What is the Vintage Air Rally? The craziest cross-Africa race in restored 1920s aircraft

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The Vintage Air Rally – an air race that spans the African continent – has risen to prominence after one of its pilots went missing and was subsequently found in Ethiopia. But what is the rally and why do participants race from Crete to Cape Town?

Following the disappearance of 71-year-old pilot Maurice Kirk, the Vintage Air Rally has said in a statement that all of its crews have been left stranded in Ethiopia, in Gambela, where authorities have decided to ask participants to stay in accommodation at the airport rather than in their pre-booked hotel.

While information about what happened to Kirk is scarce, the race’s organisers have said they believe the experienced airman made a precautionary landing before sunset, somewhere in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian authorities, and his family, were informed of Kirk being found, as search and rescue procedures were due to begin at first light on 23 November.

Kirk, who counted the late actor Oliver Reed among his drinking companions, has since withdrawn from the race, but his ability to show calm under pressure and his quick thinking captures some of the expeditionary spirit of the Vintage Air Rally.

The intervention of Ethiopian authorities also exhibits some of the pitfalls when navigating the African continent, even if from the air.

The Vintage Air Rally states that its aims are to follow in the footsteps of the pioneering flights of the 1920s and as such the race is open exclusively to aircraft built before the 31 December 1939.

The event, which began on 12 November, lasts for five weeks and is an official event of The Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom and The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Pilots take in stunning views while battling the mechanical limitations of their craft and their own mental and physical endurance.

Flying low along the Nile from Cairo to Khartoum, the pilots then proceed past the highlands of Ethiopia before reaching the plains of Kenya and the home of African aviation in Nairobi.

When they return to their aircraft, they set off taking on views of Kilimanjaro before heading into the Serengeti and on to Zanzibar.

The final leg continues, across Zambia to Victoria Falls, before heading to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. The final days take the pilots across Botswana and into South Africa to the Cape of Good Hope, where the journey ends.

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