June 1, 2009
Kenneth Ochieng remembers the call well. His security commander was on the line from Nairobi. Their comrades in the Kenya Wildlife Service were deep in the bush and under fire—pinned down by heavily armed poachers.
Ochieng was dispatched to the scene in his Piper Super Cub to provide air support. The Cub circled the shootout scene at treetop level—dodging bullets as Ochieng tried to find the one surviving poacher who had the rangers pinned down and was shooting at him.
Spotting the poacher, he directed reinforcements on the ground to a good perch. It worked. The poacher was killed, and the shootout was over.
“He was killed because of my support, aerial support,” said Ochieng. “Otherwise he would become so dangerous, he would have actually finished the whole section [of game wardens].”
Unfortunately, the bandits killed three rangers before Ochieng could get there.
The dozen pilots of the Kenya Wildlife Service patrol the country’s national parks—hoping to stop poachers, many of whom cross the border from Somalia, heavily armed.
“When they come through for the rhinos or the elephant,” said KWS air wing boss Solomon Nyanjui, “they don’t care whom they kill as long as they get the horn of the rhino or the tusk from the elephant.”
Every KWS airplane has been shot at—leaving plenty of holes in the fabric, some bent aluminum tubes, but fortunately missing their pilots. One poacher managed to lance one of the airplanes with a spear as it flew overhead.
Nyanjui has some first-hand experience with the dangers. In late 2007, the Bell JetRanger he was piloting near Mount Kenya crashed in thick woods. He survived for eight days on leaves and water before a rescue team found him. Nyanjui still has the lean look of a guy who could use a home-cooked meal.
Inside the KWS headquarters hangar at Wilson Airport in Nairobi, Nyanjui examined the latest crop of dinged airplanes in for repairs. The pilot of one of them was trying to move some domestic cattle out of a game park. He was so focused on being an aerial shepherd that he forgot to adjust his elevator trim properly. “He tried to pull back, but couldn’t,” said Nyanjui. “He went down and hit about six cows.”
He walked away. The cows did not fare as well.
Besides ensuring livestock or humans don’t encroach on Kenya’s pristine preserves (and their precious inhabitants), KWS pilots also spend time looking for lost, stranded tourists on safari.
“This type of flying is not what we are trained for in the flight school,” said Nyanjui. “It’s a special type of flying.”
That is what brought me to the Kilaguni airstrip in the Tsavo West Park in southern Kenya. For a week in February the taildraggers (and the red dirt) were flying as the KWS pilots gathered for an extraordinary, intense, weeklong flying clinic.
Their instructors were some of the best pilots in the world, led by Patty Wagstaff. The three-time U.S. aerobatic champ, Aviation Hall of Fame member, and airshow superstar first came to Kilaguni because of one man’s persistence. Bill Clark is a New York-born Israeli biologist, wildlife conservationist, international poaching investigator, and pilot who has spent the last two decades helping the Kenya Wildlife Service fight to save the big animals (see “Operation Cloud Juice,” February 2009 AOPA Pilot).
Clark is a gentle man who ends each e-mail with the quaint valediction, “Friendly greetings,” but he is all business when it comes to protecting Africa’s animals. He is trying to help the KWS become a world-class organization. Finding some good flight instructors was a crucial component of that plan, but just being good with a stick and rudder was not enough for him.
“I wanted someone who loves nature, who wanted to do it from the heart as well as from the head,” Clark explained. “These are the two qualities that really define the sort of person that I was looking for.”
About that time he was reading Wagstaff’s autobiography Fire and Air. In it, she wrote extensively about her love of animals and the environment, as well as raw speed.
That was it for Clark: “I said, this is the sort of person that I’d like to work with as well.”
So Clark wrote Wagstaff a letter asking her to spend some of the off-season training the pilots. She blew him off as quickly as you can say “snap roll” and went about her stomach-churning business. But he did not give up. The letters kept coming, and eventually something clicked.
She remembers thinking, “Why I am being so close-minded about this? I have always wanted to go to Africa. I always wanted to go to Kenya in particular, and I think I have been a little close-minded.”
She decided to go in 2000 and has been coming back nearly every year since.
It’s an expensive expedition, and funding has been hand to mouth. But this year Wagstaff got some financial support from the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation (www.lindberghfoundation.org), which funds technological solutions to environmental problems. Planes protecting pachyderms is a perfect fit.
It is not an easy place to teach. There is no hangar, much less an FBO; the fuel is hand pumped from drums—it’s a good thing the nearest FAA inspector is 7,000 miles away as the mechanics have to be pretty good at improvising to keep the ragtag fleet in the air. And earning your wings in a third-world country with a per-capita annual income of $1,600 is no small feat.
But money isn’t the only obstacle; it is the culture as well. In Kenya, it is all about what tribe you are in. Moses Lelesit is a Masai—nomadic cattle herders, fierce warriors with a deep sense of pride and tradition that does not include aviation.
Lelesit, tall and lean, has the distinctive gaping pierced earlobes. “People in my tribe asked why? Why must I fly? Why don’t you go and get livestock? I said no. They thought maybe I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy.”
Wagstaff agrees. “In some ways they are like any other group of pilots, in other ways they have really unique and extraordinary challenges,” she said.
When Wagstaff takes a student under her wing, she means it. That is where she briefs them before every flight, drawing lines in the sand to plan the mission. They nod a lot, but since Swahili is their first language, you wonder how much is really sinking in.
The pilots have varied levels of experience. Some have a private pilot certificate and just a few hundred hours. It’s all you need to get the key to a Husky or Super Cub and a lonely assignment to patrol a huge, uninhabited swath of Kenya.
“That’s why people make mistakes,” said Wagstaff. “They are not supervised, can’t be supervised. So they need recurrency training and that’s what this program is about.”
It is also about teaching them to do the right thing in a heartbeat—there is no time for emergency checklists at 100 knots and 100 feet—and, of course, Wagstaff gives them a lesson in Aerobatics 101.
“To fly aerobatics you have to be very coordinated and you have to feel the airplane well,” says Clark. “You have to be very fluid with it, and try to make the maneuvers smooth, and that’s all by sensing things, and she is trying to instill that into them.”
The training was a big hit with the pilots. Ochieng squeezed his huge frame into the Decathlon, got a thorough aerobatics workout, and emerged an hour later with an ear-to-ear grin (and, just between us, a soaked back).
“My colleagues said that thing is very dangerous, but I really liked it,” Ochieng said. “I was able to do the spin and the loops. It’s been a great experience.”
Wagstaff’s presence here does push some cultural envelopes. None of these pilots had ever been taught before by a female instructor. “I mean, she is a lady and I am a lion,” said George Mwangi. “So you have to prove to the lioness that the lion is inside.”
“It all comes down to when we get up in the air and I can show them a few things,” she said. “If they give me any problems, I just flip them upside down.”
This year Wagstaff had some help from Rich Sugden. He is a former Navy flight surgeon who did a long stint at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and now owns the Husky dealership for the northwestern United States. He has logged scads of time flying the rugged backcountry near his Wyoming home, where the runways are short and the mountains are tall.
In Kilaguni, Sugden was constantly reminded he wasn’t in Wyoming anymore. He was surprised how far away from the strip the pilots would get as they flew the pattern. “So I just started shutting the engine off, and showing them what would happen if they lost the engine, and then they started flying closer to the airport.”
The all-star instruction team was rounded out with the best ground school teachers a pilot could hope to have: John and Martha King of King Schools. They joined Wagstaff’s mission for the first time on this trip.
The Kings introduced the pilots to key concepts such as ground reference maneuvers and techniques for determining the wind direction in the absence of a windsock (there is an acute windsock shortage in Kenya).
“They don’t understand a lot of times why they are doing what they are doing,” Martha King said. “There are some things that they have picked up or been taught that are not really the best way to do it or the safer way to do it.”
The pilots were like sponges—they simply couldn’t get enough.
“We would get done talking,” said John King, “and they would just sit in their seats, even though we said, ‘OK, we are done now,’ they would just sit there and their hands would go up and have more questions for us.”
“They were the most satisfying students to teach that we have seen in a long, long time,” said Martha.
It would be easy to assume it is simply the love of flying that gets these pilots’ juices flowing. But it is much more than that. To a person, they are committed keepers of their country’s precious resources.
“It’s true we are on a mission, a serious mission to ensure that we protect this wildlife for the generation of today and those to come,” said Ochieng.
“When I eventually leave this world, I want to go to Saint Peter and tell him well, I did my big job, and I have taken care of your animals,” said Mwangi. “These are His animals, yeah, and we are obliged to take care of them.”
At the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage in Inthumba, we bottle-fed the baby elephants—most of them orphaned by poachers. Not far from the orphanage, we saw some of the tools of this brutal, cruel trade: snares, traps, and poison-tipped arrows.
The poaching problem increased dramatically in 2008 when South Africa decided to sell off an old stockpile of elephant tusks, a trial exemption to the total ban on the sale of ivory that began in 1989.
“That sent quite a large quantity of ivory to countries in the Far East and that is legalized ivory,” said Clark. “Many people believe—myself included—this provides a vehicle for introduction of illegal ivory.”
Ivory now fetches $120 a kilo on the black market, and a typical elephant carries about 10 kilos of tusk. In this part of the world, a $1,200 payday is a huge incentive for poachers to take the risk.
The good news is the aerial patrols work well—by some accounts reducing poaching as much as 80 percent. “It’s like putting a police car on the interstate,” said Clark. “Everybody gets legal in a hurry, no speeders, no reckless drivers, nothing.”
Since Wagstaff and company started coming to Kenya, the KWS safety record has improved; there are fewer bent props and less torn fabric in that hangar at Wilson Airport.
“It’s about not only saving their lives and saving the airplane and not getting hurt, but about keeping the animals here safe,” said Wagstaff. “It belongs to all of us, it really does. It is not just about being a Kenyan. I felt really emotional the first time I came. Every time I see an elephant, I am like ‘Oh, my, God….’”
You might say it has turned her world upside down.
Miles O’Brien is a freelance journalist, pilot, and airplane owner living in New York City. E-mail the author at email@example.com .
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