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Air Emergency

Story ID:2988
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Biography
Location:Manzini Swaziland
Year:1964
Person:Mr. Jenkins
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My country, Swaziland, didn't get television until 1978. The movie houses showed one movie a week and so a good story was a wonderful thing to hear. I didn’t get to hear this one until the day after it occurred. In my home, that day started like any other.

“Saubona umfana!” “Yebo Maghe.” My maid Catherine Dlamini woke me in her usual style with the Swazi greeting: “I see you, boy.” And I replied “Yes, mother.”

“You have to see the air man” she continued “he’s having breakfast with the inkhosi.”

“What airman Catherine?” I asked. “The one from last night” she said as she pulled the bed clothes off.

I didn’t wait to change out of my pajamas; I just ran into the dining room where I found my father and mother sitting at the table with a stranger who was finishing a huge breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, toast and tea.

“This is our son, John” my mother said “this is Mr. Jenkins, Johnny.”

“How do you do?” I asked and extended my hand.

“My, what a well mannered little boy you have there, how do you do?”

“Well thanks.” I couldn’t wait to know what was going on.

“Well I thank you for that delicious breakfast, but most of all, for last night. I’m absolutely sure I’d be a goner, if not for you.”

“Think nothing of it, glad to help” my dad said and they shook hands.

My dad continued: “I’ll take you to the golf course. Got everything?”

“Yes, thanks again for everything” Mr. Jenkins said to my mom. He knuckled his forelock and the two men walked out through the kitchen.

“Mom! What happened, who’s he?”

“Steady on. What do you want for breakfast?”

“Eggs too, but tell me what’s going on?’ I cried.

“Catherine, could you make some eggs for master John please?”

“Yebo madam” said Catherine disappearing into the kitchen humming a Swazi hymn.

“Mom, please, tell me!”

“Alright, alright, last night, we were sleeping and we were woken by a noise. It was the sound of an airplane droning above the town. At first we had no idea what he was doing out so late and anyway, Matsapha is away west of here. The droning went on and on and finally your dad said: “He’s in trouble.” So we got up and tried to see the plane, but it was very dark and all we could see were his running lights.”

“What was the problem?”

“Well your dad decided the man was lost and couldn’t find the airport at Matsapha and had to land somewhere.”

“What did you do?”

“First thing we did was start calling friends. We called the Jardines, the Lues, the Herrs the Surats, the Kirschs, everyone we could think of and told them we needed their cars, right now.”

“What for?”

“Breakfast is ready.” Catherine chimed.

“Oh not now” I said. “Mind your manners young man” my mother said sternly.

“Eat, you will be a big boy” said Catherine stoically unperturbed.

“OK, OK, I’m eating, so then what?” I said cramming some bacon into my mouth.

“It wasn’t that easy to reach them, you know how unreliable the phone is. Anyway we told them that we thought the plane they could hear, was in trouble and needed a place to land, but because it was night, he couldn’t find the airport at Matsapha.”

“Christ! And then?”

“Don’t swear and then we said we were going to be driving out to the golf course, because that’s the only place we know where he could possibly land without clipping the bush, but we all have to drive together so that he can see the procession of car lights on the ground and he’ll know where to follow.”

“Aw mom, why didn’t you wake me? I would have gone with.”

“Well, we needed to move quickly, he had been droning around up there for a while and we didn’t know how much petrol he had left. So anyway, we all drove to a central location your dad picked and the procession of cars drove out east towards the golf course. When we got there we told all our friends to park their cars along the sides of the five par fairway so that their lights lit the fairway and their tails were in the bush.”

“Aw mom, you should have woken me…”

“Eat. So there we were lined up along the fairway, hoping the pilot would understand what we had done. We couldn’t talk to him, no-one had a airplane radio, we just hoped he would guess what we were doing.”

“So then what happened?”

“So then we heard his motor and saw his port and starboard lights coming at us. We thought he would make one pass, low, so that he could get a look at the golf course landing strip, but he must have been low on petrol, because we realized he was coming straight in. Luckily, there was no wind last night, so he didn’t have to try to figure out which way to land, he just headed for the lighted ground. We were amazed, because that took a lot of trust.”

“Yes, yes, trust, and then??”

“Well we watched as his plane approached. At first I couldn’t even see it, only the lights, because our headlights were so bright, but then I saw that it was a Cessna with the wing above the cockpit and as he came closer I swear I could see the engine cowling. Eat!”

“Mom, I’m eating look!”

“Not that much, you’ll get a tummy ache!”

“Mom, please – what happened?”

“OK, eat slowly. The plane came in and I heard him cut the motor. Catherine, do we need dog’s meat?”

“MA! PLEASE, I BEG YOU?”

“Yes Madam,” said the good and caring Catherine, who would never suffer a dog to go hungry.

“Mom. I’m going to break this plate over my head if you don’t tell me what happened next!”

“Oh yes, that would be funny, but I’ll tell you anyway. So the plane was coming in and he wasn’t going to make a pass. I heard him cut the motor and I knew he was committed. With what sounded like a whisper, the small plane headed for the fairway and we all held our breath. This man was a great pilot. How he judged the distance of the ground at night, I’ll never know, but he brought the plane down with only a tiny bump and bounce. As the plane started to pass the cars, they all started to move onto the fairway and to follow the little plane as the pilot struggled to break its speed. He said he landed at about 65 miles per hour.”
“Well did he stop?”

“You know the fairway, you’ve galloped Blaze there and been chased by golfers.”

“Yes, but was he able to stop or did he prang the plane?”

“You know the long, long fairway? It’s a par five, which means it’s really long. Well if it hadn’t been for that fairway’s length, he would have ended up in the bush, but he stopped the plane just short of the guava trees at the end.”

“God!”

“Don’t swear. So we all drove up to the plane and the poor man got out and started to weep.”

“What?”

“It was such a touching sight, this big, old bush pilot, crying like a baby.”

“Mr. Jenkins? Why was he crying?”

“He told us that he had arrived after dark and Matsapha had shut down. He saw nothing but black ground under a moonless night. He knew he had to land, but how would he know what the ground looked like? Would it be bush, trees, a river, huge boulders? He knew his life was in the balance. In the distance he saw some the lights of Manzini and as a last resort he headed for those lights. There weren’t many, just the few street lights we have and the odd household that was up late.

He said he circled and circled, hoping for a miracle, that someone like your father would recognize he was in trouble and do something to help him. He knew he needed a flat tree-less piece of ground to land on and he knew that he was almost out of petrol. His gauge read “empty” and he had switched to the emergency tank already. If he ran out of petrol he would have to glide the airplane away from the populated area and try to crash in the bush so he wouldn’t take anyone with him. He knew he was down to his final decisions so he kept calling on the emergency channel of his radio, but there was never any response. Then, miraculously, after circling for so long, he saw cars, starting to move and then to converge and then heading east in a line, their headlights following each other and he knew: someone had understood that he was in trouble.

He followed the lights as best he could, making a circle every now and again as he overtook them, but finally they seemed to spread out evenly and light a small piece of land. What’s wrong with you?”

“I have to go to the toilet, go on mommy” said I bouncing my foot on the ground.

“Well go and I’ll finish later.”

“NO! I mean, don’t worry mom, I can hold it.”

“Alright then, eat, so Mr. Jenkins said that when he saw this thin, little, heavenly strip of carpet on the ground he knew he didn’t have the fuel to do a one-pass, and that he’d have to land immediately with no practices. He said he decided he would gauge his distance off the ground by the width between the headlights of the cars, not between the cars, but between the headlights and he started down, trusting that the people on the ground had found a flat, level piece of ground without trees or rocks. It was a huge amount of trust, but he said he had no choice, it was now or never. I asked him after he landed and collected himself, why he had cut the engine and he said he hadn’t, it cut out by itself!”

“He ran out of petrol?”

“Yep, the tanks were bone dry. This morning your uncle Dez went to buy two jerry-cans full of airplane fuel for him so he could take off and at least get to Matsapha to fill up all the way. He said he wanted to kiss the earth so your dad said: “Why not, go ahead.” And he did!”

“Well what was the landing like?”

“He said it was so scary he wanted to scream as the plane came down. He couldn’t believe he was doing it and he saw the lighted ground rushing up to him. He said he couldn’t pull up too soon or the plane would stall or overshoot the lighted strip. He knew where the end was because, he said, anyone intelligent enough to figure out firstly that he was in trouble up there and then how to help him, would have parked the last pair of cars at the end of whatever runway they had chosen. So he let the ground rush up at him until the last moment when, at about 65 miles an hour he pulled on the yoke and the plane shuddered as it turned its nose up and touched the fairway. Then he started braking immediately trying to keep the nose straight between the lights at the end of the rows of cars. As he got closer to the bush it showed up in the airplane lights and he thought he was going to crash into it, but at that point the pressure was off. If he couldn’t stop now it’d be a few broken bones at worst.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

“Stop swearing and finish your breakfast! We took him home because we had an extra room. He couldn’t stop thanking us and marveling that we had figured out what to do. He’s probably taking off right now.”

Then the phone rang, I dashed to the toilet and that is how the story ended, one of the greatest adventures I ever slept through. The images are still very vivid in my mind and I know exactly where the man landed, because, I used to gallop my horse anywhere there were sure to be no holes in the ground. Hitting a hole at a gallop can break a horse’s leg and the fairways had no holes, just a lot of angry golfers with clubs. I really wish they had woken me!