Merce Marti & Discovery Flight
Recapturing the adventurous spirit of the aero posta and other aviation pioneers
by Trip Wileman
Merce Marti and her co-pilot and friend, Trip Wileman, flew into the wilds of Africa to recapture the adventurous spirit of the aero posta and other aviation pioneers. The plane that flew them back in history was a Fairchild 24R 40 - a single-engine, high-wing, tail wheel monoplane. It has a Ranger air-cooled, in-line, 200 HP engine, a range of approximately 1000 km and a cruising range of 187 kh/h. Its registration number is EC-GXP. EC-GXP was restored to its original condition for this commemorative adventure. It had the same sparse instrument panel the pilots had when they flew by the seat of their pants and hoped God's hand was on their shoulder. The only exception was a handheld, emergency radio. The sudden sand storms can stretch as far as you can see and as high as the stars. Discretion being the better part of valor, they were persuaded to take a hand-held emergency radio to help rescuers, if need be, on this "Discovery Flight" into darkest Africa. Below is their account of the adventure...
Well, we did it! Three weeks and ten thousand miles later we've not only gained great insight into West Africa, but also the adventurous aviators of yesteryear!
Having assembled our crew (Merce and I in the Fairchild, a cameraman for TVE Española and a print photographer in the support aircraft) we took-off with much fanfare into the chilly snow flurried Barcelona morning. Flying along the Mediterranean coast we quickly left the seasonal chill and snow behind, and soon found ourselves in conditions allowing us to fly a more direct route through the Spanish mountains to Seville - loaded down with fuel and equipment - (for those of you who don't know, Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe behind Switzerland). After six long hours we touched down, our admiration for those who had gone before taking on a new found relevance. Low and slow was one thing, but low and slow without being able to move more than a few inches to relieve sore and blood deprived buttocks aggravated by the depravation of such nerve saving advances such as an auto pilot was another!
Taking the next day off to make one last check of the airplane, meet with reporters and track down a few last minute items, we had an unexpected surprise - an introduction to King Juan Carlos and his lovely wife!
The next day's flight to Casablanca was in many ways a continuation of the splendor and discovery of the first's - and a prelude of what was to follow each day until our return. Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, our hearts pounded as the mountainous African coastline came into view. The beauty, the anticipation of discovery, the fear that something would go wrong - not just in the days ahead, but right then and there. You see, in an effort to save space and reduce the loaded Fairchild's weight, Merce and I had gambled that we wouldn't have any engine problems over water and had left our life raft in her car. Granted, were a problem to surface we would be able to head toward on of the many ships passing below (a luxury our forefathers would not have had), but still it heightened our continuing appreciation for what others had done before.
This would probably be a good place to interject a brief note about our engine. It was new, but lest this cause you to question our claims to be flying a vintage 1940 Fairchild, I should further explain what "new" meant in this case: that the engine prior to having been installed several weeks before had been in a box for the past twenty years or so. Not exactly what one would consider reassuring, which is why Merce had gone to such lengths prior to our departure to track down the world's foremost vintage Fairchild mechanics and enlist their assistance for such things as rebuilding the magnetos and other parts of the aircraft. But as you will soon read, not even that could guarantee a trouble free flight.
Casablanca, for those of you who have never been, is hardly the desolate Moroccan outpost portrayed in the infamous Hollywood wartime drama. Time, depending on one's perspective, has been good to it - giving rise to a modern city, complete with high-rise office buildings and urban sprawl ("Rick's," Bogart's decadent bar, has been upgraded to the Hyatt Hotel's lounge). One notable observation though. One thing we made sure to visit was the new Mosque, recently constructed as a sign, if only inferentially, of the city's progress and prosperity. In what would be a recurring theme, the rich and ornate structure led us to question the wisdom of the government's expense - as much of the city's, and indeed the country's, inhabitants lived in conditions that we as Westerners would consider substandard.
Our flight along the coast was indicative of those flights that would follow (that being until we reached St. Louis, Senegal and turned inland): seaside dunes alternated with sandy cliffs, all decreasingly interspersed with occasional villages. Which, interestingly enough, was where we had some of the most fun flying! This is because as part of the TV Española documentary we had a small camera to film things from our perspective. Thus, from lofty panoramics (mind you that 3000 feet above ground level was lofty to us) to low level flybys (50 feet AGL), we captured every overgrown deserted village runway (complete with bewildered and waving bystanders) and beached ship wreck.
These next few days saw us visit Agadir, La'youn, Nouadhibou, and finally St. Louis - each, if only because of our distant origins, lending itself to an increased sense of isolation. And while they were all interesting in their own rights, I feel La'youn and Nouadhibou warrant further comment. La'youn for its unique political situation, and Noudibou for its climatic one.
As many of you may recall, La'youn, which is in the heart of Western Sahara, used to be a possession of Spain. That is until Morocco, sensing ailing Franco's weakness, gathered its citizens and literally over-ran it. The Spanish, not feeling the Coastal desert territory was worth defending at the cost of human life, promptly withdrew. Ever since the Moroccans have been trying to integrate the territory into their own, but not without resistance from the Western Saharans who are clinging to the hope of finally having their country to themselves. This present conflict has given rise to the present situation, where in the effort to ensure the integrity of a planned, but not yet to my knowledge scheduled, referendum, the UN has established a monitoring presence. The plan is to allow only native Saharans born before a certain date to vote, and the UN is trying to ensure that the Moroccans don't stuff the ballot by moving people into the territory masquerading as natives - something they have allegedly been preparing to do with mixed success for some time.
Nouadhibou, on the other hand, despite the Mauritanians' support for their northern neighbor's independence efforts, could not seem further removed. Just as one is about to conclude they have flown from the face of human expansion, the desolate commercial center springs from the desert at the end of a sandy peninsula. Whereas La'youn too springs from the desert, it benefits from the wealth its covetous northern neighbors and UN monitors bring with them, Nouadhibou has been left to its own resources - which in a land of sand amounts to little more than what the sea provides.
It was around here that we got our first, and I'm happy to say only, taste of the vicious sand storms which seasonally blanket the area. Although the sand blowing off the Sahara only reduced visibility to a kilometer or so, with minimal instruments and no outside visual reference save the surrounding sand (it was everywhere), I must confess having felt a chilly sense of uneasiness - and again, acquired a further appreciation for the experiences of those who had flown before. In light of the Sahara's slow progression it is odd how its southwest border coincides with that between Mauritania and Senegal. Passing southwards one sees the forest emerge where before they would have thought nothing could.
Which brings us to St. Louis. The Senegalese town was notable in our journey for the tribute, all be it in a commercialized manner, it paid to the pioneering aviators of the Aero Postal. The Hotel De La Poste is covered with memorabilia of yesteryear, including rooms memorializing its guests who disappeared in the line of duty. Perusing the halls we gained further respect and understanding of those whose footsteps we were commemorating. It was from St. Louis that we turned eastward in order to avoid the potential problems associated with continuing along the coast (Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leon, and Liberia are all currently consumed by various levels of civil wars). To this end the next available airfield was Bamako, Mali - twice as far as the Fairchild could fly without refueling! Fortunately during our reconnaissance flight in September Merce and I had meet several pilots who flew for Semos, S.A., a gold mine in Western Mali, who had not only arranged for us to stop over, but also for a precious barrel of Avgas (100LL fuel). This was fortunate, because aside from affording us the opportunity to make new friends, it prevented the hassle of having to detour to an out of the way airfield and siphon fuel from the support planes' tanks.
Bamako, Mali was another interesting place. Three things stick out in my mind about it. One, it was a common launching point for tours to Timbuktu - and although we did not get to opportunity to visit the out of the way oasis ourselves, I am happy to report to anyone like myself who had heard of it since birth that it does in fact exist! Second, it was the home of the Mali Air Force, which as an American hired to help train some of its personnel told me, consisted of three planes (that actually flew). Third, it was where we got the opportunity to visit with several Peace Corps volunteers about their experiences in the Mali countryside. Oh, and for anyone planning to visit, I highly recommend the food, lodging, and atmosphere of the Le Champagnard!
From Bamako we headed south to Yamoussoukro, Cote D' Ivory, where we again faced the contradiction of a large government funded Basilica in a land of relative poverty, before the short hop to Abidjan. Short, however, does not mean uneventful. You see since Abidjan is in the Equatorial climate zone, where we had been previously flying through areas of dry heat, we were now concerned with sporadic precipitation and the violet thunderstorms which commonly accompany it. Since most of the storms build in the afternoon we had hoped for a clear morning, but from the low clouds (1000 feet AGL) it was obviously not to be.
Since weather information is scarce, if not none existent, Merce and I were forced to make an eyeball assessment. Figuring it would only take us an hour or so, we figured we had as least as long before all hell, at least for aviators such as ourselves, broke loose. Still, being confined to visual flight because we lacked the modern avionics necessary to fly in or above the clouds, it meant an hour or so of scud running (flying directly below the clouds) and upon reaching Abidjan, radio tower and building avoidance. Obviously we made it (but the lightening started soon after).
Of course, at this point we were only half way. So after a few days rest to celebrate La Semana Española, which was designed to highlight and encourage doing business with the Spanish, we began the mad race back to Barcelona. I say mad because what we had flown in two weeks we intended to do in six days... But some of you may recall my earlier reference to mechanical difficulty. We started having problems with our left Magnetos outside Casablanca.
Now on one hand this was as good as place as any to have problems, because we were only a short distance from Spain, but on the other hand the proximity only highlighted the need to make it across the Straits of Gibraltar. After several hours of monkeying with the engine Merce got it running smoother, so the next day we were off as expected - only little did we realize it was only to lose a magneto (as a safety measure aircraft engines have long had two magneto systems in case something like this happened ). We were about ten miles off the Spanish coast when we realized we were in trouble. Merce seriously considered heading for the nearest airfield, but figuring we were so close to our destination, and more importantly, that airfields now lined the coast, decided to punch it in to Barcelona.
Again, we obviously made it (and without any great danger) - but once we turned the engine off it was off for good. The old Fairchild just had it in her to get us back home, lending an ironic sense of perfect timing to what had indeed been an invigorating and enlightening adventure!
About the pilots:
Merce did not accumulate her 3,000 logged hours with touch and goes around airports. She is listed as a world class aviator. In 1994 she became the first woman pilot in the world to win the Race Around the World in a general aviation airplane in the Turbo-Class Cargory. Merce placed second in the Race of the Americas in 1994 and won the Bronze medal at the World Air Games in 1997. She has won numerous awards for her devotion to aviation projects. She was awarded the Federation Aeronautic International Gold Medal in 1996, the same year she became the first Spanish 99 to be honored in the International Forest of Friendship.
Trip Wileman, her co-pilot, has not had the varied flying experiences of Merce, but he has proved himself a competent pilot - qualified to join Merce on their commemorative flight into the wilds of darkest Africa.
The Discovery Flight is sponsored by seven commercial companies, as well as seven clubs and organizations. The learn more about it, you can go the Discovery Flight website at