Sitting in beautiful South Africa is making me think back to the very beginning of my flying adventure, and to the many places I have visited on the African continent. It also makes me think of how abruptly a career can be ruined by a virus. Times are indeed tough for pilots, and this article is for the young aspiring pilots who are just finishing their dream education and are looking to start their first job. Think of this as inspiration as to what a pilot’s license can give you - or just as a story of how I chose to start my career in aviation.
It all Started in Algeria
On my way down to Johannesburg, from Denmark a few weeks ago, I watched the monitor when we flew past Hassi Messaoud, and when we overflew In Amenas. My very first flying job was here in the middle of the largest desert on earth, The Sahara, from 2005 to 2006. My European pilot’s license was just a year old, and I had moved to South Africa to find a job. I had to study for 8 exams initially, and then do a flying test with the authorities before I could actively search for a job with a South African license in hand. It was a pretty tough year. I had ab
solutely no money. My bank in Denmark was quite adamant that I started paying some interest off, as my bank loan just kept on creeping uphill. Getting a flying job in Africa is all about being persistent. And annoying. And maybe most of all, to have someone vouch for you. Get your CV in the right pile at the airline’s office and then visit them. After that, call once a week until they get so annoyed that they find a position for you in the office.
From Office Desk to Cockpit
For me, being persistent eventually paid off. I sat in the operations office of a contract airline until I had paid my dues and there was a vacant flying position. Or, kind of. They needed someone to work at their operations office in Hassi Messaoud in Algeria where they operated 10 aircraft for oil companies. They had just given me the type rating, so it was only fair that I kept working at the office until a real pilot position would come up. My salary was 25$ a day. There were around 20 pilots and 5 mechanics at the base, which was in the middle of the desert. Sand dunes where everywhere, with small villages built here and there due to the oil in the ground. Different oil companies had different bases in the desert. Some had fancy camps with great accommodations for their staff and pilots. There was nice food and even the possibility to have a glass of wine on Thursday’s. Other camps were more modest. Close to each camp was a runway just long enough for us to depart from. As I did not have any flying experience, I worked in the office and could only be a stand-by pilot if someone got sick. Some nice colleagues helped out here and there, and I managed to scrape together a few flying hours that year.
Danger in the Desert
This was during the so- called ""Muhammad cartoons crisis” in Denmark, where a Danish newspaper published cartoon drawings of the prophet. I read about unrest in the Muslim world due to this. I saw the Danish flag burned, and extremists calling for the death of Danes. I remember that it didn’t really scare me back then, but I did however start saying that I was from Sweden if any of our staff asked. In 2013, there was a hostage situation in In Amenas, at the Tigantourine gas facility, where we also had a base. I flew there often. It was one of the pilot’s favourite places to overnight. At least 50 people died, but luckily around 800 escaped or were freed. Terrible to think about.
Diamonds, Guns and Planes
Beautiful, war-torn Angola. This old Portuguese colony was used as an overseas prison for the worst of the worst and went through 27 years of civil war. Having experienced many different cultures in Africa, met many different people, I must say that I find the Angolans the scariest. Angry, hostile, spiteful, and not very accommodating. After learning about their history, it started to make sense to me. The country is situated North of Namibia, West of Zambia, and South of DR Congo, formerly known as Zaire.
My adventure in Angola started in the last months of 2006, where I was appointed First Officer for a local airline. The flying hours I accumulated in Algeria were just enough to get me in the airline. The company’s clients were, among others, diamond mining companies, MSF (Doctors without Borders), and the UN. We flew from the capitol, Luanda, out to the bush every morning, waiting for our clients to finish work, and then we flew them back to the city. Sometimes we were brought to their camp where we would eat and rest. Other times we sat under the wing of the aircraft for 5-6 hours, drinking our warm cans of soda and eating ham out of a tin. Flying back to the city was quite the experience at times. If we were picking up diamonds we would be asked to be fully ready at a given time. Once the guy with the diamonds arrived at the airfield, we would start up the right engine, and when the precious cargo was finally loaded, the door was closed, the other engine started, and we were ready to rumble. Obviously there was extra security on these days. Extra security in the rural areas of Angola meant 20 armed forces on the runway edges facing the bush. 50 meters between them, AK47’s everywhere. If anyone attempted to approach the aircraft, they would be shot on the spot.
During the civil war, the country was covered with mines. When I flew there, many companies were working on the dangerous removal of these mines and unfortunately that lead to a lot of accidents. The deminers who worked in the mine fields wore personal protective equipment for the whole body, but due to the hot and humid climate, many of them took it off during the midday sun. I remember a medical evacuation of one of these guys in our aircraft. It was unbearable. The poor guy had lost his eyes and one hand. Wrapped in bandages, and already severely infected, he was screaming in pain and agony. The smell of rotten flesh is still in my memory. The aircraft we operated was a Beechcraft 1900, a twin-engine turboprop with 19 seats. More than 19 seats required a cabin crew. It was our boss’ direct order that those 19 seats were to be filled up on all flights, as empty seats obviously means less money.
Flying out of Luanda was never a problem. However, flying back from the bush was troublesome. The runways were short, the temperature high, and the elevation equally high. This is a very bad combination for an aircraft’s performance. I stated my concern to the captain one day and said that I was going to check the manuals for the exact performance - contrary to the normal procedure, where we just decided to get airborne in case of an engine failure after the wind post - and found that we could only bring back 13 passengers. The captain laughed at me, and told me to call our boss in Luanda if I did not want to fill up the aircraft. One of the hardest things I ever did… This was the beginning of the end of my time in Angola. Luckily, I had now reached the golden 500-hour mark of total flying time, and could now apply to Solenta Aviation, which was always my goal when I started to fly in Africa.
Liberia and Flying for the Red Cross
In 2007, I was hired as First Officer on the B190 for Solenta Aviation. I did my line training in Joburg, where we flew for DHL to Harare and Lusaka at night. After a month, I was ready to be sent out on contract for them and the first destination was Liberia in West Africa, or Africa’s armpit, as many like to call it. West Africa became quite well known after the film “Blood Diamond” was released. The movie describes the struggle of West African people during the civil war where money from the diamonds financed the warlord’s activities and firearms.
The war had been long over when I arrived in Monrovia the first time, but the city still looked absolutely shattered. Luxury hotels lay in ruins, bullet holes were in almost all buildings, and the roads were more like potholes than actual roads. There were adults and teenagers with missing limbs cut off by rebels or the child soldiers who were forced to do so with the help of brainwashing and drugs. The country had been officially weapon-free for quite some years, and was now under full control of the United Nations. There were blue helmets everywhere - and the people of Monrovia could finally relax and start to get their lives back on track. I was on contract for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and we flew from Monrovia to Freetown in Sierra Leone, Conakry in Guinea, and different locations in the jungle in these three countries.
We flew the ICRC delegates around, as well as all their materials for building shelters for immigrants in camps, and their boxes with medicines, condoms, mosquito nets and repellants. We heard amazing stories about their massive effort to help all the refugees from the neighboring countries, and fun stories about how the local men would complain to the delegates that their wives had become pregnant in spite of them using a condom. They just put the condom on their hand like they were shown. The flying was very challenging due to short landing strips in the middle of the bush, surrounded by high hills and dense jungle. Runways were sloping, full of potholes, curvy, and used as a crossing path by animals as well as humans. So we always had to overfly the field before attempting to land, to check the surface conditions, and to let everybody on the ground know that it would not be safe to cross the field for the next ten minutes.
Many of the fields we flew to were not in the aircraft’s Terrain Avoidance Warning System’s database, so when we approached these places we would receive aural warnings in the cockpit. Not having closed cockpit doors, our passengers could of course hear some of the warning, and one day, flying into Zwedru in Liberia with rain showers all over, one of the passengers said with awe in her voice that it was very cool that the aircraft shouted “It’s rain, It’s rain!” when it was raining. Of course the aircraft was actually saying “Terrain! Terrain!” but we never told her that.
DR Congo and Child Soldiers
In the beginning of 2009, I was given a new contract in the Kivu province of the DRC, in the city of Bukavu. I had finished my captain’s training the year before in Liberia and was looking forward to taking on a new challenge, also for the ICRC. We flew between the Eastern provinces of Kivu, to the capitol Kinshasa in the Western part of the country, and small airports in between. Again, we mainly flew the Red Cross delegates between the provinces, but a few times a month we had a very special flight. This was the repatriation flight of former child soldiers who had been in a program with the Red Cross to get back to normal. Think of it as a sort of de-brainwashing. Those young boys had seen the worst of things imaginable, and done some terrible things while under pressure from the rebels, but they were now getting back to some sort of a normal life again. We flew them from the Eastern provinces and back to their families in the Kinshasa area. The boys loved to ask questions about all the buttons in the flight deck, about how the engines worked, and why we have wings. They would talk about football players, and play cards and laugh in the back. It was fantastic to see how far they had come in the process, and terrible to think of their gruesome past.
There is still unrest in eastern DR Congo, where rebels are causing a lot of trouble. Throw in Ebola and Covid, and you have a terrible cocktail. It is an extremely dangerous place and it is important to remember that for many people here, other people’s lives are worth nothing. Mountains, lakes, and dense jungle, it is, however, one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen.
A few months after my contract in the DRC ended, my replacement captain was murdered with a machete when rebels entered our crew house one night. They wanted laptops, cell phones and cash, and when my colleague resisted handing over his personal computer, they ended his life.
I had moved on to fly the ATR 42/72 for Solenta Aviation, and would for the next few years be based in Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire.
Consider Your African Adventure
Fast forward a decade or so, and all of a sudden a virus has put an end to flight travel as we know it. It will certainly be difficult to find that first flying job in Europe now, as there are a lot of pilots with a lot of experience who are first in line once the industry is ready to hire again. But look around the world. There are exciting adventures out there, waiting to be found. Flying in Africa will definitely take you out of your comfort zone, but there will be plenty of good stories to tell in the flight deck on a big jet many years after.
welcome aboard the new airside
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