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Russians in Guinea – Part 2







I really hope everyone enjoyed the holidays and wasn’t guilty of self-inflicted injury due to overeating and drinking.

In the last letter I related how the flight I was going to take in an Antonov 24 in Guinea was cancelled because some politician had decided that the transport of cash was more important than the passengers who had been kicked off the flight, no matter how vital their business was.

Having waited three and a half hours for the aircraft to return, the other passengers boarded while I took the opportunity for a brief inspection of the outside of the aircraft. Apart from several dust laden oil streaks, the only thing worth mentioning was the state of the tyres. All six had canvas showing, some several layers, and there was no useful tread on any of them. In the baggage bay was a spare tyre in no better a condition. Given the state of the runways: dirt with rubber-slicing stones or wet and slippery if mud, these tyres were a risk. I queried their state with the engineer, but he merely shrugged and said, ‘No problem.’

I was shown into the cockpit and was asked to sit in the navigator’s place. A navigator was not carried, but his seat is situated behind the captain on the left. Also present were the two pilots, of course, and a flight engineer/loadmaster. All the crew were pleasant and accommodating, although an aura of suspicion of me was almost tangible.

We were going to a small town called Nzerekore, 400 miles away near the borders of Cote D’Ivoire and Liberia, some 1.5 hrs flight time. This route involved flying east and then south-east to avoid crossing Sierra Leone. Thunderstorms, rain and low cloud were forecast.

The Russian pilots were obviously in a hurry, because once they had started the first engine they began to taxi to the runway before starting the second motor. To be fair, this crew, including the engineer, had obviously worked together for thousands of hours, probably years. They didn’t use a check list at all as they performed the cockpit checks and got the engines going. All three’s hands flicked switches and pushed circuit breakers in synchronised, fluid movements without a word being spoken.

I tried to make sense of the instruments, which were all labelled in Russian, of course. Several appeared not to be working, but this didn’t didn’t seem to worry anyone. Once airborne the engineer made a brew. I was offered a glass of black tea so badly stained with tannin it was almost opaque. The captain was cheerful and happy to talk with a foul smelling cigarette stuck to his bottom lip, as was the engineer, but the first officer kept quiet the whole trip. I sensed antagonism, but could have been mistaken.

The An24 is not a pressurised machine and as such should not be flown above 10,000ft without oxygen being used by all occupants. The crew had no desire to waste time climbing to that altitude, however, and did not go above 2000ft, which is very low for commercial flights and made for a bumpy ride, while providing a good view of the country.

We went through a few rain showers on the way to Nzerekore and one had just passed through when we arrived. The runway was surfaced with compacted soil, which when wet was extremely slippery. Considering the bald and worn state of the tyres on this aircraft, I had visions of us sliding off the runway and into the bush to the side.

There was no problem however, and once the passengers had disembarked we hung around for the return load to emerge from the shack which served as the terminal building. The engineer took a cursory look around the aircraft and pronounced it serviceable.

The aircraft was too old to have been fitted with a GPS or Satnav system as original equipment, and none had been fitted since, not even a portable unit. The principal navigation aid was therefore the Automatic Direction Finder. Sitting in the navigator’s position, it was obvious to me that the instrument which showed the direction of the selected beacon wasn’t working. The captain told me it wasn’t necessary, because the pilots knew the route. Since they only flew at 2000ft with a good view of the country, this was probably true. But when I asked how they would find their way if in cloud or had to go off course due to weather, the question was met with a grin and a shrug.

Risk management can be taken too far, to the extent it stifles progress. The attitude of the people I came across in West Africa: that all problems can be bulldozed aside, that their aircraft are built like tractors and can withstand any punishment, that their pilots are experienced in the harshest of conditions and can therefore handle anything thrown at them is plain dangerous, however. Common sense has its place somewhere between the extremes.

As far as my sequel to Thirty-Four is concerned, I’m well into the changes I had to make, and in a month to six weeks it should be ready to go to a professional editor.

In the meantime, you can enjoy my latest short story, The Facilitator, which 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 which is 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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