By Jannie Matthysen
"So, how long have you been flying helicopters?" I always dread answering this question. The honest reply reminds me of wasted opportunities, stupid mistakes, lucky escapes, mortality... experience.
It was just another day in Africa. Hot, dusty, chaotic. I'd had a restless night's sleep and a bad breakfast in one of Lusaka's finest establishments. I still wasn't sure if the cockroach family residing in my hotel room also had relatives in the kitchen. I wanted to go... anywhere but here. The passengers had no sense of time. I'd spent time in Africa before, and I promised myself never again. Yet, I still had much time to kill wandering the streets of this city.
I had arranged to meet the passengers at the hotel at around noon, by which time they would have finished their day's business. The Bell Jetranger was waiting at the airport, fuelled and ready to go. True to African tradition, noon came and went without my passengers showing. These were the days before mobile ‘phones, if you can imagine that. I had no option but to sit and wait. They eventually arrived after clearly having had too much to drink at lunch. I made sure that the taxi did not waste any time getting us to the airport.
The flight was going to be simple. Fly from Lusaka to Lake Kariba. We were to spend the night at a mansion on the shores of Kariba. What they described was Monaco in Africa. I then knew instinctively that I was to spend another night in a dirty bed - cockroaches and mosquitoes included.
In the early 90's I'd seen some helicopters fitted with GPS units. Unfortunately this Jetranger was not one of them. The pile of maps that I carted along confirmed that the flight should take no more than 50 minutes. I could surely find Lake Kariba, and all that my drunken passengers had to do was point at the right mansion. As expected, we departed late. Of course it did not matter much in Africa, but I knew that we were going to arrive at Kariba after sunset. I asked about the mansion again. "Lots of lights, open spaces, large beach, no problem..." It sounded good to me. I wasn't going to spend another night in Lusaka. Any change was likely to be an improvement anyway.
The flight was uneventful enough. I managed to find the gigantic lake with pinpoint accuracy and was comforted by how many lights we could see along the shore. The reflections on the water even looked, dare I say, romantic? My mesmerized passengers were enjoying the view, but I had to delve into my dwindling supplies of tact and patience to convince them to start looking out for our destination. After wasting several precious minutes, we finally arrived - well, sort of. We still had to land.
My carefully devised plan relied on the fact that I should be able to see some light of where the sun had set minutes before. It must have been many minutes since the sun's disappearance as the horizon was nothing but a feint orange glow. I also reasoned that the mansion was on a beach. We could therefore approach from the lake towards land using lights from the buildings as reference. There would be no obstacles on our approach path over the water. We would make a graceful landing on the lawn of the mansion. In my warped analysis of the situation I reasoned that I had done many night operations before, and with a little training and some experience, this landing was hardly going to challenge for a pilot of my caliber. I'd even checked the landing light before take-off!
My cunning plan was put into action. There was no wind, so a comfortable approach was flown towards the lights. Mindful of the threats of vortex and disorientation, I made sure that I regularly scanned the instruments during the approach. As I started a gentle flare slowing into a hover, I expected to see the beach not too far below the helicopter. A slow taxi would bring a lush lawn into the landing-light's view. We were now within meters of the mansion's reference lights at the same horizontal level, and no lawn, no beach. What I did see was a steep rocky slope at the extreme limit of the landing light's range. I remember trying to summarize our situation: darkness, unfamiliar terrain, high hover, nowhere to land, three ignorant passengers, one stupid pilot...
As a mild case of panic got hold of my gut, I devised yet another clever solution to our dilemma. I knew that we were at least 100 feet above the rocky "beach", but I was looking directly into the mansion's cozy lounge. This confirmed that the slope below us was indeed too steep to attempt a landing. A quick scan out the side window revealed a very vague distinction between glimmering water and jagged rock that defined the shoreline. I was going to hover sideways along that feint line until the landing light signaled the promised beach, lush lawn, barren earth, or anything! It seemed like an eternity of sideways tracking that produced no suitable options. I was hyped on adrenalin while trying my very best to put on a brave face in the cold glow of the cockpit lights. My senses seemed to be in overdrive. I felt strangely detached from the Jetranger's noise and vibration. The mansion's lights were just starting to disappear from view in my left peripheral vision when I suddenly froze on the controls. I could swear that I heard a tapping, grating sound, much like the sound of a willow branch on a tin roof during a gentle summer's breeze. Cold fear gripped my heart - surely nothing could be tapping against the helicopter in a 100 feet hover? I slowly turned my head to the right, and what I saw still terrorizes me to this day. A steel cable as thick as the cyclic I was clutching; gently swaying against the Jetranger's windshield, less than half a meter from where I was sitting!
I can't remember, but I must have sworn several times, badly. I'm also not sure how long it took me to react, but I know that I did not move for several seconds. My mind must have struggled to comprehend the fact that we had just hovered into a steel cable suspended over a river mouth that I never knew existed. The main rotors were no more than a meter above the cable, and heaven knows where the tail rotor was in all this. I do know that we managed to get away and land safely on a small peninsula about a kilometer away. The only reason I know this was because that's where we found the Jetranger the next morning. I now believe people who say that they develop amnesia to wipe bad events from their memories. In my mind I still have several minutes unaccounted for in this horrible story. The passengers were angry with me because they had to walk to the mansion. I'm sure I swore at them. They never saw the cable and could not understand why they had to end up with the worst pilot in Africa.
It's been many years since this ordeal. I've spent countless sleepless nights analyzing the events of that day. I've rehashed my decisions and the factors that influenced my actions during that flight many times. I'm not proud telling this story, but I'm hoping that a few pilots recognize themselves in all this. We could dissect the old "chain of events" and try to rationalize my actions, but the fact remains that those poor passengers did indeed end up with the worst pilot in Africa that day. I kept justifying my plans and never fully understood the risks that I was taking. We walked away unscathed, the passengers oblivious of how close their stupid pilot brought them to certain death. We survived not because of my training, quick reactions, or excellent pilot skills (all these traits that I now know never existed in the first place). We were simply very, very lucky, or we had a whole squadron of Guardian Angels hovering near Kariba that night.
My colleagues today poke fun at the gray strands of hair appearing at my temples. If only they knew that each one of those hair relate to a bad decision made along the way and the realization that I'm still here because I was lucky. I also now understand that if you make stupid decisions often enough, you begin to recognize them eventually. The alternative is to learn from other pilot's mistakes, especially the ones that were not lucky enough to be telling you're their story in person. I knew many of them...