As I have mentioned before, our cargo plane days are quite a pleasure. There is always lots to do, but the Dornier planes that come are crazy old buses, and the pilots always old-school mavericks who have been on the Central/East Africa circuit for years. They have many stories to tell, but they don’t volunteer them.
Sometimes I help them fix stuff like broken fuel tank filler-caps which threaten to fy off the wings mid-flight, and either spew the fuel mid-air and strand them, or allow it to flood off and into the red-hot turbojet unit. But it is the pilots’ eccentricity which entertains me the most. One guy, ‘French Eric’, as I call him, has a withered arm, and taxis to a stop with a Marlboro Red in his mouth, lighter at the ready. Last time I saw him, one hot January day, he brought us a ton and a half of PlumpyNut for the malnourished kids/patients.
‘Geev me some Plumpynut for my Chicken, just two sachets’ were the first words that came out from his ever-disgruntled mouth, and I had to cock my ear over the noise of the engines coming to a halt. I smiled weakly, and tried to change the subject to one I could understand.
‘What are we going to do about that puncture on the front undercarriage wheel?’, I offered hopefully.
‘Yez, just three sachets’ came his reply.
‘Do you have a spare wheel?’ I started looking in his open hold for something to repair the flat tyre of the plane.
‘Sheet!! Ziss must be from your airstrip! When deed you see that?’
Eric hadn’t even noticed the plane’s steering as it taxied to a halt in a tight circle in front of me, grinding the flat tyre, and rolling over on its overloaded twin.
‘Please, geev the Thuraya’, came throught the teeth, tightly clenched around the cigarette, ‘ah need to call Nairobi’.
After half an hour, during which I got the boys to fetch the stirrup pump from our MSF Landcruiser, and unload the plumpynut load into wheelbarrows and onto heads, Eric came off the phone with his bosses.
Before I had the chance to ask what he was going to do to get him out of the ‘no undercarriage take-off’ situation, he was back onto the PlumpyNut subject again.
‘Ah need it for my Chiggen.’, he said resolutely.
‘But it’s for our patients, Eric’. Luckily one of the medics was there, and I could defer the request to him. We both asked at once: ‘What Chicken?’
And the answer came:
‘So I am carrying aload of eggz, and I hear ziss sound, so I open the box, and zis chicken is zere. In ze box. So ze first sing ze chiggen sees is me. Eet sinks I am ze firkin father!! Now it is ze Altimeter. When I go too high, ze chiggen faints. Zen I know I must come down. (It is not unheard-of for these pilots to fly minus an instrument battery, so…)
Now eet is wiz me everywhere, and eet loves PlumpyNut’.
We managed, finally, to deny him his pet-food,and anyway this ‘Chiggin’ was with his girlfriend in Loki that day, roaming the house, and pining after French Eric by all accounts.
Disgruntled again, as usual, Eric promptly hopped back into the pilots seat and started the takeoff procedures.
‘But what about your wheel?’ I shouted, over the roar of the turbines.
‘Pleez, here is za number. You will call Loki and ask them to clear the runway for us. Zey will not send us anozer plane with a wheel. Too expenseev. ‘Ere we go. Tell zem I will keep ze nose up, and radio me eef I ‘ave popped ze ozzer one. Ah cannot know from inside.’
Eric did not ‘pop’ the other tyre when he took off, and although I have not seen him since, there was no crash-landing when he got back to Loki.
Gawd bless him and his ‘firkin chiggin’.