As mentioned before, I’ve visited Gabon many times. Some of these trips were to carry out regular pilot checks when we were operating there, and later to audit aviation contractors for oil companies. What follows is a small collection of experiences I had in the country. I don’t think I ever had a trip which didn’t have something unusual occur.
We supplied a helicopter for the Minister of the Environment during the 1998 election campaign. Although I spent a few weeks there, I didn’t do a lot of flying as the minister spent much time talking. It was interesting in that we visited tiny villages where crude helicopter landing areas had been cleared. Landings at some were a nightmare of dust and debris. Villagers performed tribal dances for the minister, I had a night out with his security guards at the local shebeen and I learned the only way to cook manioc so that it wasn’t totally disgusting. During one idle period when I was told to stand by in case I was needed, I watched the whole embarrassing interview of President Clinton following his affair with Monica Lewinski.
One of our pilots was sent to Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo by the French owner of the charter company to which we were contracted. What this devious Frenchman did not tell our man was that overnight an attempted coup had taken place, and Brazzaville was a combat zone. This owner was to be paid a substantial sum to assist the incumbent president of Congo, meaning, I presume, to get him out of danger. When our man landed, unaware he was flying into a war zone, he was helped by the French military pilots of the presidential helicopter and told he should get out as soon as possible, which he did – under fire. The owner claimed he didn’t know of the fighting. Nice – send a civilian pilot into a combat zone without telling him what’s going on.
This particular owner later fell foul of the ruling Bongo clan (the Bongo family have ruled Gabon since 1967) and left the country in a hurry. His company was appropriated by the government and a new female CEO, who was also a Bongo, was appointed.
Later in my career, when I was doing safety audits and not flying, my experiences took on a different dimension. Once, I arrived on an international flight that was late. I got my bag and rushed to the office of the company that flew to Port Gentil, the main oil centre in the country. They sold me a ticket and said the aircraft was departing. A man rushed me through the barriers without any restrictions and onto the tarmac where the aircraft had already started engines. The cabin crew member had pulled up the steps and was about to close the door while the machine began to taxi to the runway. My man ran ahead of me shouting and gesticulating at the crew, who stopped the aircraft. The steps were lowered, I clambered up them with my bag, and we were off. Can you imagine doing that today with all the security in place? Can you imagine an aircraft stopping its taxi to let a late passenger board? That’s Africa for you.
I was to inspect a helicopter landing pad in the forest where the oil company were going to drill. Because the helipad had not been cleared for operations, the only way to reach it in a day was by boat. My host was a large man who, after he decided to trust me, said he opposed the government and had demonstrated against the Bongo regime. He had been imprisoned and tortured but was then freed.
He organised a boat for us, and we set out for the drill site. The vessel was about 15ft long, open and driven by an outboard engine. Libreville edges the wide Gabon Estuary. We had to travel up this for a couple of hours before entering a tributary and sailing up that for an hour. It was a great day out and a radical departure from my usual activities at the airport.
I enjoy mucking about in boats and have sailed a bit, but I don’t like water, I’m scared of it and all the nasty things that lurk in it. The boat, therefore, presented a problem. The water in the estuary was choppy and we bounced and slapped our way over it before reaching the calmer waters of the river. I was resting my forearm on the gunwale as we thumped through the waves and suddenly felt a sharp pain in my skin. A crack had appeared in the side of the boat and was opening and closing as we smashed through the choppy water, pinching my arm.
Essentially, the boat was in the process of splitting in two. Admittedly, it had a long way to go before the crack spread through the hull, but I wasn’t happy about it. I pointed the crack out to the crewman, who just grinned happily at me. Obviously it didn’t matter until it failed. An attitude, unfortunately, that existed in the aviation community as well.
Writing progress is that the first draft of Running Forever, the sequel to Thirty-Four, is complete. I shall go over it again after leaving it alone for a few weeks. It needs more atmosphere and perhaps some better descriptions before sending it to a professional editor. In the meantime, I’ve almost finished a new short story called The Facilitator.
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