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A Near-Fatal Flying Incident

This anecdote covers an incident that occurred some years after I’d left the army and Hong Kong. I was flying for a South African company in South West Africa (now Namibia). The SWA authorities were extending communications throughout the country and erecting rebroadcast stations on mountain tops. This particular one was Paresis mountain which is about 32kms west of Otjiwarongo.

Our task was to lift bags of cement and ballast, barrels of water and all the material the workers would need to build a concrete base and erect a communications mast on the mountain top. All this material was carried slung under the helicopter using the cargo hook.

The procedure was for the load weight to be carefully calculated before being stacked in a net. The corners of the net were then drawn together and attached to a long sling with a loop or steel ring on the end. The pilot would position the helicopter over the load and a man on the ground clipped the ring into the helicopter’s hook. The pilot could release the load at any time by electrically opening the hook. He would do this when delivering the load, of course, but could also do it in an emergency.

I and another pilot and an engineer were to start the operation. After ensuring all was going well, I was to return to Johannesburg and leave the other pilot to finish the job. We set up a camp at the foot of the mountain with the construction workers and a civil engineer. All the material for the mast was stacked nearby, and the helicopter stood out in the open ready to fly.

The region was classed as a malaria risk area, so we had to take medication every day. Like a good little boy I took my anti-malaria pill with breakfast on the first morning.

I took a load up the mountain and dropped it where the workers indicated was most convenient for them. This was as close to where they were going to use the material, depending on what that was. The only place to actually land the machine was a little distant. This was where the empty nets and slings were put into the helicopter, to be taken back to the loading area down below.

With the first load dropped, I flew back down the mountain to the camp (about a minute’s flight) and picked up another net. Back on the summit I was moving to the position the workers wanted when my vision became fuzzy. You need to understand this was a very precarious situation. There was nowhere to actually land. There were men almost underneath me, because there was not enough space for them to keep away from the helicopter, and the ground was strewn with large rocks, steel girders, a cement mixer and other construction material. An engine failure in that position would certainly have resulted in an accident, the machine wrecked and quite likely several deaths – including mine.

I could not focus properly. I was high above the drop point and descending vertically to put the load on the ground, but I was losing perspective – things were distorted. The ground was moving when it should not have been. I had to fight to maintain a picture of the situation. Somehow I succeeded in dumping the load close to where it should have been, so the men on the ground were clear of a possible crash.

The next step should have been for me to land further away where I could pick up the first net (now empty) and sling. But my condition was deteriorating so fast I could not afford to do that landing, and shot off down to the camp. On the way down my head began to ache, the landing zone ahead of me was wobbling, and I seriously thought I was going to lose control.

If, in the days when it wasn’t considered so stupid, you have ever been so drunk that the white lines on the highway divided into two and you couldn’t tell which lane you should be driving in, you will understand what I felt like in the final stage of that flight.

Somehow I managed to land without crashing. The other pilot came over and took my seat. I literally fell out of the helicopter. I had no balance, I could not control my legs. I sat there on the ground with the noise of the helicopter like a blacksmith’s hammer beating my head into his anvil. Our engineer and someone else took a grip of me and half carried me to bed, where I lay for the rest of the day with an astronomical headache, cold shivers and a fever.

I don’t know enough about it, but I had malaria once before, in Kenya. Whether that had something to do with my reaction to the medication, I can’t say, but I have not taken another anti-malaria pill since then.

I did another job in Equatorial Guinea for the mining company, Rio Tinto. Their geologists (who would be out in the field for weeks) told me that they did not take malaria prophylactics because of the damage they can cause when taken over a long period. Instead they carried malaria test kits, and at the slightest sign of illness they were evacuated. I have followed that advice ever since and so far it’s worked.

At last I’ve had my book, Thirty-Four, back from the copy editor and made the necessary corrections. Now it goes to a proofreader to double check for errors. Maybe I’ll be able to publish in a month. Meanwhile, here’s a look at the cover:

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