Mission Perfect Matrix

Motivation often comes from the strangest or most unexpected sources. We contacted Dianne White regarding a fuel stick for our 2009 Matrix based in South Africa a few months ago. The discussion turned to our usage and choice of this wonderfully versatile aircraft to transfer ecotourists visiting the Zimanga Private Game Reserve and who required flights between Durban’s Virginia Airport and Mkuze in northern KwaZulu Natal. Dianne mentioned that she would be interested in publishing an article in the MMOPA Magazine, but this was placed on hold until the service started running regularly, and of course, to leave us with opportunities for more photographs of the new undertaking.

On a weekend morning around mid-August 2021, an extraordinary coincidence took place. Upon heading to the lodge to say goodbye to Karen and Paul, a pair of guests of Daniella Sibbing and Marsel van Oosten’s who are not only good friends and a fantastic team, but also inspirational wildlife photographers with Marsel deservedly awarded the title of 2018’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Daniella and Marsel frequently host guests on Zimanga, and whilst goodbyes can be a tad nostalgic, it was Paul’s business card that immediately caught my eye. Apart from seeing his surname for the first time (it was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Himes), on the card was a picture of a Meridian N888PK. The conversation quickly turned from wildlife photography to everything M-Class in an instant. If meeting another MMOPA member in the middle of the South African bush does not inspire enough to submit a few words for an article, then surely nothing will. So here goes! One of the wonders of having lived one’s entire life in the rural areas on the southern end of Africa is the wideopen spaces and, of course, the associated wildlife that even those of us that live here get excited about daily. Yes, there is always long-term planning involved in managing a household, especially with schools that are further away. Medical facilities, whilst reasonable, are not as advanced as in the cities. Frequent power outages can occur, and we have to provide and maintain our own water supply systems, with this infrastructure being (alongside vegetable gardens) a favorite target of elephants. Yet the combination thereof is for us a modest price to pay for living close to nature and its associated peace and quiet, broken only on occasion with a whooping call of a hyena or the roar of a lion at night.

The area and its surroundings were not always like this. The piece of land was converted into the Zimanga Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, being rewilded almost from scratch as only a handful of wild animals were present upon the Senekal family’s arrival in 1999. Today this 18,000-acre game reserve is again home to many species that have become locally extinct over the years, including elephants, white and black rhino, cheetahs, lions, buffalo, leopard, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, kudu, nyala, some introduced after an absence of more than a century. Security measures were increased to combat poaching, roads and fences were upgraded, degraded veld rehabilitated, alien plants removed, and significant investments were made to create a low-impact, luxurious and exclusive haven for ecotourists from around the world. There is a particular focus on wildlife photography and other wildlife viewing activities and experiences not found elsewhere on the continent.

However, being further away from major centers also means that access to and from the area and private reserve is not always easy, with road transfers taking anything from 3-7 hours one-way depending on whether guests choose road transfers from either Durban or Johannesburg. In Zimanga’s infancy, aerial access to the reserve was viewed as a longer-term necessity. A nearby 5,900-foot by 130-foot (400 ft ASL) ex-military strip was recently resurfaced and upgraded by the local municipality into what is to become a major regional airport, complete with a lovely modern, thatched-roof terminal to welcome travelers. It was in 2019 that we felt the time right to turn this dream into reality.

The initial aircraft investigated were a Cessna Caravan or Kodiak. Both are fantastic workhorses and ideal for the relatively short direct 140 nm hop. Still, with Zimanga being a longer-stay destination and the fact that transfers were only required to take place once or twice weekly, often with lower payloads than the aircrafts’ capabilities, this decision would have translated into an aircraft not being utilized to its full potential, thus resulting in uneconomical per-passenger costs. Fortunately, several other charter operations indicated their willingness to use such an aircraft should one be available, and the envisaged utilization shortfall could be limited over the long run. The company was about to pull the trigger on the acquisition in late 2019 when we first heard of a faraway disease called COVID, with no inkling as to the worldwide devastation this was still to cause.

Giraffe ZimangaNow nearing the end of 2021, the tourism and air travel industries in South Africa are slowly building up steam but still only creaking ahead – a vivid reality check as to the vulnerability of the tourism sector and its dependency on international travel. The plans were temporarily shelved, but with my wife Mariska and I still feeling strongly about the need for ease of access, we decided, with the Board’s blessing, to tackle the project ourselves. The large turboprops were simply out of reach and coupled with a tourism market that is likely to remain depressed for a few years to come, these excellent aircraft were not the right call to make at this stage. Aircraft finance terms in South Africa are most often limited to 5 years, necessitating considerable annual capital repayments and considerable cash injections from outside sourcing to keep costs reasonable for passengers. Whilst there is already a collection of Caravans and King Airs available in Durban should larger groups choose to charter these, for the purposes of the operation, the utilization of third-party companies would not have been feasible. The ultimate idea for a standout offering was to make these transfers available at cost, with guests using the more extended stay packages being flown in and out at no additional flight costs whatsoever. Apart from the above constraints, other requirements were the ability to carry an average of 2-4 guests with good payload, speed, comfort, and baggage space, without the need for pressurization. The transfer is typically a scenic flight, which will result in decreased efficiency for turbine engines due to the low flight levels required. Lastly, and just as importantly, it was to be an aircraft that should fit our young family and that I could fly myself as a low-hour pilot for trips ranging from 300-500 nm. A couple of sixseaters come close to these requirements, but the Matrix stood out at the top of the pile for our mission.

Leopard ZimangaWithout de-icing and pressurization systems installed, she weighs in just under 3,004 lbs, providing a fantastic 1,354 lbs useful load with the most significant limitation being the 4,123 lbs landing weight. Whilst this limit has not been approached in the first months of operations, it should become even less of a restriction when Avgas becomes available locally for the return flights. For the mission, and with the ability to comfortably make two daily transfers if required, we found the aircraft’s load envelope and versatility to be astonishing. However, for four guests, an additional transfer vehicle for luggage has to be arranged should the camera bags be larger than usual. We have not made a transfer with four guests yet, and in most cases, it will only be two guests occupying the cabin seats, though four can still enjoy the flight and arrive quickly in comfort with the added benefit of sightseeing. While the PA46 is not one of the most common airframes in South Africa, support from National Airways Corporation based at Lanseria is impeccable. She is hangared and maintained at an AMO with another pair of Mirages, which offers peace of mind regarding maintenance. It must be said that it was not only the aircraft’s capabilities that offered comfort in the decision, and the assistance in ownership and wealth of available support services undoubtedly made the decision an easier one. I scoured the MMOPA forums from start to finish; Mark Spitzer’s excellent book on the piston PA46 provided us with a wealth of operating tips and advice that can only be learned from years of experience flying a similar aircraft. We installed Jetshades to assist the air-conditioner in maintaining comfortable cabin temperatures for guests. Jack Musgrave promptly answered any mail sent to Avidyne, with the company providing a free software upgrade that unlocked amongst other features the Entegra R9 system’s synthetic vision. Cylinder head temperatures were addressed through Malibu Aerospace’s M1 cooling mod, which for our typical mission offers CHT’s in the normal lower-level cruise of around 350F at 100ROP TIT (1560F) and OATs of 80F. Fuel burn in normal cruise at 100 ROP is in the region of 17.5 gph providing 150KIAS (160 TAS at 2,500 ft), which is ideal for the goal of both scenic as well as relatively quick flight. Flying out from Virginia airport requires VFR traffic to remain under the King Shaka TMA, but this begins the journey at 500 ft along the coast and past some of the country’s most popular and picturesque beaches, holiday towns, and golf estates, all situated against an emerald-green backdrop of fields of sugarcane waving in the breeze.

North of Durban, cities and towns become less prevalent, and whilst remaining along the golden KwaZulu Natal coastline, the possibility to see southern humpback whales from the air in season increases as the route follows their migration path between the Antarctic and their calving grounds in the clear tropical waters of the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique. The calves are born with an underdeveloped blubber layer, and the warm and calm waters of the Mozambique channel provide the ideal nursery until their blubber layers are developed. This occurs quickly as the calves can gain up to 12 pounds per hour during the early days of their lives, spending only around a month or two in the warmer waters before migrating back to the cold waters of the south pole. The coastal route leads further north to the World Heritage Site of Isimangaliso and the Lake St. Lucia system, which is the largest estuarine system in Southern Africa, flanked by National Parks, the warm Indian Ocean, and a variety of habitats from coastal flats and dunes to coral reefs, all teeming with fish, plant, animal, and birdlife. Once past Cape Vidal and its tropical lagoon where a ship laden with gold was said to have sunk in the late 1800s, it is less than 15 minutes before landing on the Mkuze runway where a safari vehicle waits. The guests are collected and driven to the lodge on a 45-minute drive through Big Five territory. A great advantage is that most of the flight time is spent over flat terrain and large water bodies, minimizing bumps and thermal updrafts, making for a great passenger ride and experience. The scenic route takes 75 minutes. The direct route option is also available, which shaves another 20 minutes off travel time and takes one at slightly higher levels over the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park and the historic royal hunting grounds of the legendary Zulu King Shaka.

The addition of the aircraft to a charter company’s Air Service License for Part 135 Operations is at the time of writing still in the process, and this will allow guests to charter her for trips further afield should they require direct transfers to other tourism destinations within the Matrix’s reach. Through these channels, a charter can also be arranged for guests that do not qualify for free flights, and currently, she is only used for longer staying guests who enjoy these flights at no additional cost under Part 91 operations.

It is, therefore, heartening to see that despite the current climate of below-average travel, weekly flights were reserved for her first two months of operations, which are only due to pick-up as visitor numbers increase, or the ability to charter her for shorter duration stays becomes available. Hopefully not too much, as our growing family regularly feels the need to explore the faraway reaches this beautiful part of the continent has to offer. There is no better way to couple the joys of flight with the natural splendor that some parts of the world still have to offer.

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