Magnificent Men and Women to Race Flying Machines Across Africa

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Sam Rutherford wouldn’t necessarily call himself a daredevil but he admits he is about to embark on an act of derring-do. Whether that act is brave or foolhardy he will soon find out. So, too, will the 40 men and women – husband-and-wife teams, fathers and daughters, even entire families – who have decided to fly more than 8,000 miles across Africa in aircraft that were designed to do little more than short-distance hauls in perfect conditions.

“It would be fair to call them antiques,” says Rutherford of the 15 single-engine biplanes participating in the race. “They were built to go no further than 400 miles. The pressure is going to be unrelenting, a bit like a Formula One driver pushing himself to do one race after another over 35 days.”

That’s not the only potential hitch in the so-called Vintage Air Rally: as antiques go, the open-cockpit aircraft are also noisy. Piloting them is like doing a precision task in the middle of a nightclub, adds Rutherford.

“It’s not just being exposed to the elements – which are brutal and cruel – or the oil, which continuously splashes back from the engines,” he told the Observer before the vintage planes took off from an airstrip on the south-eastern tip of Creteon Saturday. “It’s the constant battery of noise.”

A former helicopter pilot in the Army Air Corps, the endurance enthusiast – whose logistics company, Prepare2go, has organised the rally – was attracted to the endeavour by the “intriguing mix” it offered of adventure, jeopardy, ardour and competition.

In 1928, the Irish aviator Mary, Lady Heath made history when she became the first person to fly solo from Cape Town to London. But she took three months. Never have so many vintage planes attempted to cover such a long distance over such a short period.

Without autopilots or sophisticated computer navigation systems, the classic aircraft will be hand flown. The enthusiasts concede that even starting these planes – never mind managing the joystick and pedals – could be quite a challenge.

The teams will cross 10 countries, many beset by war and borderline famine, in a rally that will seek to recreate the 1931 Imperial Airways “Africa Route”. From Cairo, the first stop, the pilots will fly low over the Nile to Khartoum, past the highlands of Ethiopia, down through east Africa, past Mount Kilimanjaro, on to the island of Zanzibar and over the Victoria Falls before ending in Cape Town, South Africa, on 17 December. A personal request from Botswana’s president for the route to include his country means the planes will be stopping there, too.

It will be the first time in 80 years that aircraft have been given permission to land at the Giza pyramids, and the first time an airshow has taken place in either Sudan or Zambia. The African nations have acknowledged the benefits to tourism the event will bring.

“Opportunities such as the Vintage Air Rally come once in a lifetime,” enthuses Nick Oppegard, 67, who, with his wife, Lita, will represent Alaska, flying a 1928 Travel Air. “It was not a question of ‘should’ – it was a question of ‘must’.”

Along the way, teams will drop seed bombs from the air as part of a reforestation campaign backed by the charities benefiting from the rally.

For all the enthusiasm, Rutherford is not taking any chances. Two helicopters and six modern aircraft, carrying spares and equipment, will be flying alongside. Special fuel has been flown in to points along the route.

The worst that could happen, he claims, is engine failure or losing a part. “But, then, on the bright side, the aircraft don’t fly very fast, and that’s good in the case of forced landings,” says Rutherford, who trained at Sandhurst. “A small piece of land, even a football pitch, will be enough to safely get the aircraft on the ground but, yes, it’s an act of derring-do and it’s going to be a struggle. How much of one we are going to see.”

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