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A Bird’s-Eye View: Interview with Ben Simpson, Director of Helicopter Ops, Tropic Air Kenya

With potentially the best job in the world, Ben Simpson is responsible for helicopter expeditions around Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo and Namibia. We caught up with Ben to ask what it’s like flying David Attenborough around Africa, and finding a place where ‘nowhere’ actually exists…

Ben Simpson, Tropic Air Kenya.

How did you come to work in Kenya?

I arrived in Kenya in 1996 – I was 21 at the time, with a fixed wing commercial pilot license in hand from the US. I came here randomly – I was just following my nose, looking for an interesting job in Africa, and Kenya seemed like a good place to start. If it didn’t work out here I was going to travel southwards looking for opportunities as I went – I got lucky!

What’s the best thing about your job?

Being able to land at will in wild and remote parts of Africa… Work for me is a continuous journey of discovery, always looking to open up new areas. I’m spoilt, and often stumble into incredible, unknown landscapes, encounter traditional people randomly and get to plan and deliver adventure trips I never dreamed of. I like to push boundaries and enjoy the challenge of dealing with complex logistics for tasks, like transects across the Congo or delivering aid into hostile regions.

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What is your favourite part of Kenya, and why?

The north of Kenya is by far my favourite area in all Africa. The scenery is spectacularly diverse and largely uninhabited. Thick tropical forest lies minutes away from deserts encrusted with basalt lavas and craters. Tribal people are colourful and friendly and the endemic wildlife is very special. It always amazes me how wildlife can exists in such marginal environments.

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You currently fly in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Congo and Namibia. They’re all so different, but do you have a preferred country?

It’s true, all these countries are so different from one another – I can’t really say that I like one more than another as they each have their own unique elements that make them attractive.

Home is where the heart is though – there’s nowhere like Kenya for diversity and wildlife. We know every nook and cranny of this country so you never fly more than a few minutes without having something special to look at or check in on.

Uganda is all about the Nile…the head water lakes, incredible beauty of the Mountains of the Moon and of course the primates are a special and unique attraction.

Ethiopia is very special and probably the most rounded of the trips we offer. The history, ancient architecture, diverse landscapes and people make it so distinctive. Ethiopians are the great imperialists of Africa…I have enormous respect for the way that time and western influence has done little to alter their cultural traditions. They have their own music, dance, food and alphabet – there’s simply nowhere else even remotely like it on the continent.

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Congo is exactly like it says on the tin! Forest, volcanoes, gorillas and guerrillas! Sadly, insecurity has prevented us access for the past few years though we do hope to return soon. The Virunga National Park is mind-blowing with its active volcanoes, large chimpanzee populations and secret clear water spring system. Established in 1925 it is Africa’s oldest protected area.

Namibia, I have a particular alignment with…it is just so vast and the deserts are stunning. The seasonal rivers that run out to the Skeleton Coast provide habitat for elephant, rhino, desert lion populations and a wealth of other animals. The wildlife stories are unfathomable – lions that transect thousands of kilometres each year, surviving solely off the kill; there’s no water for them to drink! Brown hyena that carry 40 kg seal pups 60 km inland in order to feed their pups! It’s the ultimate landscape for the survival of the fittest.

The clarity of the air is also fantastic – we often experience 200 km of visibility on our trips and the desert scenery is unmatched. A lot of people say of Kenya, Ethiopia or elsewhere, “gosh, we’re in the middle of nowhere now”. Everyone’s perception of ‘nowhere’ is different… for me Namibia is a place where ‘nowhere’ exists.

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Has there ever been a near-disaster situation in your career (that you’ve masterfully averted of course)?

Yes many! Mostly weather related, storms and the like, but also the odd technical issue and a few scary moments in hostile places. When you fly as much as I do, things happen – the more exposure you have gives you a greater ability to deal with problems.

Tell us about working on the BBC series ‘Africa’.

We’ve assisted the BBC on pretty much all their major wildlife series in Africa, post Planet Earth. We worked on Life, Earth’s Great Events, The Great Rift, Africa and most recently Enchanted Kingdom, a 3D film due for release later this year.

Africa was great; they took our advice on a lot of the locations they used. During the production of Africa we got to meet David Attenborough. He’s narrated over a lot of sequences I flew the camera for, but I only got to meet him during the final phase of the Africa series. We’ve flown celebrities and some of the world’s most influential people, but David is a legend and spending a week with him was a huge highlight of my career.

Filming is up there as some of the best work we do, mostly because it takes us to places we wouldn’t go otherwise and working with a camera operator requires a high level of understanding and team work. I’ve been lucky to have built a relationship with Simon Werry over the years – probably the best operator in the business. The synergy we developed has led to us being hired as a team for more than 20 different productions.

What’s your most memorable trip?

Hmm tough one…discovering the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia whilst shooting POV’s for the BBC’s Life series was pretty special. I go there all the time now, but that first experience I shall never forget.

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Tell us about your community initiatives.

We do a lot of different things. We have a schools programme at our airstrip. More than 5,000 school children visit each year and get a tour of the aeroplanes and helicopters. We also provide incentive to do well in exams…the top 10 students from the local school get a short flight in one of our Cessna Caravans.

We provide a helicopter for mountain rescue on Mount Kenya which includes regular training with the Kenya Wildlife Service mountain rescue team.

We provide a helicopter FOC to the 10 to 4 Mountain Bike Challenge which raises funds for the Mount Kenya Trust. We provide a helicopter FOC for the Ethiopia Trail Run – an annual bush marathon at Lake Shala south of Addis. We work with the Ol Pejeta quick reaction anti-poaching team.

We pay visitor fees for all landings within community group ranches within northern Kenya – a programme that we established.

We make an annual contribution to Namibia’s Desert Lion project by donating satellite tracking collars.

We are the primary first responder with our helicopters for most medical evacuations in northern Kenya day and night. We help people when called to do so and figure out the payment later – sometimes this means we end up covering costs but we have a moral responsibility to help people when we can.

We also offer cost rates for conservation work…elephant collaring, rhino tagging and game capture.

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Are you a ‘backseat pilot’?

I pay attention to what’s going on up front whenever I’m in a small aircraft, but I only get involved if I’m sitting in the front! Although I did once go forward in another operator’s plane (I won’t say which operator) being flown by two inexperienced pilots, unfamiliar with the area. They flew into a cloud and turned onto a direct track for an airfield the other side of Mount Kenya. I was compelled in this instance to point out that if they continued as they were we would fly into the mountain! Fortunately they took my advice and we got there safely.

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Is there anywhere new you’re keen to visit?

We’re working on opening up North Sudan and expect to do our first trips there at the end of this year. There are more pyramids in North Sudan than there are in Egypt!

I’ve also got a 19 day heli-safari through Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique this October.

The place I’d really like to go to is Socotra Island off the Horn of Somalia. It would be a tricky transit through Puntland, but that’s top of my list – it’s Africa’s Galapagos. It would also be really nice to do something off the African continent – I’d love to fly in Canada’s British Columbia and Alaska.

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Jacada work closely with Ben and Tropic Air to create epic itineraries around Africa. Find out more here or get in touch with any of our Africa experts.