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Russians in Guinea – Part One

I missed a letter last month for which I apologise. The reason was a week in Sicily, enjoying good food, scenery, Mt Etna and most of all a grand time with my family. I’m not going to apologise for that.

I had a number of interesting experiences in Guinea, West Africa. Much of the aviation at that time (early 2000s) was run by Russians. Some Soviet era ex-military personnel could not accept the change in Russian aviation regulations to align them with those of Europe and the USA. The changes they would have to make would be too expensive and put them out of business. So they chose to operate aircraft in Africa, particularly in the western states. There, for a fat brown envelope, they could set up a company and operate however they wanted, cutting corners on safety, using tired aircraft and ancient technology.

I went to Conakry to conduct a safety audit of some of these companies to determine their adherence to safe practice on behalf of both an oil company and a mining company. In the process I wanted to see how the crews operated while actually flying the aircraft.

The first company I went to was a non-starter. It had a minute office in the city and, although the meeting had been arranged, when I got there I had to wait for half an hour before the owner would see me. When I was ushered into the tiny room, he nodded at me, stood and walked out. I was left looking stupid, alone in the man’s office. The conversation with the secretary went something like this:
‘Where’s he gone?’
‘For how long? When is he back?’
Shrugs and sips coffee.

Perhaps the situation is best illustrated by the fact that hung on the back of his chair was a Russian colonel’s uniform jacket. He couldn’t abandon his Soviet upbringing, and the thought of being questioned (investigated?) by a Westerner was an insult he wasn’t prepared to stomach.

Having said that, he did come back after an hour and was obviously surprised to see me still waiting for him. My questions were answered with either a negative response or a silent stare. It was his loss, not mine as my client would not use him.

While we were sparring, the colonel’s wife came in with their daughter in tow. She was about sixteen and straight out of a magazine like Playboy. She had a bulging top, bare midriff and the shortest hot pants you can imagine. Well good for her, except that it was not exactly good sense to dress like that in a place like Conakry – it was far too dangerous as the dominant religious group doesn’t believe in the emancipation of women. But the colonel didn’t care. He walked out again and took his family off into the town.


On another occasion the company had agreed to let me fly in the cockpit of an Antonov 24 on a regular passenger flight. The passengers had already boarded, and I was talking to the crew outside the aircraft. Then a couple of military trucks pulled up next to us, soldiers jumped out and surrounded the aeroplane.

The passengers were ordered off the flight, seats were taken out and boxes were loaded under armed guard. No attempt to secure the cargo to prevent it shifting in flight or to distribute the weight was made. The An24 has a cunning, but primitive device on the nose wheel strut consisting of an indicator and a scale. You have to distribute the load so that the indicator remains within certain limits on the scale. If the load is too far back in the aircraft, the tail goes down, the nose wheel strut lengthens and the indicator goes off the scale, and vice versa. This is not very accurate, but it does save some dunce from a miscalculation of the centre of gravity.

So a scheduled passenger flight was cancelled because a more important (to someone) mission had come up. It turned out that the boxes contained a vast amount of cash which was being taken to a distant town for some purpose, probably corrupt. When you have an autocratic government, you can do whatever you like with resources, whether they are yours or someone else’s.


Literary news is not wonderful, I’m afraid. I’m working through the draft of the sequel to Thirty-Four, and the characters are giving me a hard time. Both the main protagonist and the antagonists are demanding that more of their story is told. Apparently, all parties feel they’ve been short changed and the current manuscript leaves them without a satisfactory ending.
It is not unheard of that characters start telling the author what to do. I think it happens more often than not, which is why editing takes so much work. It’s a bit like strike action really: do what we want or we’ll crash your computer (bring down the government).

These people are depriving me of sleep, so I have had to do more work on the tale, which means more time will pass before the book is available. Not being a politician, I don’t want to make any promises and then conduct a U-turn. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

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