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Best of Airways — Out of Africa Pt. II

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Best of Airways — Out of Africa Pt. II

ALAN CARTER

Best of Airways — Out of Africa Pt. II
August 11
13:00 2017

By Alan Carter • Airways Magazine, July 2014


Well, picking up from my last piece and having arrived in Lome, we managed to find a hotel– the best which Lome has to offer, on the beach and with a huge swimming pool. I am a bit suspicious of African pools after hearing one of my colleagues tell me how his captain picked up an infection which went on to his brain and has since left him in a wheelchair, a shadow of his former self. But again that is just one of the many perils which Africa offers up.

Anyway, following a slightly disturbed sleep due to the bass reverberating up to my room from the hotel’s nightclub (although in Africa a nightclub is generally a synonym for an altogether different “institution”), it is time to run the water in my shower. I leave it to flow for the customary five minutes so as to give the water time to turn from a yellowish color to clearish before showering. Then, I am dressed and heading downstairs to meet the rest of the crew!

In the early morning hours, we are taken back to the airport. We pass through security, which is comprised of having our crew bus flash its headlights at a rundown gate in an unassuming fence among the trees, which duly opens to let us air-side! Two minutes later and we are deposited at the steps of our fabulous Boeing 747-400 aircraft waiting expectantly for our next adventure: Douala and a night in the Akwa Palace Hotel (“Akwa” meaning “mighty” and “Palace” meaning… well, let’s just say that I have my doubts whether this hotel will live up to either of these words!).

Having handed over a bundle of cash for “handling fees”, which would have been better weighed than counted to prove its worth, it is time to arrange for refuelling.

We are told that we will have to wait because there is only one fuel bowser and we are in the queue. This surprises me as it is around three in the morning and there are no other aircraft around. However, I am to be proven wrong when about an hour later a Boeing 737-700 of Camair– the state airline of Cameroon– lands, taxis to the ramp and begins disembarking its passengers while the airport’s fuel tanker ambles over. Okay, so yes, now we are in the queue!

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For three hours after arriving at our aircraft, we fight a constant stream of mosquitos which seem to be buzzing around all over the upper deck. Our futile attempts at spraying insecticide just add to the thick atmosphere on board, testing our patience even further. On the bright side, we are now refuelled!

With all pre-flight checks and paperwork completed, which includes enough forms signed to embarrass even a European Union Government minister, it is time to close the front door and taxi out to Lome’s runway 22 for our short two-hour flight.

Our take-off thrust this day is reduced as much as possible in accordance with Boeing procedures. This is because we are departing at a low take-off weight. This procedure means that should an engine failure occur during take-off, there is sufficient rudder input available to counteract the “swing” generated by the asymmetric thrust from the “live” working engines. Otherwise, if a high power take-off is carried out and an engine should fail, the aircraft could feasibly go sideways off of the runway. This would not be a good outcome and would require more than a tea-and-biscuits meeting with the Chief Pilot back at our home base!

The other requirement of this Boeing procedure is for positive forward pressure to be applied on the control column up to about 80 knots, normally administered by the co-pilot, regardless of who is Pilot Flying (PF). This is to ensure that there is adequate nose-wheel steering until the aerodynamic effects of the rudder can take over with directional control. Always something to think about in aviation and I never stop learning!

With take-off clearance received and the correct power set, we soon become airborne and start our left turn onto an easterly track, passing through some early morning scud-like cloud as we coast out not far from the location of our previous beachside hotel.

Leaving Lome behind us we fly south of Cotonou on Benin’s coast, a city which I was in only a couple of weeks previously. Cotonou a is a vibrant city but one where we were constantly involved in heated discussions with the local police force as we crawled our way through the madness of its traffic. All attempts at us being persuaded of the necessity for our making contributions to the local police’s favourite charities fell on deaf ears and we ultimately arrived after a stop-start journey (importantly, none the poorer) at our hotel! Again T.I.A…This is Africa!

“Takeoff view of Douala.” PHOTO: Alan Carter.

“Takeoff view of Douala.” PHOTO: Alan Carter.

Further east takes us abeam Lagos, Nigeria, not one of my favourite destinations in Africa either. The hotel I used to stay in there proudly boasted on their promotional brochure: “24-hour electricity and international television.” Well, there may have been electricity constantly available, but it wasn’t always directed to my room and neither was their water supply. As for international television, yes I suppose re-runs of the 1980’s serial Dallas on a constant loop, could be construed as international!

On one visit in a DC10 from Kuala Lumpur to Lagos via Salalah in Oman– a journey worthy of an entire article on its own– I was introduced to another side of Africa. Carrying 65 tonnes of freshly minted Nigerian bank notes, I was amazed that when we arrived at Lagos airport’s tiny cargo ramp, there was no welcoming committee, no armoured vehicles and no AK47-wielding guards, which was usually normal procedure. We passed on our concerns to our company’s headquarters and were told not to worry; I again expressed my worries and explained where we were. Again we were told don’t worry, just go to the hotel, which we did know full well what was going to happen. Yep, on our return 12 hours later, there was not a banknote to be seen and again I was told: “Don’t worry, all is okay….!”

With forty minutes and about 300 nautical miles to go before landing and with the aircraft’s Flight Management Computers programmed for our arrival, it is time to brief for our RNAV approach onto Douala’s runway 30, as, surprise-surprise the Instrument Landing System (ILS) is inoperative! The arrival routing takes us on a DME (Distance Measuring Equipment) arc procedure, which, as its name suggests, involves navigating around a central fix at a specified distance before being fed onto the runway’s final approach track.

As we descend toward our destination, we dance around the early morning thunderstorms that are rearing up in a menacing manner not unlike a herd of prehistoric dinosaurs. Without being fully familiar with the high terrain, I utilise the terrain feature displayed on my co-pilot’s ND (Navigation Display), which highlights from green to red the areas needed to be avoided! I also have my ND on the weather mapping feature display, for obvious reasons.

It has to be said that the Boeing 747-400, as with most modern-day jet airliners, offers a wealth of information, which when used correctly greatly enhances the situational awareness of pilots and therefore the safety of all.

Flying over the gray clouds, heavily loaded with rain, the Wouri River starts to appear in the gaps below as we trace the outline toward its delta and then onto our final turn toward the runway. Suddenly the fire warning system rings out and illuminates the glare shield warning light. On our upper EICAS (Engine Indicating Crew Alert System) screen we are advised by a red message that there is a Forward Cargo Fire Warning. Now, when operating cargo Boeing 747’s with perishable cargo on board, such as fruits, vegetables or flowers, which have to be kept at cool temperatures, the hot and humid air at the lower altitudes may result in “steamy” conditions that can set off the fire detection sensors. Checking our ECS (Environmental Control System) EICAS page– yes I know, so many acronyms– the temperature in this hold does not lead to any indications of a fire. Turning up the temperature in this hold quickly changes a constant warning into an intermittent one. No further action needs to be carried out except for obviously a check of this hold once we are parked.

PHOTO: Alan Carter.

PHOTO: Alan Carter.

As an aside, I first learned about these spurious warnings while flying the Boeing 737-800 for the Italian airline Neos. It was just before we were ready to complete our pre-flight procedures and board our passengers at Sharm-El-Sheikh’s airport by the Egyptian Red Sea resort of the same name. With just the aft cargo door to be closed, the fire warning system indicated a fire in this hold. With the door open it was virtually pointless to use the fire extinguishing system, so my co-pilot disappeared from the cockpit to investigate. He soon returned to say that there was no fire but one of the Egyptian ground-crew had been dispersing an insecticide aerosol and this had tricked the fire detector; I wish he had told me first!

With our aircraft once again fully configured for landing with the flaps set to our standard setting of 30 degrees, it is time to disconnect the auto-flight system as the airport environment is now fully visible. I can see the low-lying suburbs out to my left almost completely flooded, a testament to the amount of rain which has already fallen and is about to fall.

Our touchdown is uneventful but as we decelerate along the runway several large birds of prey lift off ahead of us where they have been lurking, possibly waiting for snakes or rats to cross the runway adding to their breakfast menu. The birds do not rise quickly enough, though, and I watch helplessly as some of them shoot past on my left. There are no engine surges and no abnormal engine indications, so maybe they have missed us and instead of becoming crispy fried they are simply shaken and stirred or suffering the mother of all headaches!

Completing our landing roll and slowing down to 10 knots it is necessary for us to utilise the turning pad at the runway’s far end to turn around and backtrack to the taxiway leading off to the airport’s terminal and parking ramps. As with the majority of African runways, there is generally a large amount of rubber build up in the “touchdown” areas and, when the surface is wet, this makes these areas very slippery, especially for a lightly loaded aircraft.

Skid-marks head off in the weirdest directions, many not aligned with any conceivable runway centerline; these tracks must certainly have challenged the minds of those aviators as they turned their aircraft into either off road vehicles or sophisticated lawn mowers (maybe the results of these “maneuvers” were what these birds had been waiting for!).

Vacating the runway, selecting the flaps up and the speedbrakes down, my colleague completes the after-landing procedure and starts our internal Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) in preparation for our parking procedures. With our marshaller in sight holding up his wands, I follow his guidance but he gives directions– waving one hand furiously– which makes no sense to me, so I ignore him and park where it seems sensible to do so. The marshaller seems happy so, with the engines winding down, he signals that the chocks are in, which means maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. I later ask what his erratic signal to us had meant; he replies that he had a loose connection in one wand and the only way to keep it alight was to shake it…silly me!

With the steps in the position, it is time to investigate the cargo hold and look to see if our wings or engines have sprouted feathers!

“A quick breath of Doualan air before climbing into the cockpit of my 747.” PHOTO: Alan Carter.

“A quick breath of Doualan air before climbing into the cockpit of my 747.” PHOTO: Alan Carter.

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About Author

Alan Carter

Alan Carter

I have been an importer/exporter of flying aluminium for more than 30 years: a Boeing man to the core. 727, 737, 747 and in the sim the 757, 767, 777, and 787. I've also tried the Concorde, and DC-10—well sort of an adopted Boeing! My proudest moment: being called Daddy. Mantra: Keep the 'Blue Sky Up'.

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