This Story always garners quite a bit of attention when told again, and again at parties etc… I especially dislike telling this story in front of strangers at the behest of friends… fearing this is the only thing they'll remember me by…
For the general public: please remember that herewith you get 17 years of otherwise uneventful, routine flying, compressed into a few stories. Obviously only the more memorable occasions are shared. All the boring stuff of every day would make you stop reading; it's only the more hair-raising stories that end up in print. I mean: no good story telling ever started with the words: "Well, there we were, eating our salads…" To my colleagues out there and more especially potential future employers: please note that this is a work of FICTION.
I was working at a little flight school as an instructor on Cessna 172's and 182s, freelancing while waiting for someone to give me a job or a leg up in this "Empty Promises" industry. The other instructors and I were talking "Double K, middle A" in our flight school's Wendy house (a wooden shed), parading as an office and briefing room on the apron. The admin lady was trying hard to concentrate on her task at hand which was almost impossible with everyone trying to get a good story in. At least we had aircon in the relentless heat of the summer; I have fond memories of the smell of ever-present wood paint peeling or melting off, different aftershaves mixed with honest sweat, the noise and smells of engines starting or shutting down, lots of laughter and the feeling and weight of the white board marker in my hand when explaining the same stuff again and again to the next hopeful PPL student.
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By the way, in my experience, adult students are more motivated even though usually time strapped, whereas the young guns pick up things quicker, but come ill-prepared to the next lesson, only interested in the most necessary details; and because they're not paying for themselves, can end up taking longer to get their private pilot license.
We were contemplating making another round of coffee (most pilots are coffee addicts due to the different time zones or alternating day and night flights), when in walked a CPL pilot none of us had met before. Which is quite astounding in this relatively small world of aviation…
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He looked, well … finished. Completely dishevelled, his blondish, curly hair standing up in all directions, where he had tried to pull it out, and his shirt had come out of his uniform pants on one side. His tie was skew and his armpits and most of his shirt was wet with sweat.
"Man, you won't believe what happened to me today. I need a dop!"
"Shame, man, come in, we'll give you a coffee."
"So, what happened?"
"Guys, you won't believe this. I still can't believe this, but I landed on the wrong runway today. With pax. Four effing pax. And I go and land at the wrong blerrie runway. I can't believe it!"
We all looked at each other in a skelm manner, thinking silently: "Oh my goodness, how stupid must you be?"
"Well, here's a coffee and tell us all about it. Don't worry, it's not the first time that has happened and it won't be the last." The chief pilot was trying to make the poor bloke feel better. I honestly can't remember exactly what the guy said, because in my head I was thinking all the time while the guy was talking: "How stupid can you be??? Geez, now I've heard it all…"
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Suffice to say the poor man had attended a prestigious flight school next to the ocean in our beautiful country and therefore couldn't navigate properly. I mean imagine getting airborne there as a student: on one side blue ocean with white horses and crashing waves, on the other side green fields or big mountain ranges. All this permanently divided by a very recognisable white and beige, very broad sandy beach. The poor guys didn't stand a chance of having to concentrate hard to not get lost like the students in rest of the country had to! Flying at the coast doesn't require excellent navigation skills at all. I've personally once heard a pilot coming in on an almost easterly radial LIV (that is the omnidirectional navigation beacon for my base airport at the time, North West of Johannesburg), calling about 22nm requesting joining and landing. I looked at the controller with big eyes and thought: "Oh Dear!" and said: "Oh no."
The Controller in the tower calmly told him to change frequency to 134.4 MHz for Waterkloof Military Airforce Base, since that was the airspace, he was actually flying in.
"Speak to you later, when you're actually in my airspace."
Turns out that poor chap was from the prestigious coastal flight school as well.
Back on the wooden terrace of the flight school, we collectively tried to make the very sorry pilot feel better and told him after his coffee that we could give him a beer as well, if he took off his epaulettes with the three bars first.
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(We were being nice; we didn't want to make him pay for a round on top of his already bad day. The rule is: If you take a first sip of your well-deserved dop at the end of your working day or night, and you haven't stripped the epaulettes of your uniform off your shoulders and placed them neatly in your shirt pocket, you have to buy all your pilot friends present a round of dops.) I don't know a single pilot that this has not happened to.
It turned out that the poor guy still had to fly the aircraft back to its base so he declined the offer of a beer and we sent him off with handshakes and shoulder slaps, don't worry, lightning doesn't strike twice, it can hardly get any worse, at least now you have no passengers and other stupid sayings to make him feel good. When he was gone, we talked about his mishap, laughing a bit, shaking our heads in amazement, but also feeling so very relieved that it happened to someone else.
Aviation: the great equaliser! You're only ever as good as your last landing and always as humble as the magnitude of your last mishap.
As I was soon to find out. Exactly two weeks later, in fact. My brief was to fetch some tourists from Zim and bring them to a private game reserve East of the magnificent Kruger National Park. MalaMala is a traditional super duper awesome Lodge on the western borders of the Kruger National Park. The somewhat old-fashioned camp lies along the Sandy River. There are no fences towards the Kruger and every time I stay there with the guests that I fly in, the place outdoes itself with regards to game viewing, colourful red and dusty sunsets, excellently trained game rangers and fantastic food and staff. One of my favourite game rangers is huge thirty-year-old Zulu whose passion for the bush is unparalleled. I am not going to mention his name otherwise he'll be reserved by other parties. In his free time, he tries to educate the people of the rural villages and visits schools in his province regularly, projecting amazing pictures of animals onto the walls of school halls, churches and other conference venues to try and fight against superstitions and poaching and bring knowledge of the bush and its animals to all, and most importantly to convince people to trust in tourism rather than bush meat or poaching as a future for our children. (His words, not mine.) The pictures of the wild life fascinate the children and at first, they scream at the sight of crocodiles and lion and snakes and other animals; but then they settle down and respectfully listen to what their visitor has to say.
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One can't protect what one doesn't know. Well thanks to the work of this one guy, it just might happen that superstitions are left behind or at least lessened in severity and it may be, just perhaps, that he reached into the hearts of some of our next leaders who hold the future of our unique nature in their hands one day.
In the MalaMala Bar there's an old framed photograph hidden in a corner, of the first arrival of a little aircraft to the farm. The then chief of the district is in the picture in Sepia and his quote under picture. Allegedly he said: "When this bird has young ones, I want one." I cherish these old stories of bygone eras where anything and everything aviation related was new and daring and adventurous.
Anyway, so the task was to fly 2 pax from a lodge in Zimbabwe via Bulawayo and Polokwane to MalaMala. In preparation for the flight, I noted down the following: FAMD designated strip has a roughly N/S direction, tarred, elevation and length and that there are 10 (!) other little strips in the vicinity, so I also fried the pic of the river next to the strip into my brain, how it curves, where the nearest bridge is, etc.so that I knew exactly where to go.
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I enjoyed going to different strips with every flight: no monotony and lots of excitement.
After a little bit of an elevated heart rate at Bulawayo to clear customs and immigration, due to me being an idiot, (I had stupidly put on the NAV lights during a day flight and the 3 green lights for the "Gear down and locked" indication dimmed and were therefore invisible in the harsh African sun, causing me to have to do a fly by for the tower to confirm the wheels were down. When I cycled the gear and checked the Circuit breakers, everything felt and sounded like normal, so I decided it was an indication light problem and then remembered what happens to the three green lights. By switching off the Nav lights, the three Greens lit up beautifully on downwind); the rest of the flights were pretty standard, until we were to approach MalaMala, that is.
My eta was 11:07, same as another aircraft on the TIBA frequency. He had more passengers than me, so I decided to tell him, he can go in first and I would lose more altitude gradually, by circling down, to the west of the airfield. I just asked him to call runway vacated, so I could set my aircraft up for the approach.
It didn't take long and he called clear. So, I set up nicely on a long final for the only tarred strip in the area. Or so I thought. On short Finals, I realised that the runway was hell of a narrow and I couldn't see the other aircraft on the apron and that the pickup vehicle wasn't there… Upon landing I dodged an ambling giraffe and got a tip on my shoulder from the lady passenger:
"This isn't MalaMala, we've been here 8 times and this is not how MalaMala looks…"
"Geez Louise!" I shouted back over the engines, "You couldn't have said that like 3 minutes ago, when we were still in the air?!"
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"Maybe they're still p'd off at me because I had forced them to stay overnight in Bulawayo due to horrid weather, which meant they had forfeited an expensive overnight in the camp." Was one of the 2000 thoughts crashing around in my head… The other thought was: "Where are we then?" which must have come out loud, because she said they didn't know…
So I taxied to the little apron, and read Londolozi in white painted stones near the windsock. Ahhh. "Sherbet!!!!"
I opened the Cargo Door and let them sit in relative comfort of a stiff breeze, and told them I need to make a phone call. I called the reception and sneaked a ciggie or two, while trying to organise a game drive vehicle from the camp to fetch my pax. That way the good people from NZ could score an extra game drive and not have to fly with me anymore!
To be fair, I was so dik with myself at this stage… Anyway: camp confirmed the drive to the strip was only 22 minutes.
"That's great, so can you dispatch their game ranger with a Landy and come fetch them? They're really good customers of yours, they've been your guests 8 times!"
"Ah no. Sorry. 2 weeks ago, we could have, but the two owners (or managers or whatever, can't remember because basically I only heard blah blah after the "no") of the two camps had some kind of disagreement recently, so they have temporarily retracted their mutual traversing rights."
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I don't know how my eyes are still facing forward, that's what a big eyeroll involuntarily happened. So, while closing the doors, told the pax that we have another 2 nm flight to the correct strip to do and that their favourite game ranger was waiting for them! Quickly performed the hot start, switched on the avionics and heard the other pilot in the Cessna Grand Caravan shout on frequency: "Where the hell is the other aircraft?!?! Captain Chaos, can you respond???!!! I am waiting for you to land and am now behind schedule!"
"Gosh, I had completely forgotten about the other traffic", I thought, sweating buckets.
At this stage I was just getting airborne and called left downwind, with a hopefully calm voice. Landed nicely and quickly got out of the way of three aircraft waiting to take off. The Caravan pilot was one of those grumpy old ballies and shook his deeply frowning head at me in frustration as I taxied past. Rightfully so….
Unbeknownst to me, the Kiwis in the back had apparently never laughed so hard in their entire lives at my antics, and were secretly uber amused the whole time, while keeping an earnest face. The whole time they were aware at what was going on and told me that their investment in their noise cancelling headsets had already been worth the expense in more ways than one.
In fact, they laughed so hard, that they thanked me over and over for the unusual entertainment and gave me the biggest USD Tip that I have ever received in my life.
I was rewarded with a lovely sunset on the flight home, making the new nickname of Captain Chaos more bearable and a new story to relate around the braai. Oh, and most important lesson: "Don't judge or it'll happen to you!"