Ageing women fly single engine plane from US to South Africa

Johannesburg- South Africa (PANA) -- Two South African women in their mid-sixties Monday flew in a single-engine plane from the US into Lanseria airport in Johannesburg.
The brave aviators were undeterred as they flew for about 8,608 nautical miles (approximately 16,000 km) from Wichita in the US, across the Atlantic Ocean to Lanseria, South Africa.
Sponsored by CHC Global, Denise (Vippy) Hellmann and Lillith Seals began their incredible journey on 5 September in Wichita, Kansas, when they arrived to take ownership of a Beachcraft Bonanza BE36 aircraft.
After three days of intensive instruction in operating the aircraft and testing the plane and its instruments, they were ready to depart on the first leg of their journey, never imagining that their meticulously planned flight could be tragically interrupted by the recent terrorist attacks.
On 9 September, however, the two aviators departed for Bangor, Maine where the plane was modified to enable them to make the 10-day flight under the most trying and dangerous circumstances.
Over two days, the four rear seats of the plane were removed to allow for space for two additional 70-gallon fuel tanks to be fitted.
The existing 80-gallon tank only provided fuel for about five hours of flying time, and each leg of the journey was expected to take between four and eight hours.
However, while in Bangor, the most significant event in world history since World War II (the September 11 terrorist attack) occurred, and all air traffic was halted until further notice.
Stranded in Maine, the two ladies were forced to wait until they were allowed to make their way to St John's, New Foundland - their last stop before braving it across the Atlantic.
While America was reeling in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Vippy and Lillith were being well taken care of.
But, says Vippy, suspicion was rife as links were uncovered between the flight school used by the ladies in Wichita and that used by the terrorists to obtain training to fly commercial planes in Florida.
Not only did the duo have to contend with suspicion around the collection of the aircraft, but Hurricane Felix kept them grounded in New Foundland until Tuesday 18 September.
But they had to leave on Tuesday morning at all costs, as a second weather pattern - Hurricane Gabriel - was due to hit New Foundland on Wednesday, which would have delayed their departure even further.
Flying over the Atlantic to Santa Maria in the Açores, was the most dangerous leg of their journey.
The Federal Aviation Authority's (FAA) manual for flying across the Atlantic carries very stringent guidelines on safety, which include carrying a life raft and life vest and, because the Atlantic rarely reaches temperatures of over 6°C, the two women had to fly in their survival kit.
"You won't survive in water that cold for longer than 30 seconds, so there's no time to change into a wetsuit," said Vippy before she left.
It can take up to four hours for a boat to reach stranded aviators.
It took the duo eight hours and six minutes to journey across 1,370 nautical miles, departing from St John's in the early hours of the morning to ensure that they arrived in Santa Maria during daylight.
They flew over the Açores Low, a weather phenomenon influenced by the cold air pushing down over the Atlantic, which results in very severe conditions.
According to the FAA, aviators cannot rely on flying under visual meteorological conditions (VMC), but have to fly under instrument meteorological conditions, due to the poor visibility over the Atlantic.
However, the crossing was successful: "It was glorious - the sun was streaming in, making us very hot, but we were very lucky with the weather," said Vippy.
Vippy and Lillith spent one night recuperating from their stressful flight before they departed for their relatively short, four-hour journey to Tenerife.
There, they spent two nights before tackling the longest part of their journey to Accra, Ghana over the Sahara desert.
Once the flying duo left Tenerife, the only problems they experienced were with customs in Ondangwa in Namibia on Sunday night, causing them to miss out on a well-deserved break at a game reserve.
On Heritage Day in South Africa - Monday 24 September - three generations were reunited, as Vippy and Lillith's children and grandchildren welcomed them safely home.
They returned eager to recount their tale of an incredible journey that most people dare not dream about, let alone survive to tell the tale.

25 september 2001 15:11:00

xhtml CSS