When I think about people like Bunte, Jordan or Sparks, Mark or Neil, or a few others with a few too many hours in single engined aircraft, I realize that my education began after college, somewhere far from Western Massachusetts. You might argue that my graduate education began with learning the engineering limitations of a group of tired Cessna 206s, while also introducing jumpy Americans to the Okavango Delta of Northern Botswana.
In this first picture we can see a happy 206, that is empty, and resting whilst being carefully guarded by some great creatures, who also serve as the magnet to bring the jumpy Americans out to Mombo in the first place.
The image below is rife with stories of a possibly overloaded Cessna 206:
Like a sausage, A2-AIV has been packed. You are looking at an engine running, elevator full back (careful not to whack the tail too hard on the ground whilst taxiing) and turning left probably to line up with the suggestion of a runway at Xakanaxa or Mombo. Yes, this airplane will fly. And if the engine keeps running it will fly well and far, though the pilot will be paid very little, but he or she doesn’t care since, he or she will be adding close to 60 hours or more per month to their logbook.
A typical day
If you were lucky you’d get a nice ratio of wealthy and heavy first world males with an even ratio of offsetting anorexic companions. Their gear would tell you a lot about the type of trip you might have with them: Louis Vuitton? Could be terrible. Old LL Bean stuff? Could be better. Once you jammed this gear in and around them (and in the pod below) you’d shut the doors, fire it up and taxi quickly before anyone noticed that this pregnant whale of an airplane could barely taxi, but with enough power and determination you’d wrench it into whatever wind there was. Once aligned and with full power, you’d use as much runway as you could, get it into ground effect, then see some type of acceptable climb rate and go up and then point it towards its next place.
Your Camera Mind
What is interesting to me in pictures and memories is how we change over time as self observing of that change. Let’s be honest about the above: I would never do this today. But then? Done with glee.
And I’d boast too … “Yep, that’s me… accident free.” The hubris of youth (the repeated take offs and landings with questionable decision making) and incident free trips makes you into an odd sort of character:
I’m ok ’cause I got here. (Note: Dumb stats game to play.)
The advantage of aging death free, is that if you can survive the hubristic bits, you might learn something you can impart. First you acknowledge that your aviation decision making was sub-optimal, then dissect why and how you got to that point and you might become a good teacher.
I’m not the world’s best teacher, but I have enough dead friends now to be sober in how I teach, consult, coach and prod airplane, aerospace and manufacturing people into doing the right thing.
Take for example our friend AIV in the weight bedraggled photo above:
AIV is tired, as you can see clearly by the bendy, bending, smooshing look to that metal spring gear. Sure, we were accident free <mostly> and ran a tight little ship called “Sefofane Air Charters, PTY”
My use of the word “we” is a bit bold since I was not the owner nor one of the most experienced or high time pilots. I arrived at the end of apartheid in South Africa and barely finished one season in the Okavango. I did make a short return trip in 2012, probably because I was searching for what I’m still searching for now.
Even though I left all too quickly, I stayed in touch with my resilient boss, Neil Lumsden, over the years. By virtue of continuing on in the air charter / Part 135 industry in the US, I felt like I was still part of the team back in Maun. In the routine of a more sober and business like life in Maine and Montreal, while building a painful and unscalable aircraft charter brokerage, I’d call Mark Smith to check in and hear a story to rekindle old memories and laugh hard enough to pee a bit.
These connections made the memory proxy strong. I was there. I was part of this engine that grew into the largest on-demand airline in the sub-continent of Africa today.
This reality, that most of my participation in the Okavango Delta has since been vicarious and by proxy, makes me love the place even more. To be clear, I was keen to leave when I left. But only because an impatient youngster is prone not to see the value in an environment that is so rich in stories and experiences. So I did my time, got my hours, then went back home to a more capitalistic focus of climbing the great ladder of success.
I added a mere 600 hours of flying to my then paltry 700 hour logbook. But that was all I needed for the next aviation lily pad that I wanted to jump to – Part 135 IFR captain in the US. Though when I returned home, the Okavango followed me. Lodged in my mind was an experience that I would chatter about endlessly and rely on for future mind bending endeavors.
I held it in my past as a place, that if the right mood struck me, I could always retreat to if the North American climate, economics or society got me down. “Back to Maun,” I’d think… then realize that in aviation, it is simply where so many of us start, and as hard as we might want, we can’t really can’t go back.
One thought on “University of Okavango”
Great writing style, and I’m sure you have 100’s of great stories to tell.