Little Annie's incredible voyage

20 February 2013 - 11:12 By SCHALK MOUTON
An Antonov AN-2 biplane. File photo
An Antonov AN-2 biplane. File photo
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

THREATS of kidnapping, airdrops from military cargo planes, bribery and the arrest of a contractor paid to deliver fuel.

This is what crew members had to endure on their flight to deliver a 26-year-old biplane to its new home in South Africa.

What was intended to be a three-week journey in the Antonov AN-2 biplane, named Little Annie, took two-and-a-half months.

"It turned out to be the longest ferry-flight in history," co-pilot trainee Tracey Curtis-Taylor, from the UK, said at Lanseria Airport yesterday.

The other crew members were two Russians and former SA Air Force pilot, Mark Hill.

The crew flew across 21 countries, landing in 18 of them and covering more than 20 000km.

The navigator, Sergey Dmitrenki, carried a bag of maps and manuals that weighed 86kg.

The aircraft was donated by Russian airline TUair for use in humanitarian work in Southern Africa.

Curtis-Taylor and Hill were picked up in Kiev, in the Ukraine.

From there they flew across Europe, across the Mediterranean at Gibraltar, and entered Africa through Algeria.

Because of the political instability in Egypt and Sudan, the flight planners had decided to fly down West Africa because the route was shorter and fuel would be more readily available.

"It was a mistake," said Curtis-Taylor.

The plane ground to a halt at Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where the crew feared being kidnapped for ransom.

Gabon, their next fuel stop, had denied them permission to enter its airspace and the crew holed up in a Port Harcourt hotel room in Nigeria for two weeks.

"There was an absolute sense of captivity. It was the only time I've ever felt fear," said Curtis-Taylor.

After hitting several brick walls in trying to gain access to Gabon, the crew eventually had a breakthrough when someone from Execujet - a co-sponsor of the trip - contacted Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

"He was watching [Nations Cup] soccer in South Africa," said Curtis-Taylor.

In Angola, the crew ran into another problem.

A contractor who had been paid to deliver fuel at Kabinda suddenly demanded $15 000 more.

After two weeks of negotiations, and the arrest of a second contractor at a roadblock, three barrels of fuel were dropped by the Angolan Air Force.

The biplane crew immediately high-tailed it to South Africa.

Today the crew will fly Little Annie from Johannesburg to Cape Town, where she will await her first charitable mission.