The year is 1963. Captain L. (Harry) Harris, with only thirty minutes handling experience, flew an ancient DeHavilland Rapide aircraft from Biggin hill airfield in Kent To Cape Town, South Africa and return. Fly with them down the Nile. Experience the trauma of engine failure over lion country. Travel the length of Lake Victoria at five hundred feet. You will be there in the tiny cabin for thousands of miles of nail biting thrills.
Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride!
Capt. ‘Harry’ Harris
The 1960's were good to me. As an ab initio instructor I operated a small flying club 'on a shoestring' at Biggin Hill, Kent. Financial reward was not the main issue of my existence. Flying; the smell of airplanes; the exhilaration of breaking the ties with terra firma as I pulled back the stick and entered a third dimension, to see the boundary hedge disappear beneath my wings; this was a life worth living. My parachuting days as an army red beret were interesting but after almost 100 jumps one tended to be a little blasé. Not so with piloting a plane. After 20,000 hrs behind the control column the adrenalin still rises as I 'open the taps' for take-off and ease them back again on the approach to land.
One of my students at Biggin Hill, Ron Baker, had previously held a private licence but let it lapse and it fell to me to bring him up to scratch to enable him to re-activate or 'get recency' as it is known in flying circles.
Ron, an ex-RAF rear gunner of a Lancaster bomber, had now become a successful businessman with a string of laundrettes. He had his own ideas of handling a plane. Flying by the book was not his cup of tea. This caused me some concern, for the sky is no place for the foolhardy. However I eventually managed to check him out solo on a small Auster high wing monoplane; an aircraft with few vices that could be grossly mishandled on landing without mishap, which made it ideal as a trainer.
It was late 1963 when Ron announced he wanted to fly to Capetown for Christmas, taking as passengers his wife and three young daughters and would I like to go along? Originally I took this suggestion with 'a pinch of salt', little realising he was in earnest. On each visit to the club he would fetch up the subject again and I kept him amused by lending an ear, still convinced it was all idle talk on his part. Then, one day, he casually told me that he was well advanced with the negotiations for the lease of a De Havilland DH89A Rapide. The same type in which fifteen years previously I taken my first joy ride.
It slowly dawned on me that Ron was deadly serious and the thought of undertaking such an adventure both thrilled and alarmed me. Ron decided he wanted to leave the UK in time to arrive in Cape Town by the Christmas. I had by this time become deeply involved and under an obligation to Ron, as I had been obliged to leave my digs and Ron allowed me to live rent free in a small cottage he owned behind one of his business premises.
And so it was that one day I found myself accompanying Ron to a hotel foyer in London to meet a certain Brian Neeley, the co-owner of a Rapide, registration G-ALGC. We were also in touch with a rather dubious character, the son of a rich farmer who was desperately trying to hire us his Rapide, which was fitted with variable pitch propellers. At first, this seemed the better option but having gained our interest, he then calmly informed us that part of the deal necessitated dropping in at Nairobi on the way to do an engine change due to one engine being time expired.
G-ALC was radio equipped, which was of course essential for such a trip but, unlike today's multi-frequency easy-to-select type of radio, this was one of the old wartime variety and every time one needed to change frequency it necessitated removing a two pronged crystal from the set and replacing it with another from a small rack situated at the left side of the cockpit. The choice of frequencies therefore was somewhat limited.
Now, apart form my initial joy ride in a Rapide and occasional one-way parachuting escapades, my experience on this type of aircraft was limited to that of passenger. The Rapide has only one pilot seat up front, which makes it a little awkward, if not at times hair-raising to check out new pilots.
My good friend Don Bullock, who was very sadly killed some years later whilst demonstrating a WW2 A26 Invader at the Biggin Hill Air Show, showed me the ropes of how to handle the beast and I completed a brief twenty-minute flight to acquaint myself. I felt very apprehensive though about taking it all the way to Cape Town and back with my limited experience, particularly with a married couple and three young girls on board.
Fortunately though, by now it had been very clearly established that I was to be the only one that would fly her en-route. This stipulation was arrived at primarily because Ron didn't possess a multi-engine rating on his licence, and general lack of any twin engine experience but also at his wife's insistence that he employed an experienced pilot to do all the flying.
Now I'm not sure what Ron told his wife about me to convince her that I was 'experienced' but I suddenly had an undeserved reputation to live up to. When I was finally introduced to Ron's wife, Anne, she made him promise that he wasn't to do any of the flying whilst she and the girls were aboard. This placed me in an embarrassing position and I looked to Ron for the appropriate response. He nodded his agreement. It was a pact made there and then on the subject. At least the situation had now been clarified to the point where I only had my own somewhat limited experience to worry about. My total flying experience to date was minimal, most of which was gained as an ab-initio instructor teaching others how to fly in the local Biggin Hill area.
And so all the preparations for the great adventure got under way. Inoculations, vaccinations, visas etc were to be obtained for all six of us plus lots of information was to be extracted from the Royal Aero Club, who I must admit rendered us splendid service and co-operation. Arrangements were made with fuel companies to lay on supplies at the various planned stops en-route where fuel wasn't available. Customs carnets were to be obtained for the temporary export/import of the aircraft and a host of other details too numerous to mention.
Although the RAC provided us with much valuable information about the proposed routeing, there were numerous gaps to be filled and a great many unknowns. To the best of their knowledge such a lengthy return flight in a Rapide had never yet been attempted. Possibly during the war years with full service support, but with many of the countries we contemplated transiting through being newly independent and therefore no longer under British control, anything could; and most probably would, happen.
The first big problem was the range of the Rapide with standard tanks being a little over two hundred miles in zero wind conditions. This was insufficient for some of the longer sectors planned, with no alternate landing places in between. However, in the flying fraternity there is always someone ready and willing to assist a fellow aviator. It was suggested that we fit a DH Dove's overload tank to carry the extra fuel required. One of these miraculously appeared from somewhere. This would now increase our range to cover the longer legs envisaged, only just though and with no contingency fuel as reserves, barely enough from departure to destination in zero wind conditions. We removed the middle seat on the right-hand side of the passenger cabin and fitted the overload tank about the position of the centre of gravity. We then arranged the plumbing in such a way that we could feed from the new tank to either wing tank. Of course with so much high-octane fuel in the cabin, 'no smoking' was the order of the day. So to the next problem: somebody warned us that the Gypsy Queen engines ere renowned 'oilers' and although we may have sufficient fuel for the longer sectors, we would almost certainly not have the 'oil' endurance. So we had another brick wall to scale.
Then, out of the blue someone informed us that during the war, the Rapide, or Dominie as it was known in the RAF, was sometimes fitted with long-range oil tanks to cover this situation. So the hunt began. Eventually we received information that there was an old derelict Rapide up at Bagington (Coventry) airport that may have long range oil tanks. We made enquiries and Hey Presto! A pair of tanks was available which had already been removed and stored as the rest of the aircraft had been disposed of.
Up to Coventry we flew in one of the club's aircraft and after a bit of 'Arab-type’ bargaining managed to obtain the fuel tanks at our price and returned with them to Biggin. They were duly cleaned up, pressure tested and sprayed, but then another problem faced us. The stranded-wire cables that had held the original oil tanks were now too short to go around our new larger tanks.
Saved again. A very good engineer at Biggin who was about to emigrate to Australia just happened to be spending his last few days at Biggin Hill. He knew how to splice wire cable to the threaded metal ends and after a bit of friendly persuasion, and the odd pint or two of the amber liquid, he accepted the task and made a splendid job of it for us. We fitted the tanks in position and started to replace the cowlings. Another Gremlin raised its ugly head. With the larger tanks, the cowlings wouldn't fit properly so off they came again and with the assistance of a panel beater we bulged them to accommodate the larger tanks.
Our bladder endurance had already been taken care of by the inclusion of a small, enclosed toilet fitted at the starboard rear of the cabin fitted with an Elsan loo. We were highly amused at the 'vacant-engaged' sing on the door. As if we wouldn't have known if anyone was in there.
Being somewhat restricted for both space and weight we were obliged to have a very short list of spares. We decided that if possible, we should at least make room for a complete main wheel, fitted with tyre, as this was probably the most likely spare we would need. I thought about taking just the tyre without the wheel, being so heavy, but decided it would be more prudent to take the complete assembly. This was bulky and heavy and in the event we fortunately never required it, but as an ex-boy scout it was best to 'be prepared'. If we were to have an incident at a remote strip without it then heaven help us. The rest of the spares consisted of smaller items such as spare sparking plugs, a starter and various other bits and bobs.
So far, everything was going according to plan. That was until I casually remarked to Ron that as this promised to be an adventure of a lifetime, wouldn't it be a good idea to borrow a decent camera and record some of the highlights for posterity. He became annoyed at this suggestion and taking his pipe from his mouth sarcastically remarked, "why don't we take the kitchen sink too and any other useless commodity you can think of while we're at it"? "Sorry I spoke, forget about it" I said. He quickly composed himself and in an attempt to defuse the situation remarked that in fact he already had a camera so it wasn't really necessary to take another one. I let the matter drop at that, still puzzled at his attitude but thinking that possibly he had a lot on his mind and I'd caught him at the wrong moment. In fact though, throughout the whole trip, the only pictorial record that I ever saw was a blurred shot of an African native cycling down the beach holding an umbrella as we flew past at low level. So many excellent shots were missed and I found it hard to forgive him for that.
Ron acquired a bundle of traveller's cheques to take with him and methodically inspected the aircraft from end to end looking for convenient hiding places, which I thought somewhat strange at the time. He then informed me that he would pay me a subsistence allowance of five pounds per week whilst on the trip with all expenses paid. I didn't object to this as I was in no position to do otherwise, seeing that I was living rent free in one of his properties and with UK winter approaching and the flying club income dropping off, it would be a paid holiday in the sun. Besides which, my partner Charlie, could manage to run the club on his own during my long absence in the off-peak season with only one mouth to feed.
I calculated the flight from Biggin to Cape Town would take around fourteen days if we took it easy or a minimum of ten days, not allowing for any hold ups. The whole object of the trip from Ron's point of view was to arrive at Cape Town just before Christmas so that he could celebrate the festive season with pre-war friends. Our planned ETD was the end of the first week in December 1963 with a deadline of the twelfth.
As the day approached and the weather deteriorated, I was full of foreboding as to what lay in store ahead. Although by now I was a full instructor, I was nevertheless a relatively inexperienced pilot with only limited instrument flying experience. I was beginning to dread the unknown hazards that lay in wait for us. It wasn't so much for myself that I was concerned but for Ron's wife and three young children all of who had by now every confidence in my ability and complete trust in me. The misplaced child-like adoration of the three girls was beginning to make me feel a little uncomfortable. With my independent spirit as a single man (marriage was still four years away) I had never encountered such responsibility before.
We listened to the weather forecast every day on the radio and it was not good. Ron by this time could hardly contain his impatience with the delay and all but accused me of deliberate procrastination. I dug my heels in and refused to budge until the weather improved. Anne backed my decision entirely. At last a slight improvement in the weather was promised for he following afternoon so final preparations were made for our departure.
That evening at the bar I had a 'farewell' drink with my friends convinced I would never see them again. Charlie, my partner at the flying club, with the aid of a china graph pencil on the bar's counter, described to me how the Marconi ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) worked; I hadn't a clue, having never seen one before. That information was the best advice Charlie ever gave me. By this time also most of the Biggin Hill fraternity knew of our venture and were laying bets as to how far we'd get before it all came to a grinding halt.
Firmly believing myself by now that it would be nothing short of a miracle to reach Cape Town let alone get back in one piece to tell the tale, I happily accepted all their five-pound bets and even suggested doubling them asserting that, not only would we reach Cape Town by Christmas, but also return to Biggin in the New Year without incident. I had nothing to lose. Strangely, it was those wagers plus my grave concern for the safety of the three young girls, and a largish element of good luck that enabled me to pick up those bets on my return. It became the driving force I needed to bolster my flagging spirits.
And now the amazing adventure of a lifetime was about to begin.
The Outbound Trip
December 12th 1963 dawned overcast with showers of rain and sleet accompanied with blustering cold easterly winds – I was not happy! However, with Ron champing at the bit combined with a promise of a slight improvement by early-afternoon, I had no alternative but to give the green light, so we commenced making final preparations for our departure. I was particularly concerned about my lack of experience with the Rapide having barely flown more than a couple of circuits in her. The DH Rapide is a lovely old girl but requires a fair amount of handling in rough weather, especially in crosswinds, and at that stage I just didn’t have that sort of experience on her. She won’t abide fools or novices as numerous pilots have discovered to their chagrin.
The forecast improvement arrived by early-afternoon, by which time I was beginning to wish that I was anywhere in the world except just about to climb into the driving seat of G-ALGC. What had I let myself in for I thought to myself? No turning back now so all aboard; engines started and warmed up; radio clearance to taxy to the holding point of runway 11; mags checked; line up; clearance to take-off; one last glance at dear old Biggin Hill, wondering if we would ever meet again; both throttles opened gently to catch the swing as the tail came up and we were on our way. A bit of a stagger after she lifted off in the blustery wind, as depicted by the only photo of our departure taken by a well-wisher and we were airborne – Le Touquet first stop across the Channel. Our epic adventure was about to commence…
The low cloud kept me down to 800 feet at first, having no desire to enter the murky overcast and fly on instruments so early in the piece with my lack of experience. It persisted all the way to the coast and beyond as I set course direct for France. The sea below was full of whitecaps and I noticed the waves breaking over the bows of the ships we crossed as they heaved and rolled in the pounding seas – sooner them than us I thought! Eventually the French coastline appeared dimly through the sleet-splattered windshield and I quickly got my bearings.
I turned right on reaching Cap Gris Nez, following the coast down to Le Touquet. The river and airfield hove into sight and the controller cleared me to land, having offered (at my request) the shorter but more into-wind runway heading towards the river, as I had no desire to practice crosswind landings at this stage of the proceedings. The landing, if you can call it that (arrival would be more appropriate), was bumpy and I experienced considerable difficulty keeping her straight once the tail went down in the gusty conditions. I taxied in and parked close to some other light aircraft as instructed by the controller. It was already rapidly approaching dusk by the time we had finished refuelling for the morrow’s flight so after clearing the arrival and Customs procedures and without further ado we took a taxi to a cheap hotel. After our evening meal and a beer I turned in, mentally and physically exhausted from the strain of our departure.
December 13th 1963. After a quick Continental breakfast we were soon airborne early and en-route to Lyons. Although the weather had improved at Le Touquet, I started running into low cloud again near Paris. Staying as low as I dared to keep clear of commercial traffic, I skimmed beneath the overcast but was finally forced to enter cloud onto instruments because of rising ground ahead. After about half an hour, with thin icing appearing on the wings and struts which concerned me somewhat, as the aircraft was not equipped for flight in icing conditions, the clouds began to break and I got my bearings from the map spread across my lap. Fortunately I had the ADF tuned into a couple of beacons on the way so was fairly sure of my position anyway. I was beginning to like this weird and wonderful ADF gadget! The weather gradually improved and the latter part of the flight was in reasonably good flying conditions.
On arrival at Lyons after an otherwise uneventful 3½ hour flight, Ron and I took care of the formalities and refuelling whilst Anne took the three girls off for a meal, with Ron and myself joining them later. Within an hour we were on our way again, this time to Nice on the French Riviera. The weather had improved considerably by this time and as we flew southwards following the Rhone Valley I began to breathe more easily. Now my old confidence was beginning to flow back again and with most of the bad weather behind us I began to relax and enjoy myself.
Turning the corner as the blue Mediterranean came into view, I followed the coast down to Nice, and after receiving landing clearance we alighted at Cote d’Azure airport. It had taken us almost six flying hours from Le Touquet on the first full day’s flying and if we maintained this average without any hiccups we should just make it to Cape Town in time for Christmas.
Formalities as usual were kept to a minimum and soon we were in a taxi and heading for a hotel. At last I felt that we were truly on our way, with the promise of better weather and a much warmer environment to look forward to as we distanced ourselves from the cold North; following the sun towards the Equatorial regions.
December 14th 1963. The temperatures by this time had increased to the point of shirt-sleeve order and woollies remained unworn from that time onwards for the next two months. Off again early, or as early as the children would allow, as of course they wanted to see the sights of the town. By now, although we had hardly begun the long trek southwards to Cape Town, the novelty of flying was beginning to wear a bit thin with them.
Immediately after getting airborne we set course over the Mediterranean to Ajaccio in Corsica. After some time the lofty Corsican mountains appeared over the horizon and within half an hour we were in the circuit to land at Ajaccio airport. The place was not unfamiliar to me as I had been there earlier that year when I ferried an Auster 5 out to Benghazi with the owner, a chap called Dennis Revelle.
A quick refuelling stop, with Customs and Immigration details attended to with the minimum of fuss, and we were once more taking off for our next intended destination which was Tunis in North Africa. Before long the children began to get restless with the youngest one Jillie starting to play-up. Poor Anne tried her best to keep them amused but they were obviously not enjoying it. Unfortunately Ron wasn’t very sympathetic, expecting them to share his enthusiasm, so I attempted to relieve their boredom by inviting them to come up front one-by-one and sit on the step just behind me to my right, pointing out the various places of interest as we flew along.
Soon we were over Sardinia and flying down the valleys between the hill ranges, travelling southwards all the time into warmer climes, leaving the miserable English winter behind us. Crossing the coast near the town of Cagliari, we set course across the Mediterranean towards Tunis, feeling a lot happier this time with the two Gypsy Queen engines purring sweetly alongside me, than I did previously when I had ferried the single-engine Auster to Benghazi earlier in the year.
Europe was fast receding behind us and half an hour later I saw land up ahead. Africa at last! It would be Africa all the way now to Cape Town, and what an enormous continent it was too as we were soon to discover. Conditions were ideal and soon after crossing the North African coast near Bizerte, the scene of some fierce WW2 fighting, we were in contact with the Tunis control tower and given circuit joining and landing instructions. Once again, formalities and refuelling were quickly dispensed with and we were very soon bundled into a ramshackle taxi heading for a hotel in town.
That evening after supper at the hotel we all strolled through the streets of Tunis in the pleasantly warm air taking in the sights. The three girls by now had shed their heavier clothes in favour of fashionable tight shorts and T-shirts. Linda at fourteen was an early developer and well aware of it. Suddenly we heard this babble of voices behind us and on looking around saw a crowd of Arab men of all ages following behind us, all ogling at Linda. I was a bit slow on the uptake at first having not come across such a situation before. I should have realised it earlier though seeing all the Arab females walking around dressed like black pepper pots; clothed head-to-feet with just one eye visible through their veils. We quickly made tracks for the hotel followed all the way by the rabble of cat-calling hooting mob of Arabs. Our first culture shock on leaving civilised Europe behind us! There were many more to come.
December 15th 1963. Ten days to go to Christmas – would we make it in time? Barring any unforeseen calamity I felt confident we would. Another early start and before long we were airborne, climbing into the pale blue cloudless skies with the azure blue Mediterranean on our left and the light brown desert sand beneath us. Spirits were high. Cold grey Europe was behind us and the mighty African continent beneath. All we had to do was to traverse it from one end of it to the other.
From Tunis we flew round the coast and then set course for Tripoli, having a good look at the ancient city of Carthage on the way, plus some Roman ruins I had missed on my previous trip with the Auster. Three hours after leaving Tunis we were landing at the Libyan capital’s international airport.
After a somewhat lengthy refuelling stop at Tripoli (pre-Ghaddafi era of course), with Customs and Immigration formalities completed, we took off once again, making a beeline across the large Gulf of Sirte to Benghazi for our next night-stop.
On the previous trip with the Auster I was obliged (being a short-range single-engine aircraft) to follow the very long coastline around the gulf, stopping to refuel half-way at an old disused wartime airstrip called Marble Arch, from spare cans of fuel I carried in the cabin with me (the name Marble Arch being given by the WW2 Eighth Army owing to its similarity to the famous London landmark). This time though, with two engines and a longer range, it was my intention to shorten the journey by flying in a straight line from Tripoli across the wide Gulf of Sirte to Benghazi to save time.
The large American airforce base of Wheelus lay off to our left and soon after passing it we were heading out over the calm blue sea again. All was going according to plan and I was feeling very content with myself – a piece of cake really and don’t know why I had been so worried about it before. I carried on in the smug satisfaction that the worst was behind us and it would be plain sailing from now on. Then it happened! We were about half-way across the Gulf, well over the sea and out of sight of land, when the starboard engine began to miss the odd beat or two. I didn’t bother too much at first, assuming that the problem had cleared itself, but this was soon followed by a sudden spate of rough running. I immediately suspected fuel contamination having just refuelled at Tripoli where I gained the strong impression that everything tended to be somewhat slapdash. Nevertheless I checked each of the two magnetos in turn in case it was an ignition problem but the rough-running persisted. The only way I could get the engine to perform smoothly again was by reducing power in stages. All was okay again for a few minutes and I thought I had cured the problem. Then suddenly the rough running and vibration started again, this time growing progressively worse such that eventually I was obliged to cut the power right back to the idle position.
Being unable to feather those type of engines with a fixed pitch propeller meant that in the idle position it was giving more drag than if the propeller had been stationary. This in turn meant that even with full power on the port engine, I could hardly hold altitude let alone the airspeed which had now dropped off alarmingly from the normal cruising speed of 105mph to around 80mph. I lowered the nose to maintain airspeed but at the expense of height and we commenced a gradual descent. There was no alternative but to land as soon as possible, so I did a ninety degree turn to the right and headed straight for the Libyan coastline which by this time was well out of sight beyond the horizon. Even with the port engine set at full power the drag from the wind-milling starboard engine was forcing me to continue descending gradually. With almost full fuel tanks and the load we were carrying, she simply couldn’t hold altitude on one engine. I hoped and prayed that I could make landfall before running out of sky.
I tried my best to placate Anne and the children, who by this time were getting very concerned, by assuring them (a bit unconvincingly I felt), that everything was okay and no cause for alarm as I had the situation well under control. Personally I was in grave doubt as to what the outcome would be though. It was getting late in the day also with the sun low in the reddening sky. With the sea beneath us and out of sight of land, which even if we could make it would probably result in a crash-landing in the soft sand of a hostile arid desert… I began to fear the worst!
The Outbound Trip
Since the engine problem grew worse and I decided to head for the nearest landfall, I had been continuously transmitting the Mayday distress signal on the emergency frequency but without response from anyone. Commercial aircraft are obliged to keep a listening watch on this frequency but obviously there were none in the area to relay my distress call to a Search & Rescue facility; nor was I equipped with a long-range HF radio. What to do? Suddenly through the heat haze I saw the shoreline ahead. Thank Heavens! At least we can now make dry land but where to put the aircraft down I thought?
By this time, trying to remain as calm as possible under the circumstances, I had decided that the best course of action would be to put her down parallel to the waters edge on the darker coloured sand washed by the tide. This should at least prove a firmer and smoother surface than the lighter coloured softer sand higher up the beach, into which we would probably sink rapidly and would inevitably turn us upside down with possible fatal consequences.
As we approached land I suddenly caught sight of something glinting in the setting sun. It turned out to be the reflection from a large group of oil tanks. That must mean we were getting near to some form of life which boosted my spirits significantly. Then as we drew closer I could hardly believe my good fortune for there right ahead lay a rather long black-coloured airstrip – what incredible luck!
I wasn’t about to try and seek permission to land over the radio, even if I had been able to, but went straight in for a rather bumpy and undignified arrival. I had landed at the American-run oil base of Es Sidr! After taxying in to the small parking apron where I had been marshalled by one of the personnel who came running out to meet our unexpected arrival, I closed both engines down, breathed an enormous sigh of relief, and then we all disembarked.
Having offered my apologies and explained the reason for our unannounced intrusion into their domain, the American Crew Chief who came to the scene shortly after told us we were most welcome. No doubt the sight of a group of western females in an otherwise male-dominated environment was quite an event for him! He assured us that his team would give the engine a thorough check over and sort out the problem, and in the meantime he suggested we stayed the night as it was getting quite late. We gratefully accepted the kind offer and were led away to a row of billets where they soon fixed us up with rooms apiece, each fully equipped with a shower, and toilet.
My first concern was to try and contact either Tripoli or Benghazi through the Es Sidr Base’s long-range HF radio in order to cancel the Mayday distress call I’d transmitted and to let everyone know we had landed safely… No luck! There was no response to our continuous calls but the operator assured me he would keep on trying anyway.
After a good shower and clean-up we were escorted to their mess hall for a hearty, sumptuous feast, as only the Americans can know how to lay on. Soon after we had taken our fill, the Crew Chief came in and assured us that the errant engine was running okay again. The fault apparently lay in the ignition system. They had cleaned all the spark plugs; reset the contact points on both magnetos; replaced some of the suspect harness leads; and then given the engine a full run-up, passing it fully serviceable again. They then chocked and tied her down for the night for us.
It was at this point that Ron suddenly suggested that as the aircraft was once again fit to fly, we should continue on to Benghazi to try and make up some of the lost time. I was aghast and quickly pointed out that we’d had enough excitement for one day and I had no desire to attempt a night flight over unknown terrain, especially as I had no idea also whether the airfield at Benghazi would still be open for night flights. Ron continued to pursue the point and in my exasperation, shaking my head, I left Anne to deal with him in no uncertain fashion whilst I took the three children for a short stroll around the camp area before retiring off to bed.
December 16th 1963. Next morning we were up bright and early with the sunrise and were once again ushered into the mess hall for a hearty good breakfast. The Americans can be the essence of hospitality and kindness to guests and it was greatly appreciated by us all. Not a cent would they take for their services either so after lots of hand-shaking and pouring out our heart-felt thanks, we bade them farewell and took of from Es Sidr for Benghazi which we reached, without incident, one and a half hours later.
The base at Es Sidr had been unable to contact anyone the whole time we were there and I conjured up gloomy visions of fleets of rescue planes searching the area for any trace of us, but not so! Upon arrival I tore straight up to the Control Tower and began offering my explanations, expecting the worst. They didn’t even know who we were; had not received any flight plan from Tripoli the day before, and in fact were totally disinterested. Oh well, that’s the Libyans for you... At least I was off the hook!
My friend Brian Pocock, the co-owner of Libyan Aviation that I had met the previous year when I ferried the Auster out, had arranged for his engineers to do a check on the aircraft whilst he took us off in his car for a meal. By the time we returned, the check was complete so we decided to press-on to Mersah Matruh near the Libyan/Egyptian border, the scene of many fierce battles during the previous desert war between the Allies and the Axis powers in WW2. We saw much evidence of this with abandoned and burnt-out tanks and lorries laying scattered around in the arid wastes.
A quick refuelling stop cum Customs clearance at Mersah Matruh and we were off again on our next leg to Cairo. It was getting late in the day and this would be my first night flight in the Rapide, but I was feeling a lot more confident now.
We flew along the Egyptian coast to the Nile Delta at Rosetta Beacon – the place where the famous Rosetta Stone in the British Museum was discovered – This was the point where the mighty River Nile spilled into the Mediterranean after its long and winding path through ancient historical lands. Turning right at Rosetta Beacon, we would now be flying southwards all the way to the end of Africa, with our first port of call being Cairo. Little did I realise then that we would be following this historic river, the longest in the world at 4,200 miles from source to delta; spanning half the length of Africa, for the next four long days.
The ADF began picking up the Cairo beacon and my spirits were high. The night flight would put us nicely back on schedule after our enforced stop in the Libyan desert. Each of the girls in turn came and sat alongside me on the step to see the lights on either bank of the Nile. Cairo eventually hove into sight and with a little guidance from the controllers I found the airport and landed. Everything by now was going more or less according to plan and we all were feeling happy with ourselves.
Customs and Immigration were more thorough than we’d expected but we took it all in our stride, despite our general fatigue and wishing only to get to a hotel and relax. They were more than interested though to know our final destination. Apartheid had become a big issue with the Africans by now, and Egyptians in particular, so we dare not tell them we were going to South Africa otherwise our journey would have surely been terminated there and then. Having previously anticipated this we planned to say that our final destination was East Africa instead. Then having arrived in East Africa we’d then tell them that we had changed our mind and decided to go on to Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) which although being a British Colony still would have been acceptable. We hoped by this ploy to avert any true suspicion of our true destination. Finally, having arrived in Southern Rhodesia then we would declare our true intentions having nothing further to fear. Coming back on the return flight along the same route I dare not even think about. Sufficient that we get there in one piece and I would worry about those problems later!
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