One warm December, evening I overheard a story in the Lanseria Airport bar. A private pilot from Salisbury, Rhodesia, had bought a new Cherokee Six from the factory and entrusted its delivery to a US airline pilot friend.
This gentleman had wished to buy a new 300 hp version of the aircraft, but as none were immediately available he bought a 260 model, so as not to have to join a waiting list for the more powerful machine.
Well, this ferry tank equipped Cherokee Six, in capable hands, left the US and headed for Africa. Sadly, in those pre-GPS days, after much dodging of fearsome thunderstorms in the Gulf of Guinea in an aircraft not equipped with weather radar or a storm scope, he diverted to the nearest available airport in an African coastal city a few degrees north of the Equator.
The next morning the pilot paid the landing fees, but when trying to file an onward flight plan was told that it could not be accepted, as the aircraft had no diplomatic flight clearance to land in that country.
He explained that he had diverted there due to a weather emergency, and he now wished to continue his lawful flight to Southern Africa. This was refused. After several fruitless days of unproductive meetings with government officials, he ran out of time, and had to fly back to the US by commercial airlines. He left the Cherokee Six in what he assumed were the reputable hands of a local Aircraft Maintenance Organization.
As a freelance pilot, with the possibility of an aviation adventure in prospect, I learned the name of the aircraft owner, and after a telephone conversation I coincidentally got a lift to Salisbury in a Cherokee Six from a returning farmer. There I spent a couple of days with the pleasant farmer and his artistic wife in their upmarket homestead.
It was arranged that I should collect the aircraft and armed with appropriate letters of introduction and other relevant documents, together with a wad of US dollar American Express traveller’s cheques, I was ready for the adventure.
He paid my airfare back to Johannesburg, and a few days later I flew out by commercial airline to Nairobi, and then boarded a Nigerian Airways Boeing 727 which stopped in the West African country, prior to proceeding on to Lagos.
On final approach to the runway, I was surprised that though flying in mid-afternoon daylight, we were enveloped in a dense haze. Looking almost straight down, I only glimpsed the runway moments before touch down.
A fellow passenger then explained to me that this was the dreaded ‘Harmattan’ of blowing sand from the Sahara, which blurred the landscape from the end of November to the middle of March.
Once free of customs and irritation, I took an airport taxi to the hangar at a distant corner of the airfield, where I was directed to the owner’s office.
The heat and humidity were fierce. A large, disagreeable looking, unshaven middle aged European man opened the door, and gave me an inquiring look.
He asked in poor English; ‘What you want?’
‘I’ve come to collect that Cherokee Six. The one standing over there under the palm tree, with flat tyres, covered in bird droppings.
He took a step back. ‘You must pay for hangar.’
‘No. The aircraft is not in a hangar, and has not been for many months.’
‘You pay,’ he said more loudly. ‘And also, I have done work on plane, so is extra money,’ he added.
I put my bags down. ‘Be kind enough to mind these for a few minutes, I’m going to have a look at the aircraft.’
As I walked away from his office, I saw him sit down heavily, and reach for the telephone.
That Cherokee hadn’t seen the inside of a hangar for months as it was covered in fine Harmattan desert sand. Looking inside, some of the ferry tank system had been removed,
I turned the prop over several times, gratified that it moved normally, though I doubted the engine had been run for months.
The proprietor came out and beckoned me back to his office. He said, “You cannot leave before next week. Paper work must be done, and now everything is closed.’
To mollify him, I handed over a one hundred US dollar traveller cheque.
It was a Friday afternoon, approaching Christmas, and I learnt a statutory lesson right then. ‘Never start a potentially problematic venture in a foreign country on a Friday, in case things go wrong. You cannot do normal business over the weekend. Nor can you contact a lawyer.
‘Where you stay?’ the man asked,
‘I haven’t decided,’ I replied.
‘You stay Nova Hotel. I call taxi.’
I nodded agreement. Walking out to the taxi I noticed a slim forty-something white man in the hangar. He gave me a friendly nod, and then resumed reading an aircraft logbook.
In the comfortable but expensive hotel, I had a welcome shower and headed for the bar.
Relaxing with a beer, the man I had seen in the hangar approached me. I think he was a central European. He spoke excellent English.
‘So, you’ve come to take that abandoned Cherokee Six to rebel Rhodesia?
‘No,’ I lied. ‘I’m taking it to Botswana.’
He smiled and took a swig of his beer. ‘Well you’ve caused quite a stir here. I’m the Piper Aircraft Rep. for the Middle East and Africa. I’m here on a brief visit. I can’t be seen to be helping you, but they want to steal that aircraft.’
‘Who?’ I asked.
He mentioned the name of the local aircraft AMO that I’d met, then said he’s in league with a greedy politician, and also some other unsavoury, politically connected characters.
‘What do you suggest I do?’
He looked me in the eye and replied; ‘Just leave it here. They will try and extract money from you for spurious fees, such as a compass swing, which hasn’t been done, and whatever else they think they can charge you for, possibly even suggest a new aircraft service bulletin needs complying with, or similar. Then when they’ve pretty much bled you dry, arrest you on some spurious charge. Or, if you’re lucky, kick you out of the country, without the aircraft. I suggest you let the insurance company sort it out and leave here on an airliner. By the way, please keep our conversation to yourself. ‘Then he added, ‘I am flying back to Europe tomorrow evening,’
This revelation rather spoiled my appetite. But I thanked the gent for his advice, had a few more drinks and considered my options. It seemed that somehow ‘liberating’ the aircraft would be the only method to accomplish my mission and get paid.
On the Monday, expecting a lengthy delay, I moved to a less expensive hotel. I frequented the airport each day, awaiting the arrival of the liberating paperwork. This was not forthcoming.
I became friendly with one of the young French speaking charter pilots who worked for the aircraft sales and maintenance facility where the Cherokee Six had now been pulled into the hangar.
The charter pilot disliked the AMO owner intensely and echoed the warning that the proprietor would keep trying to milk funds from me for as long as he could.
The AMO owner then suggested that the aircraft needed an oil and filter change at the least, after its long flight from America. I agreed, and we negotiated a price.
Later when the charter pilot arrived back from his daily Piper Aztec flight to a nearby Atlantic island, he suggested he drive me to the airport restaurant for a coffee.
I asked him if he had any suggestions for me.
He replied; ‘Do you speak French?’
‘Are you happy to fly in this very low visibility harmattan weather?’ he asked.
‘Yes, as long as there aren’t any embedded thunderstorms in it.’
He said; ‘I heard you got a ground power start and ran the engine this morning to check the magnetos and propeller. Did you notice that the left wing is full of fuel, and the right wing almost empty?’
‘Yes, why is that?’
‘The right wing has been drained a little at a time over the months, and used for cleaning, and one of the staff has occasionally siphoned off a few litres to run his Peugeot.’
‘Well, I can always refuel.’
‘Perhaps not. I heard that he has already told the staff not to refuel you without his permission.’
‘I see. I have flown aircraft with that type of fuel imbalance before. It’s not a problem unless we encounter turbulence’.
The French pilot stroked his chin. ‘Thursday is my day off, and the boss is going to the capital for the day. I have a plan. It may be risky, but as long as the Harmattan is blowing, and if your plane is fully serviceable, it should work. Of course, I would expect to be well rewarded as this could cost me my job. Although I’m putting in my notice at the end of the month anyway.’
He told me his plan, and my heartbeat quickened at the brazen ingenuity he proposed.
‘Let me buy you lunch,’ I said. “I think we may be able to resolve this tricky situation.’
We discussed the possibilities. I haggled about his fee and we came to an expensive compromise. The fee was to be paid in full once the aircraft was free and clear on the ground in a different country. We shook hands on the deal.
The Cherokee had the oil and filter changes, the tyres were pumped, the seats that had been removed were stowed in the back of the aircraft, and I requested the right front seat be refitted. However, some of the ferry system plumbing had been misplaced, together with a ferry tank.
I peeled off a few hundred dollar American Express travellers’ cheques from the thinning cheque book for the proprietor, who then told me that permission from the Government had still not arrived, but should be forthcoming in writing, in a few days. Perhaps next week.
I indicated my displeasure, then he said he would act as my agent to achieve this for a fee. I demurred and told him I would pay him upon receipt of that documentation. Then I mentioned to him that I was running short of funds, which I would need for the forthcoming trip, and that they should arrive in a few days’ time. This seemed to please him. However, I was buying time until Thursday.
After breakfast on Thursday, the charter pilot arrived at my hotel. I handed him my passport and bags plus three hundred dollars in travellers cheques as part of our plan.
I then I took a taxi to the airport. When I arrived at the hangar I told one of the office staff that I was going to taxi the Cherokee Six to an avionics workshop which was several hundred metres away, well out of sight of the AMO location.
Once there I performed a pre-flight without arousing attention and shortly after that the young off-duty charter pilot parked his car nearby, handed me my passport, complete with today’s departure stamp in it, then we transferred my suitcase into the aircraft nose locker. and I placed my flight bag in the cabin.
He extracted 5 ten litre plastic containers of Avgas and a funnel from the boot of his car. We poured them all into the right main fuel tank. I took the left seat, started the engine, and turned on the avionics. The charter pilot in the right seat communicated with ATC in French, and we were given taxi instructions. Then he said, ‘Let me taxi the plane, I know the way, then you do the take-off.’
The harmattan was in full force, with visibility so poor that we were concerned that the airport may go below minimums, and close. However, air traffic was still moving, albeit IFR.
My companion still speaking French, used a local aircraft registration and mentioned our destination as being a small unmanned airfield in the south east of the country, about a fifty minute flight away,
My new friend received and read back our flight clearance in French.
I asked him what aircraft carried the registration he was using.
‘It belongs to a Cherokee Six in a private hangar. The propeller has been removed for overhaul.’
I smiled. The other Cherokee was blue and white, while ours was yellow and white, but, the chance of anyone being able to determine what colour we were from the tower in the prevailing harmattan conditions was negligible. A plus was that our aircraft was one of the first of its era to use the small American registration letters.
A few minutes later we received takeoff clearance, and I entered the runway and applied full power. Being at sea level the aircraft accelerated enthusiastically, and I could see straight ahead with marginally acceptable runway visual range. Glancing towards the terminal building, it was an almost invisible shadow in the enveloping haze.
Mindful of the heavier left wing I rotated into the murk. A susurrus hissing sound ensued, which I suspected was generated by air laden sand flowing over the windscreen, though curiously this abated after a few moments.
The French pilot laughed and clapped me on the back. I grinned and felt a surge of adrenalin replace my days of apprehension.
We had about 50 US gallons of fuel available, which at normal power using about 15 US gals an hour should afford us a little over three hours endurance at around 125 Knots. Adequate for the distance we needed to fly, with a reasonable reserve.
A little later I moved east to fly about 500 metres offshore to minimise warm air ground induced turbulence, and my co-pilot explained the horrors we might expect if we were forced down, or otherwise needed to land in the small country whose air space we would be entering.
A while later, we cleared Equatorial Guinea. The harmattan lessened and visibility improved. I asked my co-pilot if the ATC we had left behind would recognise his voice, and cause trouble for him.
He laughed and said, ’No, nothing is recorded, and all was fixed with a bottle of good wine and some dollars.’