It was September, 2007. It was dark, I could see only shadows on the street and the particular smell of a place I never been before. Africa.
Hopefully, when my flight arrived to Bamako – Senou airport it was late at night. First arrival to Africa is always shocking and one thing is to see it on Discovery Channel and another completely different is to see it in real. I never imagined that this would be the first step on my aviation career to become an African Bush Pilot.
If asked, most of us can create a mental picture of what means being an Airline Pilot, a Business Pilot or a Military Pilot. But few of us know exactly what a Bush Pilot is. The image we have of the first one is of a guy with an immaculate uniform with golden or silver stripes, wearing a hat, walking with secure steps at a studied speed on the airport terminal carrying a flight bag with rolling wheels. Is the same one we see sitting on the cockpit of those amazing big jets that carry lots of people all over the world. The second one is the one that flies those fancy business jets carrying all type of important people and superstars, not much flight, a lot of five stars hotels and a glamorous life. The third one is the one all kids dream to be, the top one of the history, all adrenaline, wears a helmet, boots, gloves, an anti-G uniform and flies those incredible fighter jets, remember Top Gun?
But, what about our friend the Bush Pilot? We know little about him, when we hear about them we make an immediate relationship with Africa or Alaska, but truth is that we can find Bush Pilots anywhere in the world, flying all kind of aircrafts. But what is exactly a Bush Pilot? Some of us tend to think that are those kinds of guys that can land small airplanes in a piece of paper, do all kind of crazy things with an airplane, some of them to the edge of a reckless operation. The fact is that being a Bush Pilot requires a very good knowledge of your aircraft, how it will react to certain control inputs, what to expect under certain conditions of weight, cg position, etc. And also very good flying skills, good knowledge of the area of operation, terrain, weather, wind conditions, etc.
During my stay in Africa, flying in different countries I have seen all kind of extreme operations done by bush pilots. For example, land a Boeing 737 in a passenger / cargo configuration in a 5000 ft gravel runway, a turbine DC-3 from Red Cross landing in a curving runway in the middle of the African bush, a Let 410 flown by Russian pilots taking off in a road with the wings barely clearing the sides of the trees.
We were operating our Saab in a mining location which has been compacted with….coffee! Yes, unbelievable, coffee. And was hard like concrete!
Not to mention, that in most cases there was no Flight Dispatcher, so we had to calculate manually our Weight and Balance, sometimes no baggage handlers. In some destinations, mostly mining locations, there was no weather report station, so we had to call someone, usually the radio operator to give us an appreciation of the weather conditions over the airfield and I can tell, the guys were very good!
In most runways there was no PAPI, or VOR, or ILS, only a homemade GPS approach, so our glide slope were our eyes. Remember the trick of the closed hand placed vertically on your glare shield with the runway threshold on top of it? It works perfect!
Bush Pilots are a brotherhood and they have a high reputation among the aviation community. Today, away from Africa, flying in a modern environment, with radar control, all kind of aids for approach, long runways and modern airports and terminals; I can say that I’ll be always grateful for the wonderful opportunity that Africa gave me; that in fact made me a better pilot.
Author: Capt. Ivan
A nice video of the “Tankers du Ciel” – Flying Tankers, the remarkable life of the pilots who bring fuel to the remote diamond mines of Angola.