Our last bush pilot interview was with a pilot that flew in the Papua, so this time we decided to see what happens Southern Africa.
The Flying Scotsman, a legend of a man and my favorite pilot on the documentary “Bush Pilots”.
Malcolm is an example of someone who fell in love with Africa and bush flying. He spent his time flying the C206 and C208B for Wilderness Air in Namibia and Botswana.He is now in Guernsey flying the C208 for Waves.
Here’s our usual 5 questions we ask our bush pilots, the end story is the best though, definitely worth reading until the end!
What would be your number one piece of advice for an aspiring bush pilot starting out in the industry?
Be creative and open to considering new possibilities and don’t get too downhearted by setbacks.
Sometimes the best opportunities can arise when things don’t go to plan.
I am from Scotland, but my first commercial flying was with Wilderness Air Botswana, a company that I did not think I could get into with the limited flight experience I had at the time.
Though I had been attracted to the idea of being a bush pilot for many years, I only went job hunting in Botswana after I was made redundant during the financial crises that spread from the USA in the late noughties. Initially this was a pretty upsetting set of circumstances, but I probably would never have become a bush pilot if it hadn’t been for the recession.
What was the route you took to becoming a bush pilot? (Malcolm is no longer a bush pilot)
In late 2011, I took the plunge; packed my tent and travelled to Maun, Botswana.
I lived in that small tent for two months in the scorching heat while I went through the strange ritual of trying to stand out among all the other job seeking hopefuls that turned up from around the world.
Living in a dusty town full of donkeys and working as a bush pilot isn’t for everyone, so the selection process is as much about trying to demonstrate that you can fit in as it is about your flying skills. There are over a hundred pilots employed by nine companies in Maun, but the majority that come looking for a job are unsuccessful. Luckily for me, I was one of the successful ones.
However, getting the job offer turned out to be the easy part as I still had to get a commercial pilot’s licence issued by the Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana and then apply for work and residency permits.
I had initially thought that I would go to Botswana for a year or two, but just becoming a useful pilot for the company took much longer than I expected, the permit process alone took nearly a year for me. From first stepping on Kalahari sands to going online as a pilot on the C206 took me just short of two years!
Botswana teaches you a lot about frustration and patience.
What would you say is the hardest thing about being a bush pilot?
The exact circumstances will depend on where you fly, but commonly you will be working in extremely remote locations in harsh conditions, often with little or no contact with anybody else.
You need to have good decision making skills and be able to deal with difficult situations alone.
It can also involve very unpredictable schedules and lots of nights away, so if you like routine then bush flying is not for you.
However, for me it was definitely all worth it and very rewarding as I became immersed in some of the most incredible natural environments you can imagine. Working in Botswana, I got to fly into and stay at exceptional lodges in the magical Okavango Delta, along the Linyanti River and in the Kalahari.
These are some of the most special wilderness areas left on our planet and the Okavango was deservedly designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site during my time in Botswana. Go arounds and aborted take offs due to animals on the runway were something I always had to prepared for and it was an unusual day at work if I didn’t see elephants.
I also regularly did flights into neighbouring Zimbabwe and Zambia, often taking a scenic detour over the awe inspiring Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
After being based in Botswana, I moved to Windhoek where I got to fly over the epic landscapes of Namibia. From the spectacular mountain regions and the vast sand seas of the Namib desert to the eerie shipwrecks of the fog clad Skeleton Coast, it is a truly an astonishing place. Travelling around Namibia, whether by land or air, feels more like exploring multiple alien planets than a journey through one country on Earth.
How did you manage to get the job you’re currently at?
I discovered Waves on social media in their early days of development. They are a new technology focused, demand led air taxi service based on the island of Guernsey between France and England.
Their initial aircraft type is the Grand Caravan, a favourite of bush pilots around the world, and when I heard about their exciting plans, I got in touch with them. Shortly after I had a three-way international phone call between Cape Town, Guernsey and England, and a couple of months later, I started as their first pilot.
What has been your number one memory about flying?
I have many unbelievable memories from my five or so years in Africa, but one memory that stands out was when I was involved in an unusual mission to relocate nine orphaned wild dog puppies by air. It was an exceptional collaborative effort between the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Wilderness Safaris, Wilderness Air and The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust. I was on a day off on the day it was due to happen and I wasn’t rated on the aircraft type to be used, but since this was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss, I convinced our Operations Manager to let me go along as an assistant.
African wild dogs are an endangered species and the puppies in question had been rescued when the adults from their pack had all been killed. The day before the translocation flight, an Italian colleague and I flew down to an airstrip in the Kalahari to meet up with a member of our Environmental Department who was caring for the puppies.
He had been camping alone for a week beside their enclosure to protect them from lions. On a previous night, he had to scare some lions away that were trying to dig under the basic fence around the enclosure. Myself and the other pilot also took a tent and camped with him. During the night, we heard the lions close by again, but luckily they didn’t make another attempt to get to the puppies that night.
The next morning, we were up before sunrise to put the puppies into a crate for transport, which was quite challenging since they were wild animals that were not used to humans. Once we had them all rounded up, we headed off for the bumpy drive to the airstrip. On reaching the aircraft, a Mahindra Airvan, we secured the crate into the back, before setting off for the roughly hour long flight to an airstrip on the edge of the Okavango Delta.
During the flight, I went back to check on our VIP passengers, but they were surprisingly calm despite the very noisy and unnatural environment they were in.
On landing, we were met by a vet and members of the Botswana Predator Consevation Trust. The other pilot had to leave, but I opted to stay with the puppies. After the vet checked the puppies over, it was decided to attempt an immediate release of the four strongest puppies with another pack that had puppies of a similar age. It was a long drive, followed by a final walk through dense vegetation to reach the den. At first the puppies were reluctant to leave the security of the cage, but eventually one tentatively left and then dived into the den, quickly followed by the three remaining siblings. It was a heart-warming occasion to witness.
Later that day, before setting up my tent in the bush again, I got to join the research team while they darted one of the adult dogs to sedate it while it’s tracking collar was changed. It was a real thrill to be able to feel the breathing of an endangered wild animal while these dedicated and often underappreciated people went about their work.
In a heartening demonstration of the caring nature of wild dogs, I later discovered that the remaining puppies were introduced to another wild dog pack that had no puppies of their own and the pack proceeded to make a den to protect the new arrivals. With such endearing sociable characteristics like this, African wild dogs are one of my favourite animals and, with continued efforts by organisations such as the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, hopefully the future prospects for this fascinating species can improve.
With the potential for extraordinarily rewarding experiences like this, who wouldn’t want to be a bush pilot? For those of you that are up for the challenge, best of luck from me….you won’t regret it!
All photographs were taken by Malcolm