinner. The disco from the wedding that was taking place in the hotel thankfully shut down at a reasonable hour and we went to bed early, ready for the official departure to Africa the next day.
We arrived at the airfield on departure day a little before it opened, but the staff were already around and let us in to load the aircraft. We weighed the gear one last time and found that we had 150kg of gear in total. Carefully distributed within the aircraft, we were still within our weight and balance limits. The time came, at last, to say goodbye; a few group photos later and Sophia and I started up the aircraft and headed for the runway.
It turns out that the families had not taken into account the time to queue for takeoff behind a couple of other aircraft, and were not fully acquainted with light aircraft identification. They waved wildy, shared emotional hugs, and took countless photos of the departing Cessna; which was unfortunately not us. As they were walking back to their cars a very kind man from the control tower ran after them, to point out that we’d not actually taken off yet, so they rushed back just in time to do it all over again. Apparently, it was much less emotional the second time around.
We set course South at 2000ft to remain below the airspace around Luton and Heathrow. Being a beautiful Saturday morning, there was quite a large amount of other traffic buzzing around, including plenty of gliders; we weaved a course around a number of locations to keep clear of the launching winches that power the gliders up to 1000ft or more. As we tracked further South towards Southampton the coastline came into view, and we accepted a radar service from Solent Radar as we climbed up to 6,500ft over the Isle of Wight before crossing the Channel. Even as we passed over St Catherine’s Point, the coastline of France was just visible in the distance.
The French Air Traffic Controllers gave excellent service as we passed down the entire Western side of the country. We were handed off from controller to controller, with seamless clearance through the various sections of airspace we passed through, as well as a traffic service to alert us of any other aircraft nearby. Around 90 minutes from Bilbao, our relaxed cruise came to an end; the “Low Voltage” warning light had illuminated. A quick assessment of the situation suggested an issue with the alternator; although, trouble shooting quickly demonstrated that the alternator itself was still operating. Whatever the reason, the battery was no longer receiving a charge, and that meant that our electrical systems were at risk of shutting down.
Shutting down all non-essential systems such as aircraft lights brought the drain on the battery down to a minimum. The SMA aerodiesel engine fitted to our aircraft has an electrically powered Engine Control Unit, which we bypassed by switching to the mechanical back-up; the engine will stop running if the ECU shuts down, so switching to mechanical back-up is a sensible precaution and also removes further load from the battery. Running in mechanical back-up mode limits the available power, so we continued our flight in good conditions at a slightly reduced speed.
An hour later, we approached Bilbao under a scattered layer of cloud. We flew a slow downwind leg to allow a Lufthansa flight to land ahead of us, before touching down well down the runway to avoid his wake turbulence. A “follow-me” car led us to a parking spot more commonly used for mid-size regional jets, and the handling agents from Servisair met us as we shut down. We had to wait some time for fuel, as they were dealing with several airliners before turning their attention to us. The first fuel truck they brought was too large, and they had to go away and locate a smaller one that would have a hose that was not too big to fit into our filler port. Even then, they insisted on being shown the part of the aircraft handbook that specified Jet-A as the fuel; they’d never encountered something this small that didn’t run on AVGAS.
To investigate the electrical issue would first require a look under the cowling to spot any obvious issues such as loose wiring; but here we ran into a problem. The tool we needed to remove the cowling, a simple screwdriver, was the one thing we’d forgotten to bring with us in the rush of departure. Servisair, who were proving themselves extremely helpful and professional, came to the rescue and collected us from our hotel to take us to the supermarket so we could buy the tools we need. We ate at the hotel, and didn’t sleep until late after working through all of the required planning for the next day, and other issues that always come up in preparation for stops down-route.
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