Daredevils race classic planes across Africa

Story highlights

  • Aviators will race 8,000 miles across Africa in vintage planes
  • Participating countries anticipate economic and environmental benefits

(CNN)In 1928, Irish pilot Lady Sophie Marie Heath made history with the first solo flight across the length of Africa, an 8,000-mile journey from Cairo to Cape Town.

Africa was a hotspot for pioneers during the early years of aviation, and this rich history is to receive an update.
    On November 11, a fleet of 15 vintage aircraft will take off from the Greek island of Crete for an epic race across 10 countries, over 35 days, to a finish line in Cape Town. Each pilot will fly a single-engine biplane produced before 1939.
    "This has never been done with this number of biplanes over this duration of time over this sort of distance," says Sam Rutherford of Prepare2Go, the logistics company organizing the Vintage Air Rally. "There could be a good reason for that! We are about to find out."
    From the pyramids of Giza to Victoria Falls, the rally promises spectacular moments for the pilots.
    For participating nations, the rewards could last longer.
    Fifteen teams will fly in single-engine biplanes manufactured before 1939.

    Take off

    Rutherford, a pilot himself, was inspired to create the rally when he learned that no similar event had been attempted.
    "It was an intriguing mix of adventure, jeopardy, difficulty and competition combined with beautiful aircraft and beautiful places in Africa," he says.
    Creating the event has been a collaborative effort, involving national governments, sponsors, charities and suppliers. The greatest logistical challenge was to provide specialist fuel for the antique planes, says Rutherford, which has been imported to several points of the route.
    The racers are aviation enthusiasts from across the world from Germany to Botswana and the US. They bring a collection of classic aircraft from the 1920s to1930s, including a restored "gipsy moth" plane used by Robert Redford in the movie "Out of Africa."
    "They are very different from modern airplanes," says Alexandra Maingard, who will represent Belgium and France with her husband. "Landings are quite challenging and starting the engine is an issue too -- sometimes you have to roll the propeller by hand."
    Safety risks are real with such antique aircraft, Rutherford acknowledges, but they also offer advantages.
    "The chance of an engine failure is greater than normal," he says. "But even at full speed the aircraft are barely doing 70 miles per hour, so the forced landing speed is very low...and survivability for the pilot is extremely high."
    The rally will stop at many of the continent's most popular attractions such as Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

    Lasting benefits

    The rally promises a range of benefits for local industries and the environment.
    Prepare2go is raising money for UNICEF and endangered vultures, and each team will drop "seed-bombs" from the air to support reforestation of arid land.
    Governments also see economic opportunities in the rally, particularly for their tourism industries. Participating nations are making their premium attractions and resources available, notably Egypt, which is allowing pilots to land at the pyramids of Giza for the first time in 80 years.
    The rally offers a unique marketing platform, according to Givemore Chidzidzi, chief operating officer of the Zimbabwe Tourist Board.
    "This is an opportunity to showcase Zimbabwe as a destination and we hope this will steer tourist traffic," he says. "We will provide services for a world-class event in terms of accommodation, catering and technical support that will show Zimbabwe is ready for business and ready for tourism."
    Zimbabwe has chosen to show off Victoria Falls and the city of Bulawayo, while Kenya will display its national parks, and Sudan will host a spectacular air show at Khartoum international airport.
    Events will be captured for a global audience through a documentary team, and a flight simulation company will offer gamers the chance to virtually ride in the cockpits.
    Tourism ministries hope that this voyage of nostalgia will inspire a new generation to discover the treasures of the continent.