Flying the Cessna Caravan in
West Africa:


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On a typical hot humid and windless West African day, I taxi the Chevron floatplane down the muddy brown river against the incoming tide. Several natives in antiquated dug-out canoes paddle along downstream, waiting expectantly for me to pass, but not giving way. I apply power and allow the aircraft to find it's own way onto the step. Snaking the aircraft on down the flat calm river until airspeed breaks the surface tension, I climb out at a steady 82 knots into the still air. The rainforest, lush, green, and alive, spreads out before me. Despite it's untouched appearance, the forest below is a creation of man's endeavors. As seen from above, the once virgin rainforest is fast disappearing. The West Africa landscape is a creation of man; a habitant of mankind.

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Niger River Delta: A Timeless Expanse To better understand why operating a Cessna 208 Amphibious Caravan is so special in West Africa, you would have to have some idea of the landscape involved. Nigeria's namesake river, the Niger, flows through the heart of the country to spread out fan like before the warm Atlantic waters. The Niger Delta is a large expanse of natural waterways, flooded rainforest, and tidal mangrove swamps, where thousands of Nigerians make their home and etch out their subsistence life styles: diving for giant river snails, netting ancient species of large scale fish, or harvesting their crops of cassava and plantain from what high ground they can find. Although not immediately evident, more and more the villagers are turning to the devastating industry of logging to make their living.
The Niger Delta is a timeless landscape that the natives here call "the bush", and one that bush-pilots, like myself, call home. Levelling out at 2000 feet ASL, I find the early morning scene breath-taking. The mist has dissipated over the water leaving a harmattan dust laden haze throughout the lower atmosphere that glows a golden brown in the rich morning light. Hanging precipitously over the horizon, the sun, obscured by the haze, forms a perfect purple disk that glows from within. The harmattan dust, blown in from the Sahara, will continue with the upper winds across the Atlantic, to become the soil of bromeliads growing in the canopy of the Amazon rainforest. The desolation of the Sahara feeds the richness of the Amazonos, as well as the Niger River delta.
Through the shallow ground fog still lingering over the land, stand raffia palm trees, looking like proud warriors in elaborate feathered head-dresses erect in a smoking razed field. This visual effect is strengthened by the presence of blazing orange flares burning throughout the oilfields beyond. I feel like an alien witness to a primordial ritual dance carried out to please some mysterious and cruel god that watches over this brutal but starkly beautiful land. I dance too. A slow waltz, step by step, drifting toward the next horizon with my floatplane.

C-208 Amphib Leaves No Footprints Setting the GPS for Ogbelle, toward the north west, I land 20 minutes later on a narrow winding river. Here the red mangroves reach 200-250 feet above the rainforest floor, with some emergents reaching even higher. When descending below the canopy, the effect is like landing in a canyon where the trees are the walls, and the walls are no more than 10 meters off each wing tip. The water is so clear I can see the sandy bottom 2-3 meters down. White water-lilies bloom below the still surface. I set up for a glassy water landing using the fishermen in their dugout canoes as depth reference. They duck their heads as I descend. In areas I fly to regularly, the fishermen wear hardhats.
I land a little long, but use the reverse pitch to slow quickly. After falling off the step, I glide the aircraft nose first into a native village clearing to drop off the Chevron drill rig workers. The entire village, including up to two hundred very excited school age children, has come down to see the spectacle; "Ayibos, (white men) arriving in a flying canoe."
Oh, what a sight. Hundreds of bare chested young men, weathered old women in their threadbare wrappers, and scores of naked and nearly naked swollen-bellied children, all black as black can be from the tropical sun. Little hands reaching out to touch white skin and painted white aluminum. For the children, it's their first experience of either. The women and children are laughing and clapping, and with the slightest encouragement on my part they all break out singing. They love to sing. The old women add their part by shaking their hips in a native dance.
After pushing off into deeper water and making sure the prop is clear of bobbing heads, I wave goodbye to more cheering and clapping, and fire up the Caravan. Hearing that familiar hushed whine and smelling the slight whiff of burning Jet A1, brings me back to reality and I manoeuvre the floatplane down the narrow river and into the sky. The next time I visit Ogbelle, the juju priest has erected a shrine to commemorate the time the flying canoe came down from the sky. The shrine consists of a white rag flag tied to a galvanized pipe stuck in the ground. The priest, naturally, asks the oil company for payment to use this now sacred landing. This landscape is their domain, and the villagers will extract payment for trespasses.

Village Gathering The next stop is Idama, a new Chevron flow station along a strong tidal river near the ocean. The water is a silt laden brown, washing soil from inland out to the Atlantic. It is this silt that builds the Niger Delta ever outward. The villages here are poor. The houses are built with woven grass and palm fronds. They appear flimsy and crooked, with dirt floors and no windows or doors. Just openings to the hot delta breezes. The inhabitants are dressed in threadbare cloth wrappers, or shorts and t-shirts, with many of them being basically naked. They are happy to see me. About 30-35 villagers gather to wave and laugh as I dance about the float busy setting my anchor.
I've met the King of Idama. He is a young ambitious king, who hopes the oil revenue will make up for their depleted fish stocks. Just a few years back, the villagers would net huge 20 kilo red snappers that had come up the tidal salt rivers to feed. I never see these big fish anymore. Too many fishermen with too many nets with too many mouths to feed. My passenger, a Chevron engineer, does not stay long and we are soon airborne again for the head office in Lekki.
Late in the afternoon a line squall, approaching from the north-east, announces it's presence with a huge wall of billowing black cloud, and probing gusts of cold turbulent wind. The rain begins like village drummers beating an incessant rhythm for the funeral of a tribal chief. The visibility quickly drops in the unbelievably heavy rain. So heavy that you can barely make out the Caravan safely tied down with herc straps just meters in front of the airport building. With the colour radar and storm scope I saw the front moving in from the east, as I was flying down from Lagos. I landed at the Escravos oil terminal for fuel and wisely decided to wait out the ensuing storm.

Storm over Meren Just as you think the rain could not possibly get any harder, it doubles in intensity. The noise drowns out all conversation, and in awe you feel impotent to say anything anyway. A fire ball of lightning strikes a holding tank for the crude oil, lighting the vents on fire. Thunder shakes the building, followed by the wail of the fire response team's sirens. We are always trying to control our environment, but at this moment I feel the control slipping away.
After the winter "dry" season the rainy season has begun. In my view there are really four seasons in Nigeria. There is the Harmattan season, when cold winds blow from the Sahara, bringing with them desert dust and fine sand. The other three seasons are: the beginning of the rainy season, the rainy season, and the end of the rainy season. They each last about three months, and it's hard to tell one from the other. That evening, just after the sun sets, the sky washes out into the electric energy of purple haze. I can't help thinking of Jimmy Hendrix. He must have known something we do not. Although he had never been here, West Africa was his birthplace. As Africa was for all of us. He understood the connectivity of energy that emanates from us all. And here in Nigeria, the warmth and breath of humanity is felt by the proximity of community. Over 100 million Nigerians living off the land of their small, but powerful country. Collectively they shape their invigorating and lively landscape.

Since the 1950's, many different companies have attempted to operate floatplanes (sometimes called seaplanes) in Nigeria. Shell Oil had a Beaver, McDermott a Widgeon (technically a flying boat), and Delta Air Charter a Cessna 180, plus a couple of Cessna 185's. With management change-outs and prosperity in the oil fields, attitudes changed. The floatplanes were phased out and replaced with very expensive twin engine helicopters. The oil companies spared no expense in building large lighted helipads at every existing location.
One very practical company, however, Willbros Nigeria Ltd., an oil pipeline contractor based out of Tulsa Oklahoma, has continued to successfully operate a floatplane in Nigeria since 1979. In fact, one of the Managing Directors of Willbros called the floatplane, the best kept secret in Nigeria.
His reasons were simple. The floatplane can service virtually any work site in the oil rich delta region. Moreover, the floatplane is one of the safest, most comfortable, and most cost effective means of transportation in the delta. And fast as well. Few people realize how useful and efficient this method of transport really is for the swamps and oil fields of Nigeria.
The Caravan has certainly helped the floatplane earn it's way back into the realms of the Nigerian oil service industry. Today, with oil prices remaining stagnant and the cost of development inflating, oil companies and oil service contractors are looking for ways to reduce costs without eroding service or safety standards, and the Caravan does just that.
Chevron discovered this when they arranged a contract with Pan African Airlines to bring in and operate a Cessna 208 Amphibian Caravan. After using the aircraft for almost three years now, everyone, from the top management down, is delighted with the service. In fact, Chevron management has confided that they cannot imagine having to go back to the way they did business before they got the Caravan.

Caravan Goes Onto the Step Normally, Chevron would have discounted a single engine aircraft to meet their needs of flying across hundreds of miles of ocean, swamp, and rain forest. Combining the Whipline amphibian floats with the Caravan I, however, meets those needs better than any other aircraft produced today.
First of all, the Caravan's PT6 turbine is simply the safest and most reliable powerplant anywhere. Secondly, with fixed wings and very few moving parts the chances of breakdown are minimized. Moreover, should an emergency or precautionary situation arise, the Caravan's 52 foot wing span and incredible glide ratio gives this amphibious aircraft almost unlimited landing areas.
The newly designed and built Caravan is also equipped with state of the art safety features and instrumentation that places it within the newly recognized category of single engine IFR day or night commercial passenger capability. The Cessna Caravan was the first aircraft in the world to meet the stringent requirements for this recognition, and within Nigerian regulations that category is fully utilized.
Despite meeting and exceeding these safety standards, the Caravan still accounts for a fraction of what it costs to operate and maintain a rotary wing aircraft and, understandably, less than any twin engine aircraft. Although for servicing off-shore platforms there is no substitute for the helicopter, on-shore the Caravan becomes a viable means of transport and communications.

Lekki Float Plane Base Two of the Swedish engineers employed by Pan African Airlines to maintain the Caravan have plenty of good things to say about this aircraft. With over 2800 hours of flight time in two and one half years, the Caravan still holds a 99% dispatch rate. In addition, the amphibious floats have held up under the constant exposure to the salt water riverine areas. According to the two engineers, the floats have not had any adverse effects on the serviceability of the aircraft on the whole. "Of course," says Mats Troedsson, the Lagos based engineer, "the floats are labour intensive; the cleaning and anti-corrosion work, but all around they have been extremely reliable."
Bernt Vilen, or "Willy" as he is known to some of his co-workers in Escravos, adds that "the learning curve was steeper on the floats, because none of us had worked on them before, but now that we have a system we can do the maintenance a lot easier and quicker than when we first started."
"And if you want to know whether an amphibious Caravan is cost effective from the maintenance point of view," Mats Troedsson rejoins, "then just ask Chevron if they are happy." "Yes," he answers his own question, "Chevron is very happy, and we are making money, therefore the aircraft on the whole is cost effective...right?"
Indeed, Chevron General Manager George Kirkland acknowledges that the Caravan saves time and money. Normally, it would take them one to five hours, depending on traffic, to drive from Chevron's headquarters in Lekki to the airport in Ikeja. And then they would have to fly for another hour to get to the main oil terminal facility in Escravos. Instead, by being able to leave directly from the Lekki floatplane base, they can be on the job after just one hour total travelling time. That time saved is invaluable.
Furthermore, almost all on-shore oil production sites in Nigeria are serviced by either natural or dredged waterways, which are all accessible to the floatplane. The Caravan can fly directly to lay-barges, dredges, swamp-rigs, tugs on tow, seismic camps, flow-line sites, or flow-stations. By allowing management, inspectors, and engineers to so easily gain access to the work sites, the amphibian makes the company money. Everyone is better informed, and that valuable first hand information is reflected in their decisions.
Another point that is becoming increasingly important, is the fact that the Caravan floatplane leaves absolutely no footprint. An oil company can move a large amount of cargo, equipment, freight, and personnel in and out of these environmentally sensitive areas, without leaving so much as a broken twig. No costly, unsightly, or environmentally damaging airports or helipads to build or maintain. Subsequent oil production can be planned to minimize environment harm, but it is often the support infrastructure that does the most initial damage.
There are hundreds of construction, mining, and oil related jobs operating today that could benefit from using the perfect combination of the amphibious Caravan. The floatplane was invented to make use of aircraft long before building runways became feasible. Now, floatplanes could be used where landing strips should not be built at all.

Evening in Escravos Nigeria I always cringe when I see photos of otherwise perfectly planned structures, such as environmentally conscientious oil producing platforms, being built along the river in a rainforest or on a lagoon near the ocean, with a long ugly red earth scar of a runway bulldozed across the background landscape. If for no other reason than to lighten the load on the already over-burdened environment, every company operating  in an environmentally sensitive swamp, river, or rainforest area should operate an amphibious Caravan.
Another equally important use for the amphibious Caravan, would be for flying tourists for the developing eco-tourism business. Not only is the aircraft environmentally friendly, but it is safe, quiet, comfortable, and affords an unobstructed view for all the passengers in flight. Water front property is in demand for 5 star hotels and resorts, and many of them could be services by Caravans if they did not have to depend on having an expensive destructive runway built nearby.
        If I had my way there would be amphibious Caravans operating all over the world: along the Nile, off the Zambezi River, in the Okavango and the Pantanal, deep in the Congo, into the Orinoco and the Amazon, flying out of Darwin and the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the harbors of South Africa, the Fiji Islands, Indonesia, Thailand, Madagascar, the Mekong Delta, the Maldives, you name it. Green Caravans. And, if anyone is interested, I will show them how it can be done.

Article and Images by John S Goulet

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Last modified March 05, 2006 .
Virtual Horizons, 1996.