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A Pilot’s Tale – Mike Mahon

Writing.ie | Magazine | Monday Miscellany

Mike Mahon


One of the most interesting and amusing periods of my life was the years I spent flying in Nigeria. I was employed by Guinness Peat Aviation in Shannon and they had a contract with Nigeria Airways. The deal was good, we spent 15 days in Nigeria and then got home on leave for the next 15 so every month ewe were required to commute between Heathrow and Lagos. The check in area for Nigeria Airways at Heathrow was a good example of what was in store for us. It was utter chaos, airport staff had to erect security barriers to contain the mob. A valid ticket meant nothing, you had to be ready to ’dash’ the check in staff to get on board and fights frequently broke out as the word ’queue’ was not in the Nigerians dictionary.

For the two weeks we were flying in Nigeria contact to home was difficult as the phones never worked in the hotel. You could go to the post office and book an overseas call but had to wait hours for a connection also pay in advance for the duration of the call and if exceeded be cut off.. We mostly used the HF radio in the aircraft to call Berna Radio in Switzerland and they could patch a phone call to anywhere in the world. At most Nigerian airports the navigation aids and communications were very unreliable. One of our aircraft developed a technical problem after landing at Yola and the crew urgently needed to contact our engineers in Lagos. As there was no contact from Yola to Lagos the pilots resorted to calling Berna Radio and requesting them to try to phone operations in Lagos and were eventually put through. The same airport had no navigation radio aids at the airport. In bad visibility we attempted to land using a local commercial broadcasting station located some miles away in the town. We would descend using this to low level then hold a heading and altitude hoping a runway would materialize somewhere beneath us..

It had been decided to base two of our aircraft at Kano, Northern Nigeria. This was a welcome break from Lagos. The weather in Kano was much more pleasant, it was dry and no humidity. We started the new morning schedule going clockwise Kano, Kaduna, Madugeri, Sokoto and back to Kano, four sectors. It was many months later when the new timetable was eventually printed that we realized that we were supposed to operate the other way around and no one had noticed!

As fate would have it I just happened to be on station at Christmas 1984 when the Nigerian Army decided to stage a military coup against their corrupt politicians. Two of us went out to Kano airport to operate the early morning flight to Lagos. As soon as we arrived we sensed something was amiss but proceeded to the aircraft and started our preflight checks. Suddenly one of the traffic staff arrived in the cockpit and told us that there had been a coup in Lagos and all flights were cancelled. We told him to get the passengers off the aircraft immediately but not to mention the coup.

We did not want a riot on our hands. Tell the passengers the aircraft is unserviceable, gone sick, the flight is cancelled. The passengers disembarked but instead of going back into the terminal they were milling around the tarmac. This made us a bit nervous. We managed to contact our base in Shannon on HF informing them of the situation and to tell our families that we were all ok. At this the traffic guy returned and informed us, ’I think the army is coming.’ We needed no further persuasion.

Immediately we jumped into the crew car and back to our hotel. We aroused the rest of the crews and gave them the good news. A strict curfew was imposed and we were confined to the hotel. We could hear some explosions and gunfire from the direction of the town, so needed no persuasion to stay put. Being Irish we got our priorities right. The bar in the hotel was always neglecting to keep the fridge stocked with cold beer. So the first thing we did was to raid the bar and take crates of beer to our own fridges. The coup lasted about a week so we had a relaxing time sunning ourselves by the pool, playing cards and supping beer.

Flying conditions in Nigeria were appalling. We had all sorts of weather conditions to deal with. During the ‘Harmattan‘ sand storms were blown down from the Sahara reducing visibility to nil. And then came the rainy season and huge squall lines of thunderstorms would build up in the north and then sweep southwards at night. On one  occasion the roof was blown completely off the terminal at Madugary Airport.  Weather reporting by ATC was extremely hit or miss. If he had no other reports the air traffic controller would quite happily give out the previous day’s weather. We became very skeptical on getting a good weather report and often had to ask simple questions like, ’is it raining at the field, can you see the runway from the tower?’ There was really no such thing as weather forecasting as none of the airports had communication with each other. Also the airports were subject to frequent power failures where all navigation equipment and radios would fail. This left us no option but to overshoot and divert to another airport.

Although we had very dangerous flying conditions it was fun . Where else could you take off from a remote airport and fly at low level over the countryside dodging hillocks and trees in a Boeing 737 at 300 knots! If any passenger queried this  we instructed the cabin crew to tell them that the aircraft was having pressurization problems and could not climb.  On the 737 there were two large square red warning lights that flashed if we got an engine fire. There was also a third red light the same size that said ’auto pilot disconnect’. Now these lights were interchangeable, so we would do so and wait for one of the hostesses to come into the cockpit. Then if you disconnected the autopilot the red light would start flashing’ FIRE’

The cabin crew would start screaming, ’Oh, Skip, skip, we have fire. We are all going to die. Do something!’ At this we would feign confusion, jump around in our seats, and join in the general hullabaloo .We would then reach into our nav bags and grab a tin of spray deodorant and direct it at the offending ’fire’, at the same time pressing the cancel button  The fire was extinguished much to the relief of the cabin crew and  evoked gales of laughter from them ’Oh, Skip, you are a crazy pilot’

About the author

(c) Mike Mahon June 2011

Mike Mahon . Born and educated in Dublin at CBS, Synge St. Joined the Cadet School in the Curragh after leaving school. He left there to take up commercial flying . After working in aerial photography in Ireland, North and South Mike joined various airlines and worked in Nigeria, Bahrain, U.K.,Holland, France, Belgium before finally returning to Aer Lingus. Mike says he ‘did a BA in my ‘spare time’ with Open University. He has two daughters, Lisa and Aoife, and son Michael. Now retired, Mike has joined a writing group  in his local library.

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