During the months of October and November Flying Mission Zambia has been able to participate in some flying that was different then our normal fare. It was challenging, fun, and at times exhausting, but overall I enjoyed it! The Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) conducts aerial wildlife surveys throughout their parks and game management areas every few years. Flying Mission has participated in the past and was asked again this year to do some of the flying for the count, so we allotted one of our airplanes and rotated through 4 of our pilots to accomplish our part of the survey. This was an opportunity I was excited about because I haven’t been able to explore the Zambian parks yet or see much wildlife.
The basic purpose of the survey is to estimate the population and distribution of many of the different species of large mammals within the parks. We were asked to help conduct the survey in the Kafue National Park (large park in the middle of the Zambian Map) and it’s surrounding Game Management Area’s (GMA). The Kafue Park is the second largest park in Africa, and with the surrouding GMA’s the square footage amounts to roughly half that of the state of Ohio. So it’s was a BIG area to cover. While the survey can’t cover every square foot, we flew paths are set up as parallel straight lines each separated by a couple of miles over the entire park and game management area’s (see picture below).
The flying was challenging; flying low to the ground within specific limits while trying to fly a very straight line in turbulent 90F plus weather for 7-8 hours a day can be a bit tiring. But there were many firsts for me as well, which made it exciting. I got to stay at a couple different safari camps near the airstrips we were operating out of, and when I wasn’t flying I could participate in whatever activities were going on. I went on a few game drives, a walking safari, and even went swimming in a natural hot spring. And while from the air I was mostly too distracted trying to keep the plane straight and level, so see many animals, on the ground I saw my first Lions in Africa (a mother with a cub, as well as another lioness chasing an Impala), Hippos, Elephants, Warthogs, crocodiles, buffalo, more antelope then I could count, and even a porcupine scurrying away from our vehicle. At night amidst the consistent lullaby of insect sounds, I would fall asleep to the sound of Hippos grunting and Lion’s roaring. It was quite the African experience. In the morning, I would awake in my grass chalet as the first rays of sunshine were appearing and enjoy some coffee and praise the Lord while listening to the birds and watching the impala and puku grazing on the plain stretching out before me. It was pretty cool.
It was also fun to get to know the different members of the ZAWA team. Everyone was very friendly and I was even able to fly with a member of the ZAF (Zambian Air Force), as part of the survey took place in Zambian airspace controlled by the ZAF. I hope to run into them again as I visit different parks run by ZAWA. At Flying Mission we try to pray before every flight, and when doing secular flying like this, these prayers are conversation starters, and I was able to share with many of the people I interacted with the real reason I am in Zambia. My plane mates were even so used to the prayer before the flight that they would remind me if I forgot. 🙂
For those that have made it this far and are wondering how the survey actually worked here’s a brief explanation. In the airplane with me were two spotters in the back seats and a recorder sitting in the front seat. I was instructed to fly at 350ft above the ground and 80kts (a relatively slow speed) over all of these straight line courses which were just GPS coordinates running through and separating different sections of the park, while the spotters in the back looked though a set of poles attached to the wing strut and counted any animals within the poles (see pictures below). The recorder kept track of the sections and subsections we flew through and my altitude and airspeed. When the numbers are complied they will know how much square footage was surveyed based on the altitude of the plane and the known width between the two poles on the wing struts. The planes actual flight path was being recorded on a GPS unit in the airplane and after the flights all of the information is compiled and sent to a consultant who puts it all together and writes up the findings of the study. A copy of the 2008 study is available HERE if you’re curious.
One of the last mornings as I was getting ready to land at the bush strip to pick up my ZAWA passengers, I lined up on final approach and looked down to see 3 adult and 2 baby elephants crossing the runway below me. I’m not gonna lie the phrase “living the dream” crossed through my mind.
Well that’s all for now. God Bless.