Laura McDermid continues her stories about Iris McDermott in East Africa.

I resigned from my role as a commercial pilot at Air Kenya at the close of 1979 and in April the following year joined a company called Sunbird Aviation based out of Wilson Airport in Nairobi.

The fledgling airline was started by the 7th Earl of Enniskillen. Andrew Cole, who was born in England in 1942 while his father, who was born and lived in Kenya, was serving in the British army during WWII.

After education in England and six years serving in the Irish Guards, Andrew returned to Kenya where in 1972 he became a citizen.

The Wikipedia entry for the then Viscount reads: “Andrew John Gilbraith Cole, 7th Earl of Enniskillen is a British peer and landowner in Kenya. He was styled Viscount Cole from 1963 to 1989, after which he was a member of the House of Lords until 1999, although he rarely attended. He is a former managing director of Kenya Airways.

The only son of David Lowry Cole, 6th Earl of Enniskillen and his wife Sonia Mary Syers, Enniskillen was born in England in 1942 while his father, who had been born in Kenya and mostly lived there, was serving in the British army during the Second World War. He was educated at Eton College, and then on 6 May 1961 was commissioned into the Irish Guards, in which he spent five years, rising to the rank of Captain.

On his return to Kenya, Cole joined Kenya Airways. Andrew and a partner started a charter firm at Mau Narok, a sub county in Njoro, called Sunbird Charters which grew to become Sunbird Aviation.” He became a Kenyan citizen and was the company’s managing director between 1979 and 1981.”

Iris continues: “I moved from the coast up country to broaden my horizons and to gain more cross border experience with the added benefit of flying a variety of different aircraft.

This vibrant company was a magnet for eccentric people, and I met some wonderful characters the likes of WWII veteran Captain Douglas Bird aka Dicky Bird, Captain Paul Pearson an ex Spitfire pilot, and Captain Brian Nicholson, who was the former chief game warden of the Selous National Park.

Brian checked me out on the company’s C402, the Piper PA-23 Aztec and the Italian Partenavia P68B Victor, a high wing twin piston plane powered by two 200 hp Lycoming IO-360 engines which we fondly called ‘the boiled egg’ because, when observed from the front, the aeroplane resembled an egg with wings.

Many years prior, when Brian was a game warden of the Selous Game Reserve, he had taken me flying in the Tanzania National Park’s C172.

We flew up the Rufiji, the largest river in Tanzania, formed by the confluence of the Kilombero and the Luwegu rivers. It flows for about 281km northeast and east to enter the Indian Ocean opposite Mafia Island.

On this day we were scouring for the remains of the SMS Königsberg, a light cruiser of the imperial German Navy, most notable for her activities in and around German East Africa (modern Tanzania) during WWI. During the war, from October 1914 to July 1915, the river delta was the scene of a protracted naval operation and the SMS Königsberg was eventually sunk in the delta of the Rufiji by a group of British warships.

This fascinating story is the basis for one of Wilbur Smith early novels – Shout at the Devil. The story is well covered here - which writes;

“Unable to reach the German warship, the British decided to employ aircraft to either bomb, or at the very least, observe the Königsberg. This was fraught with problems as there was neither aircraft nor pilots within hundreds of miles. A pilot and aircraft were located in South Africa and sent north.

“Quickly commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, Dennis Cutler undertook the first aerial reconnaissance in East Africa. The initial flight did not go well, with his aircraft breaking down. The only way of effecting repairs was to send a warship 200 miles to Mombasa to collect a radiator from a Model T Ford. Nevertheless repairs were made, and the Königsberg was spotted from the air on 21 November. However,  because the aircraft being used was grossly underpowered, and could barely get airborne, let alone carry bombs no attack was made on the German warship. Other aircraft were sent, including some Sopwith ‘Folder’ type seaplanes. These were despatched from Bombay in early February 1915.”

These ‘Folder’ aircraft were equally unsuccessful as the tropical heat warped the wood and melted the glue that held the airframes together. Eventually two new Henri Farman and two Caudron landplanes were delivered in June 1915 and a base set up on Mafia Island.

Brian was a visionary, who never shied away from hard work. His tenure as a game warden exposed him to many dangers, of which wounded buffalo were the most lethal amongst the four-legged animals, and poachers the biggest threat on two legs. Having survived close encounters with claws, teeth, horns, spears and bullets, Brian was no girl guide.

We flew low above the river, following its twists and turns into the valley which gave life to mimosa trees with crowns as broad as clouds and long creepers and liana that strangled the sunlight and left the riverbank soothing and dark. The earth on the bank was damp and pitted with footprints of game that followed a web-work of the trails to drink at dusk and dawn, leaving their gamey smell in the air.

As the sun heated the earth, clouds began to coalesce into big white fists which blossomed into towering columns, the bottoms of which turning slate grey. The once-smooth flight suddenly transformed into a series of bumps and jolts, the soothing hum of the engine replaced by the  sounds of pelting rain and the rattle of the airframe.

‘Tighten your belt Iris, we’re in for a rough ride.’

In all the time I’d known him, Brian always appeared calm and composed, never showing any outward signs of distress. Now as I sat behind him, I noticed a nerve on the back of his neck begin to throb in tandem with the rapid rise and fall of the altimeter needle. When we eventually emerged through the other end of the storm, the nerve settled down again. I took comfort from the knowledge that a brave man like Brian could still be scared shitless by the elements.