The Difference a Spider Makes in East Africa

November 25, 2020

Malawi is a small but densely populated country in East Africa. It lies near the southern end of the continent, tucked between Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia. A large lake, Lake Malawi, takes up 1/5 of its land space.

The lake is one of the major features of the East African Rift System, which stretches just under 4,000km from the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia, to its termination on the East African Coast of Mozambique. It's the cause of a diverse landscape, with plains, plateaus, escarpments, and mountains. The highest peak in Malawi is Mulanje Massif, which rises sharply to nearly 10,000ft from surrounding plains. At the other end of the altitude spectrum, parts of the Lower Shire Valley lie at only 100ft above sea level. Consequently, in Malawi, pilots experience an enormous variation in altitude.

Derek Macpherson has been flying in Southern and East Africa since 1997, when he was just 27 years old. Before owning an aviation business, Derek worked in the region’s wildlife sector.

In 2008, after an especially difficult year, Derek traveled to South Africa and used his last $2,000 to lease a New Zealand designed and South African assembled Bantam three axis microlight, from Microaviation SA in Nelspruit.

The Bantam is the forerunner of the Bat Hawk Light Sport Aircraft, a super-light aircraft suitable for bush flying, with short field landing and take-off capabilities. After securing a lease from the Pappas family who own Microaviation SA, Derek flew his father with him back to Malawi.

"My dad is not an aviator,” Derek explains, “So, picture a 72-year old man who is not keen on flying an open cockpit airplane, flying six days along the South African Coast. We actually had a ball."

It was a different time for Derek back then.

"I completely ran out of money halfway home at Beira, Mozambique. I had to ask my father to pay for the fuel to get back to Malawi!”

He received his first survey job that same month - September 2009. Having flown the Bantam for around 400 hours, Derek had made enough money to buy a brand new Bat Hawk in 2013.

Hours and Hours Next to a Spider

Eleven years after entering into aerial surveying, Derek is in a much stronger position. Today, he owns a consulting firm, Cluny, that specializes in providing specialist aerial services to the wildlife and agricultural industries in Malawi.

Derek's work for agriculture predominately revolves around agronomic surveys for the tobacco industry, Malawi's major cash crop. Most of Malawi's 18 million people are still rural, and so farming is a primary industry. Agronomy is the science of crop producing.

"I help the tobacco industry evaluate the Burley tobacco crop at its very early stages of development each year. I help them forecast the size of the crop at nursery stage before it is actually planted out into the field. To do that, I use an aerial survey technique," Derek explains.

Derek also works for the wildlife industry, doing everything from game counting and supporting law enforcement, to aerial surveillance collecting information pertinent to wildlife management. Most recently, September 2020, he conducted an aerial wildlife census of Kasungu National Park which features 2,300 square kilometers of Miombo woodland, and is the second largest protected area in Malawi. This survey took in excess of 70 airborne hours to complete. Hence, Derek spends hours and hours sitting next to his Spider.

Derek uses three types of aircraft for his work. He has a fixed-wing, single-engine Bat Hawk, makes use occasionally of a Savannah LSA, and also has a RAF 2000, a two-seat gyrocopter, or autogyro, which is powered by a Subaru motor.

"I use the gyro extensively,” says Derek, “I like it because once it's airborne, it handles very much like a helicopter. I can practically hover, and that makes my life a lot easier when I'm counting whatever it is that needs to be counted."

Today, Cluny is the Malawian dealer for RAF Gyrocopters, Bat Hawk, Savannah and Sling fixed wing aircraft in the non-type certified category.

Engine Failure on the Rift Valley Escarpment

When Derek bought the gyrocopter in 2016, his first mission took him over Thuma Forest Reserve, situated on the rift valley escarpment, looking for elephant poachers for law enforcement. The region is mountainous and covered in forests. It’s an area you want to have someone tracking you. However, on the way to collecting Lynn Clifford, Thuma Forest Reserve Manager, from the capital, Derek's Spider fell off the dash and swung by its lead.

"I pulled it off, landed, and phoned my wife, who tracks me. I said, 'I'm going to continue with the mission, but I'm not going to have my Spider on.' So, there I made a critical mistake."

An hour and a half into the mission, Derek experienced an engine failure and had to put the aircraft down in forested, hilly and unforgiving terrain.

"There was nowhere nice to land, and the forced landing was very hard – between trees. We totally destroyed the aircraft. My passenger broke her right arm close to her shoulder. I smashed both my heel bones to smithereens."

Derek and Lynn were able to communicate with Derek’s wife, Shannon, by cell – but only barely. She launched a search party calling Derek’s brother Duncan away from a flight he was about to board to South Africa to help.

Thuma Forest rangers were the first on the scene after a search of three hours. Shannon and Duncan arrived from 150km away at the five hour mark and extraction was finalized with the arrival of professional medical help nine hours after the accident took place.

"From that experience, I learned an enormous lesson: If your Spider falls off, then stop! Location and communication are everything."

Four years later, when Derek would find himself in a similar position, this lesson would pay off.

A Stark Contrast

On 15 November 2019, while conducting a tobacco survey, Derek's aircraft's pre-rotator belt failed and fed into the reduction drive belt. Although the engine was still running, there was no power going to the propellor – at 300ft.

"You don't have much time to plan your forced landing in these circumstances. In the first forced landing where I got really hurt, I was slightly higher. It probably took 45 seconds," Derek explains, "So, a low-level survey in rugged, remote country is actually very dangerous."

In this particular instance, Derek had 36 seconds, a number he knows because he was recording it.

"You go through several things. You recognise that there's a problem, you fly the aircraft in a glide format, you locate a landing site, and then you land the machine."

This time, his Spider was on.

"I was able to push the SOS button. My wife was alerted within seconds after I hit the SOS button. It made an enormous difference."

In Malawi, there are no government-run search and rescue teams due to a lack of resources. Because of this, response plans rely on collaborations with both public and private parties in the industry.

African Parks, a non-profit conservation organisation out of South Africa, had a helicopter on standby within 30 minutes for Derek, waiting for the go-ahead from his wife if needed. As it happened the forced landing took place in a dry riverbed without further incident or damage to people, property or the machine.

It was a stark contrast between experiences. In the previous experience, it was 9 hours before Derek received medical attention after the accident.

"With smashed bones, you sit in an enormous amount of pain, and partially incapacitated at best for that period," Derek explains, "A Spider facilitates a quick response."

The Malawian Department of Civil Aviation, soon to become a Civil Aviation Authority, and the Malawian Air Force both facilitate and support general Aviation in Malawi. In fact the Malawian Air Force mounted a search and rescue operation for Derek when he crashed in Thuma Forest Reserve but in that case was unable to locate him although lying in the bush with broken feet he saw them fly almost directly overhead.

"In a place where there are very, very few resources, my experiences highlight that the best way to improve aviation safety lies in a collaborative public and private effort and swift, effective communication."

That's where Spidertracks comes in.


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