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Team Extreme takes it to the Absolute Extreme

Having flown aerobatic displays all over Southern Africa and China, Team Xtreme made up of Nigel Hopkins, Mark Sampson, Jason Beamish and Mark Hensman have become an internationally acclaimed professional aerobatic display team – by Keaton Perkins

Their latest challenge would not be the display itself, but the trip to the venue. A recent invitation to fly a display in the bulge of Africa required the aircraft to be flown beyond the equator; a distance of over 2000 nautical miles. Designed for Unlimited Aerobatics, the Team’s aircraft have a limited range and given the available timeline to get to the venue, the trip was always going to be extreme!

Absolute Aviation already had a sponsorship relationship with Jason and Nigel and after meeting with the rest of the team, it was agreed that this would be the perfect launch for the Absolute’s

new capabilities. With bases in Cape Town and Botswana and having recently launched its Absolute Advantage Lounge, Absolute Aviation was looking for a way of showcasing its new despatch and flight handling capability. The complexity of the administration required for this trip would be a perfect test of the systems. Absolute’s operation team was tasked with the flight planning, flight, overflight and landing clearances for the team.

Sourcing sufficient Avgas north of Maun was known to be an issue. This was further compounded by the limited range of the aerobatic aircraft. Whilst there were sufficient airfields at which to land, only every second leg would have Avgas available, therefore another solution would have to be found.

After taking delivery of their New Grand Caravan EX from Absolute Aviation last year, after flying her from the Cessna factory in the USA, Apie Kotzee and son Frederik were looking for another adventure. With the seats removed, 2 180 US gallon support tanks could be carried in the cabin. The tanks had previously been used to ferry the aircraft from the USA and were already equipped with the required fittings. The Cessna’s 867 SHP PT6 engine also provided the lifting power to carry the load and match the ferry speed of Team Xtreme’s aircraft.

With the Caravan turned into a flying fuel bowser, the team departed Lanseria for Maun, Botswana. Having only left in the afternoon, the team arrived at Maun’s fuel depot just as the sun started setting. The aircraft were all refuelled and after some negotiations with the attendants, the support tanks were filled for the first time. The aircraft were tucked away in Mackair’s hangar for the night, ready for the early departure the next day.

The early departure was not to be, as the team woke up to the news that the Angolan clearances had not yet been issued. Angola’s aviation authorities had found it suspicious that a formation of five aircraft was requesting clearance into their country and had stalled the process. Thankfully, Absolute’s Operation department was already on it and were able to obtain the clearances after only a three-hour delay, which must be a record for African clearances!

Angola’s Ondjiva airport would be the team’s first refuel from the flying fuel bowser. A small, battery powered electric pump, equipped with two filters, would transfer the fuel from the support tanks to the respective aircraft. At six litres a minute the turnaround time to fuel all four aircraft was generally an hour and a half. Thankfully, airport authorities were more intrigued by this process than troublesome as the team could not afford any delays in the schedule.

Luanda would be the team’s next night stop and on arrival, were met by a swarm of ground handlers, refuelers and traffic-cone distributers. Unknown by Team Xtreme, Absolute’s operations’ team had been advised of every aircraft movement, which allowed Absolute Aviation to brief the receiving agents at the next destination.

Encountering its first severe weather on route to Pointe-Noire, the team had to return to Luanda to refuel. Once again, Absolute Aviation had been advised of the return, in turn prepping ground services to begin the refuel and refiling of flight plans as soon as the team had landed.

With a quick turn-around, the team was back in the air for Pointe-Noire, choosing a routing further out to sea than attempted earlier. Whilst staying over land is generally preferable, the vast, dense forests of Gabon and beyond, offer little chance of a successful search and rescue. In comparison, the seas off the coast are a hive of merchant and fishing vessels. In addition, as they are generally serviced by helicopters, the abundance of oil rigs offers some comfort in the case of water landing.

After refuelling in Pointe Noire, the next leg would edge the team beyond Libreville and past the equator, a first for a South African Aerobatic Display team. The team arrived at the venue the next day with sufficient time to practise for the following day’s display. The Intention was for the team to fly two displays and a flypast with a local airline. Unfortunately, due to the poor weather on show day, only one team display was flown and the formation flypast with the airliner was cancelled. After less than 45 minutes’ display time, the aircraft were re-fuelled and prepped for the trip home the next day.

One week after departure, the team arrived back at Lanseria International Airport just as the sun dipped past the horizon. The aircraft had flown over 30 hours, a trip of over 4000 nautical miles, over seven days. The team had expected difficulties with African bureaucracy, but the experience was incredibly smooth and efficient, which was a credit to the professionalism of Absolute Aviation’s team. 

Originally published by African Pilot 2018.


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