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
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