A bush pilot's day: dirt strips, balky zebras

EXCEPT for the desire to log as many successful landings as takeoffs, being a bush pilot is nothing like flying for the airlines. It's certainly not like strutting the right stuff as a military jet jockey.

For one thing, you need to carry one of those fold-up metal tools that can do everything from change spark plugs to open a can of sardines. Then, of course, there are the zebras that amble onto the unlit dirt runway at twilight just as you're about to land.

In other words, you need to be prepared for all contingencies, able to diagnose if not fix everything yourself, willing to eat whatever's available, and accustomed to sleeping under a mosquito net in a thatched hut with bull elephants in the neighborhood.

All this - and more - marked a recent typical day for Arthur Hussey, the pilot I'm tagging along with as he flies his single-engine Cessna from Africa to Alaska.

A week before we left for Alaska, our mission was to fly north from Windhoek, Namibia, to Hobatere, site of a rustic lodge favored by German and English tourists. There, we'd pick up some colleagues from the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia and fly them at low level to count animals.

The day started at 6 a.m. with a family breakfast, then a short drive to the local airport. Quick goodbyes to Arthur's wife, Janet, and their daughter, Juliana. Then head over to the operations office to file a flight plan with the aviation authorities.

Next, "pre-flight" the Cessna 182 (this one's rented while Arthur's is in the shop for routine maintenance). That means walking around the aircraft looking for oil or hydraulic-fluid leaks, checking the propeller and flight-control surfaces, noting tire pressure and dozens of other safety issues.

Arthur starts the engine, checks the gauges, and radios for permission to taxi. At the end of the runway, he again checks engine performance, running up the r.p.m. and switching off each of the two magnetos.

Uh-oh. The drop in r.p.m. is excessive. Call the tower and taxi back for a check by the mechanics. Off comes the engine cowling as Colin and his assistant, speaking Afrikaans, poke, prod, and inspect things. The problem - a minor one - is discovered, and the necessary adjustment is made.

Arthur and I have been cooling our heels in the small passenger lounge, where lunch is potato chips, a candy bar, and a soda. Soon, we're back at the end of the runway, rechecking the magnetos (OK now) and taking off - three hours behind schedule.

AFTER two hours of flying at 10,000 feet and 120 knots (140 miles per hour), we reach our destination, which has a 1,400-yard dirt strip. Arthur circles and prepares to land, but just as we jolt onto the dirt a dozen zebras - jaywalking across our path - scatter into the trees. Arthur guns the throttle and we pull up, aborting the landing and circling around again.

This time, no wildlife impede our landing, and we taxi to the end of the strip to be met by Arthur's colleagues. Over tea in the lodge, they plot their course, and within an hour we're back in the air for two hours of low-level, low-speed flight using a GPS (global positioning system) to fly a back-and-forth pattern over designated areas.

From the air (and on the ground) this African landscape looks very much like northern Nevada and southeastern Oregon - the Great Basin of the United States. Herds of cattle here and there make this seem like home to me as well.

But then we find what we're looking for - giraffes, oryx, springbok, ostriches, baboons, elephants, and more zebras. Wildlife biologist Julian Fennessy (a young Aussie) and Kurt Van Derlinde (a former Namibian policeman) call out the animals to the recently appointed scribe (me).

Arthur expertly maneuvers the Cessna between ridge lines and over hills, keeping an eye out for flashes of lightning from distant thunderstorms. "It's real stick-and-rudder flying," he observes. "You pay a lot of attention to the ball and to the airspeed indicator." The "ball" indicates whether the nose of the plane points in the direction of flight. The airspeed indicator is especially important here to avoid dropping below the plane's stall speed in tight turns.

When we fly low, the male elephants become irate, flap their ears, flail their trunks, and want to fight. Male ostriches think the plane is a lovely big bird and start their mating dance. Without being anthropomorphic, I can definitely see male characteristics that transcend species.

As daylight fades, we head back to Hobatere. It's a little later than Arthur had wanted, and there are no lights on the runway. As we drop down to land, there are those interfering zebras again. Asserting his right as the dominant species, Arthur plants the plane firmly on the ground as the wildlife flee.

We relax as the Cessna comes to a stop, but the workday is not over. Time to refuel. This is done from a 50-gallon drum of aviation fuel (high-octane "avgas") using a hand pump and a wooden dowel to measure the level in the wing tanks.

By this time, it's very dark and the Southern Cross can be seen through breaks in the clouds. Thunder thumps as lightning flashes around the horizon.

Back in camp, Julian is preparing chicken stew with Thai spices cooked in a big, black iron pot over a wood fire. Accompanying the entree are thick slices of coarse, dark bread, enjoyed under a mopane tree as a near-full moon pokes through the clouds.

Arthur sums up bush flying this way: "Short airstrips without air-traffic-control support, without weather support, without mechanical support - that's Namibia, and that's Alaska." Now, he's en route from one to the other.

The bush pilot's workday ended 16 hours after it had begun - with sweet sleep that came quickly under a mosquito net in a thatched hut, no thought for the two bull elephants that had been hanging around here in recent days.

It's late as I tap on my laptop computer, umbilicled to a satellite telephone, to send digital camera images to editors in Boston. I hold a small flashlight in my teeth so as not to disturb Arthur's slumber. I prefer my pilots well-rested, don't you?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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