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  Reports Walvis Bay, Namibia - Libreville, Gabon

On Oct. 16 I launched from the southeastern coast of the African continent up the West coast to Libreville, Gabon. I had originally planned to fly from Walvis Bay nonstop to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, but over the preceding week the South Atlantic winds had shifted adversely, making that trip too long to meet my self imposed fuel reserve limitation. Thus, I went to Libreville, which was several hundred miles closer, for a one night fuel stop.

Walvis Bay in the morning is a meteorological paradox. On the one hand, the area is surrounded by desert . . . nothing but rolling sand dunes. Not a green stalk anywhere in sight. It almost never rains there. On the other hand, every morning you are greeted by fog, dew on the ground, and a low layer of Stratus clouds. The effect of this is that my nice, clean airplane was dew covered when I arrived, and stuck to that dew was a filthy coating of blown desert sand. Yuk! I had to be careful, because brushing it off, wet and sticky as it was, could easily have resulted in expensive scratches in the airframe paint or Plexiglas windows. By 10 am the cloud deck would burn off, the fog would clear, and the searing desert sun would soon roast everything in sight. I elected to leave while there was still enough of an overcast to keep the air cool.

The departure from Walvis Bay was thus a refreshing pleasure. Located right at the coast, the morning sea breezes cooled the airport vicinity down to about 50 degrees F at that hour, the coolest temperature I'd felt at any time since beginning the trip. That, combined with a downhill sloped, smoothly paved runway, allowed me to get off the ground quickly, and I was soon climbing at about 400 ft per minute, the highest rate I'd so far been able to manage with the ferry tanks filled.

The interesting part of this leg occurred once I got well offshore. Given the heavy military fighting going on in Angola, Congo and Zaire, I had elected to fly westward away from shore as I departed the friendly Namibian coast, then turn northward once well out to sea and out of firing range from the various armed factions in those hostile countries to the North. That was the route I requested in my officially filed flight plan, and it was the ATC route I was assigned from Walvis Bay tower as I was cleared for takeoff. However, about 100 miles out, tower radioed that the Namibian government had rejected my proposed offshore route as "unsafe," and that I must navigate back within gliding distance of shore, at least for as long as I was in the Namibian control area. Their concern, of course, was based on the fact that there are absolutely no search and rescue capabilities in western Africa, and should I have to ditch over the ocean, chances are I would be left to perish out there with no hope of rescue. They thus wanted me to be able to glide back to land in the event of powerplant failure. Great, except that the Angolan border was just a couple hundred miles up the road, and I'd long ago decided that I felt more comfortable trusting the Mooney's reliability over the water than trusting the rebel factions not to shoot me down for target practice (those teenage rebel soldiers have to learn somehow, right?). The compromise I negotiated by radio with the Walvis Bay tower was that I'd hug the Namibian coast as instructed, but as soon as I approached their northern border, I'd angle back out to sea for the rest of the flight. So far, so good.

Of course, Africa being the great paragon of communication that it is, Angola, Congo, Zaire, and Gabon were never told of this routing change. Every time I radioed in a position report to their oceanic controllers, they couldn't understand why I was not flying on my "authorized" course further offshore. Their thick French accents made any meaningful conversations with me hopeless, and for the entire 10 hour trip I was actually flying more than 100 miles east of the track they thought I was on. That was really no problem, provided no emergency cropped up. As a safety measure, I had asked Jeppesen's International flight services department to check with the controllers by phone as my flight progressed, so that in the event I did actually have to make an emergency ditching, at least some American would know where and when, and there would then be a reasonable chance that perhaps a friendly freighter could be diverted (for a price) to fetch me. Now, however, if I actually went swimming, the information provided to Jeppesen by the controllers regarding my flight track would be so far in error, that finding me would probably not be very likely. I therefore just patted the airplane on its instrument panel, cajoling it to keep purring along as it had for me for so many years. It did, thank goodness!

The other minor frustration on this, as well as the next few legs, was the language problem. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a part of the United Nations, was created back in the 1940s to standardize aviation practices worldwide. Virtually all nations are parties to the various ICAO agreements and have promised to abide by their guidelines. One such guideline is that English shall be the standard language of air traffic control everywhere. When you're flying over country "B" on your way from Country "A" to country "C," it would be impractical for all pilots and controllers to be conversant in all the possible combinations of languages that might be represented by the individuals involved, so it was simply decided to standardize on English. In my world travels, both in the Mooney and as a passive listener on the cockpit channel 9 in commercial airliners, I've noticed that this policy seems to be rigorously adhered to everywhere EXCEPT in French speaking countries. Starting as close to home as in Quebec, then moving to France and all of French West Africa, and (remember from my earlier report) even including the isolated islands of New Caledonia off the Eastern coast of Australia, the local pilots and controllers, while certainly ABLE to speak English, insist on conversing among themselves in their native French. I haven't observed this anywhere else, and frankly it's a nuisance. Part of the reason that one universal language is used in aircraft radio communications is that all listeners on the frequency can simultaneously hear and understand the transmissions of all others. If, for example, I announce my present altitude and position to a controller, he won't have to translate and repeat that information to the other flyers in the area. They all heard me say it the first time, and made mental note of my location. Over French speaking countries, however, ATC business is conducted in two languages, French and English. It you aren't fluently bilingual, then this advantage is lost, and, I believe, air safety is significantly compromised. This is an especially critical problem in Africa, where the vast majority of all pilots (even those of the local African airlines) are American, South African or British citizens. Few, if any, of these aviators can speak a syllable of French, and the required repeats of the heavily French accented ATC instructions to the majority of these pilots is cumbersome at best, and dangerous at worst. All in the interest of viva la France! (OK, I'll get back off my soap box!)

Next Stop: Sao Tome

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