Let me tell YOU about the worst passenger in the world.

Any first-year trainee shrink would’ve warned me not to fly with this guy, based on the five shrinkery categories – where the spectrum of scores ranges from one on the left-hand side to ten on the right:

• Conscientiousness (efficient/organised vs extravagant/careless)

• Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs challenging/callous)

• Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs resilient/confident)

• Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs consistent/cautious)

• Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs solitary/reserved)

First, I’ll tell you what happened… and then we’ll look at his scores.


You know how you can hate someone the moment you meet them? Well, that’s how it was with this guy. He was big and loud and bad mannered. He was like a bloody Rottweiler who thinks you’re going to confiscate his bone. I’m tired and grumpy. It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve just popped into my tiny office on the old airfield at George to collect some papers. Suddenly the light is blocked off by this bully-boy filling the doorframe. Before he speaks, I hate him. He’s 35-ish and has the demeanour of one who’s just bought out Donald Trump. He’s the sort of guy who’d take the kids to school in a Hummer with extra spotlights on the roof. He seems equally disappointed in my appearance. “Are you the only instructor around here?”

‘Strangers were trying to kill us’

He’s obviously hoping for a more wholesome specimen – someone with four gold stripes would be preferable to me in shorts and flops. I confirm I am indeed the only one, and can see this information gives him no pleasure. “I want to do a conversion on that aeroplane.  ”He backs out of the door and points at a sadlooking180 Comanche in a sagging, open-fronted hangar. I’m now torn between my desire to keep my struggling little flying school afloat, and my wish to shoot this man in the head. I compromise. “Sorry, I can’t help. That’s not my aeroplane.” “Well, whose is it, man? Just get hold of the owner and tell him I want to fly it.” “It belongs to Dr Steyn, it’s not insured and he doesn’t hire it out. Anyway, he’s not around today.” “What do you mean, ‘Not around’? He has to be somewhere. Just get him on the phone – I want to talk to him. ”I hand him the phone book and push past to get into the fresh air outside. But I can hear him through the open door. “Steyn, this is Advocate Flash Fourie,” he says his name as if we should recognise it – like Jack the Ripper. (I’m not using his real name, for reasons of cowardice.)He’s shouting at the mild-mannered Dr Steyn. “Well, I’ll get the bloody thing insured. Goodbye. ”

He bashes the phone down. Picks it up again, dials some cowering broker and barks instructions at them. I’ve no idea how he manages to get it all together on New Year’s Day, but he does. We’re soon walking across the concrete towards the dejected ZS-CIZ, with her fading blue and white paint. We pre-flight the aircraft inside the hangar because I suspect I’ll quickly find a reason not to fly it. Although the Comanche is in a miserable state of neglect, and obviously hasn’t been flown for some time, I can find no serious fault with it. Even peering into the gloom of the engine compartment reveals nothing but a bit of rust, some cobwebs and a minor oil leak. It has hinge-open cowls like the older Cherokees. I pull India Zulu out of the hangar without assistance while His Highness is busy with something more important. We climb aboard and strap ourselves into the leather seats. A Comanche feels like a sports car.

The long bonnet and the gracefully tapered wings tell you that this is a thoroughbred. I normally love flying them, but today I’m hoping for a flat battery. No such luck, the engine springs into life on the third compression and settles into a comfortable rumble while all the needles move into their proper places. My next hope is for a mag-drop at the threshold, but again the bleeding barrister has things his way. I don’t like the man, and I don’t trust the aeroplane. I tell Flash that we’ll do the entire conversion within gliding distance of the field. “What’s wrong with you, man? Are you scared? ”I start to tell him about the Live Cowards Club, but realise I’m wasting my breath. Shortly after this, the wheels leave the grass; my discontent with the low-life lawyer evaporates.

Daan de la Rey – with grandson – and plastic hand.


And now I think I’ve found the formula for the perfect passenger. As before, I’ll tell you the story first, and look at the shrink scores at the end. I was relaxing in the SAAF pub at Rundu one evening during SA’s disagreement with Castro. It had to be the best pub on the border. It was an outside affair with tables and chairs scattered amongst the trees. Bushbabies leaping from branch to branch entertain us every evening. The wooden bar counter was long enough to water a herd of buffalo. Most of the activity was at one end, but I noticed a solitary figure sipping his beer at the other. Every now and then he’d have company, but it never lasted long – as if there was something vaguely uncomfortable about being in his presence.

When my glass was due for a refill I wandered over and stood next to him. I saw the problem immediately – the guy had no hands. His left arm was cut off short, and his right was fitted with an artificial hand that was able to open and close so he could hold his beer glass. “Bloody hell, what happened to you?” I blurted before I could stop myself. He greeted me warmly and explained that about two years earlier there was a landmine that didn’t go off when it was meant to, and then exploded when they thought it wouldn’t. We clicked immediately. I’m not sure why; perhaps strangers usually tiptoed around his injuries or pretended nothing was wrong. Whatever the reason, he seemed to open up to me. I later learned that he was an extremely private person, so I was greatly honoured to have his confidence.

‘You had confidence in my abilities’

I’m fascinated by matters mechanical, so I soon had him explaining how his beer hand worked. The action of flexing the remaining muscles of his forearm caused the hand to open and close. He had learned to rethink which muscle did what. One of the extraordinary things he told me was his bank didn’t need a new sample of his signature – it was unchanged despite him having to use a completely different set of muscles to move the pen. Your handwriting comes from your head, not your hand, apparently.

We chatted long into the night. His name is Daan de la Rey, and he was a Captain with some special branch of the army that did secret and dangerous things, which I didn’t ask about. We met several times after that and always got on well. War has a way of intensifying relationships. A few weeks later, Ops gave me a mission to take a couple of pongos, or brown jobs, as we rudely called the army, to Ondangwa – some 300 miles to the east – and bring them back in the evening.

My outbound pax were Daan and someone important, to whom I wasn’t introduced. We operated everything on a need-to-know basis. They were preparing for a meeting and both satin the back of the aircraft shuffling papers and making notes. Navigation in that area called for detailed map reading. GPS didn’t exist and the few VORTAC stations in the area were weak and unreliable. NDBs were also weak, with a range under ten miles; they were only switched on for instrument traffic doing let downs.

The countryside is flat and featureless. There are no hills and the difference in height between Rundu and Ondangwa is about 40 feet. The only things to nav by were the occasional shona or omuramba – a sort of cross between a pan and an ancient dry riverbed. The flight should’ve taken just over two hours each way, but was a lot longer because strangers were trying to kill us. Before setting course, we had to circle up to 10,000 feet over the airfield while Alouette III gunships protected us. The baddies knew that if they took a pot shot at us, they’d give away their position and instantly be ventilated by 20 mm cannon shells. And the same at the other end.

We’d arrive at10,000 feet over the centre of the airfield, then do a steep spiral descent while another Alo gunship gave us ‘top cover’. The idea was that at 10,000 feet – roughly 6500feet above the ground – we were out of range of small arms fire and, in theory, too insignificant to have SAM7s wasted on us. However, theory and practice aren’t always compatible. A mate of mine, Hennie van Rensburg, once took a SAM7 through the front luggage compartment of his Cherokee Six. It didn’t detonate and it must’ve missed the engine mountings but it made big entry and exit holes. It hit an oil pipe which covered the windscreen in oil, obliging Hennie to do his forced landing while looking out of the storm window.

 Anyhow, on our return flight in the late afternoon, Daan was my only passenger, so he sat in the front with me. The meeting was over, he was relaxed and had nothing to do for two-and-a-half hours. I asked him if he’d like to fly the aeroplane. At first, he was hesitant. He only had a hook on his left arm, and no elbow, and the right was his beer-holding plastic hand. But after I showed him how to maintain heading and altitude, he cautiously took the controls.

The first couple of minutes were exploratory and a bit wobbly, but he quickly got the hang of it. And soon, he had a look of utter concentration, determined to fly as accurately as possible. I slid my seat right back, rested my head against the window and shut my eyes, just taking the occasional furtive peep to see that he was okay. I’ve never seen a pupil concentrate so hard, not only on getting it right but keeping it right – for a very long time. The sweat was running down his face, and he didn’t have a hand to wipe it off. A couple of times I asked if he’d like me to takeover for a bit, but he wasn’t interested.

For some reason, Rundu didn’t feel like giving us an Alo for top-cover; I suspect the pilots had retired to the pub or were having their dinner. Anyhow, this meant we could do a normal descent from 40 miles out. Again I asked Daan whether he’d like me to takeover, and again he wasn’t interested. With huge concentration, he managed to richen the mixture by pushing it with his hook and then using it to reduce the power slightly to give us a gradual descent to the circuit. I didn’t touch the controls until he had us on short final. That was all in the early 80s.

The Gleitch has forbidden me to tell stories about yesteryear, but toughies, I’ve done it now. Anyhow, a couple of days ago I managed to track Daan down. I hadn’t seen or heard from him for40 years. What a reunion that was. He’s now71; he retired from the army as Deputy Director and he held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel when demilitarised. He lives an active life on a smallholding near Pretoria with his lovely wife, Gretha. He’s a lucky man, his four children, and a bunch of grandchildren whom he adores, all live within 15minute’s drive. His plastic fingers don’t work on touchscreens so he has to use his nose, and he types with a pencil in his mouth.

‘Jim, that flight changed my life’

Daan still enjoys horse riding at an age when many men are at the slippers-by-the-fireside stage of life. When I phoned him I said, “Daan, you probably won’t remember me but I’m one of the guys who flew you around on the border, and I got you to fly the aeroplane from Ondangwa to Rundu.”There was an embarrassingly long silence to the point where I thought he hadn’t heard me. Then he said, his voice croaky with emotion, “Jim, that flight changed my life. The fact that you had confidence in my abilities, rather than suspicion of my disabilities, changed the way I looked at life.”Daan has just written to me, he says, “I can recall the breath-taking scenery with the sun setting and reflecting a red glow far into Angola.

Daan de la Rey – on the far right – with all his arms.

Everything looked so perfect and peaceful in sharp contrast of what is happening on the ground.” If you asked me what my most memorable flight was, I’d say either my first solo… or that magical evening flight along the Kavango River with Daan. He was the ideal passenger. So how would I rate him on the shrinks’ chart? For Conscientiousness, he’d get a ten. Agreeableness, another ten. Zero for Neuroticism. Openness to experience gives him another ten. And the last one – Extraversion, which looks at outgoing/energetic at one end of the scale, and solitary/reserved at the other end – well, I’d give him about seven for being more of a quiet, modest man. I am hugely privileged to call him my friend. So if you’re looking for the perfect passenger, search for a Daan clone; there are not many around.


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