Pilot and mechanical engineer Sarah Meehan swapped university textbooks for an unforgettable journey across Africa in a 1930s airplane.
While tinkering on her de Havilland DH82-A Tiger Moth in the UK, mechanical engineer Sarah Meehan noticed something was dangerously wrong with the steering.
“I’d just been fiddling around with something … I don’t even recall what it was,” she said.
Meehan moved the joystick and realised that the part of the wing known as the aileron was moving in the wrong direction.
On closer inspection, she realised that the left and right steering control cables had accidentally been switched.
No one else had noticed the mistake, despite a dual check of the aircraft.
Meehan’s eye for detail saved a pilot who had been due to take the plane for a test flight earlier that day. The departure had been delayed at the last minute because of problems with the radio.
Meehan’s father Brett Warren.
“If he’d gone out and taken off, tried to turn left and turned right — it’s pretty serious,” she said.
“It shows you how important all of those checks are for the engineers. It hits close to home when it’s somebody that you know and love that can be injured, and you’ve found a problem.”
Meehan, who was then a mechanical engineering student at The University of Western Australia, was on the path to a unique vintage air rally called Crete2Cape.
With her father, she tackled the five-week journey from the Greek island of Crete to Cape Town, South Africa, in a Tiger Moth, a 1930s British biplane originally used by the Royal Air Force.
The trip followed in the footsteps of the pioneering flights of the 1920s: flying across Egypt to the Ethiopian highlands, the plains of Kenya and then the home of African aviation, Nairobi.
The journey took them across the Serengeti, to the spice islands of Zanzibar, and through Zambia to Victoria Falls. They then flew to Botswana before finishing the trip in South Africa.
On the path to Cape Town, Meehan and her father had to first dismantle the aircraft in Botswana, where Meehan is from, label everything and package it up.
They then shipped the plane to the UK, where they reassembled it with the help of a trusted aircraft maintenance expert.
The father and daughter then spent two weeks leisurely flying the aircraft across Europe to the rally’s starting point in Crete, where they joined the other air rally teams.
They left for Africa on 12 November 2016.
For Meehan, one of the big-ticket items was a breathtaking landing near Mount Kilimanjaro. Another was flying over Egypt and seeing lesser-known pyramids dotting the landscape.
“Flying down the Nile was spectacular,” she said.
“It’s quite amazing because it’s obviously desert and then there’s just this brilliant band of green on either side of the Nile. The contrast between desert and the river is just beautiful.”
The most surprising place for Meehan was South Sudan.
“There was nothing first world; it was so, so, so remote,” she said.
“Normally when you fly you see a road or a tin roof but there was nothing, there wasn’t even a bucket.”
Every now and then, Meehan and her father would see a rural Sudanese village.
“In this day and age… it seems really bizarre that there are still places that are so disconnected,” Meehan said.
Ready for take-off
With vintage aircraft, things never go exactly to plan.
Old planes need constant maintenance, and there were a lot of hiccups along the way.
Meehan said she was often tinkering on the front, top and sides of the aircraft.
At one point, a crucial bolt failed.
“The main bolt that holds the engine down to the aircraft cracked,” Meehan said.
“And for older aircraft you don’t just pick up store-bought anything.”
Meehan and her father had to take a bolt from their collection of spares and use washers to make it work on the aircraft.
Their radios also plagued them throughout the trip.
“There are two buttons in the cockpit,” Meehan said.
“The first is the intercom system, which allows the two pilots to communicate, and these broadcasts are only heard in the cockpit. Then there is the push-to-talk button, which broadcasts on your selected frequency.”
Instead, the aircraft was broadcasting both transmissions to everyone on the frequency.
“There was huge amounts of static,” Meehan said.
“It’s stressful because you’re flying over places you don’t necessarily know, and you don’t know the airspace, you don’t know the area.”
Dealing with the radios was particularly hard in the UK, where there was little open space and people living everywhere.
“If something’s wrong and you need to make an emergency landing and you don’t know where you are, it’s very stressful when your radios aren’t working,” Meehan said.
Meehan and her father eventually solved the problem with a braided mesh loom, which sat over spark plug lead cables and stopped the static between the engine and the radio line.
There were also issues with the group’s clearance checks as they flew through Africa. Meehan said they didn’t get clearances for Zambia until the day before they left for the country and didn’t get clearances for Egypt until the day of their flight.
They didn’t get clearances at all for Ethiopia, leaving them stuck in an airport for two-and-a-half days.
Meehan — who did work experience in an aircraft hangar — said studying engineering has added a whole new dimension to her pilot’s understanding of the plane. While working in the aircraft hangar, she did tasks such as checking the fuselage, ordering parts, calibrating specialist tools and selecting aircraft hardware.
“We did lots of strength and materials testing; we did corrosion tests,” Meehan said.
“I used a cable tension meter to ensure that the aileron cables were within tolerance. It’s an interesting thing to go through underneath all the covers of the aircraft.”
With space in the cockpit at a premium during the air rally, Meehan and her father shared tools and spare parts with two other teams with the same aircraft.
Space was so limited that Meehan flew across Africa sitting on a raft instead of a cushion. Every day, even after four hours in an open cockpit, they had to clean down the aircraft, getting rid of as much oil as possible so they could see any leaks.
Meehan and her father managed to repair and maintain the Tiger Moth all the way to Botswana.
But then, a week out from the end of the trip, in the Botswanan town of Maun, a storm came through. A small twister picked up the Tiger Moth and threw it into a helicopter.
The plane was too badly damaged to continue the rally, but Meehan and her father were able to fly the last legs of the journey in another aircraft.
They landed in Cape Town five-and-a-half weeks after leaving Crete.
Sarah Meehan graduated from the University of Western Australia last year and felt the call of adventure. Wanting to live somewhere new, she moved to Utah in the US.
Meehan is now studying electrical engineering at Salt Lake Community College and hopes to graduate in 2021.
“In this day and age, I think it’s a good choice,” she said.
“Things are not just mechanical systems anymore; it’s definitely moving towards the electrical side. I’m really excited and there’s lots of opportunities for me to have both under my belt.”
Meehan said she was drawn to the college because of the hands-on, industry-sponsored nature of the course. The highly practical approach is perfect for someone who taught herself mechanical engineering, in part, by flying across the world’s second largest continent.
“I’m definitely more practical than sitting down and just punching numbers in a calculator,” Meehan said.
This article originally appeared as “Student’s incredible journey” in the March 2020 edition of create magazine.