Thursday, October 21, 2010

Africa strikes again . . .

I'm sure that most of you have, by now, seen the news report of a plane that crashed in the Congo, in Africa, when a crocodile got out of the bag in which a passenger had smuggled it aboard. The terrified passengers crowded to the front of the plane, a Czech-built Let L-410 Turbolet, to get away from the beast.

Let L-410 Turbolet (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

This upset the aircraft's balance, and the pilots were unable to control it. Twenty people died, including both pilots, and only one passenger survived to tell the story. (The crocodile survived as well, until rescuers and local villagers beat it to death. Tough cookies, crocodiles . . . )

I was sad to read the story, of course, but not surprised by the details. I've flown many thousands of miles on 'bush aircraft' across much of Africa, and I've had all too many near-misses and weird experiences aboard them to be surprised by the story of the crocodile in the carry-on bag. Oddities of which I'm aware (some of which I personally experienced) include (but are not limited to):

  • The group of tribesmen aboard a Zambian Antonov An-26 who lit a fire on the bare floor of the cargo hold to cook a haunch of goat for their lunch - at 7,000 feet!;
  • The villager in Lesotho who carried a container of gasoline aboard a Lesotho Airways de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, but failed to properly secure the lid, so that a cascade of gasoline spilt all over her (and her fellow passengers) as the pilot clawed for altitude after take-off from a short mountain airstrip. Since several passengers were smoking at the time, this caused a certain amount of . . . er . . . dismay, and the rapid (read: immediate!) adoption of a 'no smoking' policy for the rest of the flight;
  • An interesting landing in West Africa aboard a Nigerian Fokker F27, involving no less than five low passes along the runway to try to clear grazing cattle out of the way. The plane was too low on fuel for another pass, and some cows remained on the runway (which was nothing more than a moderately short-mown grass strip in the midst of taller grass and bushes), so the pilot gritted his teeth and came in for a landing. By dint of much swerving and bush-bashing (to the detriment of the undercarriage and paint), he avoided all the cows, and managed to bring the aircraft safely to a halt - whereupon the herd boys descended in a screaming body, maintaining vigorously that he'd scared their cows, which would put them off their milk production that night, and demanding compensation. The resulting . . . er . . . negotiations (for want of a better description) might best be described as loud, emphatic and not according to the rules of parliamentary procedure!
  • A landing at a strip near the Okavango Delta aboard a Cessna 185, where the pilot was unaware that the strip had recently been flooded, and was still very waterlogged. On touching down, the plane ran ten feet or so, then the wheels sank into the mud and it flipped neatly over its propeller, landing upside-down on the wing. Fortunately, no fire resulted, and the pilot and his passenger were able to get out and wobble away from the inverted aircraft without further incident. They spent a few uncomfortable hours waiting for rescue by another aircraft, this one equipped with fat tires that could land on soft terrain without the problems they'd had with their aircraft's standard wheels. The discomfort was mostly due to the animals - including Cape buffalo and a couple of lions - who eyed them with interest from a few hundred yards away. Fortunately, none of them decided to take a closer look.
  • An aborted takeoff in an Ilyushin Il-18 in Tanzania. The plane got halfway down the runway before the pilots decided they didn't have enough speed to proceed, and rammed the propellers into reverse pitch. We went off the end of the runway and into the dirt before they managed to bring the aircraft to a halt. Subsequent investigation showed that the plane was more than 10,000 pounds overloaded - something which the ground handlers had neglected to mention to the pilots . . .

That last incident was a doozy. I don't mind admitting that as soon as my luggage had been retrieved from the plane, I took a cab to the hotel, dumped my bags in a room, went down to the bar, and consumed several stiff belts before I began to feel human once more!

Here's a video clip of an Il-18 at an airport in Cabinda, a territory of Angola, also aborting its takeoff, with similar consequences. I recommend watching it in full-screen mode, if possible. It gives you some idea of the 'sportiness' of African aviation. Now, imagine yourself as a passenger inside the plane, and you'll get an idea of what aviators mean by 'pucker factor' . . .



reflectoscope said...

I heard one about smugglers taking livestock from eastern Russia to Alaska to sell. One day one of the cows got all kinds of rowdy forcing the crew to shove the animal out the back.

I heard another one about a Japanese fishing trawler in the Beaufort Sea being hit by a cow.

I don't put much creedance in either, but they do make pretty good drinking stories! In any case you've shown that the truth is if not stranger than fiction, than certainly at least as exciting.


Bill N. said...

I figured out why the lions didn't have any interest in you when the 185 flipped upside while landing. There was no fire and the lions wanted their priest well done and you were only rare :-))