Old Wives’ Tales

The idea of old wives’ tales in Africa seems like a strange idea to me. Not the idea of a story that is mired in warning, exaggeration, and myth, but in the very description. Africa is not a place of old wives, but young widows. The median age in the democratic Congo is 17.4 years, and, barring disease, destruction, famine, or war, can expect to live to the ripe old age of 55. That age is, in the idea of western society, when some people think about packing in work for a condo on the back of a golf course, with a membership thrown in. That idea is also the driving force behind many contracted expats, and unfortunately my mention of wives’ tales involves them, as well as the widows.

I have heard some tall tales while living in Kinshasa. Some have been heresay, such as the story of the Russian IL-76 dumping 130 Congolese soldiers out the back. A heated argument of the troop contingent on board the plane arose to gunfire on the way back from Kisangani, and bullets on a pressurized airplane are not taken lightly. The Russian crew, pragmatists to say the least, put the nose in a high angle of attack, donned their oxygen masks, and dumped the cabin…with the cargo door open. Or so the story goes. At first it seemed unbelievable, but I have heard it recounted a few times. There is something almost legendary about this story. The idea of the poorly dressed soldiers tumbling out at 30,000 feet, their forest green uniforms lost against the backdrop of the everlasting jungle below them. I still have my reservations, but it’s a tall tale nonetheless.

Other times I have arrived at the site of another grand story just after it had happened. I was flying the day the LET-410 took off with the crocodile in his suitcase. The story that it had crashed had reached the UN aviation headquarters by the time we got back from a Gbadolite run, and people already knew that a crocodile had brought down the plane. A passenger had brought it onboard, and, being the African style of safety, people rushed the front, causing a load shift which took the poor plane down into the ouskirts of Kinshasa. This story had crediblility since the only two survivors were a passenger who recounted the harrowing incident, and the crocodile. I was saddened by the fact they had killed it after the crash; I thought surviving a crash like that, being stuck in a situation beyond your control, was worth a little hero worship.

Another one, the raid on Mbandaka, was another one I was fortunate enough to have missed by a few days. It begins simply enough.The locals had been angry about fishing rights, so they marched on the UN compound. Then it takes another course, a uniquely African yarn. The fishermen had brought their voodoo priestesses, and the Congolese army, having only AK-47’s against fishermen with black magic and machetes, chose the sensible option. They dropped their guns and ran. Panic ensued, and people scattered for the jungle as the newly armed fishermen, now carrying Army issued weaponry, proceeded to shoot up the compound. A South African pilot, with a bad case of gout, told his crew to go ahead and took refuge in a trailer. The details are hazy after that, but he was found shot, with some saying his hands were cut off and his throat sliced to make a point. I remember shaking my head and being skeptical, but I slowly came to realize that this is Africa, and the bucket of shells and blood on the containers proved evidence enough.

There are dozens of these stories, and they touch so close to home. They always involve air crew, usually, and it feels like there is an Angry Aviation God that demands sacrifice within the lush foliage, its eyes turned toward the sky, hungry for lives.

The saddest tale is the one that hits close to home for most of our crew. There was a CRJ-200 that parked near us. We were friendly with the crew, but they were our competition, and so fraternizing never really occurred. We all used to worry for them, as it seemed they were used to operating less maintenance heavy aircraft, and all of us talked as if one day, they might be offered up to that Congolese deity that has no mercy for small mistakes.

I was in Afghanistan when I heard one day, from a co-worker, that they had cartwheeled on the runway after failing to divert to their alternate after a thunderstorm refused to budge off of the airport. Windshear had caught them in the final 20 feet, and they broke up on the first third of the runway. There were three survivors. Our plane had the displeasure of landing ahead of the wreckage just minutes after, the burnt offering still smoldering on the runway.

The old wives in these are to the west and east of the Congo, sitting at home with a picture adorned with a black ribbon on the mantle, cautioning young pilots the price that sometimes is paid to see the dark corners of the world in an airplane.

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