70 and still flying

The workhorse transport aircraft of the World War II era and thereafter widely used twin-engine passenger plane built by McDonnell Douglas, fondly called the Dakota and otherwise known as the DC 3, so

70 and still flying

The workhorse transport aircraft of the World War II era and thereafter widely used twin-engine passenger plane built by McDonnell Douglas, fondly called the Dakota and otherwise known as the DC 3, soon also made an appearance in the skies over East Africa.

East African Airways, launched in 1946, soon flew several of them, both the DC3-47A and the DC3-47B types but I consciously remember seeing my ‘first’ at Wilson Airport in the colours of Caspair which company was soon afterwards to become Sunbird before, after a merger with a competitor, was renamed as Air Kenya.

The old Dakota proved to be a much photographed aircraft and was regularly seen on the emerging scheduled flights from Wilson Airport to the Masai Mara and those who flew on it may remember how rocky the ride often was especially during the afternoon flights.

But as time went by, more fuel efficient aircraft of more optimal size, like the first generation De Havilland Twin Otters were introduced, followed by even more fuel efficient aircraft types and the Dakotas were less and less often seen to take to the skies, eventually to be phased out altogether.

It was not until the 10th of February 2011 that Mombasa Air Safaris took the steps to bring nostalgia back into Kenyan aviation when they brought in what looked like an old Dakota but was, proverbially speaking, a wolf in sheep clothes. 5Y-WOW, as the aircraft was registered and then christened ‘Furaha’, the Kiswahili word for happiness, was no longer the plane the US Airforce took delivery of in 1944 as a ‘simple’ DC3 47B-DK. When eventually joining the South African Air Force, after serving for the British Royal Airforce for some years, the aircraft was spruced up with turboprop engines and turned into a DC3-65TP with much more powerful engines. Also installed was a state of the art avionics suite in the cockpit, giving pilots the information they expect to see in an instant today instead of having to scan the rotary instruments as was the case when this old bird took to her maiden flight and thousands more until the conversion took place.

For this grand ol’ dame of aviation, 2014 marked the aircraft’s 70th birthday, remarkable by any standards and makes her stand out alongside the equally ‘classic’ three engine Junkers, some of which are still flying in Europe to give people the option to experience what flying was like in those early days of aviation.

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That all said, there is another bird regularly seen in the East African skies, which come 2015 will be 50 years old and celebrate a half century of flying. Also from the McDonnell Douglas stable is a DC9-14 still in active service, probably one of the oldest if not THE oldest of her kind, flying for East African Safari Air. With a manufacturers serial number of 45725 this aircraft came off the production line in December 1965 and entered commercial service with Air Canada in February 1966. The aircraft then changed hands and registrations multiple times. From Air Canada the aircraft then moved to Trans Texas, Texas International, Southern Airways, Finnair, British Midland and Midwest Express before she eventually found her way to Kenya in March 2004, where she is now registered as 5Y-XXA.

Old aircraft, while of course guzzling fuel because they use old, fuel inefficient engines of those days when a barrel of crude oil would sell for a few Dollars, are not per se ‘old’ as over the lifespan literally every component of that aircraft was sooner or later replaced during scheduled maintenance, in particular when undergoing what is commonly referred to as ‘heavy maintenance’, aka C or D checks. As a result do such aircraft retain their CoA, short for Certificate of Airworthiness, and – as long as airworthiness directives from the FAA and other regulators and manufacturers guidelines for maintenance are followed, are as safe to fly as a brand new aircraft.

There is something about aviation in East Africa, safari flying in particular, that brings back much nostalgia when flying those old birds but of course they are progressively giving way to state of the art twin turboprops and the new single engine workhorse flying to the parks, the Cessna C208B Grand Caravan.

Air safaris are the most convenient and time saving way to explore all of East Africa’s safari parks, by scheduled flights or by charter and considering the distances across the region, is flying the fastest and safest way to travel from the Indian Ocean shores to such places like Bujumbura, Kigali and even Kamembe and all the airports in between. The arrival in Kenya of Jambojet, a subsidiary of national airline Kenya Airways, or of Fastjet in Tanzania now serving several domestic and four international destinations including Johannesburg, Lusaka, Harare and Entebbe, has made flying more affordable and drawn an entirely new segment of travelers on to aircraft, many of them for the very first time.

There are many stories out there about aviation in Eastern Africa, how it developed and about the dare devil pilots of the early years and more no doubt will be told in years to come.

For now let it suffice to have told the story of these two old ladies, the Mombasa Air Safaris Super Dakota and the equally well preserved DC9-14 so that visitors to our part of the world, and in particular to Kenya where aviation is at the most advanced in the entire region, can appreciate that they visit a country where both the modern day state of the art aircraft like the B787Dreamliner or the B777-300ER share the same airspace with some very classic aircraft types, still going strong regardless of their age.

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