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Fun in the DRC

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as Zaire from 1971-1997) is incredibly rich in minerals and precious metals, but is fractured by its size, its demographic (tribal), crime, separatist and guerrilla factions. With poor communications and difficulty in accessing remote parts of the vast country due to limited road networks, it is currently ungovernable from a developed world perspective. In the nineties travel there would always bring a surprise.

On one of my visits I arrived at Kinshasa’s N’Djili international airport after a perfectly satisfactory landing only to be shaken to bits by the uneven runway surface. It was so bad that several aircraft operators refused to land there, worried about the damage to their aircraft landing gear.

Inside the terminal, I collected my bag and faced the customs official. He opened it, took a brief and completely ineffective feel around the contents and let me close it again. Since I was quite experienced in travelling to such places, I wasn’t in uniform, but had displayed my aircraft captain’s epaulettes on the top of the clothes. Officials are often (or used to be) very respectful of rank and position. Uniformed aircrew were seldom subject to the usual harassment. However, having cleared customs I walked towards the exit and was stopped in the middle of the crowd by a woman in plain clothes. She ordered that I put my case on the floor and open it right there amongst all the milling passengers.

She had no identification to support her claimed position as a customs official, she was simply abusing her power. As the top of the case was opened and she started moving my stuff, a man stepped forward, grabbed her arm and pulled her upright. He screamed something at her, pointed to my epaulettes and yelled, ‘Captain, Captain.’ then slapped her hard across the face. Needless to say, she retreated.


The other airport in Kinshasa is Ndolo. This was much smaller than N’Djili and was home to regional operators and smaller aircraft than commercial jets. This was the airport where in 1996, an Antonov 32B failed to achieve sufficient speed to take off and overran into the market, killing up to 350 people and seriously injuring 250 more – the most ground casualties of any aircraft accident in history bar the intentional events of 9/11. The Russian crew had overloaded the machine which had failed to gain height and struck the boundary fence and cars on the road before cutting a swathe through the market. The flight was illegal and was transporting arms to Angola. The pilots were jailed for a measly two years.

The authorities response to the accident was to ban flying from the airport, as if the airport itself was to blame! In other words the fault lay with the runway not being long enough, not the malpractice of the crew.

I was there to check the competence of the pilots from the DRC electricity company, while the engineer that accompanied me checked the helicopters themselves. They flew the Bell 206B Jetranger, a 4 seat turbine powered machine. Being small, these aircraft were ground handled by mounting wheels to the landing skids and pushing them in and out of the hangar.
We had just done this and the crew were lowering the helicopter off its wheels by moving a lever. The joker in the crew was a very small man called Phandi. He was always laughing and getting the others in stitches, but he wasn’t very bright. Phandi moved his lever but he wasn’t strong or heavy enough to stop the lever swinging up under the helicopter’s greater weight. The machine hit the floor, landing on his foot. He yelled for help, others came to see and one, using the lever, lifted the helicopter off him.

The engineer I had with me was on good terms with all the French speaking locals and was always teasing them. When it was clear that Phandi’s pride was more damaged than his foot, the engineer said, ‘Phandi, you’re an a…hole.’ The others thought this was very funny. I was suspicious. I gathered them around me and asked them if they knew what an a…hole was. They claimed it meant an imbecile. ‘No,’ I said, pointing at my own bum, ‘this is an a…hole.’ After that we couldn’t get another scrap of work done that day. They were literally rolling around on the floor with laughter and shouting, ‘Phandi, a…hole, Phandi, a…hole.’


We were present when the weekly payday came around. I don’t remember how many ground personnel were there, but it was around ten with clerks and pen pushers as well as the engineers. Such was the economy and inflation that pay was made in cash only. As soon as someone arrived with the money, the small queue formed.

The boss opened a large blue and white Coleman cooler box, absolutely stuffed with cash. So weak was the currency that each employee was given vast wads of it to take home. Whilst it was an eye-opener, it was a sobering sight – pitiful for these people to be in such a state.


Work on editing the first draft of Running Forever, the sequel to Thirty-Four, has begun. It will be some time before it is ready to send to a professional editor. In the meantime, my new short story, The Facilitator is finished and is available as part of the collection of free stories entitled Dark Tales.

Links to all my books in a collection of stores world wide are available on relevant pages on this website.

Why are you hesitating? Look them up and click to buy!

As you’re reading this on my website, please subscribe in the box available on every page to get your free copy of Dark Tales, a growing collection of short stories. Or you can go directly to https://bit.ly/3tKtIxU. The first story, Mjölnir has been available for some time. The second, Baltic Pine, is more recent, and The Facilitator is new. Please enjoy them.

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