Flight crews in the developed world often take their ever-advancing ground- and satellite-based support network for granted, including positive control airspace overseen by highly trained air traffic controllers, reliable radio communication, radar coverage, GPS and performance-based navigation (PBN), precision approaches, near-real-time weather and good airports, among other things. Then, too, coming soon are ADS-B and controller/pilot data-link communications (CPDLC) texting, both of which ultimately will replace radar and drastically reduce radio comm and, thus, frequency congestion.

It seems hardly a day goes by without the emergence of a new digital electronic aid or satellite-based aeronautical procedure designed to make flight crews’ jobs easier and more safe. Bring it on.

But enter the Third World, and much of this cutting-edge infrastructure goes away. This is especially true in large areas of Africa, representing one of the last great frontiers in both aviation and mainstream infrastructural development. The vast continent — at more than 30 million sq. km (11,583,065 sq. mi.), the second largest on the planet — is today a checkerboard varying from the most modern aviation-support equipment, facilities, and services to levels of infrastructure, competence and services reminiscent of the 1940s, or earlier, in the West.

According to users, the best infrastructure in Africa can be found in the arid north (Morocco, Egypt), sub-Saharan west (Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana), in some states along the eastern coast (Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania) and in the extreme south (Republic of South Africa, probably the cream of the crop). In the African interior, however — particularly, the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo — it’s a different story, where radar coverage is nonexistent and radio communication spotty at best. As business aviation pilot Mark McIntyre describes, that’s where a jet crew can fly for more than 2 hr. and never hear an ATC radio call or be able to raise a control center. And where airliners, business jets and military aircraft operating in the flight levels essentially provide their own separation by radioing position reports on a discrete frequency using a voluntary procedure devised decades ago by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Acknowledging that the most modern aviation infrastructure exists at the northern and southern extremes of the massive continent, Carole Couchman, senior technical officer for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA), identified East Africa as an area “where you start to see problems, and some of it is related to local political situations that have an effect on aviation and how it is run.” Nevertheless, Couchman pointed out, air traffic managers there “try hard to give a good service and provide responsible radar and comm where they have it.” And that last phrase sums up the infrastructural deficit that inflicts many African states and specific areas within them.

Observed Susan Mashibe, CEO and founder of Via Aviation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Africa regional lead for the NBAA International Operators Committee, “We still struggle to communicate in a band across Sub-Saharan Africa that includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic due to the infrastructure in general.” Language barriers can also be a problem, as many of these countries are former Gallic colonies where the national language remains French. Visiting operators should note that in non-English-speaking countries, controllers are taught ICAO PANS-OPS procedures and learn appropriate English phrases, calls and responses by rote. Thus, operators should be up on ICAO procedures and be mindful that, if they deviate from standard phraseology, controllers won’t understand them.

Minimal Radar Coverage

Leaving Tanzania, flying west to Kinshasa in the Congo, “you lose communication and thus ATC once you pass Uganda,” she continued. “You’re on your own until contact with the tower in Kinshasa. Also, flying north or south over Angola [on the Atlantic side of Africa], it’s difficult to raise ATC.” The best strategy in these parts of Africa is to monitor 126.9 MHz and employ IATA’s Inflight Broadcast Procedure (IFBP) to radio position reports and exchange PIREPs with other aircraft. (More on that later.)

All of Tanzania enjoys radar coverage, “and when it’s working,” Mashibe said, “it’s really good.” But to the west and south beyond the country’s borders, coverage stops. “No one can see you [there], and so they won’t talk to you,” Mashibe claimed. To the north in Kenya, she rated radar coverage as good; same for the Republic of South Africa, “especially around the larger cities.” She also cited Egypt — 2,000 sm. to the north of Tanzania — as having reliable radar service around its larger cities, e.g., Cairo, Luxor, Alexandria and Sharm El Sheikh.

Weather forecasting in Africa tends to be spotty as well, depending on where you are. “It’s difficult to get terminal area forecasts,” Mashibe, an active private pilot, admitted. “You can get METARs but not a terminal area forecast.” Her advice is to get your weather briefs early so you can at least anticipate what you’re going to encounter. “And talk to other aircraft to see what they are experiencing. You will find ATIS only at the big airports, but the smaller airports will not give you any local weather at all. It can be very scary sometimes, going in without knowing the weather, very dangerous.”

A general rule of thumb in Africa is that the large international airports — the ports of entry (POEs), especially in countries that encourage tourism and attract a lot of traffic from abroad — tend to be well equipped with radar coverage, precision approaches and weather reporting. The same is often true for fields serving capital cities, where both domestic and diplomatic transit is high. In addition to surveillance radar, these airports tend to be equipped with ILS approaches and offer adequate facilities. But at smaller fields, nonprecision VOR and NDB approaches persist. ADS-B/CPDLC is a promise on the horizon and reportedly ground stations have been installed in some countries, but Mashibe claimed “the pilots tell me that actually it is not responding. You can send a message but will not get a response.”

Mark McIntyre, cited earlier, captains a Bombardier Global Express for Mente LLC out of Seattle on periodic trips to Africa and has had many occasions to sample the aviation infrastructure on the continent. “There are ILSs,” he said, “but no WAAS or LPV in Africa. EGNOS [European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service, the Euro equivalent of SBAS] extends only into the periphery of Northern Africa.” McIntyre rates control towers as “generally good,” but urged operators to always check their operating hours. “If you’re going in at night, make sure the tower is open or arrange for overtime, if you can, and always stick to ICAO standard phraseology because the controller may only know a few words of English,” he advised.

There are some LNAV/VNAV approaches available on the continent, “so you can generate your own glideslope via charts that specify the minimum descent altitudes,” McIntyre said. NOTAMs are available for the larger airports, but again, it’s a good idea to verify with the operator’s handler anything that might interfere with the conduct of the trip, like operating hours, lighting, CNS and fuel availability. “You really have to rely on your handler,” he said.

There’s an App for That

While weather forecasting is commonly available at the big international airports, flight crews may not find it at the smaller ones. For operators with Wi-Fi-equipped business jets (like Mente’s Global), McIntyre offered an interesting tip. “We went into Lilongwe, Malawi, last week,” he said, “and there was no METAR or ATIS available, so we used a weather app on our smartphone en route to get weather from a commercial weather provider.”

John Koon had one of the more interesting postings in Africa. Assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, for three years, Navy Commander Koon piloted a Beech C12 (the militarized King Air 200), flying the American ambassador “everywhere from Morocco to the Congo.” During the tour, after which he retired from active duty, Koon logged 900 hr. flying in Africa. This fall he will begin training for a first officer position at Delta Airlines.

“For our ambassadorial operation, we had to contend with a lot of restrictions, as they do not meet the TERPS standards that we do,” Koon told BCA. “There may be obstacles in your cleared airspace, so we were restricted to VFR in those cases. It behooves everyone to understand that you do not have absolute sanctity of airspace on approach. In most cases, there were no [controller or pilot] errors, but in some there were. No one oversees [the controllers], there’s no coordination between agencies, no oversight.”

Most of the airports Koon accessed on his tour have been improved, with RNAV approaches at the big cities, plus “in the middle of the Congo,” there are either GPS overlays for NDB approaches or published RNAV approaches. 

But he added this warning: “In Africa, no one polices the obstacles, for example, a cell tower that goes up into the airspace with no announcement of its presence — or if there is, it’s not enforced. So take every approach procedure with a grain of salt. Talk to other pilots who’ve been there recently to know what to look out for. If you can’t, add a couple hundred feet to your minimums.”

Surprisingly, Koon claimed, most of the time low-IFR conditions are rare (at least in the areas of Africa he plied). “I almost never shot approaches to minimums in Africa. Frankly, most obscuration is in the north where there are dust storms, and even then, you’ll probably be flying into a capital city where there’s an ILS.”

The ATC Conundrum

Now we turn to the subject that tends to stimulate the most conversation when pilots with Africa experience congregate: the quality of air traffic control on the continent. According to McIntyre, probably the most important fact to bear in mind when entering African airspace is that separation is only as good as the ability to communicate with ATC and know what’s going on around you.

“There’s positive control airspace in the flight levels, and the transition level varies by country,” he said. “Flying through portions of Central Africa, you can be out of communication for an hour or longer on HF, which tends to be pretty bad in terms of quality. There is some VHF comm out there, but it can be just as bad as HF. Often, this is due to poor equipment.” But a solution may be in the works — read on.

The largest air navigation service provider (ANSP) in Africa is ASECNA (L’Agence pour la Sécurité de la Navigation Aérienne en Afrique et à Madagascar, or Agency for Aerial Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar). Headquartered in Dakar, it manages 16.1 million sq. km of airspace covering six FIRs: Antananarivo, Brazzaville, Dakar Oceanic, Dakar Terrestrial, N’Djamena and Niamey. This immense territory larger than Western Europe — eclipses 17 francophone states: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Chad and Togo in Western and Central Africa plus the Comoros Islands and Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa. In addition to ATC services, ASECNA also administers international NOTAM offices at Dakar and Brazzaville for Western and Central Africa and Antananarivo in Madagascar for the island members.

In February 2015, ASECNA signed a memorandum of agreement to collaborate with Aireon LLC in the U.S. in a study of the feasibility of employing Aireon’s proprietary space-based ADS-B system in its airspace. Given the vastness of ASECNA’s territory and the difficulty of installing surveillance radar in rugged terrain like the jungles of Central Africa where electrical service and even roads are largely nonexistent, a satellite-based ADS-B service offers intriguing possibilities – a literal leapfrogging over aging legacy technology into the 21st century. And adding the CPDLC component would be, in McIntyre’s words, “a fantastic alternative to HF.”

But Koon, the former diplomatic pilot, is skeptical. Assuming ASECNA’s member states would have to bear the lion’s share of the cost to support the Aireon service, he observed that “like everything else in Africa, most governments are cash-strapped.” And noting that the necessary area of coverage “is huge and sparse” compared to the U.S. or Europe, Koon believes “it’s an aggressive goal for ASECNA to do ADS-B.”

Another Africa observer who asked for anonymity put it this way: “I have yet to understand the financial aspect of Africa and how it operates; the money is supposed to go into aviation but it doesn’t always get there.”

Nevertheless, Koon is convinced that ASECNA does provide useful services, including weather. “In the capital cities, they’ll have a modern airport, and ASECNA will have a big office with weather, but TAFs, satellite photos and winds aloft is the extent of what you’ll get. The sat shots are the most reliable in terms of knowing what’s going on. Usually they’ll have NOTAMs for every airport in the country [whose airspace they’re responsible for] and temporary flight restrictions. If you’re flying from a capital to a smaller city, sometimes there’ll be a place to file if it has a tower. Otherwise they won’t even have a tower, and you’ll be on your own getting in and out of there.”

Couchman at IFALPA also gave ASECNA good marks for trying hard under challenging circumstances. “They are very good generally and participate in a lot of ICAO meetings. But sometimes they think things are better than they actually are. On the other hand, it’s a very difficult job in that area [francophone Africa]. ADS-B is coming to Africa slowly but surely, a great innovation. It’s done wonders for Australia and can only bring benefit to Africa.”

TCAS Is Your Best Friend

Operating in Africa generally, Koon pointed out, “Even in radar coverage, the level of competence [of controllers] is not what you would expect in the West. If you have TCAS, that is your best friend. Even then, many times in radar coverage, we had to call to the aircraft in front of us, as the controllers were overwhelmed or distracted. Had we not done that, we would have gotten a TCAS advisory.”

And at the smaller airports, controllers won’t have access to the radar picture enjoyed by their counterparts at the larger ones. “So they do not hand off very well because the controllers at the smaller airports can’t see the traffic,” Koon continued. “There are not the same controller standards as we have in the U.S. They won’t give you traffic calls even if the aircraft are uncomfortably close . . . so you have to take the initiative [to maintain separation] yourself. Sometimes we’d call ATC and ID a plane off our wing, and the controller would say, ‘Don’t worry, I can see him.’ But it would have been nice to have had an advisory anyway.”

And en route, Koon reminisced, “Some countries’ controllers are very dogmatic that you stay on the airways. Mali, for example, will not give shortcuts, and you have to fly the whole airway or procedure, so for fuel-planning purposes, plan accordingly. In the Congo, they are more flexible, which is good because the country’s so large and the comm is so bad there.” Over the jungles of the Congo, Koon and his copilot communicated via HF on 8992 Hz to announce their position or intentions in the event they had to divert off the airway they were flying. “There were lots of weather deviations for us in a turboprop.”

Speaking of aircraft with propellers, “There are a fair amount of turboprops flying around in the ‘20s’ and a lot of United Nations planes down below that in the ‘teens, ’” Koon advised. “In West and Central Africa, there is a lot of movement by U.N. contractors operating unpressurized aircraft like a version of the Czech LET L-410 plus pressurized Beech 1900s, ATRs and Soviet-era Antonovs. You see some pretty cool airplanes traipsing around there.”

And a sobering thought to keep in mind if you’re headed to East or Central Africa for the first time: “Even if you’re flying into a capital, if it’s bad weather and the airspace is crowded, the controllers can quickly be overwhelmed,” Koon warned. “Often, the approach structure doesn’t lend itself to dynamic weather. If one guy executes a missed approach, it causes a lot of trouble. In Conakry, Guinea [GUCY], you can only shoot the ILS to Runway 6, and often the winds out of the southwest require you to circle to land on Runway 24. You may have to take matters into your own hands if the controllers get behind the situation.” (See “When ATC is Overwhelmed” sidebar in which Koon recounts such an incident.)

Another infrastructural limitation in these regions — particularly in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Congo Republic — is the lack of landline communication between ATC centers and other facilities, inhibiting the exchange of information.

Bart Gault, chief pilot at charter/management provider JedAir in Abuja, Nigeria, explained the cumbersome procedure controllers have devised to facilitate handoffs between sectors and FIRs.

“There is no system for exchange of information between sectors,” Gault, who also flies a Bombardier Challenger 604 for a private owner, told BCA. “Leaving Lagos, there are no handoffs — you have to make contact with the next station, then reestablish contact with the previous one to inform them you were able to raise the second one. You give position reports en route like in the old pre-radar days here, specifying aircraft ID, position, altitude and estimate to the next fix or destination.”

Further, operators — and this includes the airlines, too — can wait up to 15 min. to raise a controller at some primary airports because there’s so much radio congestion. “You wind up assisting pilots of other aircraft or relaying their calls when they cannot reach controllers,” Gault said. “In all honesty, the controllers try to do a good job, but there is no transfer of information from sector to sector — it is all isolated.”

Then there is overlapping airspace and comm, “and at certain airports, you may wind up talking to several different controllers at the same time,” Gault said. The lack of an extensive landline telephone system is being rectified by the introduction of the cellphone, which has evolved as the primary form of ground-based communication. “I carry two Nigerian cellphones everywhere I go,” Gault said. “With the advent of cellphones, this is how ground comm takes place in Africa now.”

The deficiency in ground communications may contribute to another problem: lost flight plans. “We do from time to time experience missing flight plans in Africa,” Couchman said. “You make the first call to the FIR, and they will ask for a lot of information, and if you say it’s on the flight plan, they might say they never received one. It could derive from dispatch errors or sometimes the systems go down or sometimes [the flight plans] just disappear.” Reportedly, the African Regional Monitoring Agency, set up originally for RVSM, is tracking this and does check into lost flight plans when it is so informed.

Most countries are now are accepting Internet-based flight plans, Koon said — with a qualification. “Sometimes in the ASECNA countries, they will have the plan but will check to see if you owe [nav] fees, and if you haven’t paid them, they’ll cancel the plan and make you re-file. Get used to the frustrations. ‘It’s right there,’ you’ll say, pointing to the computer display. ‘No,’ they’ll answer, ‘I need the paper.’”

Don’t Diss the Controllers

Couchman, who brought 23 years experience as an air traffic controller in the British Royal Air Force to her current posting at IFALPA, holds a special empathy for the African controllers and asks operators to understand the limitations under which they are forced to work.

“The level of training is not as good as it could be, as it would be easy to criticize them, but it’s the training that’s not there,” she said. If controllers have not received the correct training in the first place and are not overseen by experienced and properly trained supervisors, they don’t realize they are making mistakes.

“The working conditions are not very good, either: very long hours with pay so low that some have to work two jobs just to get by,” Couchman continued. “Sometimes they come to work tired, and we know from fatigue issues in the cockpit how this can affect your reasoning and working skills. They need to be treated as professionals because that’s what they are. We demand as pilots that we be treated as professionals, and that applies to controllers as well.”

A common problem in the centers and towers is difficulty in maintaining staffing levels due to substandard recruiting practices, hence the necessity for overly long shifts and limited time off for the existing pool of controllers. “If you go to West Africa, this is more pronounced,” Couchman said. Where they are introducing CPDLC, like at Dakar and in the Ivory Coast and Angola, it is an improvement, of course, and it will have a significant impact on

(Noting that the comm infrastructure “begins to fall down” through the center of Africa, Couchman mused that on the continent “it’s either feast or famine. In other places like Lagos, you will be required to change frequencies many times. It is strange that you can go from nothing to ‘Oh, you want me to change frequency again?’”)

So with huge voids in the surveillance leg of the CNS triad where, as Couchman said, “Loss of separation is a problem,” how can operators ensure separation from other aircraft? The IATA Inflight Broadcast Procedure to which Gault alluded earlier is a position reporting protocol harkening back to the pre-radar era in the West. Both IATA and IFALPA recommend that the IFBP be employed in the Asmara, Brazzaville, Kano, Khartoum, Kinshasa, Luanda, Niamey, N’Djamena and Tripoli FIRs extending through Central Africa from approximately 35 deg. N to 20 deg. S (see map).

The procedure directs that a “listening watch” be maintained on 126.9 MHz beginning 10 min. before entering the designated airspace and that position reports be radioed in English, preceded by “All Stations,” according to a time-worn format (aircraft ID, FIR, flight level, course and/or airway, estimate to next waypoint or airway crossing, and FIR), at intervals not less than 20 min. “or any other time considered necessary by the pilot.”

Koon pointed out that the format for the broadcast procedure is also contained on the relevant Jeppesen charts. “It lets people know you’re alive, if nothing else!”

He also advised that in non-radar areas, operators employ the Strategic Lateral Offset Procedure (SLOP, see “Offsetting for Survival,” March 2014, page 20) , originally developed for use in the North Atlantic and now recommended throughout the world. (It became relevant in Africa after the head-on collision of a U.S. Air Force C-141 and a German Luftwaffe Tupolev 154 off the coast of Namibia in 1997. Both aircraft were believed to be tracking the centerline of an airway — but at the same altitude.)

“Also, if you have violent weather you have to deviate around,” Koon said. “You can use IFALPA’s severe weather deviation procedure.” (See IFALPA Air Traffic Services Briefing Leaflet 12ATSBL, January 2012.)

Another safety strategy recommended by McIntyre is to plot equal-time points when “flying in the black” just as operators would do in oceanic operations. “One of the things that is often overlooked about operating in Africa is the enormity of the continent and how long you will be over countries where you would not want to land,” he said. “Pick suitable en route diversion airports and calculate equal time points between them. And use the IATA Inflight Broadcast Procedure for position reporting to other aircraft.”

Contingency and diversion strategies for these areas should also be a factor in flight crews’ trip planning. At McIntyre’s flight department, this process begins by identifying the countries in which the operator would prefer to land in an emergency and which ones to avoid. “We use our security consultant to ID them, and we rate them in three categories: OK to land, not recommended except in an emergency and do not land under any circumstances. There are large swaths of territory in Africa where you can fly for 2 hr. over do-not-land countries. Have your security people look at adjacent countries to see which are suitable; for example, we would not land in the Central African Republic but could, in an emergency, land in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at Kinshasa if there is no other option.”

Check Your Tires

In Nigeria, the infrastructure is much better, but Bart Gault warns visiting operators to watch out for the runway conditions. “The downside of Nigeria is that the runways and taxiways are in horrible condition with rough cement, potholes and depressions,” he said. It seems the runway (6/24) at Abuja Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (DNAA) abraded the tires on Gault’s Challenger 604 so badly that one had to be replaced after only 42 landings.

“The problem is improper construction,” Gault said. “Last year, Abuja was closing its runways for two to three weeks at a time to repair the holes. At Lagos, on the taxiway leading up to the end of Runway 18L, there are a couple of big depressions caused by broken concrete, and we have to ‘make like a snake’ going around them. My experience is that you have to be aware of these obstacles. The surface of runways and taxiways is not laid down smoothly like it is on roads, runways and taxiways in the U.S. or Europe. It’s very rough.”

And by the way, Gault pointed out that Nigeria has evolved as the center of business aviation activity in Africa. “It is now a rich country, thanks to oil. There’s probably close to 200 business jets based there, but only 22-plus airports. There’s lots of activity.”

Despite the overall state of aviation infrastructure in Africa, expect lots of fees for navigation services and, well, almost everything else. “You pay fees for everything,” Koon lamented. “As a U.S. government operator, we had reciprocal agreements with African state governments under ‘status of forces’ accords where governments do not charge each other fees, but they weren’t honored everywhere. Some countries would absorb the fees and others wouldn’t. For business aviation, go in with the expectation of fees.”

Gault advised operators to “have a lot of cash when you go, as a lot of fees have to be paid in cash. Going to certain airports, there are handlers based there — but not everywhere. You have to pay runway fees, parking, overflight — and all in cash. The airports have very specific hours of operation, and if you go over them, you have to pay fees to keep the airport open. The larger ones operate 24/7, but a lot of them close at 1800 local, so you have to be prepared to pay a fee to keep them open. If you do not have a fuel credit, you have to pay in cash. The other side of that is that the fuel is cheap.”

So, despite the present limitations, are things improving in terms of infrastructure in Africa? “I would say there is a general improvement in the sense that the introduction of CPDLC will improve radio communication,” Couchman speculated, “and PBN approaches will help even more, as they will raise the standards at the airports.”

There is a general realization in Africa that “the ‘dark days’ could not continue,” Couchman believes. “The accident rate is improving. It has been helped in two ways: The pilots are very much aware that the infrastructure they are used to in the developed world is not there in Africa in many places, and because of that awareness, they pay more attention — they know they have to be more attentive.

“They also have more issues to deal with in Africa,” she continued, “like the ITCZ [Inter Tropical Convergence Zone] where the weather can change very quickly. You have to pay attention to what’s going on, and that’s the reason why giving position reports on 126.9 is so important. I think that the standards of flying over there have improved, and a lot of the older aircraft are fading away, replaced with more capable aircraft.”

And the conviction that operating conditions have to improve is shared by the ATC establishment, Couchman contends. “From my former controller point of view, they want to do a good job — they do not want this weight around their neck.” But nevertheless, “there is definitely some improvement in parts of Africa, and that’s pleasing to see. Is there a lot to do yet? Yes, but they’re trying.”

During his duty tour, CDR Koon witnessed “a lot of improvement in civil areas. For example, in 2012 you couldn’t file an Internet-based flight plan, as no country would accept them. But in the last year, most do with some limitations.” In terms of hard infrastructure, Koon noted that several airports he’d accessed in his ambassadorial flights through Africa were installing approach radar, e.g., Dakar. “It’s coming around, but even when it’s there, the utility isn’t up to our standards,” he said. “But it’s certainly fun flying around there, as you never know what you’re going to get.”