Saturday, 25 July 2015

My experiences flying, you might learn from my mistakes?

Some weeks ago I caught a couple of partial chapters of a book being read on BBC Radio 4. The book was called Skyfaring (think of seafaring applied to flying) by Mark Vanhoenacker a 747 pilot. I was so impressed with the bits I heard, in terms of language and ideas, I got the book. I am enjoying reading it and it has prompted me to remember my experiences involving flying so here goes!

In my early teens we had a holiday in a chalet on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. I spotted a sign advertising flights from a nearby field and got parental permission to spend my pocket money. The plane was a single engine Auster and I got to sit next to the pilot as I was bigger than the other passengers. It was real flying by the seat of your pants stuff but it didn't last for long. Having bumped across the field and got into the air the pilot climbed quite steeply, then he cut the engine and the plane stalled and we dropped like the proverbial stone leaving my stomach 30 feet above my head. Fortunately as the nose dropped he restarted the engine and we landed safely. 
My next experience of flying was on my honeymoon to Austria. We flew from an old World War Two airfield at Manston in Kent in a Dakota or similar old banger. The seats were so close together that my knees were up by my ears! When the pilot ran the engines up the noise and vibration were so bad I was convinced the plane would fall apart and I would die before I had the chance to enjoy my honeymoon! Fortunately my guardian angels (or someone else's were working overtime) and I survived the flights. I also survived and enjoyed the honeymoon!
When I volunteered for three years service with the British Government as a design draughtsman in Gibraltar I was flown out in an RAF Britannia aircraft to Gib from the RAF base at Brize Norton. Because it was a military flight the plane was not allowed to cross Spain so we flew the long way round, out into the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean through the straits between Africa and Europe. As the wind was blowing from the east we had to do the hairy approach from the west which involved frightening aerobatics to avoid going into Spanish airspace whilst trying to line up with the end of the Gib runway which stuck out in the sea.
One Christmas, whilst I was stationed in Gib, my mother flew out but because the winds were too turbulent around the rock, her plane was diverted to Tangiers, where it overshot the runway! The next day she was flown into Gib but the uneven runway (built on the old race course) had lots of pools of water on it causing the planes wheels to lock up and aquaplane and then the tyres burst when they hit normal Tarmac. All the emergency vehicles chased it down the runway!
The hairy runway at Gib sticking out into the sea!
There was never a dull moment in Gib when it came to flying. When we lived near the RAF Air Sea Rescue base the rescue boat was scrambled as a Hawker Hunter returning from a sortie down the Med was informed by the tower that one undercarriage leg had failed to deploy. The pilot was instructed to bail out over the sea but he decided to try and save the aircraft by landing on one wheel and ejecting before the plane toppled over. Sadly the air speed was not enough to clear the cockpit canopy and the pilot was killed being ejected through it.

When I worked in Zambia on a project for the Bank of Zambia I was asked to go to Ndola in the copper belt to look at another building. I drove up with the architect along a long smooth straight road built by the Italians. This road had one sharp bend in it. As we approached the bend there were lots of signs saying anyone putting oil on the road would be shot!  Apparently the locals had developed skills at oiling the road so a lorry's wheels slipped on the surface and it rolled over taking the bend. Then they would help themselves to its cargo. It reminded me a bit of the Cornish wreckers so I didn't pass judgement.
Flying back from the copper belt, into Lusaka airport I was staring out of the window when I saw three black Hawker Hunters converging on my flight at high speed. Just as they were about to pass right in front of our plane our pilot must have seen them as he immediately did an evasive turn to port (left) as though he were flying a single seater Pitt Special and barn storming.  After he and I had recovered our breath the pilot came on the PA system and apologised for the aerobatics explaining that the Zambian airforce were doing a fly past for a visiting head of state and regretting the fact that the civil and military air authorities do not share traffic information.

After a week or ten days in Lusaka I use to get a bit jaded by the heat and constantly feeling you had to be on your guard so I always looked forward to flying home.  I always made sure I was at the airport on time and queued up for my boarding card. I remember seeing the man in front of me get his and then when I got mine I had a vague feeling that something was not quite right but I wasn't sure what! Anyway he went to the bar and I went to the departure lounge. I got on the plane and took my seat, a few minutes later the man who had been in front of me turned up with a boarding card with the same seat number as mine. I showed him mine and suggested he speak to the stewards.  He did and several of them asked to look at my boarding card. They wanted it but I held on. Eventually a senior stewardess arrived and was a bit too officious so I made it clear that I was staying in the seat and as soon as the plane was in the air I wanted to talk to the senior member of the cabin crew so I could make an official complaint.  Normally I would have been conciliatory but I knew the flight was busy and I needed to get home. Eventually the senior man turned up and he found us two seats at the back of the plane where I was able to share my experience with him. I told him I had been made to feel like a stowaway and I was not impressed.
So on my next trip I decided to fly Air Zimbabwe instead of BA and that led to another adventure. Going out was OK but the return flight had a longish layover at Harare, Zimbabwe and I was unsure as to how safe Harare was for a white chap on his own so I made friends with the Zambian chap sitting next to me and asked him it he would like to travel into Harare by taxi with me and have lunch if it was my treat. He said he would, but then he came up with a classic African ruse!  He said my friend is also on the flight and he is a policeman, could he come too! When I saw the size of the policeman chap I readily agreed and the three of us had a great time in the city. In the markets the locals could not quite understand why this white man was friendly with these two black guys. I made them laugh by explaining that I was their bodyguard.
My two Zambian minders in Harare.
When we got back to the airport we got a bit of a shock! All our luggage from our flight was piled up in one big heap in the middle of a public area waiting for us to pick it up and take it to the departure desk. But at least I got a seat without any hassle.

When my MD wanted me to go to Uganda to talk to a government minister there I needed help in finding a suitable hotel. I contacted one of my ex pat friends in Zambia and he put me in touch with a Zambian lady living in London. She recommended the Fairways Hotel and asked if I would be kind enough to take a letter for her out with me and I agreed. She turned up at my office about an hour before I was due to go to the airport. Instead of a letter she had a completely full heavy duffle bag and said would I mind taking that to her family! I was somewhat taken aback! After some thought I said I could only take it if I packed it so I knew what was in it. She agreed and we tipped the contents out on the table and I was flabbergasted. The heavy items were the pipe wrench, the bath tap, the bottle of whiskey and the sweets. The not so heavy, but bulky items were the sexy ladies underwear and other clothes. Feeling obligated to help I repack the bag and headed out for what I imagined would be an eventful trip taking the duffle bag and contents as hand luggage.
At Heathrow the chap scanning the duffle bag asked if I was taking a bath as hold luggage? The real challenge came when I changed flights at Addis Ababa, it was chaos with a real scrum to get on the next flight (which I could see was already boarding). I got held up by two officials who went through the duffle bag pulling things out with delight. Holding things up they kept saying "Is this for you?" And I would reply it is a gift for a friend. They roared with laughter at the underwear! This taking things out and holding them up became repetitive and out of the corner of my eye I could see people boarding the plane. Eventually the penny dropped and I realised they wanted me to give them something. I was reluctant to do it because it wasn't mine to give but in sheer desperation I gave them a handful of sweets each saying it was a gift for their children. Immediately the bag was zipped up and I was on my way to border control who gave me a hard time insisting I was the British Prime Minister John Major travelling on a false passport! It was all very friendly but I ended up sprinting across the hot Tarmac to get on the plane. We landed safely at Entebbe AirPort and I got a taxi to the hotel which wasn't air conditioned! Neither was the taxi and it was hot!
The meeting with the lady Minister was interesting, she was well educated but I could not help noticing the pile of books on her desk all about business ethics! I also noticed that in each corner of her office there was a modern photocopier. I remarked that they must do a lot of photocopying and she explained that none of them worked as there were no photocopy maintenance companies operating in Uganda so when they broke they just ordered a new one. I wonder if all that came out of someone's foreign aide budget?
We didn't get any business out of the Ugandan government but I did get to see Lake Victoria where the River Nile flows out. The lake changes its level during the course of the seasons. Instead of building jetties out into the lake so that people can get aboard the small ferry boats the locals have developed a "spectator sport"! This involves men carrying would be passengers for a fee, on their backs and wading out to the boats. Some of the lady passengers are enormous and some of the male porters over optimistic regarding their ability. The results can be most amusing!
Where the River Nile actually exits the lake there are a series of serious rapids. As we were walking up to take a look a twelve year old boy ran up and said if we gave him some money he would jump in and swim down the rapids! I refused point blank not wishing to be a party to a suicide!  Then some other foreigners turned up and money changed hands and I was horrified! But the little boy was no fool, he ran down to the waters edge, produce a plastic oil drum and holding onto it jumped into the foaming rapids!  The current swept him down a channel between the jagged rocks and into calmer water down stream from which he alighted grinning from ear to ear!
You can have airborne excitement in the UK as well. One windy day I flew out of Gatwick when the Captain announced that breakfast would not be served as we would be wearing it! When we landed at Manchester the plane hit the ground so hard it was taken out of service! Flying back that night the replacement plane was half empty, a lot of passengers preferring the train.

I bet you have your own flying war stories!


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