Tales & Tributes: stranger than fiction


Romance is not dead and Indiana Jones is not the only one to relate a good adventure story. Crewmembers, bushpilots and even passengers have their share of remarkable observations, adrenaline-pumping adventures or tales of "those-were-the-days".
Please share!?!

We used to call him "Viking"...
We called him Viking because of his big frame and his huge red beard, which covered his barrel chest. In fact, he was probably the best intuitial pilot I have ever flown with!
He was what pilots call: a birdman. A natural flier.
Unfortunately he was a bit heavy on the bottle, which might have got him into trouble at some time...
Stuff movies are made of: party until the wee hours and at six oíclock this man could fly like an angel in the worst conditions possible in South Sudan! And I mean: heavy crosswind landing, dust visibility and a flat head gear tire...

There was this pilot from Life-Line Sudan: Mike Zaske. He was the chief pilot for a US based religious organisation (Air-Serve) operating an old-old Twin-Otter called FORKLIFT TEN (at the time 22.000 hours on the clock) in which the pilots window had to be kept open with a screwdriver punched into the space between the window and the frame...
Mike was known as the guy who would go anywhere nobody else wanted to go because he had the personal support of God! There is a distinct flavour of the Blues Brothers here...
Maybe he was right, because he always came back in one piece. The Otter may have had the registration N910 or something.

Nicknames: 'All Weather Heather' and 'Captain Cuddles', two lady pilots from the Kenyan Safari Air. Both were, in spite of their nicknames, excellent pilots and nice persons to boot.

Mike Leary took this photo at Rumbek (South Sudan), somewhere May - July 2000.

Ken Lubinski wrote me in Nov. 2007, describing flying in the North:
In the early to mid-1980's I did a lot of work in the eastern Artic. Mostly Baffin Island and some around the northern part of Hudson Bay. The land on Baffin is very rugged. Large hills, which could aslo be labelled 'small mountains'...).
All of the settlements are coastal, usually between 400-1.000 people. They usually get air service once or twice a week. Runways are difficult to build in such a rugged country, hard to find a flat area. Usually they are short, with a cliff or hill along side and ending at the water...
The crew always used up every inch of the runway. I flew in larger aircraft. Sizes ranged from a Twin Otter to types such as DC-3, DC-6, DHC-5 Buffalo, DHC-4 Caribou, 727 and a few C-130's were around too.
Mostly the flights I was on were cargo, flying construction materials to job sites.
When we were taking off, the pilot would always hold the throttles open with his hand, until we were airborne. I assumed it was a safety issue, so the levers could not slide back. Occasionally, around mid way through the takeoff, I would see the the copilot cover the pilot's hand with his... Now both pilots have their hands on the throttles.
One day after landing, I asked the senior pilot what was up with everybody hanging on to the throttle. He smiled, and said quietly:"Sometimes on a short runway, the wind is not favorable for takeoffs. Two-thirds way through the takeoff, it becomes the point of no return. You cannot take the chance the other pilot may panic, pull back and abort..."

A morning flight in Mozambique.
In 1991 my wife and I both worked for MSF in Mozambique. She as a medical doctor and me as a logistician. She was part of a flying doctor program and visited a lot of towns and villages in the Zambesia province and further to the west, towns near the Malawi border.
For these visits we used two BN-2 Islanders chartered from a company based in Zimbabwe.
The flight I will tell you about started well enough. I was invited by Philippe, the pilot to take the co-pilots seat, as he knew I used to fly a little myself (PPL). Weather was perfect, the aircraft in good condition, the pilot sober and we were supposed to visit a town near the Malawi border. In a valley between 12.000 foot mountains.
As the flight progressed, a few clouds started to build up, nothing serious, maybe 2/8 to 3/8.
Getting nearer to the mountains, the cloud cover began to increase slightly, but still nothing to worry about.
The first hint of problems came when Philippe asked me if I could take a look at the map. It turned out we had been blown slightly off course, by a north wind stronger than we had anticipated. Still nothing to worry about, really, only about ten miles. Correction made, we passed the foothills, went down to a thousand feet above ground level and started looking for our destination.
Neither Philippe nor I was comfortable with this flying on low latitude as aircraft sometimes got shot at in this area. But as neither he nor I had been to this town before, we had no other choice. The ceiling was now about twelve hundred feet off the ground. It still was far from an unbroken cover, so we took the risk and continued.
Thirty minutes later we still had not found this bloody town, and as we had both stupidly been preoccupied looking down, we had completely forgotten about the clouds.
Because of the remaining fuel, we decided to abandon the search and go home again. At that moment, neither of us really had a clue as to where we were, and when Philippe started to look for a hole in the clouds to climb through, there werenít any!
The cloud cover was solid and we were stuck under it between the mountains...
Philippe looked at me. And I looked at Philippe. And I sure was glad I wasnít the captain. His decision was to spiral up in as tight a circle as possible. The climb got slower that way, but we covered less ground. The following ten minutes must have been the longest in my life. When we finally did come out on top, it was with a splendid mountain less than a kilometre away on the starboard side. A mountain that was quite a bit higher than we were!
Half an hour later, when the adrenalin driven euphoria had died away, it was time for a new shot of adrenalin when the starboard engine started coughing and quickly lost power. Then it stopped...
A quick look at the fuel gages showed all to be in order as far as fuel was concerned, but Philippe didnít trust them. He said they had been unreliable before. He switched to another tank, cranked the engine and after a few seconds it caught, coughed and started!
I still wonder to this day what would have happened if the engine had died while we were circling in that cloud between the mountains. Nothing good, I suspect.
The rest of the trip was uneventful and I was quite relieved when we could shut off the engines in front of the hangar.
Bo Wiberg.


The location was the air strip at the Tsodilo Hills in the Kalahari desert in Botswana. One of the few locations where Bushmen stay for longer periods, as it is considered a holy place.
This makes it a favourite site for tourists who can afford a private flight to get there. I believe the film "The gods must be crazy" is part of this infatuation with the bushmen. In fact, we stayed with them for a week and found them to be, not Bushmen in the movie type of people, but a bunch of really nice people like you and me, albeit with a different cultural background.

One of the pilots flying there was a Swiss guy, alternating between Canada and Botswana depending on the seasons. Let's call him 'Dollars'.
The day I witnessed his take off from the Tsodilo Hills airstrip, he was flying a Piper Cherokee Six.
He had arrived quite early in the morning from Maun. Pushing the tourists out of bed at four in the morning is a sure thing to convince them that the adventure is the real thing... In reality, the Bushmen are there all day and all night. But business is business.

As the Kalahari is a desert, it is not supposed to rain a lot there, but that day we got a severe shower!
It didnít last for more than five minutes, but the ground was soaked. Especially the airstrip, which showed quite a few puddles as it was all but flat.
And if there is anything that can slow down an aircraft on take-off it is water puddles.

But, schedule being all important and as 'Dollars' had another site to visit before midday, he decided it would take too long for the water to get absorbed by the ground and he took the decision to take off in spite of the strip being soaked.

He got his five passengers on board, started the engine, worked the flaps and rolled out to the end of the strip.
Out and then some, because he did a bit of a four-wheel drive between bushes to extend the runway, thereby showing he was well aware of the difficulties ahead.
When he let go of the breaks it struck me he had not lowered the flaps, a sure sign of two alternatives. Either he had forgotten them, which didnít seem logical considering his experience, or he didnít want them to slow him down in the initial stages of the take off. When he hit the first puddle, the water sprayed not only from the gear, but made spectacular, concentric turbulence from the prop as well. And it slowed down the aircraft as well... In fact, the prop caught enough water to lower the engine revs!

Second stage: Accelerating again. Two hundred metres before the first trees, the flaps came down at least twenty degrees and the aircraft more or less bounded off the ground.
But not by much, maybe two, three metres where it was still benefitting from the ground effect.

I could see 'Dollars' working the rudder to aim for a hole in the hedge of trees. It didnít work and when he hit the trees, there was a new spiral from the prop. This time it was leaves and small branches. Again the engine revs came down slightly, but by some divine intervention, he had enough speed to get out!!

Who ever said that old pilots are careful pilots is a liar... Iíd say that old pilots are careful pilots and lucky to boot!
You may be as careful as you like, but the day when you have a few factors of bad luck (failed fuel gauges, freak weather, a mad passenger or just simply some shit in a fuel filter such as -but not limited to- recently acquired water, sand, mud, birds feathers..) you are bound to meet the ground sooner than you had imagined.
Then it is really only a matter of where and how!

Bo Wiberg


Aviation books, a personal list
DHC-3 Otter, a monograph written by Karls E.Hayes (with many an adventure to share)

Created 29-Feb-2008,
Updated 19-Jul-2009