Laura McDermid – Thanks to the healthy demand for Miraa khat in Somalia, where it was legal to chew the leaves but not to grow them, thousands of Kenyans depended on the trade of this plant for their livelihood, me being one of them.
MY JOB WAS TO FLY this herbal stimulant daily from Wilson Airport in Nairobi to the North-eastern border with Somalia, Mandera, where it was sold.
Then the Somali government suspended the Miraa Trade. After dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in January 1991, Somalia did not have a functional government, which resulted in the complete collapse of state institutions. Trouble was, in these tumultuous times, the suspension could last years.
Added to this there was an aviation fuel shortage in Kenya, which had a negative effect on chartered flights, and pilots were in low demand.
My mother’s words kept running through my mind ‘Idle hands make for the devil’s work, Iris.’
I could always do some work for my brother, Danny, who was a professional hunter in the Rift Valley, but having done that before, I was not overly keen to go back to organising safaris. As I was wrestling with this dilemma the phone rang, and as if conjured by my thoughts, it was Danny on the line.
“Iris, I have a job for you. Do you remember John Hall? He runs that 10,000-acre cattle ranch north of Nanyuki called Enasoit’?
Memories of John Hall came flooding back, I’d met him at Wilson Airport a few times. He had owned a few planes, the most recent one a Navion Rangemaster 5Y-AFM which had been nicknamed the ‘Golden Rocket’ due to its brilliant gold and orange paint-work.
‘The Navion got as far as Lagos’
“Yes,” I replied. “Didn’t he replace that V-tail Bonanza he scribbled with the Golden Rocket?”
Due to the remoteness and size of the cattle ranches, many farmers in East Africa at the time owned planes. Not long after he bought the Navion Rangemaster, John had an unfortunate incident soon after takeoff when the engine cut out. They speculated that there was an airlock in the fuel system. This resulted in a forced landing on a neighbouring farm.
Without engine power he was unable to lower the undercarriage which meant that the Navion skidded along its belly, the prop mowing everything in its path like some deranged metallic torpedo.
The owner of the farm had witnessed the accident and came to help. The propellor was mortally damaged so it was decided to lift the aircraft off its belly by placing bales of hay under the wings, until such time that the propeller could be replaced.
During the night cattle got into that field, found the bales of hay supporting the plane, and proceeded to eat the hay. Like a scene from a Gary Larson cartoon, the hefty bovines appeared to have performed acrobatics on the wings, dimpling the metal until it resembled the skin of an orange.
The Rangemaster was dismantled and taken to Wilson Airport on the back of two lorries, where nobody was prepared to take on the challenge of fixing it. As John Hall had the agency for Navion in East Africa, he was expected to sort the problem out himself.
The plane was finally flown to Addis Ababa in two aircraft: a VC10 and a Dakota, where it took fourteen months to rebuild.
A few months later coming in to land at a neighbouring ranch, the front wheel shot back into the wheel well, resulting in a nose dive along the grass airstrip, crumpling the fuselage and twisting the propellor into a pretzel. That was the end of 5Y-AFM.
“John decided to buy another Navion from the States, but there is a problem that he hopes you’ll be able to help with,” explained Danny.
John had contacted the Navion Society in Texas, and purchased a second Navion Rangemaster, N2486T.
An Irish ferry pilot was hired to fly the plane to Kenya from the USA. Money was wired to his bank account to cover his fee as well as a bit extra for unexpected expenses. In due course, the aircraft was fitted out with equipment for the long flight, including an auxiliary fuel tank installed behind the pilot’s seat, together with wingtip tanks.
This enabled the Navion Rangemaster to fly for 2000nm, a considerable range for a single-engine, light aircraft.
The Navion got as far as Lagos in West Africa, where it was seized and impounded by the military for not having permission to fly into Nigeria. The pilot, being ignorant of African bureaucracy, was promptly arrested and jailed.
‘I’d often feel the hostile eyes’
Then John got word that the pilot had bribed his way out of jail using the ‘emergency’ funds and had returned to Ireland, abandoning the aircraft in Lagos. John and a representative from the United States embassy in Nairobi spent months trying to get the aircraft released, to no avail.
Finally, John decided to hire a pilot from Nairobi to collect the plane from Lagos and fly it back. It needed an experienced pilot with a full instrument rating, but even experienced pilots refused the flight; insisting that it was too dangerous to fly the six hours over the dense forests of West Africa in a single-engine plane.
As fate would have it, my brother Danny and John bumped into each other in Nanyuki and got chatting, as one does in remote towns. John told Danny that he had not managed to find anyone willing to travel to Nigeria to fly his aircraft back to Kenya.
“Iris you are one of the few people in East Africa qualified and experienced enough to help,” Danny stated. “No one besides John is rated on the Navion, but he doesn’t have an instrument rating.”
I possessed an FAA ATPL Single Engine and Multi Engine license, with an Instrument Rating, which meant that I was allowed to fly all November Registered aircraft that weighed up to 5670kg without having to do a type-rating on specific aircraft. I had recently returned from Florida where I did my annual renewal.
“I’m happy to collect the aircraft on condition that I am allowed to take an engineer with me. She’s been standing for over a year and we have no idea what condition she is in. For all we know she has been left outside and is a rusted hulk,” I replied.
The next day Danny called to say that John accepted my conditions and would cover all our expenses.
I asked my dear friend Ashraf Kahn, a pilot and an engineer to accompany me. He too was keen for an adventure and agreed without hesitation. Next I called Jonathan, a friend who supplied the aviation industry with HF and handheld radios. I filled him in on my upcoming trip and discussed my concerns with him. No one had seen the aircraft and we weren’t sure what kind of navigation equipment it had.
He lent us a handheld King Radio, which could pick up VOR and communicate with the tower or whatever frequency was required. On top of that, he lent us one of the first mobile GPS units called a Trimpack, which was developed by Trimble for the military who nicknamed it SLGR “small, lightweight GPS receiver”.
Being a pilot himself, Jonathan understood the predicament we were in and knew that these instruments could be the difference between success and failure.
Ashraf and I eventually left for Lagos Airport on Ethiopian Airlines and sat in the back row sipping expensive champagne on John’s Account.
Having heard terrible things about Lagos, we were both nervous, but sailed through customs without a hitch and found ourselves a reasonable hotel near the airport. As in so many African countries, the mighty greenback American Dollar was king, and thanks to John we were able to pay cash for everything we needed.
The following day I packed some sandwiches, water and a few books to read, and we headed back to the airport. Being familiar with Africa Time, we went prepared. I shoved some $5 notes in various pockets for the inevitable ‘negotiations’.
We had to find someone in authority who would be willing to help us locate the aircraft. First, we tried the Civil Aviation Authority. They said that it was a military matter and was out of their jurisdiction, but they offered to make some inquiries when a $5 bill accidentally ‘fell’ out of my pocket.
We waited for two days and were referred to Colonel Dijon. Once we found Colonel Dijon’s office, we provided the aide with a high-level account of our story. The expression on his face was that of a slow-witted man fondling an unaccustomed thought.
We were told to wait whilst he went to speak to the Colonel. Ashraf and I were old hands at this, and so we waited. Throughout the day people came and went and still we waited.
I’d often feel the hostile eyes of the aide boring into my head. Whenever I looked at him, he pretended to smile, his mouth twisting into a toothy snarl.At 17h00 the sullen clerk told us to come back the next day.
Arriving the next morning, we saw that we weren’t the only ones waiting. There were a bunch of people with cameras and notepads whom I presumed to be journalists.
The aide gleefully ushered them into the Colonel’s office, his sunny demeanour the opposite of the surly creature from yesterday.
You can imagine our surprise and confusion when ten minutes later, the door to the Colonel’s office opened, and we were asked to come in.
Pinpricks of sweat were erupting all over Colonel Dijon’s big cannonball head as he addressed the press speaking English with a French accent.
“Bonjour Madam and Monsieur, zees are ze pilots who landed without permission and zen left ze country illegally without advising ze authorities.”
Ashraf and I looked at each other in disbelief. The moronic aide had given the Colonel his own interpretation of the events.
You could hear a pin drop; the journalists were all staring at us expectantly.
“Ahem Sir, may I have a private word with you? You have unfortunately been incorrectly informed, and I have no wish to embarrass you in front of all these people.” I kept my tone as convivial as possible, holding his gaze until he broke contact.
A white woman being hostile to an African man in power was foolish; however, I had to show that I was not submissive. I could tell that he was conflicted, but he seemed to acknowledge the sincerity in my voice and asked the journalists to leave his office.
We sat down and I laid the folder containing all the documentation on his desk. I showed him the crumpled contract that had been drawn up between the Irish pilot and John Hall. I produced the receipt bearing the official red rubber stamp that proved John had paid to have the aircraft released, and painstakingly explained how Ashraf and I had come to be in Lagos.
‘a fool and his money are soon parted‘
“Hehe, a fool and his money are soon parted, non”? The Colonel found the story about the Irishman running away with the money hilarious, his fat belly jiggling as he shook with laughter. We were asked to come back to his office in the morning, the Colonel assuring us that we’d be taken to the aircraft.
Now it was the aide’s turn to look confused when we shook hands with the Colonel as we bade one another farewell.
Knowing how close we had come to potential disaster; Ashraf and I celebrated our good fortune with a few very stiff whiskies that evening.
The following morning, we were introduced to our escort, Manuel, who was assigned to drive us around. We were also handed ‘free movement’ passes by the now obsequious aide, who could not look me in the eye.
We located the little Rangemaster, which had been towed by the military to their section of Lagos airport, safely in a hangar.
Soon we had the doors and hatches open and the cowlings off. Ashraf was crawling over and under the plane whilst I was poking and prodding everything inside.
We turned the prop, kicked the tyres, wiggled the nuts and bolts, and finally handed Manuel a list of the supplies and spares we needed.
The military was now incredibly helpful and within a few hours, Manuel had returned with everything on our list and helped us recharge the battery which was completely flat.
The following day Ashraf installed the battery and checked the electrics and engine.
We changed the oil, brake fluid, and hydraulics; pumped the tyres, and filled the fuel tanks, making sure that there were no leaks.
We started the engine, making sure all the correct pressures came up. Then we taxied around the perimeter testing the brakes.
The plane was ready for her flight across darkest Africa; but were we?