African Skies

Part five: We owned two Fu­jis now and were oper­at­ing the Big Fella’s Pi­la­tus PC-12 into So­ma­lia, but I still hadn’t got my li­cence

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words & Pho­tos Tim Cooper

Part five: Now the busi­ness was ex­pand­ing and thriving, maybe it was time to take that first solo flight

One of my wor­ries about oper­at­ing into Mo­gadishu in So­ma­lia was that any one of the air­port work­ers might sud­denly explode or pull out a weapon and at­tack us dur­ing our turn­arounds on the ground. It would be easy to do and, since there had re­cently been a gory and suc­cess­ful sui­cide at­tack in the cen­tre of the peace­keep­ers’ camp, my con­cerns were re­al­is­tic. Our pre­flight in­spec­tions now in­volved care­fully check­ing the wheel-wells and the bat­tery com­part­ments for bombs. At this time no air­craft loi­tered at the air­port; it wouldn’t take long for mor­tars to be brought to bear.

I sur­rep­ti­tiously ex­am­ined the air­craft fu­eller, a weaselly, boss-eyed So­mali, and tried to peer in­side his loose jacket, check­ing for a sui­cide vest. “Cap­tain, this drum fin­ished. You want more?” he asked. Weasel stopped the rack­ety petrol-en­gine wa­ter-pump that was the ar­rhyth­mic heart of the dicey fu­elling rig. I shook the drum of Jet A-1 that was on the back of the beaten-up pick-up truck to make sure it was ac­tu­ally empty−it was nor­mal to find fuel re­main­ing which would then be sold in the mar­ket. “Yes please. Let’s add an­other drum. And by the way,” I said, ges­tur­ing at Madam who was pre-flight­ing the PC-12, and whose flight suit epaulettes car­ried four bars, ver­sus my three, “She is the Cap­tain.” Weasel looked mor­ti­fied; a woman cap­tain: how un­nat­u­ral, how un­godly! I straight­ened my back, looked him in the eye and said, “But I am the Gen­eral.” Weasel looked most im­pressed.

Mo­gadishu was by turns con­cern­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing. Some­times both. One con­cern was the pos­si­bil­ity of mis­sile at­tack on ap­proach or de­par­ture. The pre­vi­ous year an Ilyushin Il-76 had been struck shortly after take­off by a mis­sile launched from a small boat. A friend of ours had been on board the air­craft at the time. The Ilyushin, al­though badly dam­aged, landed back safely. The fol­low­ing week a se­cond Il-76, which had brought en­gi­neers and equip­ment to re­pair the first air­craft, was hit by a mis­sile. They were less for­tu­nate. This se­cond Il-76 crashed killing all eleven on board. Our friend had de­clined to travel on the se­cond flight, fol­low­ing a pre­mo­ni­tion. A wrecked Il-76 was now in a cor­ner of the apron, a salient re­minder of the per­ils of Mo­gadishu.

We re­alised that the sup­pos­edly-safe spi­ralling de­scent into Mo­gadishu ac­tu­ally pre­sented an easy tar­get for the chaps with

mis­siles. So we de­vised our own an­timis­sile ap­proach that we hoped would take ad­van­tage of the thresh­old of the 3.6km Run­way 05 that jut­ted into the sea. It would be bet­ter, we de­cided, to de­scend from our high alti­tude cruise to a right base turn lo­cated twenty miles out at sea− well out of mis­sile range. The right base would then be flown low and fast and, at the end of the run-in, the PC-12 would be hooked in onto a very short fi­nal with the air­craft com­fort­ably in sight of the sand dunes on the land­ward side of the run­way which were in friendly hands.

The ap­proach was ex­cit­ing and dis­ori­ent­ing. After cruis­ing se­dately for three plus hours at FL290, aim for a spot in the mid­dle of the sea and de­scend briskly to 200 feet or lower. Then, car­ry­ing a ground speed of around 230 knots for four min­utes, drop the gear, slow down to Vfe, slow down some more, ex­tend flaps some more and turn onto fi­nal, all the while watch­ing out for any in­com­ing at­tack, and not for­get­ting to stop the roll-out be­fore the Tower taxi­way halfway down the run way− the far end of the run­way be­ing in Al She­bab’s purview. The sharp con­trast be­tween the high level cruise and the low level ap­proach with no ground ref­er­ences

We de­vised our own anti-mis­sile ap­proach... ex­cit­ing and dis­ori­ent­ing

al­ways mes­merised me− and I was just look­ing out of the win­dow!

De­par­ture was a re­verse of this process but far less dis­ori­ent­ing − though pas­sen­gers were ner­vous when a sul­try and rather sexy voice in the cock­pit ur­gently com­manded “Don’t Sink! Don’t Sink!” while the pi­lot de­ter­minedly kept the nose down for fif­teen miles over the sea.

The idea be­hind our fair­ground ride pro­ce­dure was that hos­tile MANPADS (man por­ta­ble air de­fence mis­siles) are not

switched on un­til the op­er­a­tor has seen or heard the tar­get since a launcher’s weak spot is its lim­ited bat­tery life, es­pe­cially the case with older launch­ers bought on the black mar­ket. We− the tar­get− dis­guised our ap­proach by us­ing the sound of the breaking surf to mask our en­gine noise, and our low level ap­proach to sneak up in the hori­zon-level sea-daz­zle. We no­ticed that other air­craft soon fol­lowed our lead and there have been no fur­ther suc­cess­ful mis­sile at­tacks since those days. To see a large Rus­sian cargo plane fly this ap­proach is a sight to be­hold.

What, you might ask, was the non-fly­ing, ac­count­able man­ager do­ing pranc­ing around Mo­gadishu dressed up in a fly­ing suit? It would in­deed be a good ques­tion. In fact, I of­ten asked my­self the same. The an­swer is that we got busy, and at our oc­ca­sional busiest we were mak­ing daily flights re­sup­ply­ing the Big Fella’s camp.

We had de­cided that we had an opportunity to grow our com­pany mod­estly and wanted to do so in a way that would set us up prop­erly for the fu­ture. Our first re­quire­ment was more pi­lots and our fo­cus was on hir­ing in­dige­nous rather than ex­pa­tri­ate fly­ers. While the Mo­gadishu trips were, strictly-speak­ing, sin­gle-pi­lot op­er­a­tions, the re­al­ity was that two crew were needed on the ground in So­ma­lia− and oc­ca­sion­ally in the air if the going got hec­tic. Madam de­cided that I would be her tem­po­rary crew­man say­ing I could be use­ful on the ground. In truth I sus­pect she just didn’t trust Flash­heart and me with­out adult su­per­vi­sion. (A later, ma­ni­a­cal trip to South Africa that, among other things, in­volved a writ­ten-off hire car, a po­lice chief, as­sorted bod­ily in­jury and gen­eral tom­fool­ery was to prove Madam right.) Flash­heart was is­sued with a newly re­cruited ju­nior pi­lot as his First Of­fi­cer.

As the flights were pri­vate, and not cat­e­gorised as com­mer­cial air trans­port, I could log them as Put (pi­lot un­der train­ing) hours. To this day I main­tain that a PC-12 is my ideal PPL trainer− but only when some­one else is pay­ing for it. For ex­am­ple, the PC-12 is per­fect for learn­ing to fly an­gle of at­tack− both Madam and Flash­heart were de­vout fol­low­ers of the god­dess Al­pha− since ev­ery ap­proach is flown with ref­er­ence to the an­gle of at­tack in­di­ca­tor. It’s also a cinch to land with its won­der­ful trail­ing link gear. And there’s a loo in the back, and a fridge too. You never see a Cessna 152 with those ameni­ties.

My ear­lier plans to get a PPL in the usual way us­ing our Fuji had gone com­pletely and badly awry. My log­book didn’t record many Fuji hours but did show a lot of PC-12 time, in­clud­ing in­stru­ment ac­tual and sim­u­lated, high per­for­mance train­ing, and com­plex train­ing. Even my Fuji hours were messed up. I had logged plenty of ten-minute flights to the is­land and each of these

We dis­guised our ap­proach us­ing the sound of the surf to mask our en­gine noise

in­volved a take­off, a land­ing and cir­cuits but not many proper lessons. Since my real aim was to fly aer­o­bat­ics that is what I did when­ever I could, es­pe­cially as Flash­heart’s pas­sion was aer­o­bat­ics too. We would jump into a Fuji just be­fore dusk, climb up over the lake and play at aer­o­bat­ics for half an hour be­fore land­ing back and hav­ing a re­fresh­ing sun­downer.

Our favourite game was for the non-fly­ing pi­lot to sim­u­late emer­gen­cies− the more un­ex­pected and un­likely the bet­ter, and at an un­usual at­ti­tude if pos­si­ble. En­gine fail­ure at the top of a loop; el­e­va­tor ca­ble snapped on down­wind− fly with trim; ailerons jammed on fi­nal− use rud­der; and so on. We also dis­cov­ered that our Fuji wouldn’t climb above a den­sity alti­tude of 15,000 feet, but that it would spin bril­liantly, around and around and down and down. Flash­heart was drum­ming the very ba­sics of fly­ing an aero­plane into me on ev­ery Fuji flight.

I have no idea if this was good train­ing, but I thor­oughly en­joyed it. Madam tried to teach me sen­si­ble stuff but gen­er­ally de­spaired of me.

For con­trar­ian rea­sons I de­cided not to solo un­til as late as pos­si­ble−the idea was for me first to ac­cu­mu­late enough hours for a CPL which I would do in the USA. This meant I put off going solo un­til about 200 hours if I was also to get the req­ui­site PIC hours be­fore head­ing State­side.

My first, late, solo caused some con­ster­na­tion to Madam who had, weeks be­fore, signed my log­book au­tho­ris­ing me to fly alone. Flash­heart was aloft in a Fuji with one of our new di­rec­tors−also an aer­o­batic en­thu­si­ast. I was in my of­fice, bored. Madam was in her of­fice, hard at work: sit­u­a­tion nor­mal. Sit­ting out­side my of­fice win­dow was an­other per­fectly good Fuji. The sky was blue. There was no traf­fic. I sneaked out­side, pre­flighted very qui­etly, strapped on a para­chute and started up. Soon I was air­borne. I called up Flash­heart and ex­plained my in­ten­tions. I climbed a cou­ple of thou­sand feet above his Fuji and with his en­er­getic vo­cal en­cour­age­ment started play­ing in the sky. Ya­roo! I was rolling! I ad­mit to be­ing a lit­tle timid all on my own but what fun. So, a rather late

solo at 200 hours, but at least it was an aer­o­batic one.

Re­al­ity re­turned on the down­wind when I looked down to see a small gath­er­ing out­side the hangar. That’s it, I thought, my goose is cooked. Madam had lis­tened to the en­tire pan­tomime on the of­fice hand­held, hav­ing rushed out of her of­fice when she’d heard my Fuji start up, far too late to stop me. Re­lieved at my sur­vival−i think−she greeted me with a cold bot­tle of beer. I was truly ux­o­ri­ous.

Around this time a mas­sive dis­cov­ery of oil was made in our coun­try. So mas­sive in fact that it was the big­gest in­land dis­cov­ery in Africa. It was clearly a game-changer and the need for more avi­a­tion to the re­mote oil fields was quite clear. An Abu Dhabi-based chum who had a house on my is­land said that Madam and I ought to pull our fin­ger out and gear up for oil. We hummed and hawed and made noises about be­ing a life­style com­pany, but this spu­ri­ous line was brushed aside by my friend who then made a fairly size­able in­vest­ment in our lit­tle com­pany. Two more in­vestors coughed up, and Madam and I found our­selves run­ning a some­what big­ger com­pany that we had planned. We de­cided to grow our tiny fleet by manag­ing and oper­at­ing other peo­ple’s aero­planes, stick­ing to own­ing only two small Fu­jis our­selves. This is a great idea from a cash-flow per­spec­tive, and it works for the air­craft own­ers too, their as­sets be­ing made to sweat a lit­tle harder. The key to suc­cess is choos­ing your own­ers.

One mem­o­rable re­jectee was a hulk­ing South African Boer whose mas­sive bull head

Now fully awake, Madam shoved her yoke for­ward to avert dis­as­ter

joined di­rectly onto his shoul­ders, omit­ting a neck. In­ven­tively, we chris­tened him No-neck. One day No-neck turned up with a lovely look­ing Cessna 402 ten-seat twin. We re­alised it wasn’t the right air­craft for us when we dis­cov­ered that the air­craft’s doc­u­men­ta­tion was scanty, the en­gines were the wrong ones for the mark of C402, and the pro­pel­lers matched nei­ther air­frame nor en­gines. Apart from that it was per­fect. Un­for­tu­nately we learned this only after Madam had been taken for a sales flight.

No-neck, a mid-hour PPL, had pre­flighted the air­craft at dawn ready for a flip, as they say in South Africa. He was wait­ing im­pa­tiently on the apron for Madam−this avi­a­trix is most def­i­nitely not a morn­ing per­son. Madam ar­rived and boarded the air­craft. No-neck, tak­ing the left seat, started up and back­tracked for take­off. So far, so good. No-neck seemed pro­fi­cient enough do­ing the en­gine run-up and the mag checks so Madam re­laxed a bit. Push­ing open the throt­tles the air­craft ac­cel­er­ated briskly down the run­way. Want­ing to im­press Madam with the im­mense power and the glory of his fly­ing ma­chine, No-neck yanked back on his yoke… and kept pulling. Feel­ing the buf­fet Madam, now sud­denly fully awake, man­aged to reach out and shove her yoke for­ward to avert dis­as­ter.

Years later we learnt that No-neck was run­ning pas­sen­ger char­ter op­er­a­tions with his dodgy 402 and fly­ing on his now slightly higher hour PPL. Such is avi­a­tion in Africa. The statis­tic used to be seven per cent of the world’s avi­a­tion and thirty per cent of the world’s ac­ci­dents: it’s not sur­pris­ing.

Sol­diers de­ploy­ing at Ma­gadishu air­port as an Il-18 trans­port ar­rives

Re­fu­elling from drums us­ing a rack­ety petrol-driven wa­ter pump

The PC-12 is a cinch to land, and has a loo and a fridge

Not ex­actly a timid first solo!

No-neck's lovely look­ing C402 dis­guised a litany of ills

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