The tiny dirt air-strip is deserted and damn hot as I step out of the taxi . A small plane reflects the blistering sun off its wings and fuselage. I can literally see the heat rising in fluid waves off the tarmac behind it. A small building sits at one end of the strip. I walk towards it seeking shade.
The building is an ‘airport’ with two check in counters, seats for passengers and some stairs leading up to the ‘control tower’. The entire place is eerily deserted. I sit in one of two chairs facing the check-in counters. A poster above the desk reads ‘Look And Save A Life: Terrorist Weapons’. Several life-like cardboard replica’s of hand grenades, limpet mines, anti-personnel mines and land mines are protruding out of the poster. I’m curious about the poster and take a photo.
“Ya, if you see any of those on the plane you should tell me!” A red faced man in a shabby pilots uniform has materialised behind me making me jump. He’s made it back from the pub in time to fly me to Johannesburg.
“Am I likely to?”
“Shit man, this is Phalabora, don’t you know about the history of this flight route?”
‘There’s an army base here.’ He replies, pointing towards the plane outside.
“ That Cessna out there used to be a DC3 till it got blown out of the sky last year. Before that it was a Fokker Friendship and before that, another DC3. They don’t like us out here, they keep trying to blow up our aeroplanes.” He laughs as if he has made a very funny joke. I smile back grimly wondering about putting my safety in this guys hands.
Time passes slowly in the suffocating heat with this over friendly buffoon trying to make conversation. Suddenly a bus arrives. People are now lining up at the desk and he is distracted by them, joking and calling out their names in Afrikaans. I am dumbfounded, how can he fly this run every day and be so relaxed about it? The pilot looks over again and senses that his jovial demeanour has not had the comforting effect that it normally does with his passengers.
“Oh come now, there’s nothing to worry about, I promise. This is a milk run, I promise you. I used to fly Mirages against the Cuban’s in South West Africa. I’ve seen plenty of combat experience and I’m the best pilot North of ‘Joburg’ you know, ask anyone. He threw his arm out to include the few strange looking people milling about the room. “Don’t worry, you’ll be safe with me.” He winks at the end, the icing on the cake.
Flight time comes around and the room has few more people in it. The pilots name is Danie (dar-knee), he stands at the door and bids us follow him out to the plane. There seems to be a lot of people for such a small plane. I count heads as Danie struggles with padlock at the gate to the tarmac, twelve all up including the pilot and a five year old. I already knew that the plane only had ten passenger seats. On the way out to the plane Danie explains:
“You’re going to sit up with me in the Co-pilots seat and the little one will have to sit on his mothers lap.”
I t was strange that there was no Co-pilot and wondered what I would have to do if Danie had a heart attack or passed out. With the Cessna packed to the rafters we taxied out to the very end of the runway and got ready for take-off. Danie left the chocks on and revved the engines. When he pulled the brakes off we lurched forward and started crawling towards the other end of the strip with engines roaring. He got the nose up all right but I was worried our wheels might catch the fence at the far end. A last minute up-draft courtesy of the heat got us off the ground in the nick of time.
The little aeroplane was being tossed around like a toy. Sudden, violent winds flung us upwards and pockets free of air threw us earthwards with equally surprising timing and force. I looked over at Danie and noticed that he was not looking as cool and composed as he had on the ground. In fact, he was flushed, sweating and swearing to himself as he struggled with the joystick. Every now and then he would glance with alarm out of his side window, craning his neck to see back down the fuselage. The child on its mother’s knee started bawling in the cabin behind us.
We were at about two thousand feet and climbing but all was not going well. The plane was still bumping around crazily. The kid behind us was reaching a crescendo of fear and the noise was starting to grind on my nerves.
“Is there a problem Danie?”
“Shut up, don’t bother me,” he screams.
He glances over his shoulder at the fuselage for the twentieth time and stands the plane on its wing-tip in a steep turn. This followed by deep, screaming dive. There is silence in the cabin. I start to shit myself as I watch the ground below become larger.
The dive goes through the full three hundred and sixty degrees and finishes, two thousand feet below as the airport tarmac miraculously appears under my nose. In fact, I sense that we are arriving nose first and am overcome with the impulse to pull back on the spare joystick in front of me. I resist the urge and at the last possible moment Danie pulls back and the wheels slam down. The plane bounces but is well controlled by the combat pilot and we pull up safely. I wipe sweat from my face and take this opportunity to breathe again.
Danie is unbuckling and muttering in Afrikaans. He jogs across the tarmac to where a group of Bantu people are standing wide-eyed. Danie grabs one of the men by the ear and drags him back to the fuselage of the plane. There is a loud exchange in a couple of different languages and a loud thud that rocks the little plane. At length, Danie returns to the cockpit.
“Blerry kaffir he exclaims, he didn’t shut the cargo bay door, it was flapping open the whole time…come, lets go.”
He fires up the engines and we are off again. This time we clear the fence at the end by feet rather than inches. By the time we reach cruising altitude the turbulence becomes more bearable and I relax a little. A little too much as it happens. The Cessna has no toilet and I’m starting to really bust for a pee. I hang tough and put it to the back of my mind. Don’t be a pussy, I think to myself – focus. Focus, focus, focus, aaaaaaaaagh. By the time we are about half an hour out of Johannesburg I confess my discomfort to Danie.
“You can have a pee out the window if you like,” he laughs. What a great sense of humour that guy had.
I sneak a look over my shoulder at the other passengers. The baby is gazing out of the window in rapture. Nope, that’s not going to happen.
Danie gets on the radio and has a long conversation in Afrikaans punctuated by a few chuckles.
“Don’t worry man,” he tells me after he finishes. “A friend of mine is working in the tower at Jan Smuts today and he’s given me clearance to land on one of the big runways there. I’ll pull over straight away and let you out for a piss on the back wheel.”
“I’m not thrilled about that idea either but then again, its that or pee my pants.”
True to his word, ten minutes later he put us down on runway number one at Jan Smuts international airport in Johannesburg. It felt strange landing on such a large strip of tarmac in such a tiny plane. Danie only put the wheels down about a quarter of the way down the strip and the Cessna used only a fraction of what was left to come to walking pace. He pulled over and popped the cabin door.
“There you go, I told you I’d look after you.”
Stepping out onto the blazing tarmac I took in the huge planes circling above us waiting to land. I walked to the back of the plane and unzipped. Easy now, no performance anxiety please. Finally I relaxed and a steady stream ensued. Halfway through a huge 747 landed on the runway next to us. A huge surge of air buffeted me and covered me in my own spray. I raised my free hand to wave at the bank of windows flashing by. Welcome to Johannesburg people! I should have just peed in my pants.