TAKING TO THE SKIES WITH "VUYO THE BUSH PILOT"
By Louisa Choruma
Making our way through the tables to the poolside, my twin brother and I chuckled at the prospect of meeting our pre-school friend. From age 4, we were the Terrific Trio; Sugar, Lou and Vuyo! Now a Captain with an International Airline – I had last seen Vuyo as a ‘’young and restless ‘’ Bush Pilot in Victoria Falls.
After a loud exchange of pleasantries, we settled down for refreshing Malawi Shandies, a refreshing mocktail, popular in Southern Africa and made from orange juice on ice, ginger ale, lemonade, and a touch of bitters.
Vuyo had always wanted to fly! His eyes lit up today as they did then - when he spoke of soaring the skies! His first role in Aviation was as a Gibbe or Office Anchor. Based in the office, he handled all the administration work, from answering calls, responding to emails, to sending out quotations and managing the Flight schedule. Focused on his goal, he made the most of every opportunity to fly, in order to build his flying hours as he needed these to obtain a Commercial Pilot’s licence!
Vuyo’s face lights up again as he sits up to repeat the story we have heard many times before – his first flight! He had finally got his Commercial Pilots Licence and his boss walked into the office and said ‘’’Alright V-man, it’s your lucky day .Your first flight, flight over the Falls, 4 passengers from Australia the McKinley Party….14:00hours .Good Luck!’’
Giving us his characteristic ‘’Yoh, yoh, yoh!’’ Vuyo clasped his hands, expressing the thrill of preparing for his first flight ever as a Commercial pilot! Time flew by as he confirmed the pickups with the driver and of course checking his machine – The Cessna 206. Vuyo knew full well that he would be the Captain, Pilot, Co- pilot, steward, technician, and porter; and so he exercised due diligence and was very thorough.
‘’The flight I will never forget!’’ Of all the hundreds of flights Vuyo has made, transporting passengers from point A to point B; this still stands as the most special! After introducing himself, conducting his safety briefing, guests embarking and the final check, Vuyo as Pilot-in-command, shared with the guest the route they would be taking. The entire flight would be approximately 25 minutes. “I shall fly toward the falls, do left and right hand circuits over the Victoria Falls in both directions for best views, fly down the Zambezi River and then a final swoop over the Zambezi National Park,’’ he said.
When David Livingstone saw the Mosi-Oa-Tunya for the first time – the glorious “Smoke that Thunders” – better known the world over as the glorious Victoria Falls, it is said he remarked: ‘’Scenes slovenly must have been gazed upon by Angels in their flight‘’. And so, this is where the activity of flying over the falls derived its name – The Flight of Angels. The scenes are indeed nothing short of awesome!
The best way to see the 1700 m expanse of falling water is from above!! The gorges, the meandering river, the spray of the mist, the vegetation! Vuyo recounts how excited he was to make this flight - but the look on the McKinley family as we flew over the Victoria Falls was priceless!!!
At this point I remember my first “Flight of Angels”! It was another Vuyo masterplan. Mid-morning on a Thursday, whilst working as a hotel manager – I was summoned by the General Manager to her office.
Yes, we were friends, but the authoritative tone in her voice scared me a little. Peering through her door I asked if everything was ok. She immediately got up and stated ‘’You and I are taking a quick break. Vuyo has just called and 2 of his guests have cancelled, so you and I are the replacements. Our pickup is 5 minutes away!’’ Heels and all, we were whisked to the helipad and joined two siblings for a Flight of our lives!’’
My thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of Tawanda and he too was a Bush Pilot. Always serious – he describes Bush Pilots as soldiers, making a million decisions every time they are in the flying as if they were in a battlefield.
“Are the guest happy and comfortable?”
“Is the weather good for landing? Hope the weather holds up so we can pick up the ill guest in the next camp?”
“When will the herd of elephants leave the airstrip?”
“Hope there is a good lunch at the next camp?”
He further adds, it’s an ongoing struggle striking the balance between compliance to regulation and commercial demands of flying in the untamed parts of Africa. He wittingly draws an analogy of the bush pilot being like a cigarette in this case - one end in the mouth and the other end burning!
The many adventures of Bush Pilots
Vuyo quickly reminds us all of the “Pilots Mess” or “Triple Two” as it was fondly called. These are the pilots’ residences where the best parties were hosted! They both shared on the joys of taking the aircraft to Maun in Botswana for service, and the lunches and shopping in the neighbouring country which were the highlight of most trips. Other favourite bush strips when flying hunters and guests going out on Safari included Bumi Hills, Linkwasha, Mwanga and Mana Pools! At times they would overnight at the camps and this was a great opportunity to explore the neighbouring countries or regions and meet new people.
Then there is cloud seeding, which in simple terms is “rainmaking”. This is when silver iodide particles are released into the clouds by a plane flying underneath them. This aids in the formation of ice crystals and as they get too heavy to remain in the air, they melt on their way down forming rain. Both Vuyo and Tawanda performed this service – when they were not flying passengers
Game Counting, yet another adventure for pilots in the wild nature reserves of Africa, involves flying environmentalists on research missions, to check and count game and study migration patterns from above. Areas such as the Save Conservancy, one of the largest private game reserves in Africa, the Okavango Delta and the Kruger National Park are some areas where environmentalists track and count game.
As we wound up the afternoon, both Vuyo and Tawanda marvel at how bold women are. Dropping sky divers is one of the interesting roles some pilots have performed. Sharing facts, they simultaneously confirmed that they have always dropped more female than male sky divers. Flying the Cessna 182, pilots have enjoyed flying a groups of excited adrenalin junkies and hearing their screams fade, as they jumped out of the stationary aircraft, down 10 000 feet!
From flying first time visitors to Africa, to taking food supplies to remote locations and spending a day with the Photographer working on a photo-shoot for a lodge- the Bush Pilots are indeed airborne captains of the wild!