Jambojet Chief Executive Willem Hondius, former Kenya Airways CEO Mbuvi Ngunze, Captain Michael Kwinga, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority Director of Aviation Safety Captain Tom Ogenche and Senior Deputy Director in charge of Aviation, Ministry of Transport, Nicholas Bodo during the unveiling of the Dash 8-Q400, in Nairobi. [Photo: Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]
It would seem the easiest way to transport a new plane from one point to another is to just fly it.
But this may prove quite a task if the plane you are transporting is a short-range type and is not a helicopter, which can be sent home in parts to be assembled when all the pieces arrive.
After acquiring its fifth aircraft, a Bombardier Dash 8–Q400, budget airline Jambojet had to find a way of bringing it to Nairobi.
The Q400 is renowned for steep approaches and short take-offs, which makes it suitable for use in domestic airports such as Diani, Malindi and Manda, as well as other airports in the East African region with relatively short runways.
But it is not the type of aircraft to use for long distances across the ocean or continents since it cannot survive more than seven hours of flight without stopping to refuel.
“It has a capacity of about 5.2 tonnes of fuel or between 5,000 and 6,000 litres of fuel. This can keep it above the skies for about five hours,” Captain Michael Kwinga, a Jambojet pilot, told Weekend Business in an interview.
It, thus, called for a lot of planning to fly the 78-seater plane across the Atlantic Ocean from Canada to Nairobi.
“We had to configure it to do long-range cruise. This way, it can do an additional two hours before it starts using its reserve fuel,” Captain Kwinga said.
Aircraft travelling long distances mainly make stops to fuel, take on board additional passengers or drop some at their destinations along the way. At times they stop for their pilots to rest if they have exceeded the approved flight time, or just for routine maintenance.
The longest flight usually has two stops. In special circumstances, a traveller can endure a third stop in case he is faced with a long layover at the airport.
One can also take a third stop in instances where they have to take a domestic flight from an international airport to another destination in the country or region.
It was, therefore, no ordinary flight when the crew on board Jambojet’s newest plane had to endure seven stops before landing at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi two weeks ago.
Captain Kwinga was the man tasked to lead a seven-man team of pilots and engineers to make the extraordinary flight to Nairobi aboard the Sh3.2 billion aircraft.
After a series of tests at Downsview Airport in Toronto, Canada, the team had come up with the safest flight path that would accommodate the need to refuel, rest and carry out any tests to ensure that everything worked out as planned.
It would be suicidal to run out of fuel in the middle of the ocean.
Downsview Airport is owned and has been used as a testing facility by Bombardier Aerospace, an aircraft manufacturer, since 1994. The company boasts of making so many planes that one of its aircraft takes off or lands around the globe every three seconds.
Despite this, it could not afford any last-minute mistakes.
Buying a new aircraft is a big deal for any airline in the world. So nothing can be more embarrassing or damaging to the reputation and business of an aircraft manufacturer than to have a technical fault on the inaugural delivery flight.
For Captain Kwinga, who has more than 10 years of flying experience, piloting the new acquisition should not have offered any challenge. But the plane he was to bring home had a maximum flying capacity of about five hours, yet he needed 25 hours of flight time.
The first major decision for him and his fellow pilots to make was the best flight path that would guarantee safety as well as provide them with the best destination to stop and fuel. He had also to calculate the flying hours to make sure they would be able to stop and rest in line with the required aviation standards.
By the time the Jambojet crew arrived in Canada, Bombardier had carried out all the necessary tests to be sure its new plane would make it across the ocean. It also provided its own pilot to be on board the maiden flight for any technical assistance if need arose.
The first stop was Goose Bay, a Canadian town. This was a short flight, just three hours, and the stop was to just take up additional fuel and be ready for a longer flight into Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport.
This was the first time the plane was going to fly into Iceland and they had to be prepared.
From Goose Bay to Iceland, Captain Kwinga needed fuel that would last him at least four-and-a-half hours.
Next stop was England’s Exeter Airport, another four hours away. Without papers, crew were not allowed to step on the ground and had to remain on board the entire time.
From Exeter, the team braved another three-hour cruise to Malta for a fuel stop to get the needed push to land on the African continent. Malta is a small island that lies in central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast.
From there, the plane stopped at Egypt’s Luxor International Airport. This was second night stop for the crew. Luxor is the main airport in Egypt and serves the city of Luxor, where the crew spent the night.
The engineer on board checked for any fault alerts at every stop as they picked fuel and changed oil.
“We had no faults whatsoever and we had on board another pilot from Bombardier who was acting as back-up in case we needed any help. The airspace can be very tricky flying over Iceland, given that you have four hours over icy water,” Captain Kwinga said.
Early next morning, the team left for Addis Ababa for another fuel stop before flying straight to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport where the aircraft landed to a roaring reception – complete with the signature water salute accorded to new planes landing at their hub for the first time.
Before delivery of the new plane, Jambojet relied on just three aircraft that it fully had control over, and a fourth chartered from a private operator.
This left it highly exposed, especially during festive seasons, and denied it the critical control it needed on fixing prices, a crucial element for budget airlines.
Delivery of the Q400 came at a time when Jambojet’s parent company, Kenya Airways, is trying to come out of turbulence for the past two years by disposing of at least nine planes to remain in the skies.