I had been flying Model 47s right up until New Year’s Eve, when I dropped off Helair’s flagship, CF-HEL, in Thunder Bay. Five days later, in early January, 1974, I was in Kenora at the Helair facility to obtain my turbine endorsement.
Gerry Ossachuk gave me my check-ride on C-FDNF, a Hughes 369c. After plodding along in Model 47s for thousands of hours, this, for me, was the epitome of modern helicopter transportation – even though my first sighting of a Hughes 500 had been in five years earlier in Uranium City in the fall of 1969. Now that I was actually flying one, I could tell that the piston-engine helicopter era was essentially over. While it would take some time to convince our paying customers to come around, the inevitable was written in the winds of change.
A few days later I was off to Red Lake on a Water Resources job. Two weeks after that I was in Pickle Lake working for Ontario Hydro in support of their 205 slinging poles. Thunder Bay came up in the windscreen too, until I finally ended up in Dryden working for the Ministry of Natural Resources on Dryden 16, and subsequently, Dryden-18, while flying C-GODW, one of Larry’s new yellow and black Hughes 500c turbines. It was a joy to fly, not having those obscene bags hanging off the sides that were so ubiquitous on the 47s.
Over 500 hours later, in December of that same year, I found myself in Nairobi.
Getting there is half the fun
Getting to Nairobi hadn’t been entirely uneventful, and in fact it was a 20-hour marathon of airplanes, airports, taxis and cargo hangers. For amusement on the night flight across the Atlantic, I wandered up to the cockpit of the 747 and spent some time chatting with the pilots. (Try doing that today and you’ll end up in shackles and chains while being deposited at some out-of-the-way airport in the middle of nowhere, beaten with a rubber hose and sent packing to Gitmo.) My first question was ‘where’s the compass’, after which I explained my background. I think they were more interested in my flying career than I was in theirs.
Before I left Ottawa, Larry had asked me to track down some missing parts at Heathrow. As soon as I could, I hired a taxi to haul me around to all of the air freight facilities in an attempt to track down the missing parts. Eventually they were located and late as it was, I headed back to the terminal in an attempt to make my connecting flight to Amsterdam.
Surprised as I was to discover that the DC-9 was still at the gate, I was even more shocked to find that I would be the only passenger on the flight to Amsterdam. The stews were almost as taken aback as I was, and ended up getting a picture of us together, one lonely passenger surrounded by all of them.
Entebbe in darkest night
At some point in time during the night flight out of Schipol and Frankfurt, and after watching the grass fires below us in the Sudan during my 20 hour marathon from Montreal, one of the pilots announced that the KLM Royal Dutch flight we were on would be stopping in Entebbe, Uganda.
The girl I was sitting with was beside herself when she heard the announcement, and the closer we got to Entebbe, the more agitated she became. She told me that she had specifically checked with KLM to determine if our flight was direct to Nairobi. Assured by the airline that it was, she had purchased her ticket. Now we were doing an unscheduled stop in Uganda – not a particularly appealing destination for an Israeli at that point in time.
Never one to look the other way when a woman was in distress, I suggested that perhaps we could pretend that we were married. After her initial shock at that remark passed, she went along with me. In the event that we became separated, we exchanged passports, and at that point she appeared pleased to learn that I was Canadian. I found a blanket, and from the time we landed until we took off again, the two of us huddled beneath it with only our heads visible.
Why that airplane was going to make an unscheduled stop in Entebbe was a mystery that the two of us discussed at some length. It didn’t help that the airport went into blackout once the aircraft was on the ground. When we finally came to a stop some distance from the terminal building I heard a cargo door open and voices yelling – no big deal, I thought. Obviously there was something on board that needed to be offloaded – in blackest night.
The real shock for the two of us came when the front passenger door opened and a person of obvious African descent boarded the aircraft. When he finally got near our row of seats, we could see that he was carrying a can of insect repellent in each hand. His job was obviously to ensure that no insect of any variety was left alive. After fogging the cabin, he departed the plane and the door was secured. By then, the cargo door had been closed and we were ready for takeoff one last time – once the runway lights were turned on.
Finally, we were headed for Nairobi’s Embakasi Airport.