By Kayla Milne
I still remember seeing the dread in my parent’s eyes when I told them I’d been offered a Caravan First Officer job in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rest of my family and friends had a similar reaction. I was met with the question “Is it Safe?” and I can honestly say, it’s not any worse than Johannesburg.
Saying Goodbye to my friends and family on the 18th of December 2022 was one of the hardest days of my life.
I was a Fresh Commercial pilot with about 300 hours under my belt when this opportunity arose, I didn’t want to go and do an instructor's rating, so decided to do my Cessna Caravan rating. About a month after getting my rating I got my first Flying job. This isn’t to say this is how it will happen for everybody, I got very lucky. Remember everyone’s journey in aviation looks different.
Everybody who has been on Contract knows all about the joy and fun that goes with it. It’s not the easiest or most glamorous life but it is one well worth it.
Here are some facts for the pilots looking at contract work. You will most likely be in African Countries, the Middle East or Asia. My base was Lubumbashi in the Congo, average temperatures are about 27°C and being close to the Equator it rained nearly every day. This led to some very interesting flying, lots of dodging storms, learning how to use the weather radar and flying through clouds, rain and turbulence. Also, be prepared to take a lot of photos, passengers and ground crew will constantly ask you to pose for photos.
Contracts can vary anywhere from 4 weeks away to upwards of 12 weeks. So be prepared to be away from your family and friends for a while and over holidays and birthdays, the hardest days for me while I was away were Christmas and my dad’s birthday, two occasions I was normally home to celebrate. My biggest tip is to get yourself a local sim card, data in the Congo was fairly cheap and I had signal nearly everywhere we went, essential for sending pax manifests when out in the field. Your phone is also an amazing tool, voice calls and video calls became my only way of connecting with the people I missed the most. You will have off time ranging from 4 to 6 weeks at home but beware, some companies don’t pay you while you aren’t on tour.
Your accommodation probably won’t be a 5-star hotel, from my personal experience the company provided accommodation was clean and comfortable. However, I must warn you about night stops. We spent one night in Mbuji- Mayi, during the night I got eaten alive by bed bugs and people kept knocking on my door and shouting at all hours of the night, we also had no water or power most of the night. A tip I learnt from other contract pilots is Baby powder on the mattress helps stop bed bug bites.
The fantastic thing about Contracts is SNTs. This is your food allowance basically and for most contract pilots, the amount you receive in SNTs for the month is often more than your basic salary.
Shopping in the Congo was very similar to home, the Jumbo Mart we had just down the road was very similar to a Spar, meat and cheese are super expensive in the DRC. Most South African snacks were available, things like Jolly Jammers and Lays helped me stay sane and kept the homesickness at bay. Lubumbashi also had some of the most incredible fruit, we’d often send Mama Pitchu our cleaning lady to buy Pineapples, Casava and Mangos which were all so juicy and sweet.
Power could be an issue in the Congo, the power supply is definitely not stable, a lot of surging. Due to this, the lead to my charger exploding on the second day I was there, the plug from my aircon burning out twice, almost catching fire and on two occasions lights in my accommodation exploded sending bits of plastic and glass flying through the room.
This whole experience has been well worthwhile, the 50 hours I spent flying in the Congo were some of the best flying hours I’ve ever had the privilege of logging. Lots of early mornings and late nights but I got to experience a lot of firsts, first time flying with paying passengers, flying live cargo around such as puppies and a few chickens, flying VIPS around, flying in proper instrument conditions, ILS approaches, night hours, taking off and landing at short dirt strips, lots of new airstrips, lots of inflight lunches and learning more French. I look forward to returning to contract life again and continuing to learn and grow in new places and experience new cultures.