Tag Archives: dancers

A third helicopter arrives in Djibouti

Air France unloaded C-GOEB from the belly of its 747 in Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. I had previously flown this machine on an Ontario Hydro job in Wawa, and like all of the new 500s purchased in 1974, it too was a nice little aircraft to fly.

Some out-of-the-box assembly was required, and once that was completed on February 13th, it was discovered that a new fuel control was needed. That took some time to arrive, and a good thing too, because I had been attempting to get the aircraft through customs. While I have never proclaimed myself to be bilingual, I had to make use of a lot of franglais that I had learned back in Canada.

In frustration, I finally turned to the French national who was the overseer of the Djibouti airport. He willingly provided me with a list of local airport officials who would require baksheesh before the aircraft could be released. Heeding his advice, I greased the wheels, thus allowing forms to get stamped, signed and delivered, and the aircraft was finally allowed into the country.

Back alley shenanigans

We love you good time always. With the help of Sammy Pollock's phrase, I crawled out of this alley with two sober women who were trying to rifle my pockets for loose cash. They were unsuccessful, and I returned safely to the hotel at the crack of dawn. What became of the rest of the party that night, I have no idea. Thanks again, Sammy.

I had a lot of time to get around and see the sights of Djibouti, and I enjoyed that time tremendously. It was a walking-around kind of town back then, although I had rented a Citroën 2CV (a deux chevaux) with the umbrella-like shifter hanging out of the dash. That was a great little car, and it took me all over the city in my pursuit of things to see and do. First thing in the morning it was a trip to the market for cheese, and then on to a stop by the bakery for hot bread fresh out of the oven. Once the makings were acquired, it was down to the shoreline to see what had washed up overnight.

Looking down on the street from the Hotel Djibouti

Looking down onto the street from the Hotel Djibouti

We could never be guaranteed two nights in a row at the superior Hotel Siesta, so the downtown Hotel Djibouti became our second home when the Siesta filled up with reservations. A flight crew from Lufthansa complete with stews ended up staying at the Siesta when the airline went on strike. That was entertaining solely for the fact the the captain was an older, arrogant German (tutti fruiti) who appeared a tad depressed still that the war had been lost. I didn’t envy the rest of his crew in the slightest when I saw that they all made an effort to laugh over-exuberantly at his jokes.

The beach from the Hotel Siesta. The palm trees are long gone now.

An early morning sunrise overlooking the beach from the Hotel Siesta. The palm trees are long gone now.

Eventually the fuel control arrived, got installed, and the aircraft was flown to the Conoco camp by the mystery pilot. It was obvious that the mystery pilot actually thought that all three of the pilots paid to be there were incapable of doing their jobs. Go figure.

Sammy Pollock saved my ass again when I got tangled up with a couple of love-you-good-time girls at a bar in Djibouti. After imbibing with a bunch of miscreants off of a Panamanian-flagged ship, some of us let the girls lead us down a rather lengthy garden path to their lovely home in a back alley. When I finally came to on the darkest street I’ve ever seen in a strange city, my pockets were being rifled by a couple of lovely young things. Being incapable of seeing the whites of their eyes, I looked for their teeth, and yes, there were definitely two sets, gleaming white in the surrounding darkness. I was able to invoke Sammy’s phrase, inshallah, and lo, the women led me out of the alley to a street that I was somewhat familiar with. It was either that, or they gave up trying to find my stash that I had hidden in my socks.

By the time we hit Djibouti, we all were so starved for any kind of North American culture that we went to see Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn. It was playing in a primitive open-air theatre, dubbed in French, but we didn’t care. It was enjoyable all the same.

French Somaliland was established in 1894, and from 1967 to 1977 was known as the French Territory of Afars and Issas, so named for the two dominant populations in the region. Independence from France was granted after a 1977 referendum.

The 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade (13e Demi-Brigade de Légion Étrangère, 13e DBLE) has been based in Djibouti since 1962. Every day on multiple drives to and from the airport, I would pass by the Foreign Legion sandstone façade on the edge of the city. I’ve looked for the building in today’s satellite images of Djibouti, but I can’t find it. Perhaps it has been replaced by a more modern structure.

Dj visa

R&R Mogadishu

Thank you, Sammy

I have Sammy Pollock to thank for cluing me in about Muslims. Sammy was one of Viking Helicopter’s Ottawa engineers, an old Africa hand who had spent many years on the continent. After he heard that I was heading to the Dark Continent, he pulled me aside and made me memorize a phrase [1] that stood me in good stead throughout my stay. I will be forever grateful to Sammy for doing that for me.

We love you good time

While in Mogadishu I always tried to stay at the Hotel Juba. It was pretty classy for its time, and the best place in town in 1975. The older hotels and their lobbies – both inside and out – were filled with khat-chewing layabouts, and at the time I wouldn’t have given a nickel for a room in any of them. Although, there was this one time…

Overlooking the grounds of the Hotel Juba with pool and patio. Not so bad in 1975 after coming into town for a little R&R.

Overlooking the grounds of the Hotel Juba with pool and patio. Not so bad in 1975 after coming into town for a little R&R. The pool was empty because of the prolonged drought at the time.

Jean-Marc and I ended up in Mog looking for a little relaxation. We took up residence on the bar stools of this one noisy den of iniquity because it appeared to have the best-looking women – but then, that was all relative to how drunk we became. The bars served liquor to westerners, but it was forbidden for anyone else. Of course, we both ended up shitfaced, and the Muslim bar-girls, who were drinking “coka” (Coca-Cola), were stone cold sober. All the time.

After turning down several of the uglier girls (which, given the nature of the beast, was pretty hard to tell in the dark bar) we settled on a couple of beauties who managed to speak better inglese than the others. In blackest night we ended up escorting our two favourite b-girls to their – how shall I say this – home adventure palace. After duly forking over the required shillings, we ended up in side-by-side rooms. Needless to say, the walls at best were paper thin, and each of us could hear what the other was saying, and doing.

After a suitable interlude, I could hear a man laughing, and then this girl’s voice saying, “Mama-mia, I don’t suck. I’m Muslim!”

Well damned if I didn’t almost fall out of bed laughing my ass off.

I’ve often wished Marc was still with us so that I could tell that story and get his reaction one more time. Unfortunately, he departed this earth a number of years later while flying in British Columbia.

Ed meets the Canadian Ambassador to Kenya in Mog

One of the incidents I had completely forgotten about occurred in Mog while we were all on an R&R. Some of the boys had gotten off of the beaten path one night and ended up wandering around Mog on foot in a bit of a fog early in the a.m.

Ed Pucci had this Team Canada hockey jersey that he wore on special occasions. That morning, the Canadian Ambassador to Kenya happened to be on tour in his limo. When he recognized the jersey, he had his driver pull over to the side of the road and accosted Ed and the boys and had them regale him with their tale of why they were in-country.

Small world.

Sadly, Ed Pucci and his sense of humour is no longer with us.

The benefits of clan warfare

Here’s the Hotel Juba today, from a satellite shot. Everything showing in the picture above is gone, except for the main building. If you zoom out, at the bottom of the shot even the residences across the street (see photo, above) have been destroyed. It’s such a shame. What a great way to advertise the benefits of clan warfare and Muslim extremism. As if the country wasn’t poor enough, now it’s completely broke, and broken, and I doubt that it will ever return to be even a shadow of its former self.

The benefits of clan warfare? None.

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Recent satellite view of the Hotel Juba grounds

The Hotel Juba today, wracked by gunfire and RPG attacks. The only rooms available are out front under tents.

The Hotel Juba today, wracked by gunfire and RPG attacks. The only rooms available are out front under tents.

[1] Right, Sammy’s phrase.

Salam ala’am alaikum, salam alaikum salam.

It worked every time I needed it to get my drunk ass out of a jam while I was wandering around a dark alley looking for my hotel – and believe me, I ended up in some very dark alleys. Whether it was a citizen; a police officer; a woman; every time I greeted a Muslim with that phrase, they took me wherever I needed to be, safely and securely. Thanks again, Sammy.

I wonder if that phrase would work today. Back to top

A peeler with a heart of gold

Midwest HelicoptersI spent some time apprenticing for Midwest Helicopters in Winnipeg. Their hanger was an old World War II vintage building, with a thick wooden roof and huge sliding doors. It was one of those buildings such that if it ever caught fire, nothing would prevent it from burning to the ground.

Just down the tarmac and a short walk away was the Winnipeg Flying Club, where Bruce K. and I would occasionally attend the bar for lunch. Like me, Bruce was a lowly apprentice. Unlike me, he had more experience. Sometimes Ken Wilson would tag along, just for the amusement factor.

Lloyd Mackenzie was Midwest’s chief engineer. His hobby — when he wasn’t trying to keep Bruce and me out of trouble — was Samoyed dogs. When Bruce and I spent a little more time than absolutely necessary enjoying lunch at the Flying Club, Lloyd would walk out onto the tarmac in his white shop coat and pace back and forth with his hands on his hips, searching for the troublemakers. When we marched past him on our way back into the hanger, he always had a remark to make, but he never gave us hell – even though we deserved it.

The Winnipeg Curling Club on Ness wasn’t that far from the airport, and once we heard that they had strippers doing lunch-time matinees, it was like trying to chase flies away from a cesspool. The three of us – Bruce, Ken and myself – would pile into Ken’s orange Judge and head on over to spend an hour or so applauding the girls. Eventually some of the dancers came to recognize us as regulars.

There was this one rather large-breasted young thing who took a shine to us one afternoon, probably because we were flinging fives or tens her way – then an unheard of amount of money. Or, perhaps it was because of the huge, thick, dark-rimmed glasses that she didn’t wear while she was dancing. Well, on her afternoon break we talked this poor, innocent, little thing into accompanying the three of us over to the Flying Club to finish up her afternoon with a refreshing drink or two.

She regaled us with a story about working her way through school by “dancing”, which we all thought was a pretty good thing on her part. The afternoon progressed, and from the Flying Club window we could see Lloyd checking his watch and looking up and down the tarmac, but there was no way in hell that we were going to leave the little damsel in distress.

Finally I had to take a washroom break. When I returned from the swamp I caught sight of the poor girl’s huge naked breasts splayed out on the table. The silly thing had pulled up her sweater and flopped them out on a bet. After that little bit of exhibitionism, we figured that we had better get the hell out of there, so we high-tailed it with stripper in tow. Bruce and I tried to talk Ken into taking her to his place since it was the closest, but he wasn’t having any of that. His wife would have killed him if she found out.

With nowhere to go but back to work, we hustled the poor girl out the back door and across the parking lot to Ken’s Judge. The sound of her high-heels clickety-clacking on the asphalt brought smiles to our faces. When she stumbled she’d grab onto one of us, explaining that she’d never walked so far in the shoes she was wearing.

We didn’t doubt her.

Bruce was from Portage La Prairie. Later that summer Bruce and I and Bob P. got to drinking in the Portage Hotel on a fine sunny afternoon. We’d had a couple of beers each – nothing too extravagant. We were happy to be settling in to a long day of relaxing in the bar. For some reason, a fight ensued, and everyone in the bar got involved, including the women.

I never saw so many huge brown ashtrays, beer glasses and pitchers in full flight, and that was back in the day when they were all glass. In order to stay out of the line of fire we tipped over a couple of tables in a corner of the bar and hunkered down to watch the action from a safe vantage point and to dodge the flying glass. When we heard the sirens we jumped up and ran out the back door, barely making it outside before the paddy wagon rolled up. After witnessing that destruction, to this day I’ve never wanted to be in a bar when I thought a fight might break out.

Some years later the Portage Hotel burned to the ground and thus took one of my memories with it.

Bruce, then an apprentice engineer, later became an engineer, and then a flier. In 1978, while attempting to cross Knight Inlet during limited visibility, he piloted his Bell 206 into the cold deep waters. As far as I know, my old friend was never recovered.

Jim Hawes was an engineer with Midwest at the time we were all there. He’d shake his head at our crazy antics and give us all a huge grin when we cleared by Lloyd and finally got back to work. Jim would later go on to own Custom Helicopters in St. Andrews, Manitoba. Occasionally, if I’m riding east, I’ll stop in for a visit and we’ll have some laughs reminiscing over the old days.

Sadly, Jim has passed away. I will most definitely miss the laughs we used to have while reminiscing about some of our experiences with the characters we both knew so well. We always spoke kindly of them all, usually while wearing huge grins.

Courts of St. JamesDuring a lot of this, I was sharing a place with Doug McIntyre, a Transair 737 pilot who was originally from Thunder Bay. We were in the Courts of St. James where many of the Transair and Midwest staff congregated – often a party in itself. Occasionally Doug would show up at the Flying Club and hang from the log rafters during his more sober moments. Unfortunately, a few years later, the Winnipeg Flying Club burned to the ground and local airport history was the sadder for it.

Doug was himself caught up in a house fire when he went back into the burning building to check for friends who might still be inside. He didn’t come back out.

Experience makes for a great teacher

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of luck.

Niagara Helicopters had a number of flight instructors on the payroll. Most were inexperienced in the rigors of bush flying. They were kept on by the school to build flight time up to some arbitrary magic number imposed by the industry and the companies that they wanted to work for. What those low-time instructors were good at was instilling the basics, for basics are everything.

Let me say that again: basics are everything. Without basics, there is no foundation; thus, you have confusion. Confusion is bad. Situational awareness is good. Attitude, altitude, direction, heading, airspeed and common sense rule. And don’t forget to pay attention to all of it. Look outside. Look inside and scan the instrument panel once in a while too. Always fly the aircraft; don’t let it fly you. Stay ahead of it; don’t get behind it. And while you’re up there, where are you going to go when if the engine quits?

Beyond basics comes a knowledge required to survive in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. If an instructor doesn’t have any experience with bush flying, it’s difficult to pass on the tricks of the trade to his students when he doesn’t have any tricks.

Ben debriefing one of his students. His knowledge and his low-key ability to pass it on to others without all the bullshit worked for me.

Fortunately, at just the right time in my training regimen, the flight school hired Ben Arnold. He was an old-time helicopter aviator who had been a part of the beginning of the piston helicopter era in Canada. He was British, although by then he had spent many years in Canada.

Over time I developed a rapport with Ben. Usually we’d end up in the bar at the King Eddy Hotel, listening to the Jack Drake Duo[1] and watching the dancers. On the nights when the duo wasn’t playing, Ben would play the piano for beer money. On a good night we could shut the place down and have a few dollars left over.

Occasionally we’d pile into his blue Volkswagen and head across the line to Ye Olde Tavern and consume a few pints. Ben still had a bit of an accent, so he’d get me to coach him in the proper pronunciation of a few responses to the questions that the border guards might ask when we headed back across the bridge. I wondered about his immigration status, but I never asked. We always sailed across the border and into Canada, home-free. I never failed him.

Nor did he ever fail me. In six thousand hours of flight time, his instruction, principles and guidance held up. He taught me much that I needed to know to survive as a beginner in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. Over the years I acquired first-hand experience in bush, mountain, arctic and desert flight environments. Ben’s instruction was the foundation for most of what this beginner learned through on-site experience.

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of luck.

Thanks to Ben Arnold, I made my own luck.

And yes, I was lucky too.

[1] Those two were a couple of pretty cool guys for the times. One thing I’ve always wondered: Did they name themselves after Gotham City’s own Jack Drake? Back to top

New digs

The barn at Orleans, 1969

Here’s our first hanger, the old barn just west of the old schoolhouse – 1969

1969 was a successful first operational year for Viking Helicopters and the company was growing fast. The old schoolhouse and the barn were quickly outgrown, and new buildings were needed to house the fast-expanding company. To get more room, that winter Larry bought a former cabinet factory on the outskirts of Bells Corners, to the west of Ottawa.

Garry Nixon on the left and Gerry O'Neil, far right.

Garry Nixon on the left and Gerry O’Neil, far right.

A bunch of us spent quite a bit of time getting it ready for the long anticipated move from the now cramped quarters of the old school house and the barn in Orleans. Working nights and weekends, we put a fresh coat of paint on the interior, and built benches and cupboards. That seemed to dress the place up quite a bit.

Of note at the time: There were no peeler bars and the associated fine dancers nearby, a sad fact that probably increased our work ethic at the new Bells Corners facility.

Wulf had earlier moved over to the new facility to continue working his magic. He was the company’s component overhaul specialist, at the time working on 47 transmissions, gearboxes and swashplates. Like the rest of us, he later graduated to the Hughes 500 and its components.

At the time, it seemed as though we would never fill up this new place, but several years later, we all moved west once again, almost to Carleton Place, and into the grand old stone house, which was used as the office building. The hangars were nearby.

The Bells Corners painting crew, 1969

The indomitable Wulf, our component overhaul expert, Stuart Johns, Beaver, a young Mark Camphaug, Larry Camphaug, Bill Clifford, Richard Thompson – Bells Corners, December 1969. Larry was very proud of his new Bells Corners facility, as we all were.

After a number of years the stone house caught fire and the contents were destroyed. A couple of the “overnighters” narrowly escaped that night.

Many years later, the character of the company changed substantially with an influx of management types that didn’t appear to understand the concept of actual management. While some tried hard, they were mostly shunted aside by others who had little invested in the business.

A harsh judgement on my part? Perhaps. But all too true also.