FEATURE: Groton farmer flies the dream in epic solo charity journey to South Africa
When England triumphed in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, Giles Abrey was sitting in an airfield clubroom in South Africa waiting to take the flying test for his private pilot’s licence.
Sixteen years later, as the national side faced the Springboks in this year’s final, the Suffolk farmer was on the brink of the biggest adventure of his life.
The next day – in a light aircraft he helped to build – he took off from East Anglia on an epic solo flight to Cape Town.
For him, it is not just a long-held dream but the chance to raise many thousands of pounds for charity.
“I was going to leave on the Saturday,” he said, “then my father pointed out that everyone would be watching the rugby.”
The coincidence was not planned. Giles chose his departure date to avoid the worst thunderstorms and turbulence over the equator.
He also wanted to mark the 100th anniversary of the first flight from London to Cape Town in February 1920 by South Africans Pierre van Ryneveld and Christopher Quintin Brand.
But one of his main inspirations was renowned aviator Alex Henshaw, who, in 1939, set a record for flying solo from London to Cape Town and back again, which stood unbroken until 2010.
He covered 12,754 miles in four days, 10 hours and 16 minutes in his Mew Gull plane, including a 28-hour stopover in Cape Town.
The trailblazing flyer, who by the end was so tired he had to be lifted out of the cockpit, later became chief test pilot for the Spitfire. He died at his home in Newmarket in 2007.
Giles will fly over 7,200 miles in 30 legs across 13 countries. He has planned his trip since 2006, when a friend gave him Henshaw’s book about the record-breaking flight.
He also read about Victor Smith, who flew a Gipsy Moth biplane from Cape Town to London in 1932. A broken fuel pipe forced him down in the Sahara desert, but he managed to repair it and carry on.
Someone recently told Giles adventure is somewhere in the middle of brave and stupid. “That’s a good quote,” he says, but he has studiously avoided unnecessary risks.
He will not be out to break records, allowing five weeks for the trip and using specialists to plan the route and refuelling stops. But there could still be nerve-racking moments.
Giles, who lives in Groton near Sudbury with his wife Johanna and their children Joshua, nine, and Kitty, six, is a third generation farmer.
The family business was started there by his grandfather in 1939 and later expanded to East Wretham near Thetford.
Giles began flying at 18. “I went travelling after school and did a sky-diving course in New Zealand when I was 17,” he says.
“Part way through, I had an issue with my parachute and had to pull my reserve chute. I decided maybe I hadn’t got the head for parachuting – but I loved the buzz of being in a small plane.
“I really got the flying bug when I did five hours at Crowfield airfield. I went to study agriculture in Newcastle and, when I came back, I started again. But it was hard to focus because farming is a busy life.”
Then he found out about a flying school in South Africa that did intensive courses. “I’d worked for six months in Kenya, and loved Africa. I went to South Africa and did my licence in three weeks.
“It was 2003. I sat in the club room waiting to do my final flying test watching the Rugby World Cup final. England won – but I couldn’t have a celebration drink.
“Back in England, a friend and I bought a small plane called a Jabiru, which only weighed 290 kilos.
“We took it down to Barcelona in 2007. That was the longest trip I’ve done. It was only a tenth of the distance I’m flying to Cape Town.
“I’ve always had a passion for travel and the natural world. The part of flying I enjoyed most was travel, and endurance.”
It was clear the Jabiru would not be up to the African trip. In 2007, Giles and farm manager Stephen Tortice, also a pilot, decided to buy a new plane.
The American Vans RV-8, renowned for being fast and sturdy, looked the perfect choice. “Then,” said Giles, “we realised they were kits and you had to build them yourself.
“We thought it would take 12 months. In the end, we had a team of six working on it for four years.
“It had its first flight on Christmas Eve, 2011. Stan Hodgkins, an ex-RAF Lightning pilot who had built his own RV-8, was the test pilot.”
Stan, from Stowmarket, was also with Giles as he got used to flying at three times his usual height.
“I normally fly between 2,000 to 3,000ft. The highest I’d flown was 4,500ft. Over Africa, a lot of governments insist you fly at 8,500ft.
“You feel very small and insignificant when you go up that high.”
Belgian logistics experts Prepare2Go have helped plan the trip. “The two biggest factors are access to fuel and flight clearances,” said Giles.
“In some places, we’ve had to arrange to truck fuel in. At Lokichogio in Kenya, the only fuel is from Nairobi (more than 500 miles away).”
Giles is self-funding the flight, so all sponsorship will go to his chosen charities, The Institute of Cancer Research, Suffolk’s GeeWizz Charity and Farm Africa.
GeeWizz plans to spend its share on a sensory magic carpet for Hillside Special School in Sudbury.
His longest stop will be in Ethiopia, visiting a Farm Africa site. “Ethiopia fascinates me. I love Africa for its big open spaces, and the culture. It’s back to pure values, at a less hectic pace.
“I can’t wait to get started,” he said last week, while also expressing huge gratitude to his sponsors and all who have supported him.
“I’ve tried to prepare in finite detail, but I’m at the mercy of ever-changing weather.
“I hope to make early starts to avoid the worst turbulence and thermals, but, in Africa getting flight clearances can take a long time.
“Some legs are over 400 miles, so headwinds or diversions could leave me running short of fuel.”
Losing GPS is another worry. “There are no visual reference maps for north Africa. I could be ‘dead reckoning’, using compass bearings and speed to estimate distance travelled – really back to basics.”
Giles will have a satellite phone, a tent and a survival kit, including flares and an emergency beacon.
He says his comfort zone is being out of his comfort zone. “I like challenges – it makes you the best you can be.”
At the end of the flight, the aircraft will be shipped home. For now, he says, its “chocks away”.