Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — We are 17,000 feet above dry, red, Grand Canyon-like terrain as no-nonsense Flt. Lt. Nigel Watson eases himself out of the pilot's seat of his Royal Air Force Hercules C-130 transport plane.
He takes off his headset, glances at a pad sewn into the knee of his flight suit, and remarks: ''We've flown 2,100 miles today, and carried 87,000 pounds of grain. Not bad....''
He, his copilot, and his cheerful crew, a long way from their home base in southern England, ply this correspondent in the cockpit with soft drinks and questions about how the drought-affected people below will prepare the emergency food.
In a grueling day, they had flown from Addis Ababa to Makele, capital of Tigre Province, on to the port of Assab to pick up grain, then across to the city of Aksum to unload, back to Assab, back to Makele, and now, with two US and several British correspondents hitching a ride, back to base at the bustling Addis Ababa airport.
This thundering plane, with its camouflage paint, its circular red-white-and-blue Royal Air Force markings, and its yawning 20-ton hold, is part of Operation International Airlift carrying relief supplies to the starving in Ethiopia.
Droning ahead of us in the late afternoon sky, also en route to Addis Ababa, is the huge shape of a Soviet Antonov-22 transport, its extra-heavy metal frame requiring the thrust of four engines - each equipped with distinctive contra-rotating double propellers.
On the ground behind us in Asmara, loading for a dawn takeoff Tuesday for Makele, were two L-100 transport planes chartered by the US government from TransAmerica Corporation. Sporting stylized green-and-white ''T'' markings on their tails, they were each to make four trips while Americans were voting back home in the presidential elections.
Ahead of us and below is the dark outline of a West German C-160 transport.
The airlift, begun after intense public concern in the West at the plight of Ethiopia in the worst drought of the century, is not without its controversies, cheerful rivalries, and its difficult moments. Nonetheless, the two superpowers, Britain, West Germany (and, the day before, yet another Hercules chartered by the Italian government to fly high-protein biscuits to Makele) had one overriding aim: to ease famine conditions affecting up to 10 million people.
More planes are to come, from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and other countries.
In the cockpit of the Hercules, with the sun setting in a sky full of small, rainless clouds, the flight lieutenant talks about his job here.
''I thought we'd be given map references and asked to drop supplies in remote places,'' he says above the roar of the engines. ''But we're not. We're picking up grain from Assab (on the Red Sea) and taking it to Aksum and Makele.... Airdrops do tend to break open bags of grain, of course....
''The key to what we're doing is keeping the frames (aircraft) in the air to carry as much food as possible.''
The day before, the airlift had suffered a blow. A second British Hercules assigned here for 90 days broke one of its four main wheels while landing on one of northern Ethiopia's notoriously rocky runways. Technicians managed to clear away the wheel and its supports, and the pilot took off on three wheels. He landed in Addis Ababa on three with the crew in crash positions, but the plane won't be back in the air again until Thursday.
''These airfields are very rough on our tires,'' Flight Lieutenant Lawson goes on. ''We'll have to put fresh ones on regularly.''
Each tire costs about $1,200.
Lawson recounts that after landing at Assab in strong winds, the Hercules had taxied past the Soviet Antonov-22. He says he greeted the Soviet transport over the radio with a ''Hello Ivan.'' There was no reply. He repeated the greeting as he took off. No reply.
The exact amount the Antonov-22 can carry is not known here. No outsider is allowed into the plane, including Ethiopian loaders and unloaders of food supplies. So the Antonov carries 26 Soviet handlers as well as its crew. This cuts down its load, especially as the plane requires large amounts of fuel for its oversized frame.
The Soviet system apparently lengthens the time of loading. The British loaded their first flight from Assab in 14 minutes flat using Ethiopian handlers who ran from truck to plane with heavy bags on their backs. But the Soviet plane , which had landed before the RAF transport, was still unloading when the Hercules returned from a flight to Aksum some 300 miles away. The British crew could not ascertain where the Soviet plane delivered its load before returning to Addis.
A smaller Soviet plane overshot the runway at Addis Nov. 4.
The big Antonov-22 brought several helicopters from the USSR a few days ago. Four were visible on the Addis tarmac as this correspondent taxied in a vintage Ethiopian Airlines DC-3 on route to Makele Sunday. The DC-3 was dwarfed by a line of Soviet transports on its right and the two British Hercules on its left.
The US effort is based at Asmara, where a large quantity of grain has been brought from ships arriving at Red Sea ports as well as two planes chartered by Washington. One more Hercules is airlifting supplies for the main private US relief agency here, Catholic Relief Services.
The international airlift does present some problems as well.
''We urgently need more trucks to get all the supplies from the airfields to our feeding centers,'' says Dagne Gurmu, chief of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission for Tigre. He spoke on the tarmac before the RAF Hercules took off for Makele.
''We have exactly four trucks for all of Tigre,'' he said. ''We have no garage for repairs. We try to rent trucks from an office here but it must also supply other ministries. I myself had to obtain a four-wheel-drive vehicle from UNICEF just to get around the town and visit the camps.''
The airlift is being coordinated by an international committee headed by the Ethiopian government and including the US.
In an interview in Addis Ababa, the chief of the US Agency for International Development, M. Peter McPherson, said: ''The number of planes is small enough to allow coordination. The immediate impact of the airlift is to ease the burden on long-distance trucking. Presumably some of the long-haul trucks can be reallocated to deliveries from airports to camps.''
While the current airlift is alleviating shortages in Makele and elsewhere, where allocations to adults have dropped to as low as five kilos per month, airlifted food gets only to those who have made it to feeding centers near the main cities. Little or no food is getting into the interior or areas controlled by secessionist guerrillas in Eritrea and Tigre.
''But the airlift is helping,'' says Dagne Gurmu. ''Fewer people are dying.''
Said Mr. McPherson after a day of brief visits to Alamata, Korem, and Makele: ''The most important thing now is that the contributions that people in other countries have made are coordinated, and that we use this burst of energy, excitement, and commitment to back up a long-term effort.''