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Operation Cloud JuiceOperation Cloud Juice

Kenya Wildlife Service pilots drop water from the airKenya Wildlife Service pilots drop water from the air

Kilaguni, Tsavo West National Park, Kenya (2,610 feet msl)—two strips, one pointed mostly north to south, and one pointed mostly east to west. There’s a bit of asphalt on the north-south strip, enough to get you rolling without having the prop chew on too many stones before forward momentum is established.

Visiting Kilaguni

Foreign civil pilots can also call short final at Kilaguni. The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority can easily validate an FAA certificate after a pilot passes a reasonably simple exam on air law and shows a logbook with reasonably recent experience. With the validation, a pilot can visit any of the several FBOs at Wilson Airport—Nairobi’s domestic airfield—and make a few circuits to demonstrate basic piloting skills, and then rent a Cessna 172 or similar airplane for a few hours or a few days. Rates are a bit more expensive than in the United States, but much less expensive than in most European countries. Kilaguni is 123 nm from Wilson on a true bearing of 140 degrees.

Kilaguni, Tsavo West National Park, Kenya (2,610 feet msl)—two strips, one pointed mostly north to south, and one pointed mostly east to west. There’s a bit of asphalt on the north-south strip, enough to get you rolling without having the prop chew on too many stones before forward momentum is established. But beware: There is no fence around the airfield, and frequently giraffes, impalas, ostriches, or elephants clutter the touchdown and rollout zones.

Still, Kilaguni is our preferred training site because it’s possible to walk straight from the cockpit to the shower in less than five minutes. That’s an important option on sweltering days when the red dust of Tsavo West sticks to anything that perspires. Besides, when the clouds clear to the west, the view of Mt. Kilimanjaro is spectacular. In the evening, elephants sometimes come to the water hole.

Training pilots

I’ve been here each winter for more than a decade and always encounter a warm welcome at Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge and challenging work at the adjacent airfield. Each year I’ve brought a team to work with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) pilots, helping to enhance their safety and proficiencies, and thereby helping to protect Kenya’s magnificent wildlife.

 As a Kenyan government agency, KWS doesn’t have the budget to pay airline salaries to its pilots. The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) allows pilots to start flying with a private ticket, and KWS shells out about 35,000 Kenyan shillings monthly as a salary—that’s almost $550. Pretty good by Kenyan standards. But the air tour operators in Kenya pay better. Much better. The result is that KWS pilots commonly work hard in the bush for a few years, racking up a thousand or so hours and a commercial ticket, and then they defect to the tour companies for a cushy airplane and triple the salary. This means there is a high turnover of KWS pilots, and a chronic need for a speedy conversion of newly minted Cessna 152 pilots into safe and proficient Piper Super Cub and Aviat Husky pilots.

 The KWS Airwing has its own system for meeting this challenge. And it is a serious challenge for a 70-something-hour Cessna 152 newbie climbing into a 180-horsepower Husky with a constant speed prop, all kinds of mysterious steam gauges, a broom handle sticking up from the floor, and a funny little wheel on the tail. Not only that, but the nose is raised even higher than normal by the donut bush tires KWS mounts on its patrol aircraft. Forward visibility is not very good at all.

To help with safety and proficiency training—and even with pilot retention—I’ve found a few superb pilots who have volunteered to come to Kenya on a regular basis to work with the KWS pilots. Aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff has worked at Kilaguni since 2000, teaching the KWS fledglings important pointers on safety, safety, and safety. The lucky ones also get an introduction from Wagstaff to loops, rolls, accelerated stalls, inverted spins, and pinpoint touchdowns. She’ll be returning to Kilaguni in February 2009 along with Martha and John King, who will be teaching their aviation risk management classes.

Others who have contributed to the effort include Navy F–14 veteran Dale Snodgrass, Alaskan bush pilot instructor Marcus Paine, and Israelis ATP/CFII Zvi Ozer, Israel “Kilimanjaro”(because he’s all white on top) Itzhaki, and Zvi “Popeye” Zaler—all extremely talented pilots.

Juice from the clouds

Recently we had a special program called “Operation Cloud Juice.” To groundlings, it’s just plain old rainwater. But people who have a more intimate relationship with the sky easily see this as “Juice from the Clouds.” Or, in Kiswahili, “utomvu ya wingu.”
Most people take water for granted. Open a faucet, and it’s there. But there aren’t many faucets on the sprawling 50,000-square-kilometer Tsavo ecosystem. And KWS rangers charged with protecting the Tsavos’ elephants and rhinos know very well how precious every drop can be. Especially in the dry season.

Our project started in 2005 when Capt. Ibrahim Ogle, then head of the KWS Airwing, explained to me that poaching gangs infiltrating from Somalia had developed a new tactic for escaping pursuit by KWS patrols. “They plan their escape route in advance,” he said. “They select terrain that is very dry and rugged, places where there is no natural water, where there is no access for vehicles, and where there is no place for a Super Cub to land. They then organize donkey caravans and mark escape routes across these areas. The donkeys are loaded with jugs of water and the bandits hide one of these jugs every 15 or 20 kilometers along their planned escape route.”

The poachers then go into the national park and start killing elephants and rhinos. KWS usually responds very quickly. And then the chase begins. But KWS rangers on patrol only carry a couple of liters of water in their canteens, and that’s gone after a day. When they start finding the poachers’ emptied water jugs, they understand that those poachers have ample water ahead of them, and the rangers have none. The pursuit then becomes futile.

We needed to devise a system of resupply from the air. We quickly learned that simply chucking jerry cans of water from the open door of a Super Cub didn’t work. Neither did wrapping the jerry cans in old tires, egg cartons, or bubble wrap. We needed parachutes!

Conventional parachutes tend to be large, cumbersome, and expensive. So we explored the unconventional options and linked up with Anatoly Cohn of Apco Aviation in Israel. Anatoly produces parachutes that the Israeli Air Force uses to recover its unmanned aerial vehicles used for observation over hostile terrain. They’re small and light, and they deploy in a 17-G snap. This means they can be strapped to a jerry can of water set on the back seat of a Super Cub and tossed out at low altitude over the target.

A few tests taught us that we also needed a very robust jerry can. That 17-G pop shatters most jerry cans in mid-air. Further research turned up a 10-liter Wedco jerry can that repeatedly withstood this G load. Wedco generously donated 60 of them to the project. IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, picked up the rest of the tab— 20 Apco parachutes, transport to Kenya, a dozen drums of 100LL, and the cost of the training program at Kilaguni.

We started with the basics—explaining how the parachute system works, how to pack the parachute and how to attach the jerry can-parachute package to the aircraft. And then a few key pointers: “Always make certain that all lines are clear, and not tangled around things like the control stick, your arm, or your neck. Always remember to let go of the jerry can once you’ve gotten it out the door. Always remember to toss the jerry can behind the struts.” Stuff like that.

And then we launched. The first drop was successful and almost on target. But the second parachute went into the crown of a very high acacia tree, and it took a bit of ingenuity to recover it. Three, four, and five went all right. Six went back into the trees. But seven improved things, as did eight, nine, 10, 17, 31, and 44. The KWS pilots gradually got the hang of chucking a jerry can and parachute out the door.

The big test came on the day when KWS director Julius Kipng’etich arrived to see how our training was progressing. We demonstrated the process for him. The KWS pilots were ordered to fly a mission dropping drinking water and field rations to a KWS ranger unit deployed in the vicinity of Mzima Springs. The KWS pilots were given drop-zone coordinates and told to prepare and execute the mission. And they did precisely that, with admirable speed and precision. The bright yellow parachutes deposited their payloads within a few dozen yards of the ranger squad, on time and on target. The director smiled.

Now KWS has a new tool to protect the elephants and rhinos from commercial poaching gangs out to slaughter magnificent wild animals for a quick buck. The old poacher tactic of hiding water jugs along an escape route is no longer useful.

Other missions

KWS Airwing flies other missions in addition to water-supply outings. Its most important charge is simple deterrence. A conspicuous aerial patrol over a national park works like a conspicuous police car on the interstate—most potential violators behave themselves. For the minority who are not deterred, aerial patrols are an integral part of coordinated KWS air-ground tactics. Patrol aircraft do everything from forward observation to air delivery of dog food (no parachute needed) for the sniffer dogs.

KWS aerial patrols are also crucial for tourist security. Parks like the Tsavos (East and West) are very large—twice the size of Yellowstone—and routinely there are self-drive safari tourists who get lost, suffer mechanical problems, get stuck in the mud or sand, or simply run out of gas somewhere out in the vastness of the East African bush. The Cub pilot usually finds them and calls in the rescue squad.

KWS pilots have evacuated wounded rangers, sick tourists, and orphaned elephant calves and run a grab-bag assortment of other missions that all contribute to the security and good management of Kenya’s incomparable wilderness areas. Although the poachers occasionally change tactics, KWS pilots and their versatile GA airplanes quickly adapt, showing once again the value of general aviation to the world.                 

Bill Clark, AOPA 1195024, is a commercial pilot, KWS honorary pilot, and nature conservationist living in Israel.

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