It was just before New Years 2012/2013, I was based in Arusha, Tanzania for the week, flying charters out to the Serengeti in a Cessna Grand Caravan. On this day I had a unique flight out to a non standard place, An airstrip in the vicinity of Mount Gelai. On the eastern edge of Lake Natron. The Nav was approximately 51 nautical miles from Arusha HTAR. And would require quite a climb to get above minimum safe altitude to clear the Monduli Ridge, Northwest bound.
I arrived nice and early, and checked the name of the Airstrip I was tasked to fly to, found the region on a rather low detail map, I obtained it's co ordinates sent from the booking agent, and although had never flown there before I knew the area around it fairly well. There were four airstrips listed in the airstrip manual around Gelai, all beginning with Gelai- West, East, North, Lumbwa. I was to fly to Lumbwa.... had an American family and guide meeting me at the aircraft on a beautiful December morning.
They were delighted and looking forward to their holiday at an upmarket Tanzanian lodge right on the brink of the Great Rift Valley. We got airborne runway two seven at Arusha and climbed beautifully with Mount Meru (4th highest mountain in Africa 14000' amsl) at our four o'clock on the V Nav profile for Gelai Lumbwa. Crystal cruising, and started my decent 18 minutes later to the Airstrip and the co-ordinates on my manifest. Joined over a blank rectangle of gravel and tufts of grass.
Positioned downwind to land. Upon shutting down I noticed a ghastly silence among the pax and the guide. I looked around and there were just goats and Maasai herders, no sign of a game vehicle. The guide tapped my shoulder and said, 'Bwana this is not the place'.
My blood pressure rose a few notches, feeling a bit under pressure to get them answers, but after cross checking the name on the manifest, the coordinates, the agents information. I was in fact where I was tasked to fly. No cell phone signal was available, couldn't phone ops. Here I was with a group of ten who after initially laughing, started making remarks like, 'can't believe we got in a plane with a pilot who doesn't know where he's going.'
I rounded them up, and informed them it may be a mistake... And that there are three other strips listed within nine miles of our position, let's go have a look and if we can't find it, if not we head back to base and replan the whole Nav with correct information.
So we got airborne and headed to the closest next strip to join overhead and inspect. Same story just goats and Maasai. Guide tells me it's not that strip.... So I push on to Gelai West... Join over head.... Pure blank... Nothing going on, no cars... Zero Movement.... Guide says 'no...Not that one'....I head to the last listed strip Gelai North... Join overhead.... Cows and goats... No vehicles.....
I'm flying single crew, relaying my situation to other aircraft In range of the Arusha ops to find out where these people are supposed to be going.... I wait ten minutes and got no Answer.... And started to eat into my extra fuel... And therefore decided to head back to Arusha.
The wife started getting very angry, 'what type of pilot flies guests and doesn't know where he is going!!?? 'We are going to get all our money back and never fly with you again'..I heard her say.. At this point I'm a little embarrassed, taking big hits from the clients just trying to get around the mountains back to Arusha.... When suddenly my brain clicks in to gear...
I ask the guide a very simple question which saved the day.... 'What's the name of the lodge that they are staying in?' Guide replies 'Gelai Mountain lodge'. So I rationalise, if it's a 'mountain lodge'..... It must be near the mountain itself..... So I tracked tight along a contour of this beautiful volcanic intrusion into the sky, overlooking the red waters of Lake Natron. And scoured the landscape with my eyes, for any sign of a settlement.
Round and round the mountain... Till boom! There was a corrugated glimmer.... A work shop, and then a road and then a lodge classic aerial observation sequence... I followed the road out and... There she was.... A gravel rectangle on the brink of Gelai mountain,... My heart skipped a beat as I reduced power and descended upon it, then further saw... Two khaki land cruisers with guides waving!!!! I joined the circuit and landed, and wrote down the co ordinates of the mystery runway....
The pax were rather bi polar... One minute they were swearing about me, demanding a refund the next minute jumping for joy.... The confusion had cost them 40 minutes of their holiday... They weren't letting it go... I unpacked the bags and lined them in the shade of the wing, while still listening to the bickering about my substandard performance. I went to the cooler box and gave them all the drinks, all the maps that they would normally pay for, (they told me to keep the maps, coz I need them more then they do).... I asked if there's anything I could do to make it up to them.... The son a youngster of 12 asked me if he could have my pilot shirt and epps..... So I swallowed my pride.... And took it off. Handed my shirt to the kid... This brought raptures of laughter... I was standing shirtless in front of clients who were planning to gun for a refund, due to a navigationally confused pilot.
The laughter went on and on.... But I asked them again, is there anything else I can do to fix this terrible inconvenience you faced today? So the daughter asks me for my flying watch😐😐😐 luckily the father intervened and stopped it... Finally saying, 'thank you Felix, you got us here in one piece and we have never laughed like this in years. Can we have a photo with you?', 'Yes Sir no Problem.'
I flew back to Arusha without my shirt, shoulder straps on, taxied in like John Rambo... All the ground crew laughing about the half naked pilot. I was subsequently called in to the office, whereby the Idigo sat confirmed that my first landing, was exactly where I'd been tasked to fly. The Agent had gotten the strips mixed up. The strip that I dropped them off at was so new that not even the latest aeronautical information publication knew of it. No one had its co-ordinates.
The boss was furious, 'why did you fly my aircraft without a shirt on!!??'
I informed him that the clients had asked for a refund, explaining how I'd searched four airstrips prior to finding the right one. The boss said what??!!! A refund?? No one has called for a refund??? 'Yes sir they said they were very unhappy with the delay ... So I asked them if there's anything I could do to make up for the inconvenience, to which their son replied'...'give me your shirt' ,which I did... I then had to take off and fly back shirtless.....
The boss replied.... 'Now that's a Captain!'