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Thrills and spills as vintage biplanes complete Africa odyssey

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BARAGWANATH (SOUTH AFRICA) - Like an aviator from another century, Lita Oppegard, 68, climbs out of her biplane on a grass airstrip near Johannesburg -- one more stage safely completed in an epic journey down the length of Africa.

Seven vintage planes -- from a total of 11 starters -- will on Friday finish the 13,000-kilometre (8,000-mile) adventure flying from the Greek island of Crete to Cape Town.

The 36-day challenge has been packed with incident, including dangerous crashes, wrecked planes, lost pilots and the whole fleet being detained in Ethiopia in a dispute over paperwork.

Along the way, they have landed beside the Egyptian pyramids, soared past Mount Kilimanjaro, gazed down on wildlife across the Kenyan plains and heard the roar of the mighty Victoria Falls below.

"It has been a wonderful adventure and we had so much fun and the people we met made it really special," Oppegard, from Alaska, told AFP at Baragwanath airfield as the rally hopped across South Africa to its final destination.

"I thought Alaska is huge, but flying through much of Africa like we've been through I cannot even begin to get into my head how vast this continent is. It is just sheer, utter wilderness... beautiful."

The teams became the first group of aircraft to land at Egypt's Giza pyramids in 80 years and were detained for two days in rough conditions in Ethiopia after a mix-up with their flight permits.

- Maverick pilot -

An Irish father and daughter team escaped unhurt after suffering a total engine failure and crash-landing their 1930s biplane on the leg to Nairobi.

The rally has also attracted international headlines after maverick 72-year-old British pilot Maurice Kirk went missing -- twice.

After being released from Ethiopia, he landed in conflict-torn South Sudan instead of Kenya.

He told how he was robbed, beaten up and briefly jailed as he fell seriously ill from malaria and sepsis.

But Kirk has vowed to find and repair his wrecked single-engine 1943 Piper Club, which lost its propeller and one of its legs in the emergency landing.

"One way or another, I am in a bit of a jam," he told the British press last weekend from a hotel in the capital city of Juba, where he was taken under military escort.

Sam Rutherford, the rally organiser, said the event had been a huge success, but admitted "I'll breathe a massive sigh of relief when we get to Cape Town."

The planes are mostly open to the elements and have only basic navigation and safety equipment -- demanding high skills from the often elderly pilots who have landed in tight spots including on the edge of the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania.

"With an open cockpit, you become one with the environment," said Ingo Presser, 72, from Germany, his eyes shining with excitement after landing his 1936 Bucker Bu-131 at Baragwanath.

"You know immediatly when the plane is flying perfectly and when there is a problem, you feel it."

- 'The smell of oil' -

Presser spent 36 years flying modern planes equipped with modern technology, but said he loves the smell of oil splashing on his goggles and the challenge of navigating by map.

"(In my career) I used to fly an Airbus in the morning and fly this one in the afternoon, just for the pleasure of flying," he said.

For American Keith Kossuth, the journey has been full of testing moments as he had little experience of his plane -- but he was determined to complete the rally.

"I just got the plane, but I've been dreaming of having it for over 12 years," said Kossuth, who confessed that his specialism is actually old motorcycles rather than old planes.

"I did four landings with the guy that owned the plane and then four landings by myself and then it was 'OK, there you go'.

"I was too confident," he said, recalling how his plane had gone into a downwards spin near Zanzibar before he just got it back under control.

Oppegard flew in the "Vintage Air Rally" with her husband Nicholas -- a former commercial pilot -- in an eight-cylinder Travel Air 4000 plane built in 1928.

Nicholas Oppegard said the journey was the highlight of his life spent in the air, and that the experience that produced a strong bond among the intrepid participants.

"We didn't know each other and there we were heading together to do the greatest odyssey of our lives... honouring the guys who opened up the skies of Africa to the world," he said.

"This is a joy, this is a privilege (and) if along the way we could inspire one child to look up and say the sky is not the limit then it's been worth this trip."

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Muslim Global: Thrills and spills as vintage biplanes complete Africa odyssey
Thrills and spills as vintage biplanes complete Africa odyssey
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