The DC-3 bows out of Air Kenya service
STEFANO PAGIOLA reports from Nairobi on the retirement of Airkenya's last surviving DC-3
For many years, a pair of Douglas DC-3s formed the backbone of Airkenya's fleet. Already displaced on many services by Twin Otters and Short 3-60s, the airline's DC-3s were retired during the summer of 1997 following the introduction into service of two Dash 7s.
As recounted in more detail in Propliner issue 46, Airkenya's two original DC-3s, 5Y-AAE and 5Y-BBN, had spent most of their lives together since being built consecutively at Douglas' Oklahoma City plant in 1944 as C-47B-DKs with c/ns 32844 and 32845. After serving with the RAF as Dakota Mk.IVs KN418 and KN419, they both joined East African Airways In 1952, initially as VP-KJQ and VP-KJR, and after 1964 as 5Y-AAE and 5X-AAQ. In East African service, both DC-3s ranged widely throughout eastern Africa until sold in 1977 to Kenyan airline Caspair (at which time 5X-AAQ became 5Y-BBN) In Caspair service, the DC-3s undertook regular services to Kenya's many game reserves and other tourist destinations. In 1979, Caspair changed its name to Sunbird. Sunbird, in turn, merged with Air Kenya in 1985 to form Airkenya, and operations under the Airkenya name began in 1987.
Rugged bush style operations
Throughout these years, the Masai Mara game reserve in south western Kenya was the main destination for Airkenya's DC-3s. The northward continuation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the Masai Mara offers one of the widest ranges of game in East Africa. A half-dozen airstrips serve the main hotels, lodges and tented camps. Only a few thousand feet long, usually unpaved, at high altitude (above 1,500 metres), and with no equipment more sophisticated than a windsock, these strips pose substantial operational challenges to any aircraft The DC-3's ability to operate In and out of these strips with a full load of 25 passengers made them an invaluable part of the fleet.
By 1990, the DC-3s had been supplemented by a growing fleet of Twin Otters. Although the nimble and versatile Twin Otter was serving the airline well, its 18-seat capacity made it too small for services to the key game reserve destinations during peak periods. The need for additional lift at those times led Airkenya to add a third DC-3 to its fleet It did not have to look far to find a suitable candidate. Caspair had acquired DC-3 ST-AHK from the Sudan-based Kenana Sugar Corporation in 1979. Originally built as C-53 c/n 4890, this aircraft had earlier served With Ibena as EC-DAL and EC-ABQ. Caspair and then Sunbird used it briefly, still with its Sudanese registration, but then parked it at Wilson Airport, Nairobi, in 1980 and gradually cannibalised it to supply the other DC-3s with parts. Although this aircraft needed extensive restoration before 11 could be placed back into service, at the time it was cheaper than importing a new aircraft. Now registered 5Y-BGU, she made her first flight on March 6 1991, and entered Airkenya service soon thereafter.
Although the addition of 5Y-BGU temporally addressed Airkenya's capacity requirements, the airline began looking to the future. Structurally, the DC-3s were in impeccable condition, but their Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engines were proving increasingly troublesome and were the main source of mechanical delays in the Airkenya fleet. Moreover, the price of avgas was twice that of Jet A1, and continuing to increase. Consideration was given to re-engining all three DC-3s with turboprops. The Basler PT -6A conversion offered Airkenya the prospect of improved reliability, lower operating and maintenance costs, and a modest increase in capacity. However, the airline's board balked at the cost. Indeed, Airkenya began considering options for replacing the DC-3s with modern turbine-powered equipment.
The DC-3 replacement problem
Alas, Airkenya's DC-3 fleet was reduced to two after 5Y-BBN was damaged in a landing accident at the Musiara airstrip in the Masai Mara in February 1992. The aircraft had just made an emergency landing after losing an engine on take-off, when she was caught by a strong cross-wind gust which caused her to ground-loop and skid into the drainage ditch which runs alongside the narrow strip Fortunately, no one was injured in the mishap. ‘BBN herself was relatively lightly damaged; the required repairs were well within the capabilities of Airkenya's engineering department. Given the long-term need to replace the DC-3s, however, the airline decided not to repair the aircraft and her remains were trucked out of the Mara and used for spares.
The loss of BBN lent increased urgency to the DC-3 replacement question. Airkenya had acquired a former Kenya Airways Fokker F27-200 early in 1991. This aircraft was performing well on the airline's new scheduled service from Nairobi to Mombasa, but it was unable to operate into the airstrips at Airkenya's main game reserve destinations. More Friendships would not, therefore, provide the answer. At one point, Airkenya thought It had found the answer in the form of a Short 3-60, and the company acquired two of the boxlike twins for the very attractive price of $13 (US) million each. With their large windows and high wing, they proved immediately popular with the passengers. While the 3-60s proved eminently suited to Airkenya's longer routes to coastal destinations such as Lamu and Malindi, however, they proved a failure on the airline's 'bread-and-butter' Masai Mara routes. The need to provide an adequate safety margin in the case of an engine failure on take-off from the short, hot and high strips in the Mara meant that the 3-60s had to be quite severely weight-limited on those routes. Although a full load of 30 passengers can be carried into the Mara, only 18 passengers can be flown out - a third less than the DC-3. As many airlines had discovered before, Airkenya was finding the answer to the DC-3 replacement question an elusive one.
Finding a DC-3 replacement became critical after the retirement of the Zimbabwean Air Force's last C-47s caused the cost of engine overhauls at Hunting's Harare facility to soar. Since the R-1830s were only lasting 1,200 hours between overhauls, the need for a replacement could no longer be postponed.
Eventually, Airkenya selected the Dash 7 as its DC-3 replacement. The Dash 7 had the performance to operate into any of the dirt strips m Airkenya's system, and the speed, range and passenger comfort needed on the longer coastal routes, while its fifty seats promised to solve the airline's capacity problems once and for all. Airkenya contracted to buy two Dash 7s in early 1997. The first of these was delivered m late May, and after refurbishment and painting in Airkenya's new colour scheme, it entered service on June 12. A second Dash 7 staged through Edinburgh on delivery to Airkenya on October 31, and was expected in Kenya early in November. With the arrival of the Dash 7, the DC-3 era at Airkenya was drawing to an end.
The Mara run
On June 8, I Joined DC-3 5Y-BGU for one of its last flights in Airkenya service - "Sunbird 751", the regularly scheduled morning flight to the Mara. On this Sunday morning, a large group from East African Ornithological Safaris was being flown to the Masai Mara, requiring not just both DC-3s, but a Twin Otter as well. Nor was our small aerial armada the only activity on Airkenya's crowded ramp at Wilson Airport. Another Twin Otter was boarding passengers for a scheduled flight to Nanyuki and Samburu, a Grand Caravan had just returned from Amboseli and a Short 3-60 from Mombasa, a couple of Barons were awaiting their charter customers, and a King Air was being fuelled for a long-range flight on behalf of the United Nations.
As the passengers arrived, their luggage was carefully weighed. Because of the hot and high conditions at most Airkenya destinations, weight and balance are closely monitored. Each passenger is allowed 15 kg, including hand luggage. Given the wide array of photographic equipment visitors to game reserves tend to carry, this limit is easily reached. After the Airkenya agents had checked off their names on the computer print-outs, passengers were issued with colour-coded boarding cards, depending on their destination and aircraft to be used.
When our time for departure came, we were escorted on board by Irene, our flight attendant 5Y-BGU is configured with seven rows of seats, two abreast on each side of the fuselage. A handrail runs along the ceiling above the aisle, helping passengers climb the steeply sloping cabin. Rather than joining the rest of the passengers, I made my way forward into the cockpit and took my place on the jump seat behind the pilots. There I met Captain Mark Hyatt and First Officer Andrew Adambesa, who were already going through the checklists. Under the watchful eye of a ground-crew man armed with a fire extinguisher, the engines were started. Allowing the R-1830s time to warm up prior to departure is a key ingredient in keeping them happy. As we waited, Irene came forward to announce that the cabin was secure and to confirm the passenger count, which comprised 21 passengers bound for Musiara, two for Kichwa Tembo, and myself. For the return trip, we would pick up nine passengers at Musiara and twelve at Kichwa Tembo.
Once 'BGU's engines had warmed up, we taxied out, moving gingerly on the crowded ramp. After completing engine and other pre-take-off checks, we taxied onto Wilson's runway 14 and began our take-off roll. 'BGU's tail came up very rapidly, and a few seconds later we were airborne. A bank to the right brought us onto a heading of 2720, on course for the 110 nautical mile trip to the Masai Mara. Our route took us over the Ngong Hills - home of Karen Blixen, of Out of Africa fame - and then over the edge of the Rift Valley. Nairobi Tower passed us on to Nairobi Centre, but then we entered uncontrolled airspace and we were on our own. Mark switched the radio to 1182, the frequency that is monitored at all times in uncontrolled airspace in Kenya and Tanzania. As we settled into the cruise at 10,500 feet, Irene came up front to offer drinks, and both pilots decided on tea - served, as is usual in Kenya, with milk and lots of sugar The roar of the R-1830s just outside the windows was not conducive to conversation, so I just watched the tops of clouds drift by as the GPS unit mounted on the instrument panel guided us straight towards our destination.
About 25 nautical miles from Musiara, we began our descent. Musiara came into sight, a narrow strip of pavement in the green savanna. Necks were craned to watch for any other traffic as we entered a standard left-hand circuit. Flaps were lowered in stages, followed by the landing gear. As we came in over the threshold, power was cut, and we made a smooth main wheel landing. A few seconds later, the tail wheel came down and we slowed to a halt.
After turning around, we back-tracked along the runway to a small beaten-earth apron off to the side, where a gaggle of minibuses awaited our passengers. The Twin Otter had preceded us there, and was already preparing for its return flight to Wilson. Off to one side, an anonymous Dormer 28 rested on its belly, victim of the same fate that had befallen Airkenya's 'BBN at this same strip a few years earlier. We parked and shut down 'BGU's engines and a ladder was secured to her door-sill to allow passengers to disembark. Both pilots then came back to help unload the baggage. 5Y-AAE soon joined us on the ground and did the same. Unlike us, however, 'AAE was to remain at Musiara until the afternoon, when it would help to fly a large group of tourists back to Nairobi. 'AAE's crew thus secured her and headed off to partake of Governor Camp's generous lunchtime buffet, much to the envy of 'BGU's crew. Before we could depart for our next leg to Kichwa Tembo, we had to wait for some connecting passengers arriving on a Twin Otter from Nanyuki. We did not have long to wait, a few rmnutes later, Twin Otter 5Y-BIJ landed, using substantially less runway than we had. Passengers and bags were quickly transferred, and soon we were on our way again.
Since Kichwa Tembo is just beyond a stream from Musiara, our next leg was a short one. From a left crosswind turn, we entered directly onto a right hand downwind leg for Kichwa Ternbo, and then onto a right base before turning final. After another smooth landing, we once again taxied to the 'apron' and closed down the engines. Depending on the number of passengers being dropped off and picked up, one engine is sometimes left running. With twelve passengers waiting to board, both pilots came back to help with the luggage. Even so, our time on the ground was a scant ten minutes.
Our return trip to Nairobi - now operating as "Sunbird 752" - essentially retraced our outward journey. The cloud cover grew more dense as we neared Nairobi, and we began our descent well before reaching the rim of the Rift Valley, so as to be below the cloud base before nearing the steeply-rising terrain. We thus crossed the Ngong Hills at 7,500 feet. The tower vectored us for a right base to runway 14. As we turned onto final, the approach lights confirmed we were right on the glide slope. With a characteristic squeal of tyres, we were back on the ground.
As we taxied towards Airkenya's ramp, 'BGU suddenly started shaking quite vigorously. Ground crew started running towards us, waving frantically. We came to an immediate halt, and the shaking and noise ceased. Suspecting a flat tyre on the tail wheel, Mark decided to shut down the engines on the taxiway and investigate the problem. As it turned out, the tyre was fine, but the tail wheel fork had sheared cleanly in two, sending the tail wheel spinning away. This caused considerable surprise: none of the engineering staff present - some of whom had worked on DC-3s since well back into East African Airways' days - had ever witnessed anything like it. After passengers and baggage were unloaded, attention turned to clearing the taxiway and replacing the tailwheel fork. Substantial amounts of muscle power were dedicated to the former. Once 'BGU had been manoeuvred into a position that did not obstruct the taxiway, repairs proceeded swiftly The tail was jacked up and the tailwheel fork was replaced with another from Airkenya's abundant stock of spares. Within an hour of the incident, 'BGU was ready for service again. It was later determined that the tail wheel fork had probably been damaged as the aircraft was towed around the parking area. One of the tractors used by Airkenya has a rigid towbar which attaches to the tailwheel fork. On the uneven surface of the parking area, use of this bar was likely to have caused a fracture to develop, which eventually gave way. The offending towbar was barred from further use. Although an inspection of 'AAE's tailwheel revealed no problems, it was also replaced to be on the safe side.
End of an era
DC-3 5Y-BGU was retired from service barely two weeks later, on June 21. Her last flight took her to Nanyuki, near Mount Kenya, and then down to the Masai Mara, before returning to Wilson. At the time of her retirement, her logbook showed 31,789 flying hours. Initially, both DC-3s were to have been retired by the end of June, but it's hard to keep a good bird down, and 'AAE soldiered on for several more months before finally being withdrawn on September 1. Fittingly, her last flight was to the Mara, her regular destination for the last several decades. Over the years, she has accumulated 52,437 hours. Both DC-3s are now parked at Airkenya's maintenance hangar at Wilson, awaiting a buyer. Airkenya is maintaining them both m airworthy condition, with the engines being run regularly. Given their excellent physical condition, it is quite likely that they will eventually find a new home. The Dutch Dakota Association is one possible buyer.