The White Bird, a balmy mountain & the forest of ghosts


François Coli who and Paul Tarascon who disappeared aboard the “White Bird” in 1927.

It was apparently overcast on May 8th, 1927, when the two French pilots aboard the “White Bird” disappeared somewhere off the U.S. coast near Maine.  Or so its said. They’ve never been found but the story is important.  That’s because back home this week,  France announced that the two were actually the first to cross the Atlantic – not Charles Lindbergh.  His surname could translate from German as “balmy mountain”.    The French for White Bird is L’Oiseau Blanc,  but I digress.

The aviators concerned were trying to capture the Orteig prize of $25,000 which as we all know, was and is, a fortune.  If you’re earning rands in particular.

Unlike Lindbergh,  the White Bird had two aviators so Charles’ solo flight stands.  But what happened to François Coli who and Paul Tarascon, both WWI veterans?

The White Bird weighed 11,000 pounds of 5,000kg and was bedecked with a black skull and crossbones with a coffin and two candles inside a black heart.  That was chillingly apt by the end of the doomed flight.   It was painted white so it would supposedly be easy to spot when/if it came down.

Both clambered aboard their new Levasseur PL8 biplane around 5am on May 8th 1927.  The aircraft had been redesigned to cope  with the stresses of flying across the Atlantic in summer, with the expected thunderstorms and high winds at times.  The redesign included an undercarriage that would be jettisoned on take-off which would reduce the overall weight, endurance of 7,000km and 4,000 litres of fuel.

The trans-Atlantic flight was supposed to be between New York and Paris and the winner had to ensure that they connected these two cities.  But there’s a lot of debate about whether they made it as far as the Maine coast.   In fact witnesses eastern Canada on the morning of May 9th described hearing a plane overhead and investigators today believe that its possible that’s where the White Bird ended up.

At least 12 different witnesses said they’d heard or seen the plane on the 9th May.  But no sign of this aircraft has ever been found, in spite of at least one case of an obsessive who’s spent 30 years searching for the White Bird who believes it is submerged in one of the thousands of ponds in Newfoundland.

This mystery is a bit like MH370,  with the aviators in the White Bird leaving their radio behind because it was too heavy.  In MH370s case,  someone switched off the radios.  The plane also likely ditched in water because that’s the only place it could land,  the aviators would not have tried to put the plane down on land because they would most likely not have survived.   MH370 is thought to have ended up in the Indian Ocean.

In 1984, France concluded the aircraft HAD in fact reached Newfoundland, but said they believed the plane came down in one of the forests.  We’re all guessing, of course.

Its an enigmatic tale.  In 1992 bits of metal and pieces of struts were found in a Maine forest and the parts were described as similar to the build of the biplane.  Engine metals were discovered near the town of Machias in Maine.  Local residents described a large object which they called a really big motor that had been found in the woods and salvaged by loggers.

Still, Charles Lindbergh the balmy mountain remains the first person to have successfully flown solo across the Atlantic.  He was paid the $25,000 and went on to have many more adventures as we know.

The two French WWI hero aviators,  François Coli and Paul Tarascon, disappeared into that dark place in history where ghosts dwell.







MH370 report wraps up but ghosts remain

Most likely area containing the remains of MH370 – ATSB

Its been a frustrating three years searching for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared in March 2014 with 239 people on board.   What is apparent is that the mystery which at times had conspiracy theorists leaping about blaming the American Air Force, aliens and cockpit fires,  is that we just know nothing about what happened.


I’m not a relative of anyone on board,  but had this been the case, the terrible almost transfixingly macabre disappearance surely would have driven me to a visit to the Malaysian embassy in South Africa with photographs and demands.

In Australia,  the Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) reported on Tuesday 3 September “The reasons for the loss of MH370 cannot be established with certainty until the aircraft is found.”


Of course.

But it has to be said.  Yet there are clues and we’ve perused these closely.

  1.  Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had simulated a similar route on his Flight Simulator at home.  It’s not a normal route.  It’s not like he was practicing for some emergency.  His simulating featured a flight almost exactly like the one the plane is believed to have taken before disappearing.
  2. The flight characteristics were those only a highly experienced pilot could have managed in the circumstances.  The plane nosed over and dived towards the ocean and then was flared back 180 degrees and more than 30 000 feet below where the dive began.  No beginner here.
  3. The trajectory of the plane took it at low altitude and therefore conducive to radar avoidance,  over Malaysia, then northern Indonesia, then South west into the deep Indian Ocean.  Why?  To avoid  detection.
  4. The point at which communication failure occurred was precisely at the point the pilot switched channels between Malaysia and Vietnam.  The person who switched off the transponder at that point as well as ACARS and other systems was not only proficient,  but had to be seated within seconds of the captain reporting the handover point to the Malaysians. In other words, the pilot or first officer.

I’ve written about this for three years and cannot, as the Australian’s have pointed out, prove anything until the plane is located.

Aircraft engine ping zone

But you don’t have to be an aviator to understand that there are some glaring issues which the authorities cannot begin to address.  It all looks highly suspicious and the suspicion falls upon the Captain of the aircraft.  I’m not going to say anything further because he too has family and no-one likes a wiseguy from another country thumb-sucking facts.

Still, let’s address facts we do have.  It’s the most expensive search effort for any aircraft, is the largest and crosses many seas.  It began in the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea and then shifted to the Indian Ocean off Australia.

The aircraft was last detected by radar in the Strait of Malacca and in the Andaman Sea.  The engines of the Boeing 777-200ER sent ping messages to the Inmarsat communications network.   Between October 2014 and January this year a massive survey was conducted of 120,000 km2 of sea floor south-west of the Australian coast.


Several pieces of the plane have washed up in Africa and Indian Ocean islands such as Reunion where the flaperon was found in July 2015

The ATSB says  “It is almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable in the modern aviation era… for a large commercial aircraft to be missing and for the world not to know with certainty what became of the aircraft and those on board.”

It’s 440 page report also says:
“The underwater search has eliminated most of the high probability areas yielded by reconstructing the aircraft’s flight path and the debris drift studies conducted in the past 12 months have identified the most likely area with increasing precision,” it said.

But the money has run out.

The US has offered to bet more involved but Malaysia is now moving away from accepting any further searches for the plane.  While Kuala Lumpur instituted live tracking of its aircraft,  there’s still the fact that 239 people are gone.  And no-one knows where.

Still, there is a slight glimmer of light about all of the above.  Flight MH370 emphasised  to the reasonably minded public that its unacceptable to live in a world where you can attack a little piece of rubber to your arm that tracks you around a bicycle track but where the latest commercial airliner could not be tracked in real time.  Something about it costing $20m per year.   Airliners have put profit before logic.   That’s not a sustainable situation where I can lodge a chip in a local lion and then follow it around on my iPhone from Jamaica but SAA’s chairperson of the board can’t find her Boeing while she’s actually sitting on it.

The Boeing I mean.

Flight Voice Recorder – in future ICAO wants these to float.

So the International Civil Aviation Organization adopted new standards for aircraft position reporting over open ocean, also extended recording time for the voice recorder, and forces new aircraft sold from 2020 to ensure that the flight recorder ends up floating when planes are submerged.


Airports Company South Africa Does What SAA Can’t – Turns A Profit

A Virgin Aircraft at Cape Town Airport – Facebook

South Africa’s airports company has turned in fairly good numbers for a year which saw the rand shaking,  the local economy rickety,  and their South African Airways main partner rather dilapidated.

Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) reported revenue growth of 3.4% to R8.6 billion in the year ended 31 March 2017, with profit up 10.8% to R2 billion.

So what I hear you say,  revenue growth is below inflation which is over 6.5%?

Yes,  but it’s profits rose 10.8% while expenditure dropped 31.3%.  So if you invested, your return on equity was 11.3% which is slightly lower than the previous period but not too shabby in the period dominated by a limping economy and by SAA’s ramshackle moment in time.

The total number of departing passengers from nine ACSA airports topped 20 million,  with the darling being international passengers which grew at 6.1%.  Domestic growth was tardy at 2.2% but blame that on our economic position presently.

Another gold star went to Cape Town International Airport which saw more than 10 million arriving and departing passengers for the first time, and King Shaka totting up more than 5 million also for the first time.

A View out of the starboard upon final approach

Domestic landing volumes were flag registering no growth,  while international flight volumes grew at 2.5% which ACSA says indicates a higher number of passengers on scheduled flights.

While money is gets from aviation contributed 63% of the bottom line,  non-aviation such as retail, advertising, rentals, parking and car hire made up the difference.

Bongani Maseko, ACSA COO, sounded cautious when he released the information today.

“The overall financial position of the Company therefore remains healthy despite
regulatory uncertainty and difficult economic conditions.”

Maseko didn’t wax too lyrical about ACSA’s attempts at forcing through a radical hike in tariffs,  which is tried to introduce two years ago as a sort of magical slight of hand.

“Operationally, we are adapting well to a new tariff regime from the regulator which
required a 35.5% reduction for the 2018 financial year with increases in the following
two years of 5.8% and 7.4%,” he said.

So aviation is still alive and well,  and lets hope ACSA refrains from their previous attempts at killing the goose that’s laying their golden eggs.

Kimberley Airport – Facebook



Drones And Hurricanes

frayintermedia’s fraybird1.  Love at first flight.

Our DJI Mavic drone is a lovely little thing.  It flits about at 60kph taking pictures and video.  I can setup a computerised track for the multirotor beauty to follow,  or fly it manually.  It has sensors,  flashing lights (green on the right, red on the left, like a proper aeroplane) and its dark grey exterior belies its sensitivity.

To water.

The LiPo or Lithium Polymer battery hates the stuff.  If there’s too much mist or the humidity is above 100% the battery gives notice by swelling like a puffer fish.  Not that I’ve seen that yet as I’m keeping it well away from H2O,  but that’s the warning on its operators manual.   Yet drones have been used heavily in very wet areas,  such as Houston for example, and if protected, can provide an incredibly important service.

DJI Mavic Battery – R1,694 each, very slippery when wet.

In East Africa,  drones are now carting lightweight emergency medicines across miles of wilderness.  The Mavic I fly can operate up to 1500m away from the base station,  although the law says you have to have visual line of sight or VLOS at all times to the vehicle.  The radio signal from the remote handset won’t allow for that distance anyway.   In Houston,   there are a couple of thousand drone operators.   There aren’t that many in the whole of South Africa,  although licences are being scooped up at record speed.

Humanitarian missions around Houston after Hurricane Harvey have seen drones used to spot people on rooftops,  to carry small medical kits,  and to assess areas for water damage.   Boats are heavy and cumbersome,  and with water receding, drones have come into their own as people return to their dwellings.   The FAA reports that there are now dozens of special licenses for those operators who’re helping the rescue and recovery efforts,  where helicopters can be very expensive,  drones can be very cheap.  Flying at 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or lower it means these devices are also not endangering aviation as long as you follow the rules.   So police helicopters continue to fly overhead while in the intermediate area,  or drone zone,  services are being rendered.

But they don’t like water,  as I said.  I have tested the frayintermedia Mavic over the ocean and I became very nervous as the craft drifted away in the wind,  fearing that the device may be lost if there was a technical hitch.  The other fear was about seabirds who really didn’t like the device at all.  And by the way,  the Mavic was in far more danger of being attacked by a large bird than vice versa.   The Mavic is the size of your hand,  a seagull would easily smack it into the Indian Ocean.

Just a thing of beauty.   frayintermedia’s fraybird1.

So I respect these American drone operators taking their hugely expensive drones to Houston in order to save lives.  They’re not being paid to do this,  most are operating as volunteers and from all accounts,  have been involved in numerous incidents where people were trapped and saved.   There is, however, a dark side to droneism.

Apparently insurance companies are hiring these drone operators as the water recedes – turning them into assessors as they scan mile after mile of housing destroyed by one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever strike the US mainland.  So first they’re free,  then they’re paid.  I guess you have to make a living.   One of those insurance companies is second biggest in Texas, Allstate, and its just a matter of days before the biggest company,  State Farm,  orders a fleet into the air as well.


Speaking of insurance,  I discovered while registering drones that you need insurance coverage to the tune of R500 000 per drone.   That is the same as a small plane or a glider.  Which is madness,  but that’s bureaucracy for you. And speaking of gliders,  I am now the proud member of the Aero Club of South Africa and begin my glider training this week.     More follows gentle folks.  But later as right now I have to pack up the drone to go shoot a video.







Grace Mugabe Immunised Diplomatically As Air Zim & SAA Trade Tits-for-Tats


Credo Mutwa remains an enigma.  Read  “Indaba, my Children” read it twice,  read it thrice.  The folk tales he tells envelop the mind like the determined vapors of a Musina night,  the heat of his thoughts whip us into a feverish state.   There are grand stories where the Zimbabweans or Monomatapas (sometimes Mnunumetara or even Mutapa) crossed the Limpopo to lift a few thousand head of cattle and a couple of maidens from the silly South Africans who’re always floundering in the wake of these ancient warriors.  There’s clashes,  wars, heroes, exculpation, extirpation, exultation.

Then there’s Air Zimbabwe vs South African Airways,  Grace Mugabe and the Sons of Chaos.

A bit like the David and Goliath saga except Air Zim in this instance is a furtive David without the grand garlands.    Air Zim was ordered to remain on deck at OR Tambo last week pending an investigation into why it’s international flight documents were missing.

            Tweets at the weekend were a riot.

So Zim authorities promptly ordered an SAA plane grounded in Harare on Saturday 19th August as a tit-for-tat diplomatic sport kicked into gear,  everyone swathed in self-righteous bandanas and quoting from the excerpted copies of Marx, Engels,  Mao and uncle Robert’s cabin treatise on mucking with your neighbours.

Pity the old man never read Mr Mutwa.


Not as romantic as the great battle on the Limpopo one thousand years ago that featured deadly combat and dragons,  but iconic and just as effective and from the playbook.

There’s not a one way thing going on here,  and its been like that since modern humans arrived in Southern Africa.   This constant barrage of turmoil now has an aviation edge,  this competition between a Zimbabwean empire clinging onto its final vestiges of post-colonial radicalism and concocted self-importance versus the new post-colonial nexus where corrupt propositioning has redeployed honesty.

And all taking place on two airport aprons.  OR Tambo, where four hundred meters of apron tarmac sees more valuable aviation airframe in one day than Harare’s dilapidated dusty apron sees in more than a year.  Make that five years.  So who wins in this show- down at the ORT Coral?

Harare of course, at least initially.  It’s a bit like Honduras fighting the USA.  But funnier to watch unless you’re stranded in Zimbabwe.

“Long ago in a land far, far away, there lived a prince and his princess.  Then aviation came along and saved his princess from the naughty South African ‘model’. ”

Because facing Harare is a Pretoria which has lost its compass, GPS and sense of courage, its political map is frayed.   The aviation sector in South Africa has recently been awarded a stamp of excellence by the International Civil Aviation Organisation,  whereas Zimbabwe isn’t even on the safety map.  Yet Harare would order Pretoria around like a shepherd whistling at his sheepdog and its partly about an ex-typist who’s called Grace.

At the same time politically,  Zimbabwe shambles amiably towards the looming demise of its post-colonial demigod,  while in South Africa the country staggers having taken a number of blows to the ideological solar plexus courtesy of a leader who’s moral compass swings like a drunken bull’s privates.

In the meantime,  South Africans trying to get home were stranded, and a large proportion of those were businessmen and women.  Ironically, government officials too.  Zim government officials who jetted off to the big smoke for a little RnR at the weekend SADC Summit were delayed along with their piggly wiggly bags .

Simultaneously,  Grace Mugabe who was accused of using an extension chord as a dangerous weapon at an upmarket Johannesburg hotel,  then allowed herself to be whisked home by air (and by her cranky old man) after she was immunised diplomatically.

In Credo Mutwa’s world Grace would be a shape shifting owl,  swift at night and feared by the righteous,  witch-like and Robert would be her dark cloaked malignant factotum, wrinkled and weasled like the fading stem of a poisonous tropical plant.    They’ve been force to leave their two lovely sons behind in Johannesburg for Metro police to deal with the next time they’re having a couple of Chivas Regals in public.

Reminds me of that paragraph in “Indaba my Children” :

Then there were Ziko and Majozi, who were brothers and who jointly commanded the regiment, The Night Owls. They were a youthful pair of hard-drinking, hard-loving and hard-fighting hotheads, also famed as great singers and story-tellers who had composed long verses in praise of Malandela.

The singer bit remains moot,  so too the story-teller bit.  Whereas the stories today in Johannesburg and Harare remain exclusively focused on their mom who’s married to a  man who’s an eviscerated shadow of the great Malandela and used a very modern form of flight to flee.






The Russian, the German, the Brit & a Blues Brother

Me and Abraham’s nut.   After arriving in the US following my Frankfurt experience.  Dressed in appropriate Blues Brother attire.
I flew to the US in June which is now but a distant memory except for the security search at Frankfurt airport before clambering on board a United Airlines flight to New York.  The names of the accused were blasted over the tannoy for all to hear.

“Mr Suddick”

“Mr Abraham”

“Mr Ludwillow”

“Mr Latham”

So let me describe the process.  After clambering off an SAA plane in Frankfurt at 06h00 local time we were due to fly out to the USA at 08h00 local.  We hurried to the airport train (automated) and arrived at terminal B from whence United flies.  After the obligatory cup of coffee,  you are checked in and a coloured sticker attached to your ticket.  Which remains untorn – no stubs here.

Then various names are called as mentioned above.  and mine came up.  I heard that only Muslims or suspicious people were asked to step forward (at least that’s what my well traveled friends have alleged), so what’s this then?

A White House Secret Service Agent.  Much friendlier than the Russian, the German and the Brit at Frankfurt Airport.
Perhaps its because I’m from Africa I thought.  Clearly suspicious.   This is where the story gets a tad interesting at least in terms of process.  So after joining the short queue of the highly suspicious/possible terrorist/dangerous/uncouth etc etc,  a man with a Russian accent asks me if I’m indeed “Dazemoond Lat-ham”


‘Please wait there” he motions to a seat in full view of the 300 passengers about to board United Airlines.   Most are trying not to look in my direction unless the security guards haul them in too.   My nearest and dearest is sitting near the wifi/power charging desks charging her phone and laptop and also not appearing to stare.  She carries a passport with her maiden name so we’re not easily coupled,  if you excuse the phrase.

Welcome to the USA, Mr Dazemoond Lat-ham
The Russian appeared just bored enough to be both careless and malignant.  You know those languid security people who have one ear-hole larger than the other from a lifetime of wearing a hands free VIP bodyguard kit.  In a small cubicle I could see a man removing his shoes and being subjected to some kind of body search with a strip of plaster.

Then it was my turn after a few minutes.    The Russian waved at me and said “your turn” which felt a little like being asked to join the bungee jump line without a safety harness.

Inside the cubicle there were three men.  They all scrutinised me as I entered their little chamber,  watching I thought, for any sign of weakness then they’d pounce. One of the three was  dressed in browns and fawn clothing with a black belt and he turned to me.

I tensed,  waiting for the usual aggro bodyguard VIP security man fusillade.

“Hey, you look like one of the Blues Brothers”  he said, and smiled.

I dress in a black suit when traveling and wear a black hat bought in Boston in 2000.  It’s real wool and with the black tie, I usually am left alone on flights because people think I’m either a businessman or a rabbi.   It’s the first time in years of traveling in this mode that someone has said anything about the Blues Brothers who are indelibly etched in all our minds – us 80’s people.

The Harlem Blues Project live at BB’s Bar and Grill in Manhattan.  I was in awe and sat right at the front where you sit when you want to learn stuff.
“Well I do play the blues” I said.

“You look like you do” he answered in a German accent.  He took my shoes and waved his sticky plaster over it.  Then he pulled the plaster down my clothes.  I guessed he was looking for signs of explosives.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

Then he suddenly turned back into the cold VIP bodyguard and ignored me,  his friend said:

“You can go”

In a British accent.

My ticket now had an extra sticker on the back which the air crew peered at with great interest when I clambered on board the A380.  My nearest had taken up a seat as far away as possible (well she was on the other side of the aisle) so I asked the lovely person next to me if she’d swap seats with Nearest/Dearest.

Somewhere over America.  United Airlines.
She would.

Nearest wasn’t so happy,  she’d swapped an aisle seat for a middle seat.

“Never mind dear” I said

“At least you’re sitting next to a world famous blues musician.”

She ignored that and went to sleep.









The Hack with A Drone

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 2.56.35 PM
A quick shot from the DJI Mavic as it takes off – not the most fetching shot but this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship
Aviation combines check rides, tests,  knowledge updates and the bugbear,  exams, in order to ensure that flying around the place is as safe as a Boeing.   My retired instructor Russell, however,  scoffed at the intellectual pilot saying there’s too much time spent on books and too little time spent flying as modern aviators go about their business.

Being older than 50 and deciding to consider commercial flying at my age means that I partially agree with Russell.   The older you get, the longer it takes to embed technical knowledge unless of course you have the luxury of not working at all,  which makes study a little easier.  The 20-somethings who are subsidized by state or mom and pop have all day to pick up those tomes of aviation in order to prepare for the exam.   I, on the other hand,  am a parent of said 20-somethings and spend most of my time  funding health coverage or education.  That leaves a few hours a night or early morning in order to flip open Flight Planning ATPL study notes.

Ok,  that’s my massively self-serving excuse.

Recently I signed up with RPAS Training Academy in Wonderboom to do drone training.  Part of the course is theory,  and of course when you have theory you have exams.  They were multiple choice and not too onerous and I managed to pass the three which certified pilots write.  These included Batteries,   drone technical and air law.  But the process itself is stressful at any age.

Last year I attempted the Air Law for Commercial pilots exam in February and failed with a miserable 56% where the pass mark is 75%.  That set back my plan to become a commercial pilot and instructor as a latter life plan somewhat.  But its not over yet,  I’m still going ahead with the master plan and as long as my health holds out,  I could be an instructor until well into my 70’s based on my medical certification.

That was the other test I managed to pass this last Monday,  the infamous Aviation Medical Class I,  the highest you can get,  but as the years go by,  it will become more and more difficult to maintain that level.   My doctor is also a pilot and has his own Lancair,  which makes me an envious patient.  While he was testing my blood pressure,  he mentioned that he’d flown back from Stellenbosch the day before at a heady 314 knots and it took him 2 and a half hours to Vanderbijl Park.

Impressive.    In my next life I also plan to return as an aviation doctor with my own aeroplane.  Right now the big life test is passing flying exams while maintaining a job and keeping my wife and kids happy.

Here’s a little video of my significant other marching around a local sports ground.

As a balancing act its more difficult combining work, love and life than recovering from an unusual attitude at night while flying on instruments.   But I’m not complaining,  at least I’m not living in Venezuela.