a personal memoir

The African Queen

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

A 2-month, 40-stop demonstration tour by the Beech Queen Air around the entire continent of Africa included a sightseeing flight which resulted in this photo taken at 20,000 ft from the Queen Air over 19,000-ft Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya.

One of the least desirable assignments at Beech was a demonstration tour around South America or Africa.

It entailed going to many countries, seeing nothing but airports and hotels, and doing this for about 2 months at a time.

One of my most remarkable trips of this type was with Pierre Allain, a French pilot working for our distributor in France, taking a Swiss-registered Beechcraft Queen Air piston twin all around Africa.

Since the 1961 movie The African Queen (with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn) was a success at that time, we named our aircraft African Queen.

All went well until we were flying south along the east coast of Africa, destination Nairobi, Kenya. We were delayed and were going to get to Nairobi after dark. This was not a good idea in those days in Africa, where airports were often closed and ADF stations shut down after dark.

What made it worse, while overflying Ethiopia our generator on the left engine quit. Continuing on 1 generator after dark was out of the question, so I called the tower at ADD (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) to request a landing permit due to a mechanical problem.

On the way down, we were contemplating a long forced vacation in this not exactly garden spot of Africa. Before UPS and FedEx, air freight was slow and unreliable. And even if we managed to get a new generator from Wichita, who in Ethiopia would know how to install it on a Lycoming engine? With this less than cheerful outlook, we taxied up to the tower at ADD and disembarked.

To our great surprise, we were greeted by a US Army master sergeant in uniform. "What are you guys doing here?" he asked. We explained.
"This isn't a problem," he said. "The American Embassy has a U8F [a Queen Air in Army colors]. I have a spare generator and can install it first thing in the morning."

We could not believe our good luck. But how were we going to pay for this? "No problem," said the master sergeant. "I just turn in the bad generator to the Army for a new one. And I'll be happy to have something to do."

That was it. We arrived in Nairobi the next day only a few hours behind schedule following this unexpected Beechcraft service.

Wally Stern, the Beech distributor in South Africa, joined us in Nairobi. Overflying Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft), he managed to pull out the entire plug-in connection while putting on his oxygen mask. There was a long hiss and all our oxygen was gone—so after taking a picture of the volcano we descended in a hurry.

On the way home, along the west side of Africa, we stopped at Ouagadougou in the former French Colony of Haute Volta, by then the Republic of Burkina Faso. It was an American national holiday and we were invited to a party at the US Embassy. There I met a US Army major who served as the Army attaché.

He asked if we could do him a favor and fly over the Soviet Russian walled compound at the airport and take photos of what was in there. I figured we'd be doing a great patriotic duty to our country, so next morning we made a "radio check" flight to do this secret mission.

While overflying the Soviet compound, I saw a number of their cropduster airplanes. These were large Antonov AN2 biplanes, which have a 1000-hp radial engine, carry a crew of 2, are equipped with much radio equipment and carry about the same load of spray material as a small Piper Pawnee. Typical Soviet overbuilding.

But what astonished me more than anything was a Douglas C47 with USAF markings, parked in the middle of the Soviet compound. I thought I had made a fantastic discovery—the Soviets had hijacked a US C47 and hidden it behind their high walls. A fantastic intelligence coup!

I hurried to the US Embassy with my exposed film to tell the Army major about my surprising discovery. And he said, "Oh yes, that's the US Air Force Attaché's airplane—he keeps it in the Russian compound because it's the only safe place around here."

I could hardly believe my ears. "Then why did I have to take these pictures?" I asked, as he could just as well have asked the Air Force officer what was in the secret compound behind the high walls. The major explained that the Army and the Air Force did not share intelligence information.

Fifty years later, I hope that flying in Africa is easier and safer than it was in the 1960s.

Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 85, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Libya, North Korea and Cuba.