Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bush Pilot

Bush pilot

Hagai Cohen

“You're all set” said Major Adams, endorsing our flight licenses. “You are qualified to fly the Cessna 172.”

All four of us were airline pilots posted in Nairobi at the peek of our flying careers. With only one flight a week, we had a lot of spare time on our hands.

Major Adams, with his handlebar mustache, pipe, and major's baton, was a relic. Thirty years earlier, he had been an instructor at the R.A.F. flying-school in Nairobi, Kenya. Since then he had never left Kenya nor updated his flying skills. The Kenya board of transportation, in their ignorance, had authorized him to issue pilot’s licenses. He also rented out airplanes.

We wanted to visit the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. A small plane was the only way to get there. As we did not trust Major Adams or any of his pilots and because we needed a local, license to fly ourselves, all four of us took the fifteen minutes check ride and Major Adams stamped our licenses.

We landed at seven A.M the next morning on a strip next to the crater. We moored the plane, checked into the lodge, and, after breakfast, hit the road in a Land Rover. After a three and a half hour bumpy ride to the crater highlands of northern Tanzania, we arrived to a very impressive and dramatic part of the world.

The caldera was the most exciting we had ever seen, we had to descend a rocky track that dropped 2000 feet in two miles. Ngorngoro is famous for its highest density of lions but we did not see any.

To add to our bad luck the fan belt snapped in the territory of a heavyset rhino. While I was changing the fan belt, an angry rhino huffed and puffed at us, so we drove the Land Rover behind a tree surrounded by dense bushes, where I finished the job in relative safety.

We finished installing the fan belt at 3:00 P.M. At 5 P.M., the local predators get hungry. The thought of becoming a part of the Nature’s food chain was not at all appealing. The trip was a waste of time.

Back at the lodge, after a shower and a pint our disappointment dissipated. We found ourselves coordinating our stories for the people back home. The rhino turned into a herd of rhinos and fixing the fan belt became “overhauling the engine under the watchful eyes of a hungry lioness.” While thus engaged, a strange, burly character walked in.

“Abed,” said the man, brusque and loud, to the bartender, “a pint to the Captain's table.”
“Right away, Captain Smokey, sir,” said the bartender.

Captain Smokey wore green flight overalls with the words BUSH SAFARI printed on its back. A revolver was strapped to his right boot and a commando knife to his left. All kinds of equipment hung from his belt: a homing radio, a signaling mirror, a bulky marine Morse semaphore, night flares, a smoke flare, a whistle, two flashlights, and more ‘unidentified objects.'

“Who is this character?” asked Mike.
“A very lucky guy,” said Kim. “He'll never get hemorrhoids.”
The three of us looked at our friend, puzzled.
“A perfect ass-hole,” he explained.
“Where could he have come from?” mused Mussik.
“Who the hell is he trying to impress?” said Jack (that is me) rhetorically.

The eyes of the few people in the lounge at that time were on the Captain. As his beer arrived, the Captain instructed Abed: “Set the table for four. My guests will dine with me.”

He must have been in his mid-twenties, cocky, over-confident, and obviously in love with himself. Soon a party of three walked into the lounge, a man, his wife, and their teenage daughter.
“Sorry we’re late,” said the man to Captain Smokey as they approached his table.

The Captain dismissed the remark and said: “Oh, don’t worry. I do not waste my time, even when I relax with a beer. I am planning tomorrow’s flight.”

We smiled at each other and listened in on their conversation. The family was on safari as a graduation present to the girl we were told.

“Tell me, Captain," said the girl, "how did you become a pilot?” She stared at the Captain with lustrous eyes.
“You don't just become a pilot, you have to be born one," he pronounced loudly. "You have to be the right stuff from your first breath, gifted by God.” The Captain wanted everybody to heed his immortal words. We could not believe what we were hearing.

“Is it dangerous? I mean to fly a plane?" asked the girl.
“Danger is my middle name, my dear,” said the braggart.
“Where did you learn to fly?”

“I learned from the best and most famous pilot in all of East Africa - Major Adams,” he said, with a proud lift of his head.

This was too much! The name of Major Adams brought an impish smile to my face I had been with that rusty relic, in his own plane. If I had to give him a check ride, he wouldhave been grounded.

“Excuse me, please,” I said to the boys, “duty calls.”
I rose and walked toward the Captain’s table.

“Excuse me please, Captain, sir," said I. "I could not help overhearing your conversation. It is fascinating, your being a pilot, so glamorous, so romantic. All my life I wanted to meet a real pilot face to face.”

“Oh, my dear man, please join us. You have come to the right place.”
I pulled up a chair and sat down. “I'm Jack,” I said.
“Captain Smokey." He held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you.”
“Tell me, Captain Smokey, how does one know he's the right stuff?"

“Well, my dear friend, if you don’t know the answer to that, you are certainly no pilot."
I held a straight face; it was hard as I was having an attack of gastro-giggleeitis.

“How does it feel to fly? Is it exciting? Is it thrilling? Do you feel ‘high’ when you fly?”

“Exactly the right words, my dear friend; despite your accent, I see you have good command of the English language.”
“Thank you, Captain Smokey,” I said humbly.

"It is just as you say, exciting and thrilling. There is no such sensation on earth, and I am of the privileged few to experience it."
“How do you find your way in the bush?”
“I know the bush like the palm of my hand. I don't trust all those damn instruments; nobody knows how to read them anyway.”
I am what they call a natural pilot I can feel the speed and the altitude day and night, it’s in my bones”.

At that moment, I heard Kim’s voice behind me saying in Hebrew: “I'll hire Captain Smokey to take my mother-in-law for an excursion, and I'd better do it quickly, before it’s too late.”
My three friends pulled up their chairs, giving Captain Smokey a large group of admiring listeners.

“How high can you fly Captain Smokey?”
“Well, let’s see, last week I flew over Kilimanjaro. Oh no, sir, I never ever fly over of the volcano crater. The natives call the mountain “the breathing mountain” and, once in a while, unprovoked, the mountain sucks in everything that flies over it.”

(The Cessna he was flying cannot fly above 10,000’. The plane carries no oxygen, the Kilimanjaro towers to a height of 19,000’.)
My friends and I exchanged glances but kept tight control over our amusement.

I composed my next question carefully, looking into the Captain’s eyes with great admiration. “Have you ever flown through the sound barrier?”
“Of course, many times.”
“How does it feel?”

“It’s a great sensation. You fly the airplane, and leave your noise behind. The sound arrives later usually after the landing.
“Do you always wait for the sound to arrive after landing?”
"Of course I do, it is a part of the N.O.P."
“What is N.O.P?” I asked.
“Normal operating procedure.”
“Thank you, Captain Smokey, I would never have known.”
“Did it ever happen that your sound got lost and did not arrive?”
“God forbid! It's a bad sign if your sound gets lost.”
“Can you talk while flying above the speed of sound?”
“No you can not.”

Captain Smokey's discourse was now self-sustaining and he continued to educate us.
“Did you know heavy planes have difficulty going down?
“No I did not know but I think I understand what you are saying.”
I said. “I lived next to a quarry and the big trucks carrying heavy boulders, always traveled down very slowly, with great difficulty, while the unloaded trucks sped down easily.”

The Captain looked at me and said arrogantly “You can never understand. It was a waste of time talking to you.” He then turned to the young woman seeking more of her admiration.

I was sorry at the abrupt end to my conversation with Captain Smokey. I had several more questions for him; I wanted to ask particularly about the worthless equipment strapped to his belt. Especially about the bulky marine Morse semaphore, now found only in museums and obsolete since the First World War.

We returned to our table where we merrily discussed Captain Smokey, who had definitely salvaged our trip.

We were in our plane, about to take off next morning, when we saw the Captain taxiing to the airstrip.

“Bush safari 09 - transmitting blind - rolling Ngorongoro strip, destination Nairobi, climbing flight level 80.”
That was the Captain informing other planes in his location. There was no control tower on the airstrip.

“Bush Safari 09 - Adams 07 - Hold position, hold position,” I radioed the Captain.

“Adams 07 - Bush Safari 09 –holding position what seems to be the problem?”

“Bush Safari 09 - Adams 07 - I have just received a cable from Nairobi control. Are you ready to copy?”

“Affirmative Adams 07 - ready to copy, go ahead.”
“Break, break. Kilimanjaro active since 5:00 GMT this morning. Break - flock of vultures sucked into mountain at 06:00 GMT - break. All birds known to be wearing oxygen masks. Break. Use caution. Break.”

“Who's this speaking? “ The Captain sounded annoyed.
“It's Jack, Captain Smokey. Last night we had drinks together."

“FUCK YOU, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Now, the Captain sounded furious.

“Watch your language, Captain,” I said. “You have ladies onboard."
I heard something akin to a growl. I continued: "We are fifteen minutes behind you, Captain, but we’ll meet you on the ground in Nairobi, while you wait for your noise to arrive.”

I wish I could have seen Captain Smokey’s face. Unfortunately, I had to imagine his rage from the way he handled the take-off.
I never did meet the Captain again but, on every visit to Nairobi, I inquired after him. He seemed to be doing well and had become a famous and recommended bush pilot. Unfortunately, the glorious career of Captain Smokey came to an abrupt, but not unexpected end a year later.

A television film crew of three, with all its equipment, boarded Bush Safari 09 in Nairobi. The Captain did not weigh the cargo. Nairobi is 5,500 feet high. The takeoff distance is significantly longer as the engine power is low. Captain Smokey crashed at the end of the runway when he tried to lift the Cessna below the required speed.
Kim’s mother in-law is safe - for now.


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