Well, that was that, then. Maurice Kirk, septuagenarian adventurer and unapologetic eccentric, is no longer an official flying member of the Vintage Air Rally.
As you read this, nearly 20 teams flying 1930s-era biplanes the length of Africa are nearing Victoria Falls on their final approach to Cape Town, but Kirk, aka the Flying Vet, is no longer one of them.
Kirk struggled to stay on course throughout the rally, and was finally done in by engine failure — this, after a brief stint as an unscheduled guest of Ethiopian authorities in the dusty border town of Gambela after he developed “engine trouble” over Sudan and aimed for the border in his 1943 Piper Club.
The Vintage Air Rally got underway in Crete early last month, in a bid to fly to Cape Town, some 8,000 miles (12,800 km) in all, over the Mediterranean, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and now, hopefully, Zimbabwe. All going well, the crews are expected to touch down in Cape Town on Dec. 17.
A second team was also forced to bail following a forced landing near Nakuru, Kenya. Both pilots emerged in one piece, despite the plane flipping over on its nose while screeching to a halt, rally spokesman Alan Evan-Hanes told reporters in Joburg earlier this week.
“(The) occupants are okay,” Evan-Hanes said, according to South Africa’s Times newspaper. “The plane is not flyable.”
Kirk’s 1943 Piper Club, developed in the U.S. in the late 1930s, was designed to fly at about 120k/mh, Evan-Hanes noted. It’s easy to get blown off track when flying against the wind. Kirk also had issues with his fuel supply, Evan-Hanes added.
Refueling the planes along the way proved to be harder than many expected. Fuel had to be transported in drums into hard-to-reach areas north of Zambia.
Finding a safe place to land got gnarly at times. A spokeswoman for the Dutch-Angolan owned fuel supply company Puma Energy told The Times crews were forced to land on a farm at one point, just south of the Tanzania border.
The flying teams want to recreate the so-called 1930’s “Imperial Flying Route” down the length of Africa, in a real-life version of the 1965 madcap caper film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes. (Don’t knock it; that’s the film’s official title.)
Only, in this case, 25 hours is more like 35 days.
There’s a wildlife conservation element to the rally. Rally organizers are supporting Bird Life International (BLI) in its efforts to draw attention to the plight of Africa’s vultures, which have plummeted alarmingly in number in the past 10 years, owing to poisoned bait left to kill jackals, and by elephant poachers wanting to elude detection.
“There’s a certain romance to flying vintage aircraft, covered in oil, wearing goggles, suffering from wind burn,” Evan-Hanes explained. “[Nothing beats] the spectacular scenery of the setting sun.”
Except, perhaps, landing in one piece.