Classic Aerial Safaris

Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
April 1997

In the middle of my back-swing at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, Golf Course, I was momentarily put off by a sound I hadn’t heard in ages. After years of not hearing a particular sound it seems only faintly familiar. You hear it but the brain does a faint twanging thing as it desperately tries to catalogue it. My golf shot went wildly awry as I gawked up in amazement at a handsome, red biplane circling the mountain resort.

My pal Chris, a retired airplane mechanic living on a boat in the Mediterranean, started dancing in excitement as he exclaimed. “Hey, Pat. That’s a “Shaky Jake engine.” Ruining the rest of my golf game, Chris went into great detail explaining the nickname for the venerable old Jacobs engine.

The biplane disappeared over a low, near-by hill and obviously landed quite close to the resort. We finished the game, and while I paid my golf debts, I asked the bartender about the airplane and was told to look up Classic Aerial Safaris, Ltd., at the main hotel lobby. We chugged our drinks and trotted over to satisfy our curiosity. We learned that we could meet ‘Mistahh’ Garratt, the director of Classic Aerial Safaris, that evening.

You know how most people moan about the lack of romance in aviation today? Obviously no one told Andy Garratt about it! Here’s a guy who has found a place in the sun where he’s having the time of his life.
Born in Britain in 1955, Andy moved to the United States at a very young age. He started flying when he was 12, and soloed a Citabria at 16. After finishing high school, he attended Marquette University studying dentistry. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Air Force where he practiced dentistry and flew in Air Force aero clubs slowly building time, collecting licenses and ratings, until his discharge in 1989. That’s sort of when the bonds of convention slipped a bit.

Andy took his discharge papers, hopped on a bicycle and went for a long ride. A really long ride! Around the eastern Mediterranean through Syria, Jordan, Egypt and then down into Sudan and Ethiopia. He practiced dentistry in Addis Ababa for a year and a half and then took a job as a United Nations pilot on a King Air. After that, he completed a few short contract jobs as ground coordinator for United Nations air lifts into relief and war zones, all the while looking for an angle in aviation that would suit his particular needs.

A brief attack of ‘convention’ overtook him and Andy returned to the United States for a while. Instead of marrying a nice girl and getting back into dentistry he was drawn irrevocably to a job in Massachusetts flying banners. Flying banners? At this point in our discussion Andy laughed when I mentioned the term, ‘Skye Hoes’, often applied to those of us who will do almost anything to keep flying.

Banner flying introduced Andy to the Waco biplane and the idea for Classic Aerial Safaris was born. The Waco biplane is a tandem cockpit design with three seats. The pilot sits in the rear cockpit and two passengers sit side-by-side in the front cockpit. Each cockpit has its own windshield, seatbelts, shoulder harnesses, and intercom system.

Andy assembled the funds, lined up a Waco YMF 5 at the factory in Lansing, Michigan and left for Kenya to get the permits and paperwork in order. He began operations in June of 1995 and in 1996 a second Waco biplane joined the fleet operated from Downs Ranch near the town of Isolo and served other popular tourists locations. When the passenger traffic is heavy enough, the two planes work the same location enriching the barnstormer atmosphere.

The Gordons and a party of 8 signed up for the sunrise flight for the next day. One of Andy’s Kenyan employees picked us up at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club at 0630 for the twenty minute drive to Mawingu Airstrip, adjacent to Mt. Kenya Safari Club near the town of Nanyuki. As our Range Rover crept carefully over the narrow, rugged road, we were told of a band of elephants wandering through the area causing substantial damage. Elephants and other wild animals often have to be “buzzed” off the grass strip prior to landings and take offs. Prior to take offs they, of course, buzz the field with the Range Rover honking the horn and revving the engine.

One split-timber building serves all the requirements for both Andy and Classic Aerial Safaris. The spacious hangar has plenty of room for the Waco as well as linen covered tables for a breakfast buffet, complete with chef, for the early bird passengers. The two-story lean-to holds the office and waiting room on the first floor. A small pot-bellied stove wards off the early morning chill at the 7,500 altitude. Andy lives in the large, single room on the second floor. His sitting room apartment has a broad windowed area, somewhat like a primitive control tower. He can sit there with a cup of tea, put his feet up and watch the wild life and the occasional airplanes go by.

While the ground crew prepared the airplane for the first flight of the morning Andy showed us around and I was pleasantly surprised to see a framed ‘Mission Statement’ outlining the professional goals of the organization, hanging on the wall. I had been impressed with the tidiness of the operation but here was the first indication of a greater than expected level of professionalism in the highlands of Kenya.

Outside, I watched the crew fueling the biplane and inquired about the ‘fueling system.’  Fuel is trucked in from Nairobi in 55 gallon barrels at a cost of $4.00 per gallon, including the non-refund deposit for the barrel. Fuel was transferred from the barrel to the top wing of the Waco by an electric pump powered by a 12 volt battery charged by a solar panel leaning against a timber.

Another major sign of professionalism reared its welcome head as, clad in the obligatory leather jackets, helmets and goggles, we boarded the airplane for our flight. The leather helmets have built-in headsets and intercom to enable passengers to talk comfortably, hear Andy describing the route, or listen to music during the flight.

Andy stood to one side while his ground personnel gave us the most complete briefing I’ve ever had flying any airplane, including the airlines. It was not only thorough, including even how to get in and out of the front cockpit, but enthusiastically presented. After we were settled in Andy quickly clambered aboard, started the radial engine and we began the long-forgotten, zigzag taxi down the grass runway.

The early morning sun cast long shadows from the bordering trees across the parched, brown grass of the smooth, unpaved runway. As we taxied, a lone zebra and two antelope bolted from their breakfast into the forest to escape the grumble of the “Shaky Jack” engine.

As an unapologetic romantic in a high tech industry, I was already ‘moved’ by the experience of being in an open cockpit airplane in East Africa, on a beautiful morning next to the one I love. Then Andy shot the final bolt of romanticism. Tears came to my eyes as we took off with the theme music from the movie, Out of Africa flowing through the intercom.

The basic geography of Kenya has always fascinated me. Even on a drive in an automobile major climatological changes occur with astonishing  frequency. Crossing one hill you enter an arid region, then over the next hill it’s green again. Just amazing how quickly the changes take place. In the Waco at 1500 AGL, the terrain is even more incredible.

Unnoticed from the country roads are innumerable, small extinct volcanic craters and miniature mountains that Andy called pressure bumps jutting up from the highlands like protruding breasts. Perhaps volcanic action is still building, but perhaps the pressure faded eons ago. The green of the forests, even in the on-going draught, is radiant while the fields range in color from the rich, fertile brown of the freshly cultivated to a light tan of the ongoing harvest to the dark emerald green of irrigation. Nearly every ranch has its own dirt airstrip and the airplane is the preferred method of transport to Nairobi for shopping and other errands. 

A wildfire raged on the upper slopes of Mt. Kenya and, as we circled upwind of it, Andy explained through the intercom that with little funding and no firefighting resources, the fires are left to burn themselves out. 

Andy waggled his wings and his voice came through the intercom again urging us to look to our left and low. There was the other Waco, with our friends on board. We flew in a loose, open formation while we waved and took pictures. Eventually they banked sharply and dived out of sight.

Now clear of the smoke from the wild fires, the top of Mt. Kenya was visible, framed between the struts of the Waco. The mountain is unusual in that its base is a large, smoothly-rounded, forested area from which juts the craggy peak coated with last season’s snow.

Mawingu means cloud and small white puffy ones were beginning to form in the crisp blue sky above as we heard Andy call in on the unicom frequency and we slipped into the pattern at Mawingu airfield. The 40 minute flight culminated in a lovely, smooth wheel landing and I remember that long ago I used to be able to do that in a J-3 and had even taught myself to do it a Stearman. I wondered if that skill was still in me somewhere, lying dormant, waiting for release when my paladin career begins to lose interest in jet-A, Heathrow, the North Atlantic and RVSM. Will the smell of freshly mown runway grass and the rumble of a “Shaky Jake” or its equivalent beckon?

With the far ranging executive jets we operate nowadays, it’s not unlikely that you could find yourself with the time to kill waiting for executives at either Nairobi International or Wilson Field near Nairobi. It’s only a four drive to the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, a wonderful, highland hotel, and an unforgettable Classic Aerial Safari. Don’t miss it. The experience stirs emotions you’ve probably suppressed for years. If you’ve never had them, be careful the experience might give birth to them.

​Note: A few years after our flight with Andy he closed down his company and moved to the U.S. He had found a job flying a Cessna executive jet. Shortly thereafter he and the other crew member were killed in an accident while landing. God rest his soul.