I’ve been flying a long time. My first flight was in 1958, from London to Kano via Rome. Being only a month old I don’t remember it. But I do recall many subsequent times when my life has been in the hands of men, and latterly women, whom I have never met but who have managed to get me safely to Sydney, Johannesburg, Port Moresby and many, many other places in between.
I hold in high esteem the many bush pilots, mostly Australian, who ferried me around the mountainous regions of Papua New Guinea. I am not an airplane buff, but the Cessnas, Fokkers, de Havillands and so on, which have safely deposited me in places like Bulolo, or Mendi or Medang were tough little planes with tough, and sometimes rough, pilots. Flying along valleys, through low-lying mists clogging the breaks in the mountains and then landing on a short, narrow, dirt airstrip takes flying to new heights, if you’ll pardon the expression. Taking off again, as the little plane bumped downhill to be suspended briefly in midair as the cliff gave way to nothingness, before gathering energy and speed for the climb up through the mountains, was at times a gut-churning experience. These pilots loaded their planes with care. They could size up a man, woman, pig or goat in a blink and distribute them throughout their small aircraft with aplomb. They would kindly, but insistently, tell their passengers in pidgin English that, “No, sorry, you cannot boil your billy on the plane.”
Forward a few years and I find myself back in Africa, on an island in the Gulf of Guinea. Around the coffee table I hear how this or that company will not allow employees, or their families, to fly on certain airlines due to poor safety standards in both maintenance and personnel. I shrugged. Flying in small aircraft held no fear for me. Bush flying, not a problem.
The company for whom my husband worked, in those days, and the government for whom I worked, in those days, did not seem overly concerned with how we got around and so I travelled a number of times to the mainland part of Equatorial Guinea on the national airline. I admit to being rather blasé about the whole experience. Until I saw the pilots.
In those days, only fourteen years ago, we would amble from the rather ramshackle, tin-roofed, single-storey, terminal building across the apron to our parked aircraft. A smiling attendant would be standing at the top of the ladder, getting as much fresh air as possible, the plane not having been switched on yet. As we gaggle of passengers wandered under the wings we would pass a posse of pilots, sitting on upturned orange boxes, playing cards, smoking and sometimes one could not help thinking taking a slug of some clear liquid that I was not confident was water.
Only when the plane was fully loaded, the passengers perspiring on red velour seats, l’aire d’Afrique threatening to overwhelm the senses, did a couple of pilots saunter along the aisle and deign to begin the process of getting us across the sea to Bata. They were Russian.
In fairness they always got me where I wanted to go, and back home. The flights however were not particularly pleasant. Apart from the aforementioned smell of sweating bodies, the airstream was not always smooth. Stomach tilting lurches would have the passengers screaming, and pleas to ‘Madre mio” or “Jesus” were not uncommon. On one flight, one woman unstrapped her seat belt, yes we had them, and threw her bulging rump along the aisle heading for the door. As we were midair, this caused a certain amount of consternation amongst the belted passengers. More screaming erupted. Fortunately she was pummeled back into her seat by another passenger; the flight attendant having been stunned into stillness.
And so as I read the horrifying story this morning about the cargo plane in South Sudan crashing, killing all but one selfless man who cradled and subsequently saved an unknown baby, I was not surprised to learn the pilots were Russian. The plane, according to the AP report, had been carrying “more than 30 unauthorized passengers”. The pilots, and an unofficial “dealmaker”, having been selling seats, or more accurately space amongst the cargo, for less than 30 dollars. The plane one has to assume was overloaded.
So to the many, many pilots who continue to get me safely around the world, I say a heartfelt thank. And I am no longer quite so relaxed at the thought of flying Russian.