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Author: Ricky De Agrela; Alan Honeyborne
Freedom Flight is the story of two ordinary men on an extraordinary adventure.
In celebration of the centenary of powered flight and a decade of South African independence, SA pilots Alan Honeyborne and Ricky De Agrela took off, completely unsupported, from Cape Town on the 16th of December 2003.
Their aim – to touch down on each continent of the world on the longest expedition ever flown in microlights.
The expedition achieved several firsts for private aviation including flying through Yemen and Nepal and completing an unsupported microlight flight from South Africa to Australia.
However, tragedy struck, first in China where Alan went down and later in Belize, when Alan’s replacement, Martin Walker, also sustained a fatal accident.
Ricky overcame personal trauma and debilitating fear to fly alone from England through Europe, over the Mediterranean Sea, the Sahara Desert and the wildernesses of East and Southern Africa to make it back to Cape Town.
His accomplishment embodies the expedition’s vision of encouraging others to reach for the sky. The story of Ricky’s remarkable achievement is told in website updates and e-mail correspondence with maps detailing the 64 000-kilometre route.
I would hang one leg down into fresh air, as if to tease the earth, as if saying ‘Earth, you can’t have me now. Later, yes, but now I’m free.’
Ricky De Agrela’s adventurous spirit developed from an early age. A Capetonian born and bred, he started parachuting at the age of 16, underwent two years of airforce training and embarked on his first round-the-world trip in 1982, setting off with a backpack and US$ 100.
He has participated in many sporting disciplines including cycling, running, surfing, mountaineering, canoeing, swimming and hang gliding.
Today, Ricky has re-established himself in business as the director of several companies in the construction and property industry.
Nonetheless, he regularly creates the time to continue his adventurous travels doing motivational presentations around the globe. His long-term objective is to travel to every country on the planet to highlight the positive world in which we live.
Alan Honeyborne started microlight flying in 1998. This quickly became his real passion, and in 2001 he attained his Microlight Instructor’s Rating. Alan, flying with Jamie Mathewson, won both Natal and National Championships in 2000.
Together with Ricky de Agrela he completed many long-distance microlight adventures around Southern Africa, which included Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and numerous trips along the coastline and interior of South Africa. Alan flew with Ricky on the Freedom Flight for five months before his fatal accident in China.
Alan and I climbed to 7 500 feet and soon we were flying over the mountains surrounding the Cape Peninsula. There was a good smooth tailwind and clear skies across the semi-desert of the Karoo that lay ahead. The flight only took four hours. At Oudtshoorn, the local flying club members were there to meet us and celebrations soon ensued.
The noise of the festivities rose and fell in time to the television news, which was showing clips of our departure from Cape Town. We enjoyed the fuss but were slightly shy of this new-found fame.
After yesterday’s fantastic but somewhat chaotic sendoff, today was much calmer. Fortunately, last night’s barbecue wasn’t the late night affair we’d feared and it seems everyone slept very-well, including Ricky, if his snoring was anything to go by.
A leisurely breakfast was followed up by an interview with a lone reporter at the airfield and there were far fewer distractions as we loaded DEJ and DEK. And then Mother Nature gave us a gentle reminder of who is actually in control of this expedition.
The Port Elizabeth Met Office reported 30-knot westerly winds expected to reach gale force by lunchtime. So, after a brief consultation, we resigned ourselves to a day on the ground - time to see what we could do to lighten our load and make the little trikes a bit more graceful.
Maybe tomorrow’s report will include a link to an eBay auction of extraneous microlighting accessories. Not the best way to spend the centenary of powered flight but hopefully we’ll have a chance tomorrow to get airborne and do our bit. Alan
The next morning, we flew to Port Elizabeth, Alan’s home town, in three hours 15 minutes. On landing I came close to ending the expedition right there. We approached the runway, flying next to each other in formation, with Alan doing the radio work. A jet had just taken off and another was coming in behind us so there was some pressure to land quickly and get out of the way.
We couldn’t land too soon after the first jet had taken off because the turbulence behind it was so violent that we could lose control and completely destroy the microlights. However, we also couldn’t delay too much because if we were too close to the runway when the approaching jet landed it could blow us like a piece of litter across the airport.
Alan turned onto final approach first and I came in behind him. We were perfectly lined up on the runway and he touched down first with me close behind. Suddenly, my right wing lifted violently and threw me to the left, face first towards the runway. I got a huge fright and I think the adrenalin shock gave me the strength and reaction speed to pull the wing down and turn it back level just in time for the wheels to come in underneath me and land.
I had come in too close behind and hit the turbulence created by Alan’s trike. From then on, we perfected our formation approaches for landings with our microlights touching down a minimum of 30 seconds apart. The front microlight would land on one side of the runway giving the other space to land on the far side, safely removed from the turbulence of the front trike.
We spent the rest of the day repacking, leaving as much as possible behind. The next morning, we said our goodbyes to Alan’s parents and headed north to Durban.
From: Alan Date: 19 December 2003
Very little stress all the way to Port Alfred but having to stay low through East London, we watched our tailwind turn to a headwind and our estimated time of arrival for Durban extend by nearly two hours, unreachable with our fuel load. The in-flight fuel transfer system was giving us trouble so we resigned ourselves to landing at Kei River Mouth.
On the ground we managed to find fuel for both planes and pilots but were informed by Durban Met that there was no chance of anything but headwinds. Having infinite optimism and slightly less faith in Met people, we took off and, having cleared East London’s control zone, found a 15-knot tailwind at 5 000 feet - must have been a bad day in the weather office crystal ball department. Alan
This initial experience of strong low-level wind with favourable tail-winds at higher altitude was to work in our favour along the entire East African coast. About 100 kilometres outside Durban, cloud started forming below us and soon we were confronted with the decision of flying over the cloudbank in a tailwind or facing a headwind and flying below the cloud.
If we flew over the cloud and the airfield was clouded in, we would have to descend through the cloud at some stage, without sight of the ground and hope not to have the last part of the flight interrupted by one of the many surrounding mountains. Dense cloud swallows up sight, muffles sounds and addles your built-in compass so that you have no sense of up or down — all in all, best avoided when you’re suspended above the ground in little more than a winged tricycle.
Our solution was to send a text message via mobile phone to a pilot we knew, asking about the cloud situation in his vicinity. As luck would have it, he was at the airfield, which, he informed us, was 50 per cent clouded in. We felt that was acceptable and continued flying above the scattered cloud.
As we approached the airfield, the weather started closing in. The microphone in my helmet was giving problems, increasing the already tense situation and several times Alan and I lost sight of each other. We were left with no option other than to descend below the cloud when next we had sight of the ground. I had a map of the area on a Perspex board tied to my knee and chose a region with a valley below, knowing that the cloud would probably be at the same height as the mountain tops.
We circled down below the cloud, which, contrary to my expectations, turned out to be very close to ground level and well below the mountain peaks. We managed to fly the rest of the way in the small 200-foot gap between the ground and the bottom of the cloud.
Some seven and a half hours after leaving Port Elizabeth, we landed at the Light Flight airfield in Durban. We spent the evening with Martin Walker and his wife, making tentative plans to meet up with him somewhere along the route. The following day was a Saturday and we were pleasantly surprised to be met at the airfield by many local microlight pilots who came to wish us well.
Take off was delayed by several attempts to repair my helmet microphone, with a minor degree of success, and the balance of the day was spent flying in turbulent conditions as far as the Free State town of Vryheid where once again we were confronted by cloud. This time we chose to land and call it a day.
The next morning was an early start as we flew northwards aiming for Nelspruit, near the Mozambican border. The weather turned bad. I was not wearing a helmet due to a damaged wire and the intermittent rain felt like flying darts. Cloud blanketed the surrounding hills, severely reducing visibility, and we decided to sit it out. Although there was no airfield around, the big advantage of flying such a small and slow aircraft is that it can land in tiny spaces.
We touched down on an out-of-the-way gravel road and watched the weather for about an hour to ensure that it was improving before flying on to Nelspruit, our last destination before we left South Africa.
Our luck with the weather was no better the next day. So, grounded once again, we undertook final preparations. This would be our last chance to get things done in surroundings that had the necessary facilities. From here on in, we would be flying into the wilds of Africa.
The next morning, with our first international formalities of flight plans and clearances, Customs and Immigration out of the way, we flew across the border into Mozambique. […]