Soaring in Kenya "Soaring Mwiega"
By: William R. Cotton

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You have probably seen a number of my reports of soaring adventures when I am on business trips around the world. Well here is my report of soaring in Kenya. The purpose of my trip was to present a series of lectures about our RAMS weather modeling sys tem at a World Meteorological Organization sponsored short course or workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. Before coming to Kenya I had the opportunity to have an e-mail discussion with Tim McCallister who spent his honeymoon in Kenya at a gliderport operated by Pe ter and Petra All My wife said a honeymoon at a gliderport?? She was amazed! But "Tim" claims they had a great time and they found Peter and Petra great people to interact with. So, I had to give it a try.

I first attended a three-day meeting at NASA Goddard and then boarded a Sabena Airlines flight to Brussels and then connecting to Nairobi, leaving at 6:00PM on 3 December 1999. The flight was in a nearly new Airbus. It is a fine plane, but at least the way Sabena had it set up in coach, the seats were narrower and had less legroom than any major U.S. carrier that I have flown with. It had this fancy entertainment center with your personal LCD display and a control stick that was located at your hip in the seat unless you removed it with its attached cord. The problem was that on this control stick was the call button for attendants and with the narrow seats and people with wide bottoms, the call buttons were continually going off all the way over and a ll the way back!

In spite of the fact it was raining cats and dogs in the morning after my mid-night arrival at the hotel, I called Yellow Wings Air services to see if it made sense at all about considering flying up to Mweiga where the glider operation that Tim recomm ended is located. They said they would call Peter and Petra Allmendinger, owners and operators of the commercial soaring club. About an hour later, 9:45AM, I got a call back that it was reasonably clear up there and it was expected to clear even in Nairo bi. So I grabbed a taxi and headed to Wilson field where I met the pilot, Stefan, and we cranked up an old Cessna 172. After climbing up to 8500', Stefan let me take the controls and I flew the remainder of the 45-minute flight. Except for a mountain pass area, the whole landscape was covered by one small farm after another. I climbed up to 9500' over the pass and then let down dodging cumulus clouds. Stefan assured me that it would clear up near Mweiga as it generally does. However, as we got closer, I c ould detect a loss of confidence in his optimism. A mid-level stratus deck covered the entire area.

I gather it had been raining rather regularly for about a month, as the grass was quite green all over the area. We landed to in a 15kt cross wind. Two gliders were set up on the north end of the runway next to a grass-roofed ramada. Both planes were t wins, one a K-13 and the other an open cockpit Slingsby T-21. The T-21 is about a 40 year old plane that looks like a dragonfly when viewed from the front. The wing is elevated above the fuselage on a pod of sorts. The windscreen is two oval plastic winds hields that resemble some British sports car windscreens of the same era. I had always thought that would be an interesting ship to fly and it appeared I might get the chance.

As I tumbled out of the Cessna, I was welcomed by Peter and Petra, and a few other members of the commercial gliding club. They are a very friendly couple and both are Germans. They had the winch setup for a southerly takeoff, but, wouldn't you know, the winds shifted and they had to switch the whole operation end-for-end. This involved moving the winch and cable doe-see-doe, hooking both gliders at once on an old Mini-Moke and dragging them to the other end. We hardly moved 10' when the Moke ran out of gas. So a beat up VW bug was brought down which couldn't move very slow so it was a jog to the other end of the runway.

Peter then took a couple, one at a time, on scenic flights in the T-21. Peter later said that the T-21 is very popular for scenics, especially on nice warm days. Maybe CSA should think about acquiring one? Then it was my turn. As the previous flights w ere only 15 minutes or so, I didn't expect much of a flight, but flying the T-21 would be an experience anyway. With Peter following through with me, we got a good winch flick to 1100'. Peter suggested I turn into the weak thermal we encountered just befo re release. Now the T-21 is a very different bird to fly compared to anything I have flown previously. Turns on the roll-axis are so stiff I felt I needed two hands on the stick! Moreover, once you get it to bank into a turn sharply it feels like it is go ing to roll over on its back into a spin! It took me a while to get the hang of the beast. If you didn't kick in appropriate rudder, down that wing would drop and I'd be looking straight at the ground through its open sides! Moreover, I didn't need to loo k at the yaw string when I slipped and skidded as I would get a blast of fresh air in my face-wham! This is like flying the old open-cockpit biplanes.

But we scratched away in those little thermals and eventually gained some altitude. Then Peter said it looks like "the" shear-line or convergence line was coming through for the first time this year. At the leading edge of the line of cumuli, clouds we re thin and wispy and behind it normal towering cumuli grew to 8000 or 9000'. The best lift, however, was not beneath the bigger cu but instead beneath the wispy cu. In fact we encountered strong enough lift to launch us several thousand feet above the to wering cumuli, reaching 11,000'. Remember this is an open cockpit plane, so we were freezing our butts up there. I would work back and forth along the leading edge of the convergence line above the wispy cu much like working a wave. This line behaved simi lar to a "bore-like" wave much like the famous Australian Morning Glory. I looked at aircraft charts trying to understand what triggered this bore. Behind the bore front the airmass was definitely different than in front as it was moister, hazier, and eve n smelled different. But the coast is some 600km away and the terrain slopes gently up to the ridges near Mount Kenya, so it doesn't appear to be a bore triggered on a sea-breeze front interacting with steep topography. It was moving between Mount Kenya t o the east and another mountain range to the west whose name I forget. After a while, the cu behind the leading wispy line began looking ragged and I found weaker lift. It appeared the bore- front grew shallower and ran ahead of the cu line, then after a few minutes, it appeared to retrench back to the cu. After almost an hour the lift got weaker and we began descending to the airport and getting a chance to warm up. When flying the T-21 one has to keep a sharp eye out so that you don't drift very far dow nwind. This plane thermals at about 32kts and 45kts is probably its best L/D. Faster than that it drops like a rock. My comment about my Grob G-109B penetrating like a D-9 Caterpillar is very appropriate for the T-21 as well!

I pretty much landed it on my own slipping it with the wind on my face. Flying the T-21 was certainly a fun experience, especially having that bore-like convergence line to keep us aloft for over an hour. I felt I needed a derrick to get me out of the plane once on the ground, as my butt was sore and muscles in one leg had knotted up. I wouldn't call the T-21 the most comfortable ship to fly in.

Now I'll have to go home and run RAMS to figure out what kicks off that bore, or get Joseph Mukabana at the University of Nairobi to run it over the area with sufficiently high resolution.

Stefan and I got back into the Cessna and then over-flew Peter and Petra's guest-house/ home about 3 miles from the airport. The house is a double-peaked large southern- German looking house in an open plain with a nice view of Mount Kenya. I'd like to bring Vollie back there sometime to stay a week or so, hiking Mount Kenya and , me of course, soaring. I understand that elephants and other wild things can often be seen from their veranda. They have seen leopard prints in the yard but never seen one. I n fact, about 10 miles from there on the way back I spied some elephants lounging in a muddy-looking pond near a home.

We returned to Nairobi, skirting showers from a large cumulonimbi, just before dark. I then took a taxi back to the hotel where I had a nice fish dinner by myself. For the next week it rained daily in Nairobi and was overcast most of the time. So, I gu ess I was darn lucky catching such strong lift and experiencing that shear-line for the first time this year.

If you are ever in Kenya, be sure to stop in and try the soaring in Mwiega.