“With at least 2 direct flights a day on Kenyan Airways or the option of a three-day scenic drive along the rift valley, what could be easier than travelling from Nairobi to Lusaka? Then came 2020, COVID-19 and LOCKDOWN! One unfortunate Zambian lawyer was on a three-week trade mission to Nairobi in March 2020 when the shutters came down. All international flights were suspended, borders closed, and inhabitants confined to one-quarter squares of Nairobi. Repeated signals and rumours that restrictions “would lift soon” failed to materialise with KQ opening flights then cancelling again. This was when I was approached in my capacity as an air charter operator to quote for a repatriation charter flight in a Cessna; but as you might imagine, the cost at around $11,000 came in a bit steep even for a lawyer!
After the poor unfortunate had been stranded for no less than three months, the managing partner of a local law firm offered the use of his beautiful Sling 4 9J-YAZ for the flight. However, his plane was planned for another flight at that time and there was the same issue as with the Cessna option: Inadequate range to make Lusaka to Nairobi in one hop. This would add all the complications of a stop in Northern Zambia or Tanzania at a time when most international airports were closed. The solution came in the substitution of the Sling owned by a Zambian consortium, Sling 4 no 003, formerly known as ZU-TAD, now 9J-YUM, and featured on the cover of the Sling 4 POH! The advantage of this machine is that she was built with an expedition around the Antarctic in mind, which saw her fitted with an extra 60 litres per wing in leading edge tanks outboard of the standard ones. This provides an impressive 300 litres total fuel, or 11+ hours endurance!
So it came to pass that I set off on the longest single sector of my 8,000-hour odd flying career, from Lusaka to Nairobi direct in exactly 8 hours 36 minutes on June 18th 2020 and back home with my passenger the next day in 8 hours 30 minutes. At 990 Nautical Miles that gives an average of about 116 Knots, for this trip we had re-fitted the wheel spats (or “Pants” as the Americans like to call them!) I find they make a healthy 5-10 knots difference on the Sling 4, but like all spats they fall apart quickly on Zambia’s bumpy grass runways and prevent daily safety inspections of the wheels, brakes and tyres, so they are usually dispensed with here.
It was not actually my first flight to Nairobi in a Sling 4, having flown the same route in 9J-YAZ with 4 healthy sized guys on board in 2017 for the Kenyan Rhino Charge event, but at that time, we had to stop in Kasama for a top-up of fuel in each direction and just made Kasama to Nairobi with about 45 minutes reserve! Weather can be a big issue around Northern Tanzania and Kenya all year-around, and with various terrain up around 10-15,000 feet, one must think twice before plunging into cloud! It is easy to be relaxed about it during our long dry season of dependable conditions and scarcity of threatening terrain in Zambia but on this mission, I was lucky and could remain genuinely legally VFG the whole way there and back. I passed some great scenery including Mt Kilimanjaro sticking up out of the clouds, and had a comfortable, easy flight. 9J-YUM was even fitted with cockpit holes for discharge tubes to safely carry away any overflow fluids on long sectors!
There were some really great features of the Sling for this mission. I was rather dreading how my aged and tormented spine would feel after 8.5 hours in the seat without a chance to shift position, but it was fine, even after 2 successive days of the same. The range of this plane was a life saver, but even the regular tanked Sing 4, a couple of years before, was impressive and could take a top up of the MOGAS available in Kasama. Cost was a really important factor which made this mission possible. Burning 26 litres per hour for 116 Knots block average coupled with the ability to run on MOGAS where suitable quality is available, is the real winner of such a trip. At Nairobi, the only fuel available was AVGAS at an exorbitant cost of around $2.50 a litre, (compared to little more than half that cost in Lusaka at that time!) but I had a fair bit of Zambian AVGAS still in the tanks to reduce my need.
We operated this Sling 4 in a syndicate contributing US$ 100 per flight hour, take-off to landing, which covered AVGAS fuel, all routine and unplanned maintenance as well as hangarage, and it built-up a reserve for engine overhauls as we flew along.
Another life saver (I must have been impersonating a cat!) was the autopilot. I cannot imagine steering a legacy plane without autopilot for that long by hand. 9J-YUM still has the characterful old MGL Odyssey “Glass Panel” (now scratched plastic!) which has very wisely been supplanted by a Garmin kit as standard in the later planes. The autopilot function has given some trouble over the years but with careful setting up and tightening of screws on servos, we had it working very well.
As for the challenges faced on the mission, none came from the aircraft per se. Slingers should always bear in mind that there is no automatic right to cross borders in non-type certified aircraft, and that all operations, into and over countries other than that of registration, are at the discretion of the other countries. However, I have never faced any difficulties getting clearances to fly Sling aircraft over borders if a little time is allowed for obtaining permissions. I have always applied for clearance in the usual way clearly stating the aircraft type, and once cleared, I accept that as my permission to fly a NTC aircraft! In the case of the Kenyan rescue mission, I was assisted by our Zambian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get the clearance, as the passenger to be rescued was on a diplomatic duty. The Kenyans are usually quite sticky though, demanding lots of paperwork in advance for plane and pilot. Tanzanians on the other hand just seem to care about collecting money from you for everything you do!
Despite the COVID situation, Wilson Airport, Nairobi’s no 2, was still surprisingly busy. There were cargo flights mainly, carrying PPE etc around the region and critically, the airport was open for international flights. However, as usual, it was a huge run around to fill in about 20 forms and pay about 10 different fees at different windows including some at the bank, which was closed, so “Okay in that case you can just leave the money with me”. I strongly recommend finding and paying a handling agent at Wilson! Having said that, there were plenty of friendly people to give guidance and considerable admiration for the beauty of the Sling parked amongst the endless Caravans and squat cargo machines that frequent Wilson, as well as universal surprise that it had flown from Lusaka in one hop!
The rules at that time were very strict for COVID in Kenya and I was originally told I would need to “bring two sets of crew and rotate directly back to Lusaka”. It took some explaining that this was not really a practical option in a day VFR 4-seat NTC aircraft! So, when I reached the health and immigration check, they started saying I must isolate for 10 days at one of the hotels on their list! “No”, I explained, “I am returning, and ceasing to be your problem tomorrow and even taking out another problem away with me!” This rather confused them and eventually they told me to just get a taxi and go to any nearby hotel. This is exactly what I did and even managed to catch up over a Tusker or two with an old buddy who happened to live in the same quarter sector of town!
Although we are still dealing with COVID-19 and lockdowns, restrictions and the partial collapse of the aviation sector, 2021 does not feel at all like 2020. Airports fell almost silent last year and there was a sense of fear, drama, and the unknown everywhere.
That Sling mission in 9J-YUM will remain one of the more memorable entries in my logbook!”
-Edmund Farmer (Sling 4 Owner – Zambia)