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Airlift to Ethiopia: a view from the cockpit

By David K. WillisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1984

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.

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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.