Where Only Beavers Fly
(The D.H. Gazette travels the bush routes.)
The Central African Airways solution to the problem of linking remote communities which possess
only strip landing groundsIn
1950 Central African Airways Corporation sought a means of extending the network of their special air services in Central Africa without increasing the cost of their operation. This network, on which twin-engined aircraft were then being used, linked certain remote districts in Rhodesia and Nyasaland and served the European inhabitants whose numbers were too small to allow for a full- scale commercial operation. Although it had been understood from the beginning that these services would have to run without hope of profit, it was clear that any extension to the system would render costs unacceptably high. Thus it became imperative to find an aircraft which would be capable of carrying the expected traffic at minimum cost, and yet would offer maximum reliability whilst using small, rough aerodromes.
The answer appeared to lie in the use of a single-engined aeroplane, provided that a number of essential requirements were satisfied. These were, basically, that the aircraft chosen should be powered by the most reliable and fully developed engine available: that it should have good handling qualities at low air speeds to enable contact flying to be carried out in bad weather conditions: that the take-off run should be short and the climb-away steep to permit the use of small bush airstrips that the landing speed should be low, and the emergency landing characteristics good: also that the aircraft should be equipped with exits on both sides.
Central African Airways found that the Beaver, built by de Havilland of Canada, and powered by the
well-tried Pratt and Whitney Wasp Junior engine, complied well with all these requirements. The range of the aircraft in standard form, and the cruising speed of 140 m.p.h., were suitable for all stage lengths, and the capacity payload of 1,3201b. which could be carried on any stage appeared more than adequate for the requirements.
After careful comparative study the Beaver was selected. The cabin interior was redesigned by C.A.A., and two rear hammock-type seats were introduced which could be folded to give a greater freight capacity than on standard aircraft: six passengers may be accommodated with this layout if less luggage is carried. The modification work was carried out by de Havilland of Canada before delivery of the aircraft.
The introduction of the first Beaver in 1951 was an immediate success. To-day the Central African Airways fleet of five Beavers, which now operate two separate networks, have brought an end to the isolation of the European inhabitants of 23 remote African towns.
This is another example of operating conditions whose peculiar suitability to the Beaver can best be shown in photographs. The de Havilland Gazette seized a recent opportunity to fly the routes and report on them from direct experience.
Sesheke, a remote Barotseland village with four European inhabitants, is served twice a week by the Beavers of the Northern Rhodesian network. The airfield, in common with most of the aerodromes from which the Beavers operate, is a rudimentary strip, hacked from the bush in the direction of the prevailing wind. Pilots who stay overnight at Sesheke taxy their aircraft round the perimeter before taking off to frighten away the lion which are frequently to be seen on the aerodrome at dawn.
A herd of buffalo stampedes as a Beaver of the Northern Rhodesian service en route for Barotseland passes low over the River Kafue between Lusaka and Mankoya. Barotseland is native country comprising the major part of Northern Rhodesia, but a handful of European officials live in each of the larger villages: they rely on the Beavers for their food, mail, and personal transport. The distances between these centres are not great, but to build roads linking them would be difficult and uneconomical. In the centre of Barotseland lies the Barotse Plain, 100 miles of the Zambezi valley which is flooded to a width of 30 miles in the rainy season and covered by great areas of marshland when the flood water has subsided.
Mail is unloaded from the Beaver at Mankoya in Northern Rhodesia. The payload on this flight included a theodolite for the Public Works Department and a spring for an immobilised car at Mongu: vaccines for the doctor at Kalabo; despatches for the Government officials at Senanga; and fresh meat, mail, newspapers, and shot-gun cartridges for the Europeans in each of the villages at which the Beaver called. The aircraft carry emergency equipment comprising a two-gallon tank of drinking water and a shot-gun with a selection of cartridges which would enable an unlucky pilot either to shoot buck for food or to defend himself against bigger game.
The fire station on the edge of the aerodrome at Mongu, in the centre of the Barotse Plain. Mongu aerodrome is built on high ground to escape flooding in the wet season: for six months of the year during the floods the Beavers provide the only means of contact, apart from the native canoes, between Mongu and the remainder of the territory. The rainy season in Barotseland brings cumulonimbus cloud, with frequent thunderstorms, but the flying conditions at all times of the year subject the aircraft to hot, bumpy air up to 12,000 or 15,000 ft., causing pilots and passengers alike to remark thankfully upon the sturdy all metal construction of the Beaver
First Officer Church carries out an inspection of his aircraft after a night-stop at Mongu, the provincial capital of Barotseland, which is linked directly by the Beaver services with Lusaka and Livingstone. Mongu is a large village with a European community of 115, who rely upon the Beavers for the prompt delivery of their mail, medical supplies, technical equipment and fresh produce. Travel by road from Mongu to Lusaka, the nearest large town, is possible only in the dry season, and takes two days of hard driving: the Beaver service operates three times a week the year round and covers the distance in a little over three hours. Mongu aerodrome has the only made-up runway in Barotseland: it is built from more than two million bricks, which are held in place by dried mud.
The Beaver arrives at Kalabo, the seat of the most westerly administrative district of the Barotse province. Mongu, the territory's provincial headquarters, and a town with which ready contact must he maintained, lies across the Zambezi, a difficult two-day ride by car but a mere 25 minutes by Beaver. Refuelling and passenger bookings at Kalabo are the responsibility of Mrs. Withers, the C.A.A. agent and wife of the local District Commissioner: the twice-weekly arrival of the Beaver enables her, and the handful of other European inhabitants, to read an up-to-date newspaper and to enjoy a fresh loaf oj bread from the nearest bakery at Lusaka, 350 miles and a morning's flight away. These luxuries, unobtainable by any other means, are brought to her regularly by one of the Beaver captains, First Officer Bill Church: this custom has inevitably become known at Kalabo as " the Church service
The informality of the C.A.A. Beaver services is captured in this photograph of a mid-afternoon halt at Senanga, 80 miles south of Mongu. Fifteen minutes on the ground give the pilot and his passengers time to drink a cup of tea at the aerodrome restaurant — which, at Senanga, takes the form of a chair standing in the shade — before taking off' again to fly along the Zambezi to Sesheke and Livingstone. At the smaller aerodromes in the Barotseland network, where there is no permanent C.A.A. staff, the pilot must take care of all bookings, collect fare money, check load- sheets, and—as the picture shows—pour out the tea for his passengers.
Good forward visibility and a low approach speed are essential when coming in to land at Senanga aerodrome, typical of the short airstrips throughout the C.A.A. Beaver networks. The airfield terminal building, being a small mud hut, is not visible in this photograph: the village jail, however, being more of a place, may be seen on the perimeter of the aerodrome. The airstrip at Senanga is cut from the bush in the direction of the prevailing wind, but frequent cross-windlandings nevertheless have to be made, imposing a further strain on undercarriages already severely tested by the rough surfaces.
A typical Beaver passenger: this little girl, already at eight years of age an experienced air traveller, flew 200 miles in an afternoon to return to school at Livingstone. On board the same aircraft was a French girl missionary who was visiting a Livingstone dentist and returning to Senanga by Beaver on the following day: her round trip might well have taken a week by road. Other regular Beaver users include government servants and public works officials, missionaries on their rounds, and African chiefs travelling from their villages to attend legislative council meetings held in the towns.
The flight from Sesheke to Livingstone, which occupies sixty minutes and costs a modest seventy- one shillings, contains some of the most striking scenery in the whole of Africa and enables passengers to see a wide variety of animal life. Over most of its length the route follows the course of the Zambezi, and the Beaver pilots, quick to locate the game which abounds along the banks of the river, are kept busy pointing out elephants, crocodiles, giraffe and an occasional lion to the eager passengers. The approach to Livingstone Airport, the southern terminal of the Northern Rhodesian feeder-service network, takes the Beavers over Victoria Falls, discernible from many miles away by the cloud of spray which rises 600 ft. into the air as 75 million gallons of water each minute pour over the brink into the river 350 ft. below.
Terminal halt: a Beaver is loaded with freight at Chileka Aerodrome, Blantyre, 2,500 ft. above sea level. The airport restaurant chef looks on. Blantyre, the headquarters of the southern province of Nyasaland, is the terminal of the Nyasaland feeder-service; it was from here, early in J951, that Captain J. A. C. Florence, the local C.A.A. Manager, introduced the Corporations first scheduled Beaver operations, with a weekly run to Mzimba, half-way up Lake Nyasa. This was the first time that regular land or air communications had been extended not towards beyond Lilongwe, near the southern end of the lake, and this new service enabled the pace of development of the country to be substantially increased.To-day the Beavers operate from Blantyre daily to Lilongwe, three times aweek to Mzuzu, and twice weekly up the western lakeside to Mbeya, across the Tanganyika border beyond the northern tip of the Lake. The road from Blantyre to Mbeya is open only in the dry season, and the journey by road takes more than a week: the scheduled Beaver service covers the distance in eight hours and includes a number of stops at the principal villages on the route.
A native village on the shore of Lake Nyasa, on the Beaver's route from the terminal of the service at Blantyre to Lilongwe and Salima. Salima is the principal lakeside tourist centre, and the Beavers bring both guests and their food to the village's two hotels. The Beaver route extends northwards from Salima over broken country to Kasungu and Mzimba, and thence across the 5,000ft. peaks of the Vipya mountain range to Mzuzu. From Mzuzu the aircraft turn eastwards to avoid the high Nyika plateau, always covered by cloud, and after calling at Karonga turn north again to Mbeya, flying alongside mountains reaching up to 10,800 ft. Unpredictable violent lake storms are frequently encountered on this sector, which takes the aircraft over country with an annual rainfall of 145 inches. The aerodrome at Mbeya, in Tanganyika, the northern terminal of the service, is 6,000 ft. above sea level, and this altitude, combined with a high ambient temperature, calls for a brisk take-off performance from the heavily-laden Beavers.
The Beavers call twice a week at Karonga, in Nyasaland. Few aircraft other than the Beaver could use Karonga, which is 1,550 ft. above sea level and one of the shortest airstrips in the area. The pilot attracts the attention of the part-time aerodrome staff by circling the village before landing at the nearby airstrip, and the arrival of the aircraft always draws a crowd of interested Africans. The introduction of the Beaver services has removed the fear of isolation for the eight Europeans living in Karonga, whose mail from England, which previously tool six weeks to deliver, can now arrive in three or four days.
The aerodrome at Mzuzu, the headquarters of the northern province of Nyasaland, which is served three times a week by the Beavers. Now that the European officials resident in such villages as Mzuzu have a frequent link with the large towns they are happier to stay in a geographically remote area, and prospective newcomers are more likely to settle. The flying time between Mzuzu and Mbeya, the nearest town, is less than two hours, and the air fare — £6 10s. — works out at about 8d. a mile, compared with the minimum cost of 1s. 3d. a mile for overland transport.
Frequent veld fires, emitting dense clouds of smoke which rise high in the air, are an additional navigational hazard to flying over poorly-mapped territory in which landmarks are few and radio aids are negligible. The possibility of making a successful forced landing on any of the C.A.A. feeder routes is remote, and under such conditions the aircraft employed must be highly reliable as well as having excellent handling characteristics at low speeds to permit contact flying in poor visibility. The Beavers are always operated under Visual Flight Rules, and C.A.A. have laid down that no flying should take place if the forward visibility is less than three miles or the cloud base lower than 500ft.
Typical of the country over which the Nyasaland Beaver services operate is the 6,000ft. high Livingstonia escarpment, near Karonga, in the northern province of the Protectorate on the route between Blantyre and Mbeya. The only alternative link with civilisation for the 200 European inhabitants of the northern province is the snaky road which may be discerned in the photograph: on this particular stretch it rises from a height of 1,550 ft. to 6,000ft. in one mile and includes numerous acute hairpin bends on which even the smallest cars are forced to reverse. The road journey from Karonga to Blantyre (and the nearest chemist's shop) five days: the Beavers take less than three hours. The introduction of the is bringing about a rapid development of the country's vast natural resources, and the aircraft are always filled with passengers and urgently-required stores in the shape of food, medicine, and motor-car spares: as a Karonga Government official remarked, " People up country exist only through the Beavers."
Extracted and recompiled, by Eddy Norris, from the de Havilland Gazette No.98, April 1957 publication which was made available by Dave Vermaak (Air Rhodesia)
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Ref. Rhodesian Aviation