Flying through a war zone
South-Sudan would not be the first destination I would pick out for a vacation. However, in order to reach the North of Africa, we have to cross the North-Eastern part of Africa. There are a few options to do that. The route we prefer is from Juba to Khartoum and onwards to Egypt. Another option is to fly over Ethiopia to Djibouti, then cross over to Yemen, Saudi-Arabia into Egypt. Once you fly over Ethiopia, you can not cross Eritrea. Eritrea and Ethiopia are not best friends at the moment. There are other fuel hindrances to fly in the direction of Djibouti, so we are currently waiting for the permit to overfly Sudan to arrive.
At this very moment, there is severe fighting going on in the North of South-Sudan around the city of Malakal. This city has been largely destroyed over the last few days with rebels and government troops fighting each other. Malakal is also more or less on our route from Juba to Khartoum. From inside information from UN officials and pilots flying here, we have heard that it should be safe to overfly the war zone at 6000 feet or higher. “The higher we can fly the better,” was the slogan.
We arrived yesterday at 11 o’clock local time at the Juba airport. The only radio communication with the tower operator (also having the role of approach controller at the same time) was with United Nations aircraft in approach, landing or take-off.
While in approach we spotted the first military and UN base camps underneath our wings. The whole airport seems to be taken over by military units and here we come with our small Piper Archer to land and park it right in between.
Only after the landing it became clear that this airport is really taken over by the UN. Blue helmets everywhere and here and there another aircraft from humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross or Flying Doctors and of course our own Piper.
We were greeted right after landing by the local MAF staff who agreed to sell us their remaining AVGAS fuel. The MAF base in Uganda arranged this for us and even informed them of our Estimated Time of Arrival. After the refueling we took off to the tower to pay the landing fees and to contact the Operations Desk of AeroPlus in The Netherlands. Seemingly the overland and landing clearances for Sudan/Khartoum did not arrive yet and we had to stay and wait in South-Sudan/Juba for these documents to arrive.
At first we were hoping for the the clearances to arrive within a few hours, so we waited on the apron underneath the wings of a Cessna Caravan of Flying Doctors. We found passenger seats in the grass right behind the tarmac and dragged them to the shading area that the high wings of the Caravan provided to us. Seemingly pilots just drop their passenger seats in the grass when they have to carry cargo instead of passengers. They would then pick the chairs up again later when returning to the airport. We just borrowed some and watched all the UN aircraft passing by on the taxiway. Nobody cared that we were just sitting there and greeted us while taxiing by.
One other thing. In quite a few places in Africa we had to rely on satellite communication to stay in contact with our operations centre in The Netherlands. Also here in Juba, we were not getting any GSM signal. Seemingly T-Mobile doesn’t have roaming agreements with all the countries in Africa other than those that are considered popular tourist destinations. I wouldn’t call Juba a tourist destination, so also here we had to rely on our Thuraya Satsleeve phone.
The temperatures got up so high here while sitting outside that after spending some hours underneath the wings of the Caravan, we could not cope with the heat anymore. Even enroute in the air we would sometimes hit outside air temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius. Right now, we are waiting in a local hotel in Juba. Waiting for our permit to arrive.
To be continued …