January 20, 2009

Out of Africa - those crazy men in their flying machines

Denys Finch Hatton had the idea of using an airplane to hunt elephants; for him, it was a fatal notion, but Beryl Markham made a living at it and it makes sense to me. In fact, better than flying for hunters, I like the idea of airplanes for African sightseers. Get up there, not to high, say two, maybe three thousand feet or so. See everything from there.

The right tool for the right job. Dad’s motto. One of the jobs was to look for the possible location of Queen Sheba’s Mc Mansion. If you want to find archeological landmarks in the jungle or desert then the logical tool for Dad was an airplane.

Enter Branko, and his DC-6. Instant bonding between pilots. Here I had my first acquaintance with Third World freighter pilots. And my first of many, white knuckle flight experiences.

About 2,000 feet over Lubumbashi, the veteran misplaced the airport. It was there just a second ago, and then like crazy magic it was gone. Branko led the DC-6 through a slow waltz of banks and curves in search of the strip. He scolded the copilot, who had been running the show and had to take the rap for flying past the airport; now the copilot sat miffed staring straight ahead. Branko made no effort to calm the edgy flight engineer. ‘Where the h**l’s the airport?’ Branko screamed at his two crewmen. The copilot peered coolly into thin air. Not his job. The flight engineer tried to ameliorate the situation and said, ‘It will be here, it will be here.’ Branko did not believe him. We started climbing, an admission of failure and the string of buildings that defined Lubumbashi-once everywhere below us-now was someplace else.

Better luck on the second circle: gas stations, bars, paved roads. Branko ordered a fresh batch of flaps as the runway came into view. There was a cluster of trucks and Land-Rovers on one side of the runway, a terminal building on the other, and of the far end was a French fighter plane stuck in the mud. Red, twelve-foot tall anthills covered the sandy fields surrounding the runway.
The plane was met by an American delegation, representing the U.S. consulate and led with resolute cheerfulness by a woman with a painful permanent smile of diplomats and Unitarians. She had come to collect her household effects-drapes, iron, canned goods, John Denver’s Greatest Hits, the works. This private cosmos, crated, weighed three tons. The rest of the freights manifest was vague. The cable read 8,500 kilos of Teacher’s. The Americans thought ‘Peace Corps’, the liquor distributor knew better, and the whiskey disappeared into the trucks.

In the tight-knit community of freight flyers, Branko was a virgin. He had missed World War II and Korea. But, Vietnam, Cambodia and Central America
would provide an abundance of practical experience. He flew in Laos and Cambodia for Continental Air Transport-one of Air America’s CIA affiliates-until he was shot down on the China border. By the end of the ‘70’s, he flew out of Cairo in one of Pyramid Aviation’s DC-3’s to oil-exploration camps near the Libyan border.

In Zaire he put together a couple of old Convairs, and had the misfortune of flying into Malta’s Luqa airfield with a ‘dubious’ manifest. The Maltese confiscated his unmarked Lockheed Constellation. Sold off the engines, towed the hulk off the tarmac, put down the passenger steps, painted BAR & RESTAURANT on the side and opened it for business. Branko was appalled when he found out.

Then there was his young American copilot who came to Africa to log some first-officer hours. His first gig was on a DC-3 flying out of Chad. On his first night in Ndjamena, though, he apparently got real drunk, went off with a whore and wound up at four in the morning with his throat cut and his wallet missing. ‘What he missed in wars,’ a pilot noted, ‘he made up for in one night.’ The family was unable to face what they considered a rather terminal blotch on their son’s resume and hired a famous detective from Texas to get at the truth of the matter. The detective decided that the kid had died for his country; the victim of a tragic political assassination suffered while in the valiant service of his country, and managed to convince the family of this.

More, a veteran Dutch pilot known around his home field for habitually trying to take off in his Cessna 172 with the concrete tie-down block still attached to the tail of the airplane (frustrated airport officials finally fined him for unauthorized towing). On a contract for a TV news organization, he flew a camera and sound crew down to Dakar to see the finale of the Paris-Dakar trans-Sahara road rally, and on the way decided to skirt the beaches of what used to be Spanish Sahara but was then the scene of a bizarre war between Morocco and the Polisario guerrillas. The Polisario shot down the airplane then lined up the survivors on the beach and killed them.

They are not bush pilots, the laid-back Piper jockeys who cruise the pipeline in Alaska. In equatorial Africa, especially, the independent cargo pilot is often the only component of a transportation system that otherwise does not exist. Highways are a threatened species in Africa (in Zaire, for example, there were some 90,000 miles of passable road in 1958, after five decades and a quadrupled highway budget, there are only 4,000 miles left.) Waterways shrink and expand quickly and unpredictably. Railroads have become mechanically obsolete, and many are no longer in operation. Moreover, all forms of ground transportation are subject to prodigious amounts of theft; most shippers allow for one-third of their consignment to go astray.

Cargo pilots are left a pretty clear field. One pilot told me that 90 percent of the cargo he carries on his flights is, one way or another, contraband; his co-pilot put the figure even higher.

So, Donald Douglas’ greatest hits of the ‘30’s (the DC-3), the ‘40’s (the DC-4), the ‘50’s (the DC-6 and -7) and the ‘60’s (the DC-8), (there was a DC-5, a high-wing job. Douglas made five of them and sold them to the Dutch air force, which crashed them all) along with stray Britannias, Electras, Constellations and the odd 707, support entire economies, keep industries, government and guerrilla movements alive, provide logistical support for a welter of development projects and supply gainful employment for a group of high-risk entrepreneurs who, back home, would be stuck in the suburbs teaching the finer points of aviation to the Beechcraft kamikazes.
Together, they constitute an ad hoc Luftwaffe of seat-of-the-pants, fiercely independent small businessmen whose chaotic, hard currency, cash-in-advance network of freight runs stretches from Malta to the Cape of Good Hope. ‘Anything goes here’, remarked a chopper pilot. ‘You can fly light or heavy, early or late, high or low. Just get your money up front.’

You meet them in hotels in Kinshasa, Kisangani or Khartoum and listen to them talk about flying for both sides in half a dozen civil wars. Hang around for a while and they will present you with a realpolitik more cynical than you could ever imagine.

How to transport rocket fuel from South Africa to a Libyan base hidden in a satellite shadow.
Or how to negotiate the deviously circuitous flights (a favorite route: Tel Aviv to Cyprus, then Cyprus to Mombasa. In Mombasa, file a flight plan to Mumbai, but then turn left just past the gulf. Iranian air force jets meet you at the border and escort you in; they’ve been alerted by the Israelis, and they’re expecting you. In view of Iran’s resemblance to the Hotel California, they suggest that you use no American crew members.) that will take former Soviet Union hardware or Israeli rockets from Warsaw to Tel Aviv to Teheran. Commiserate with a broker who can’t find anybody to tote military cargo from Havana to Lima or from New England to Johannesburg via Kinshasa. Or sign on as loadmaster and transport weapons on relief flights from Khartoum to Juba, or watch American taxpayers feed the Cuban army in Angola.

Branko’s maxim: ‘If you are going to live on the run, it pays to have a ready supply of airplanes.’ If you never quite thought of meeting the exigencies of life that way, maybe it is because your life has not been a series of quick and essential departures. Branko has flown planes for right-wing governments and left-wing governments, for Texas ranchers and American movie directors; he has flown for money, flown for the heck of it, and more than once flown for his life. He has been winging it, as it were, for a long time, and for a long time, the runways and landing strips of the world have been black holes through which a handy fellow like him can slip into another dimension, suddenly invisible.

Flying antique cargo planes offers Branko room to improvise. Flying expensive jets cramps his style. ‘Look,’ he says. ‘I have told you this before. And I will tell you again, stick around.’ He pointed out the window of the airport toward the runway. The cracked and patched surface vibrated in the heat. ‘This is where it all happens.’
Yes, but I have always remained a white knuckled pilot.


cargo pilot ex-wife said...

yes, i know those stories well.

malibu neighbor said...

man, is Branko still around?

another ex (girlfriend) said...

whaaat, I remember Branko!!!!!!!
God I loved this man.
TOTALLY unreliable as husband or boyfriend material.

reader said...

Ms. Markham was sooo much more interesting, they should have made a movie about her.

Your CALTECH admiration society said...

We have nominated you our official Scheherazade. You are now compelled to keep on writing or telling (our place anytime) your stories. Should you stop, we will stoke you out and… well you know the tale.

pilot said...

thanks, nice.

Edna blog fan said...

Branko I would love to meet.
What a marvelous story.
How the hell do you do it?