Taking the Scenic Route with Tropic Air Kenya

Nicola Tims
July 27, 2020

Featured photo courtesy of @SamStogdale 📸

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When you have the lakes of the Great Rift, the Chyulu Hills, and Mount Kenya in your backyard, you’re spoiled for choice with stunning scenery and sweeping landscapes to get immersed in.

Tropic Air pride themselves on providing “not just the average tourist experience,” and are the only operators out of Nanyuki, based at the foothill of Mount Kenya. Their services see their helicopters taking customers where no land vehicle or trail path can lead to. They are also contracted with BATUK, UK Ministry of Defence, to assist in range clearances.

They have been flying across the African continent for over 25 years, and know it intimately. Equipped with a fleet of 11 aircraft, six are single-engine helicopters that operate day VFR only. The remaining are fixed-wing.

The fixed-wing division of their fleet is reserved for charter flights and non-scheduled operations by request, specifically for tourists wanting to get from A to B via the skies, rather than land travel. 

Tropic Air flying high at Mount Kenya. Photo courtesy of Paul Joynson-Hicks.

Service, and service

Not only do they operate aircraft, but also provide MRO services for its own fleet and other operators. This means a robust and strict maintenance quality control system needs to be in place, and an emphasis on a Safety Management System (SMS). Phillip Waterer is the head of safety at Tropic Air and sees his job as “figuring out the things that nobody else has figured out, that might cause a problem.”

With safety being front-of-mind for Philip, he has strict processes in place for pilots and customers alike. 

“We do not launch unless the weather is clear during daylight hours, that’s the first thing. The second thing is all our pilots - whether it's helicopter or fixed wing - have to have a minimum amount of experience, and it has to have been checked out by somebody who knows the environment.”
Sand dunes in the Suguta Valley. Photo courtesy of Richard Roberts.

The environment? Tropical weather! 

“It can be beautifully clear in the morning. By the afternoon, thunderstorms are tipping it down,” says Philip, “Then, when it gets to 5 o’clock, the sun is shining, and the birds are singing - as if nothing’s happened.”

With solutions such as Spidertracks’ live weather overlays, Philip and the team can make well-informed judgement calls on whether to launch, or whether to delay the journey to mitigate unnecessary risks on safety for passengers and pilots alike.

Experience too, he notes, is key. “The more people fly in this environment, the more experience they get, the more they become part of the experience.”

Radio in remote areas

Satellites didn’t exist when Phillip was learning to fly - he, like many other pilots during that time, only had a radio network to rely on with a rescue coordination center (RCC) attached to it.

The team often fly in remote areas today, where they still can’t communicate with the area control center, which means there’s no radio communication to the aircraft. In Kenya, they still have systems in place that were created during the war, and no other region in the world has these. No comms means there are no SAR activated based on INCERFA (uncertainty phase), ALERFA (alert phase), and DETRESFA (distress phase).

What a view! Samburu, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Peter Cadot.

Location, Location, Location

This is where Spidertracks is fundamental in providing the location of aircraft. “We’ve got a screen in ops where anybody who is flying, someone can zoom in, and you know exactly where they are and what they’re doing.”

“It gives us the network for all our aircraft to be monitored whenever they’re flying.”

The built-in SOS alert also allows pilots to send signals back to home base in case something unexpected happens mid-flight. 

“Spidertracks is one of our main methods of flight tracking because that is fundamental these days. Since we can’t solely rely on radio communications, Spidertracks is in a league of its own. For us, to be able to constantly monitor the progress of any flight. Whether it’s getting from A to B, or whether it’s flying around the mountain, the same principles apply.”

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