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On a regular basis, the Boldmethod team brings you a new career and pilot through our "Aviation Careers" series. If you're an aspiring aviator, this is a great way for you to explore different career options.
At 24 years old, Ryan Ball was an aircraft inspector in Missouri. Tired of turning wrenches and not flying, Ryan went back to college with his wife, Jennifer, at Liberty University in Virginia. A few years later, he had his Commercial Single and Multi-Engine. They moved to Alaska for a few years, chasing the dream for Ryan to be a pilot for the AK Air National Guard. Having been medically disqualified entry as a pilot into the armed forces due to childhood asthma, he started looking at other flying options. He contacted one of his previous flight instructors in Africa, who was flying with a small missionary outfit. A few months later, at age 29, Ryan and his wife were on a Delta 777 heading for southern Africa. Welcome to the Boldmethod community, Ryan!
Flying in Botswana was incredible! You get to live outside of the "American Bubble." You're in a totally new location, a new culture, a different and more challenging style of flying, all in an area where almost everyone speaks English. It's a great opportunity to get a charter flying job at very low hours, flying passengers to different safari camps in the area. You get to fly a powerful, modified aircraft into small sandy airstrips. With thunderstorms in a no-radar and basically no-ATC environment, it was challenging flying. You become a great stick-and-rudder pilot. You learn how to read the weather, since there isn't really a weather briefer there.
People who come on safaris are from all over the world. One flight you could be flying a British family up to the Okavango Delta. The next, taking some Americans on their honeymoon to the central Kalahari. Then a Japanese couple to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. Most passengers are well off, but more than a few I met had saved up and finally went on the vacation of a lifetime.
The company I flew for wasn't a typical African charter service. I worked for Flying Mission Services, based out of Gaborone and Maun, Botswana. If you guessed that it was a missionary organization, you'd be correct. However, FMS has both a for-profit side, and a non-profit side of the company. The for-profit side (passengers and flight tours) generates funds to supply the non-profit side (air-ambulance, AIDS ministries, giving back to and helping the local community). I was happy to be hired through email and over the phone, which is very unusual for the pilots in Botswana. FMS currently operates a fleet of 2 C206s, 1 C207, 2 King Air C90s, and 2 King Air 200s.
Work typically starts around 8am. Sometimes there's an early flight and you'll be at the airport pre-flighting for the day so you're airborne by sunrise. Here's a typical day my shoes:
You get into the office, recheck the schedule, and start filling out your flight plans for the day. Every time you leave Maun, or another towered airport; Kasane, Francistown, or Gaborone, you need a paper flight plan. They must be filled out by hand and turned in in-person. It can make for a cramped hand if you have several flights out of Maun. You turn in your flight plans upstairs in the Maun International Airport and then head back downstairs to security. You then make a long walk out to your plane, which is a little more than a quarter mile out to the flight-line, so you don't want to forget anything.
You do a quick walk around, and then crank the plane up and taxi for fuel. Something to remember: you get fuel in liters, not gallons. You then taxi back and wait for the passengers. Sometimes when the inbound international flights are late, everyone is sitting on the ramp waiting for passengers. It can be quite crowded when trying to get out of Maun and into the Okavango Delta. Clearances can be interesting too. I have been cleared to "Line up and wait, number five, cleared for takeoff, own separation." It's fun and definitely different from in the States.
You blast off and attempt to tal to ATC. With the different accents, it usually takes about a month until you can understand ANYONE over the radios. The scenery is incredible on the way to the many small airstrips up in the Delta, down in the Kalahari, and out in the Makgadikgadi. You need to keep your eyes open for birds and traffic as well, because there are plenty of both.
On routes, you make your standard position reports for a non-radar environment: who you are, your altitude, where you're coming from, to where you're going, and where you are. It's short and sweet and keeps the radios free, as there are many aircraft in a small area.
You enter airstrips overhead to determine wind direction and to look for animals near the airstrip. Sometimes a low approach is required to get a closer look, or to ward off wildlife like elephants or giraffes on the runway. A wheel-drag is sometimes necessary to test the runway surface if it looks too soft. When you set up for an approach to landing, you always need to be ready for a go-around. You also want to touch down firmly and get on the brakes for those shorter strips.
You taxi up to the ramp, shut down, unload the passengers and luggage, and head back out. You make your radio calls and do a quick runup on the roll (to not damage the prop from the rocks). You need to keep an eye out for warthogs and ostriches on the takeoff run, and climb at best obstacle clearance speed, then transition to a higher climb speed to keep that engine as cool as possible. You head to your next destination, and repeat until the day is done.
There aren't many places left in the world where a low-time, fresh commercial pilot can land an actual Part 135-style job. You get to see some incredible wildlife from a few hundred feet away. Sometimes, you have the opportunity to stay overnight at incredible safari resorts, surrounded by wildlife that would make NatGeo drool.
Botswana is an incredible country to live in. Save up and buy a 4wd truck so you can go into the Bush and camp. Braiing (BBQing) is the preferred method of having a get together, and the locals are wonderful to spend time with.
Botswana is very hot in the summer and sometimes very cold at night (below freezing) in the winter. During the summer, the wet season, the temperature can climb to over 120 degrees. The aircraft are extremely hot on the ground. You're dodging thunderstorms, in very close proximity, without radar, and very little ATC. There isn't a Flight Watch to help you. Sometimes when the weather is low, you fly under it to get to the destination. You compute your weight and balance at the aircraft when luggage is more than expected and load it all into the cargo pod.
Maun can have difficult living conditions. During the dry season, the water can be shut off for most of the week. There can be frequent power cuts. The internet is dial-up speed. The food can take your stomach some getting used to, but it all adds to the experience.
Visas and Work Permits are the biggest Con in my opinion. Even when I had the job, and I was in country, it still took me five months to get my FAA certs validated before I could start flying. My "Emergency Work Permit" took me a month or so, but it was only valid for short periods of time. We were "forced to leave Botswana" multiple times, only to have another extension come through at the last minute. My "Permanent Work Permit" took eleven months before it came through. Also, as I was leaving Botswana in late 2014 due to family medical reasons, it seemed the aviation authority was raising minimum time requirements to 500 total.
This job is different from most other jobs in aviation. You need to be there in person to apply for the jobs. That means doing your homework (PPRuNe), making a plan, and flying to Maun to hand out resumes in person. Some people get hired in a few weeks, others a few months. The pilot hiring could be slow, depending on the time of year and how many pilots are needed.
The typical Maun pilot is paid around 10000 Pula, about $900US a month. Not terrible, but if you have school loans or other debts, it would be tight. We were fairly comfortable on that income in a small house, internet, cellphones, and food. The benefits of living near nature in Botswana are obvious; if you save up money, you can go out on safari-like trips to see the African wildlife.
The Cessna 206 is one of the workhorse aircraft of the African Bush. Most are modified with STOL kits, VGs, gross weight increase, and a cargo pod. One that I flew had drooping ailerons, the other had the 300hp engine upgrade. A lot of the companies in Maun also operate the Mahindra AirVan. It's a great airframe that can take 5 passengers plus luggage out to the Bush, whereas the C206 can usually only take 4 and luggage. A few operators also have Cessna Caravans.
You need to be on your game coming here. Know how to keep the plane coordinated, because you'll be eyes outside 99.9% of the time. Make sure you've landed on soft fields; plus, high density altitudes are the norm during the hotter months.
Most airstrips are shorter than 3000 feet in length, elevation 3200 feet or more, and are soft dirt or sandy strips. Oh yeah, remember the high temps? It can make those trees at the end of the runway seem awfully big. Be ready for a slight turn to avoid them at certain strips during higher temp days. There can be occasional windshear, moderate turbulence, and thunderstorms, too. There's never a dull moment. Nowhere else have I been both equally excited and terrified at the same time.
Keep your ear to the ground to catch wind of hiring. Get a few hours in a high performance airplane and spend some time away from concrete runways. Tailwheel training really helps you learn to feel the aircraft, especially looking outside and keeping the ball centered. Most companies now require a type rating for every aircraft. Since that's not required in the States, make sure you have an instructor's endorsement for the C206 or AirVan before applying.
I'm really happy that I was able to fly in the Bush. My vote is to find a fun job in aviation, there's plenty of time to get to the airlines. Find a great job, fly safe, and keep your options open. You never know where your next pilot job will take you!
Ryan, it sounds like you've had an awesome mix of fun and adventure in your flying career so far. There aren't too many pilots out there that wouldn't love to experience bush flying for themselves at least once.
Is this a job you'd like to have? Tell us in the comments below.
Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, commercially licensed pilot with multi-engine and instrument ratings, and a commercial aviation student at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. Swayne's experience ranges from international flights in a King Air F90 to ferrying a 1943 Grumman Widgeon across the country. You can reach Swayne at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.