FEATURE: Pilot from Groton raises £37,000 for charities after 7,200-mile journey from UK to South Africa
Giles Abrey is back from the biggest adventure of his life. Alone at the controls of a light aircraft, the Suffolk farmer has flown 7,200 miles over sea, deserts and mountains.
He has dodged thunderstorms, been battered by turbulence, and found himself suspected of smuggling ancient artefacts during an epic solo flight from the UK to Cape Town.
So far, his daring quest has raised more than £37,000 for good causes. Half will go to the Institute of Cancer Research, and 25 per cent each to Suffolk charity GeeWizz and Farm Africa.
GeeWizz will use its share to buy a sensory magic carpet for Hillside Special School in Sudbury.
He took off on November 3, in a Van’s RV-8 aircraft he helped to build, from an airstrip on one of his family’s farms.
On December 10, Giles landed at Stellenbosch airfield, near Cape Town, where his parents Richard and Dee, who had flown in from England, were waiting to greet him.
“I got permission to do a low-level fly-by and buzzed mum and dad before landing,” he said.
Back home in Groton, Giles’ wife Jo and their children, Joshua, nine, and Kitty, seven, had been tracking his progress via satellite navigation and were eagerly awaiting a call to tell them he had arrived.
He had two important family occasions to get home for ... Kitty’s seventh birthday on December 15 and Jo’s 40th birthday a week later.
Within 24 hours of landing, his aircraft – registration G-GAST – was dismantled and packed ready to be shipped to the UK, while he flew back to Heathrow Airport.
The flight home was a more relaxed affair. “It was nice to just be able to shut your eyes,” he says.
Giles had been planning his adventure for 12 years. He was inspired by the pioneer aviators who first flew the route 100 years ago, and by solo pilot Alex Henshaw, whose record for flying there and back in 1939 stood for 70 years.
He and a friend co-own G-GAST, which they built from a kit with a team of helpers.
“It doesn’t matter how organised you are with something like this, there is always going to be a lot to do in the weeks leading up to it,” he said.
“The list of things to do was so big, I was worrying about it every day driving to work. In the end, I picked the top six each day and tried to sign them off. I was also getting very little sleep.
“Just before I took off, a friend, Vernon Millard, said I was looking at him but wasn’t registering.
“He said ‘you’re on 120 per cent overload. The best thing you can do is get to France then chill for a day.’
“I was surprised how many people turned out to wish me well – there must have been 100 family members, friends and other aviators.”
Vernon and another friend, ex-Red Arrows pilot Gordon Howes, who both have RV-8s, flew alongside Giles to the south coast.
The first legs of his journey went fairly smoothly. “There was a bit of weather going through France, but I managed to pick my way through.
“Crossing the Alps was my first milestone. I was flying at 12,500ft when I normally fly at 2,000 to 3,000. I wasn’t planning to go above 10,000ft but was having to climb and climb until I was on the limit of needing oxygen ... which I didn’t have.”
Giles, who self-funded the flight, had a session of high-altitude training before starting his trip, and used specialists to plan the route, refuelling stops and flight clearances.
Sometimes, he says, he was learning “on the hoof”. Climbing higher over the sea to save fuel between Italy and Corfu, his immersion suit started to blow up due to lower air pressure.
“I sat there for a while feeling like Mr Blobby before realising that if I pulled the neck seal it deflates,” he confesses.
Seeing Africa on the horizon was a standout moment. “It was a little bit hazy, then, slowly, I started to pick out the land of this vast continent,” he said.
“It was a point I’d visualised all along. Then I realised – nine days in – I’d only just started.”
His first touchdown was at a military airfield in Egypt. “It was in the middle of nowhere. Two F16s taxied in behind me, which was a bit intimidating.”
Next it was on to Cairo, then to Abu Simbel – more than 500 miles with amazing views of the desert and Nile delta, and a brief scare over a false low reading on fuel reserves.
Another tense moment came when he made it into Sudan’s Merowe airfield just ten minutes before the sun went down.
But there was a bigger problem the next day, when he was told he had entered the country illegally and had his passport confiscated.
The mix-up over documents was sorted out, but then officials went through his bags and found two tiny model pyramids he had bought for 50p in a market.
“They thought they might be originals. In the end, there were nine officials looking at them before they decided I could leave.”
“However, despite those problems, the local people in Sudan were among the kindest and friendliest I met on the whole journey.”
He flew on to Khartoum and Addis Ababa. “All the way was the most amazing scenery. Going into Ethiopia was a massive expanse of agricultural land.
“In Ethiopia, I had a couple of amazing days with Farm Africa, one of my charities, visiting their sites.”
Heading for Kenya, he reached the equatorial zone notorious for violent thunderstorms.
“By then, I’d realised how much it was taking out of me, physically and mentally. I was spending a lot of time trying to work out if weather was going to be good enough to fly.
“Making that decision to start on a four-hour flight was mentally exhausting.”
His route took him via Wilson Airport in Nairobi – one of the busiest in Africa – past Mount Kilimanjaro, and over the Serengeti, although he was flying too high to spot any wildlife.
At times he was able to chat on the radio with pilots of passenger jets cruising 30,000ft above him.
Arriving at Livingstone in Zambia, there was a reminder of home as a British Airways jet landed behind him.
Then it was on to Botswana. “That was one of my most amazing flights because you could just see so far,” he said. “I looked down and saw an elephant at a watering hole.”
He flew across the Sossusvlei sand dunes, one of the remotest parts of Namibia, with no radio contact for almost two hours.
“My most amazing wildlife moment was flying down the coast and seeing a flock of flamingoes below me; the pink of the birds and the turquoise of the water was breath-taking.”
But flying down South Africa’s Fish River Canyon was traumatic. “There was heavy, heavy turbulence. I thought I’d be able to out-climb it, but I got to my limit and airliners above were reporting it, so I knew I couldn’t.
“While I was changing over the fuel pumps, the aircraft dropped, my hand slipped and the pin dropped and seated in the off position. It was only for a second or two but was not enjoyable.
“I was covered in bruises from my harness. It made me realise how vulnerable I was in such a small aircraft.”
One more stopover, in Upington, then it was on to his final destination – 38 days after taking off from East Anglia.
So was it an anxious time for his family at home? “Jo knows I won’t take silly risks, and if it’s a 50/50 decision, I won’t fly,” he says.
“Although it was a solo adventure, it felt like it was a journey by a lot of people.
“I still can’t quite believe I’ve done it. I want to thank my family and my sponsors, and everyone who has helped with planning over the last 12 years. Time with my family is very important now.”
To donate, go to www.adventures4charity.com.