The workhorse of the skies

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, autumn 2009. Author: Raoul du Toit, Director, Lowveld Rhino Trust)

While various fancy gadgets make our jobs easier, we rely primarily upon some indispensable workhorses to get the job done.

Raoul du Toit has worked tirelessly for rhino conservation in Zimbabwe since 1986. Seen here with his favourite rhino monitoring plane, the HuskyCredit: Lowveld Rhino Trust

What first comes to mind when I think along these lines is the plane that I fly on rhino ops. It is a two-seater Aviat Husky that was donated by the Beit Trust twenty years ago. It is mainly fabric-covered, therefore very light, but has a powerful 180-horsepower engine and a propeller with an adjustable pitch, giving a high power-to-weight ratio. The plane flies itself – or perhaps it is just that, after over 3,000 hours, I’ve have become so used to flying it, I don’t think about the controls most of the time. It gracefully allows me to do tight orbits over a rhino at relatively slow speed, nose pitched up to the limits of the pitch control, without having to take my eyes away from the operation below me to anxiously monitor instruments that I’d certainly want keep checking if I was flying most other aircraft so close to the speed at which I could stall or spin.

I have done that kind of ops flying even in horrible places like the Chipinge mountains, where a standing wave of wind comes over the mountains, pushing the plane down into the deep valleys. You have to orbit within the valleys with wing flaps down to enhance lift, and a lot of power, adjusting for the variable wind direction in different parts of the orbit, while the plane is tossed around in the turbulent air.

Its tolerance of extreme flying conditions makes the Husky an aircraft that passengers with queasy stomachs should definitely not get into. When radio-tracking, it is easy for the pilot to roll a wing up without deviating from course. This allows the strut-mounted antenna to scan from the area below the plane to the horizon, but being what is technically described as an unbalanced turn, it inevitably unbalances the stomach of a passenger.

Some say that the Husky is just an imitation of the famous Piper Supercub, which looks very similar. Not true. The Husky flies just as slowly as the Supercub but also much faster and, most importantly, has twice the fuel endurance that is a major factor in our rhino work.

A great safety feature of the Husky compared to other small aircraft is its structural strength. I have collided with big birds like eagles and vultures, which are always a risk when flying low above areas where there are a lot of animal carcasses, such as during the devastating poaching that accompanied land invasions in Zimbabwean conservancies in 2001-4.  A bird strike creates a mighty bang and an equally mighty fright, particularly when the extent of the damage is unclear. The Husky’s tail strut once cut a tawny eagle almost in half. While I was trying to work out what had happened to my violently pitched aircraft, the vet who had darted a rhino was shouting over the radio to be given directions to the collapsed animal. If he had looked up he would have seen the eagle fall down to make a direct hit on the rhino.

The Husky’s robust landing gear also enables me to land on a wide variety of surfaces; rough patches of open ground, overgrown airfields, roads. The only landing problem I’ve incurred was when the tail wheel snapped off as it caught in a small termite hole. The tail wheel spring had finally fatigued after thousands of landings. Not to be beaten, we patched up the bent and torn rudder and made a new temporary spring to complete the op by cutting a car’s leaf spring in half.

This reminds me, a Land Cruiser is another form of reliable kit. The first temporary spring we made for the Husky was from a Land Rover spring but it was too soft – a Land Cruiser spring did the job. Having opened up the Husky versus Supercub debate, I’ll leave the Land Cruiser versus Land Rover issue to another discussion about favourite kit for rhino work in Africa...

 

While various fancy gadgets make our jobs easier, we rely primarily upon some indispensable workhorses to get the job done.

 

What first comes to mind when I think along these lines is the plane that I fly on rhino ops. It is a two-seater Aviat Husky that was donated by the Beit Trust twenty years ago. It is mainly fabric-covered, therefore very light, but has a powerful 180-horsepower engine and a propeller with an adjustable pitch, giving a high power-to-weight ratio. The plane flies itself – or perhaps it is just that, after over 3,000 hours, I’ve have become so used to flying it, I don’t think about the controls most of the time. It gracefully allows me to do tight orbits over a rhino at relatively slow speed, nose pitched up to the limits of the pitch control, without having to take my eyes away from the operation below me to anxiously monitor instruments that I’d certainly want keep checking if I was flying most other aircraft so close to the speed at which I could stall or spin.

 

I have done that kind of ops flying even in horrible places like the Chipinge mountains, where a standing wave of wind comes over the mountains, pushing the plane down into the deep valleys. You have to orbit within the valleys with wing flaps down to enhance lift, and a lot of power, adjusting for the variable wind direction in different parts of the orbit, while the plane is tossed around in the turbulent air.

 

Its tolerance of extreme flying conditions makes the Husky an aircraft that passengers with queasy stomachs should definitely not get into. When radio-tracking, it is easy for the pilot to roll a wing up without deviating from course. This allows the strut-mounted antenna to scan from the area below the plane to the horizon, but being what is technically described as an unbalanced turn, it inevitably unbalances the stomach of a passenger.

 

Some say that the Husky is just an imitation of the famous Piper Supercub, which looks very similar. Not true. The Husky flies just as slowly as the Supercub but also much faster and, most importantly, has twice the fuel endurance that is a major factor in our rhino work.

 

A great safety feature of the Husky compared to other small aircraft is its structural strength. I have collided with big birds like eagles and vultures, which are always a risk when flying low above areas where there are a lot of animal carcasses, such as during the devastating poaching that accompanied land invasions in Zimbabwean conservancies in 2001-4.  A bird strike creates a mighty bang and an equally mighty fright, particularly when the extent of the damage is unclear. The Husky’s tail strut once cut a tawny eagle almost in half.  While I was trying to work out what had happened to my violently pitched aircraft, the vet who had darted a rhino was shouting over the radio to be given directions to the collapsed animal. If he had looked up he would have seen the eagle fall down to make a direct hit on the rhino.

 

The Husky’s robust landing gear also enables me to land on a wide variety of surfaces; rough patches of open ground, overgrown airfields, roads. The only landing problem I’ve incurred was when the tail wheel snapped off as it caught in a small termite hole. The tail wheel spring had finally fatigued after thousands of landings. Not to be beaten, we patched up the bent and torn rudder and made a new temporary spring to complete the op by cutting a car’s leaf spring in half.

 

This reminds me, a Land Cruiser is another form of reliable kit. The first temporary spring we made for the Husky was from a Land Rover spring but it was too soft – a Land Cruiser spring did the job. Having opened up the Husky versus Supercub debate, I’ll leave the Land Cruiser versus Land Rover issue to another discussion about favourite kit for rhino work in Africa...