Jimi looked out of the one of the 16 cockpit windows to his starboard or right at the magnificent RwenzoriMountains about 50 kilometres away with its glacial mountain tops. Natural features such as these showed the paradox that was Africa with ice capped mountains on the one hand and the heat of the equator not far away on the other. The plane was pressurised and very comfortable as they cruised after their departure from Kalemi Airstrip an hour ago bound for Kinshasa.
In the captain’s seat of the twin turbo prop Italian built FIAT G222 was Niash, a female of Ethiopian extraction. In the three months the two had been flying together she never spoke much apart from the routine cockpit duties. Jimi stole a look at her out of the corner of his left eye but she was only scanning the instruments or looking out like he was. Niash was in her mid 40s he thought and was a fine figure of a woman looking like Iman the fashion model he thought. He had Googled her before he first flew with her because like most 50 something men he felt it unusual to have females in the cockpit and especially in the command pilot’s seat. He had been shocked to see that not only she been a combat pilot on the Sukhoi 27 multirole fighter, she was also the first female in combat history to shoot down another fighter jet. She was good, very good and resolutely refused to talk about her combat career.
The flying contract they had was two fold, one to move refugees into safe havens in Rwanda and Angola but also to work with medical groups for vaccination programmes to fight against pneumococcal disease in children. The Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC had the highest war death rates since the Second World War with 4.5 million people having died since the 1990s. The DRC was full of rebel’s hell bent on taking power or wealth by any means. And what a rich country it was too with estimates of untapped raw minerals in excess of US $15 trillion. These minerals included diamonds, bauxite, gold, zinc and many more. The blood diamond regions were often controlled by the rag tag armies aided by Lebanese / Syrian businessmen who having ruined their own countries have used Africa over the last 25 years by fermenting trouble in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast or Cote ‘D’ Ivoire. All that natural wealth was a blessing but more a curse.
He thought of all this as he masked his yawn by pretending he was scratching the side of his mouth and thought back 4 months ago. He had been working as a marital counsellor in a West Midlands town listening to couples unburden their marital woes on him. The trigger to him being in this cockpit had been a session he had with the woman sat opposite him on the sofa whining about how her husband, sat to her left often ignored Fifi the family cat for ages. By ignoring the cat, she said, it showed her how he didn’t love his wife either. The husband in question was staring up at the ceiling as if checking out to see how smooth the paint and finish was. Jimi set his face to the earnest listening mode whilst asking himself wouldn’t it be better if he just launched himself out of the window rather than listen to this. ‘Who gives a shit about some cat’ he thought but the £42 an hour he earned counselling would help to pay bills. Eventually the couple left with the wife happy at the progress the sessions were making and the husband thinking he could get home in time for the snooker on the telly.
On his way home that night Jimi had made calls to his old friends in aviation in desperation and despondent about how his life was turning out. In his early 50s, he had a good job, kids were ok, he was happily divorced but something was not what it should be. Lack of fulfilment made him jaded as he climbed into his car. Even the violin musings of Yo Yo Ma on the hifi did not lift his spirits. His sleep that night was restless and interrupted when his mobile rang about 2 am showing an unknown number. It was his best friend Eddie. Eddie and Jimi had met in school in their early teens, been to flying school together ,had both flown some high performance commercial jets in their twenties but by their thirties their professional worlds had drifted apart. Jimi had to leave flying, relocated to Europe and got a university education that was as far away from flying as one could be. The two met up twice a year either in Seattle where Eddie had a house by a lake or in England where Jimi lived. They both had four kids and two divorces under their belt. Even better their ex wives hated their guts and thankfully remained incommunicado with them.
‘I made the calls for you ‘Eddie said ‘But remember schtoom is the word. One of my old pals needs a co pilot on an Italian G222 flying all over the Congo Democratic Republic. Fancy it?’
‘Absolutely ‘Jimi replied ‘But I was looking for work as a load master as my pilot’s licences and medical certificates have long expired.’.
Eddie replied ‘Hey, this is the Congo. No one asks any questions. Just read up on the G222 and its systems. You were always a nerdy technical guy. Besides it wont be that hard to fly as you have thousands of hours on jets, the main difference being is that no big large airports anymore just strips in the middle of nowhere. Job pays $5000 a month, not a lot but its all cash.’
‘Can I think about this for some days?’ ‘Sure’ replied the other’ Three days maximum’ ‘Thanks bro’ said Jimi.
His decision was made even before he had hung up the phone. Next day he went to his manager at the counselling centre in town and informed her he wanted a sabbatical ‘to rediscover himself’. He was told to run it through the formal system by writing which he did. Whilst that was going on he told her he was taking some weeks off with his annual leave. She wasn’t best pleased as Jimi was a very competent counsellor just a tad cynical.
He rang his children a few days later to say he was going away to work in Africa for a non governmental agency out there. He told them not to worry and that as soon as he got himself a satellite phone he would be in touch with them from the Congo. He did not mention anything about planes or flying. Next step learning to fly the G222. He heard through a cousin of his about Olu, an ex Nigerian Air Force pilot had been an instructor on the G222. He made contact and met up with Olu who lived an hour away. Once Jimi got past Olu’s reluctance to talk, the man was a mine of information, contacts and flying instructions. You Tube provided the highlights and crashes of the G222.