Many years ago I was flying the Bush in Alaska. I delivered mail and miscellaneous supplies to many of the outpost’s way out there in the middle of nowhere. Occasionally I took sick people out of their villages or camps to a hospital in Fairbanks or Anchorage. I once took a construction worker out from a work site that had gotten into a fight with another man and he had a hammer stuck in his skull. It was just vivid incidents like that I remember, but most of the time it was boring. One day the North Slope shut down and things stopped virtually overnight. I stuck around for awhile hoping things would get started again but it didn’t and it was another three years before it did. I heard there was a need for pilots in Africa so I was off.
I landed in Sao Tome’. It’s an island off the West Coast of the African continent. Many of the pilots I knew from the North Slope were there so I was right at home. There were pilots from all over the world and I got to know many of them. We were all there to work bringing in food, medicine, and other supplies to the Bi-Africans. The airlift was flying from Sao Tome’ to Uli airstrip on the West Coast of Africa located in Southern Nigeria. They were called back then Bi-Afrans. Sao Tome’ is an island nation in the Atlantic Ocean about 600 miles from the African coast. Uli Airstrip was in the nation of Nigeria on the Southern Atlantic coast,
There was a civil war raging between two large tribes. The Biafrans were one side and the other was the Nigerians. The World Church Organization was supplying the Bi-Afrans with food, medicine and other essentials that were being donated worldwide and then delivered to the World Church Organization and we were delivering it to Uli for distribution.
The first trip I took into Uli was incredible. We were bringing in food and other essentials to the Bi-Africans and as we were making our final approach to the strip the Bi-Africans were shooting at us. They had old fashioned 20 mm cannons and .50 cal. Machine guns. World war two armaments, fortunately for us, they were piss poor shots and we managed to land without any further incident. The airplanes were staggered about 30 minutes apart so the ones on the ground could get unloaded and be off again for the return trip to Sao Tome’.
The second trip I made into Uli I heard a man’s voice over the radio and he had a South African accent. He said to us, “Well mates, here we are again. I’ll be dropping my load and then I’ll be off to home again. I’m in the middle of a harvest you know. Cheerio.”
The bombs landed all around the airport but not on it and not at either end of the strip. I asked one of the older pilots, what in the world was that all about? He told me there was this South African farmer who got paid by the Nigerians to bomb the airstrip but he never did, just around the edges. Many of the pilots on the airlift were friends of his and he didn’t want anyone getting hurt. So he bombed the edges and that seemed to keep the Nigerians happy. I guess he was a British Bomber Pilot during world war two.
I flew the airlift every day for two months. Once in awhile, we got several days off because our plane was down for maintenance. But most of the time it was every a day.
Around the beginning of my second month, a new voice came on the air and he was a German. The accent was Germanic. He said to us, “Cheerio mates. I will be making my bomb run in a couple of minutes, you chaps be careful down there. Bombs away.” The bombs fell down and struck the middle of the strip one after the other and they made huge holes in the ground. This guy was good. I found out later the Nigerians fired the other guy and hired this guy. He was an ex-Nazi Bomber Pilot from world war two and knew his business. He was flying a Russian Ilyushin Bomber. So it went for another week. Trying to dodge the bullets coming at us every time we started our final run straight in and once we were near the strip we had to dodge the holes in the ground left by the bombs from either that day or the previous one.
I was beginning to think maybe I should get back up to Alaska and fly a little mail. It was boring as hell but a whole lot safer. Just about then this guy comes along wearing Ray Ban sunglasses and wants to know if there were any P-51 Mustang pilots in the group. I told him I had about 500 hours in one and he hired me but after talking to the rest of the guys who all turned the job down first. I was fairly young in those days and I guess he had his doubts about my qualifications. Incidentally, I had zero hours in a P-51. I lied.
The deal was-
$10,000 a trip. I had to use up all the gas and just fly around looking for targets of opportunity. I had to use up all the ordinance every trip. My targets were trains, bridges, convoys and any large gathering of soldiers, etc. For those considerations, I was to be paid in Krugerrands each trip. So I was off and I quit flying in food and medicine and concentrated on the P-51. The first time I flew it I went up without any ordinance. I just wanted to get the feel for it. I read the owner’s manual from cover to cover and memorized all the speeds one needs to know. Things like what the characteristics were of the aircraft in a stall, what to do in a dive and other instructions, landing speeds, and so forth. Bomb rack clearances and best rates of climb and descent. They are given as VSO speeds. I didn’t have any problems and I was ready to go.
Loaded down the first takeoff was a bit of a strain and the run out was a long one but I was airborne soon enough. Over a thousand horsepower is significant. I was a hunter and I have to tell you I would have done it for free I was having so much fun. At $5,000 a trip, it was like a dream come true. I more or less equated it to having a license to steal. Once the first trip was finally behind me and I was back on the ground, I waited for the guy in the Ray Bans to pay me. Finally, a man came by and told me Ray-Ban was delayed but he’d be by tomorrow. The next day I waited for a couple of hours and he didn’t show so I was off again. I never did find any targets of opportunity and I wasn’t going to bomb or strafe any villages so I found this place that looked like a pile of rocks and that was where I unloaded all the ordinance. I did look for the German with the Ilyushin Bomber but never found him. That guy was going to be a freebie.
With six fifty caliber machine guns at the touch of my finger, I was going to make sure he didn’t bomb anyone anymore.
My third week into the job and Ray Ban never did show up however, a messenger came by at the hotel over on Sao Tome’ with $5,000 in Gold and a letter from Ray Ban telling me he was having some problems but he knew what the amount was that he owed and that I would be paid in full and in a couple more days. By this time I was rich once I was paid and I could go down to Rio and lie in the sun and play with the spinners on the beach for a long time.
I had decided this was going to be my last trip unless I was paid at least half of what I was owed. I was preoccupied on that day and after doing a pre-flight I forgot to check the gas and mounted my ride, strapped it on and away I went. That was a big mistake and one I have never made again. It’s just that I loved flying that airplane so much I couldn’t wait to be in the air. I was flying for about fifteen minutes and the engine stopped. Now I don’t know if you understand anything about the “Pucker Factor” but I am quite familiar with it very clearly. It’s when all of a sudden you’re a**hole sort of disappears for a little while.
I started looking around for a place to set down. I dumped all the ordinance immediately and when the airplane was stable I began getting it ready to land, Gear, down, flaps up, cowl flaps open. In a little while, I was on final. I landed and when It stopped, I saw a large body of soldiers coming toward me, I thought that was a bit of luck. Maybe I was going to get a ride back to the strip.
They were the guys I was looking for to strafe but never found and they immediately butt stroked me as soon as I crawled out of the cockpit and down I went into the dirt. I came to and found I was chained to a tree and they were digging a hole to put me in. That was a tense and grim realization. One of the soldiers kept laughing and he would run a finger across his throat and that gave him a new burst of enormous mirth and he would break out in a hyena-like a laugh and it bent him over at the waist. He was doing a little dance at his own joke. I failed to see the humor in it at the time.
Off in the distance, a convoy was going by and they were flying a Red Cross flag on the lead vehicle and on the rear one. I was a little bleary-eyed because of the rifle butt to the chin but I understood this might be a way out of a situation where a little while ago there was no out for me. A Range Rover pulled up in a cloud of dust and stopped. A beautiful blonde got out and walked over to us. Her tits were bouncing inside her shirt and it occurred to me they were ample and I liked the look of what I could see. Here I was getting ready to be snuffed and I was thinking about getting laid.
She started talking to the head guy and an argument broke out between them. I didn’t think that was good. It went on for a few minutes and then she barked some orders to her driver and he drove off without her. In a few minutes, two trucks were coming our way accompanied by her Range Rover. The two larger trucks stopped near us and so did her vehicle. Everyone was enveloped in a huge cloud of dust as they came to a stop. The people in the trucks jumped out and began unloading boxes. It looked like she paid a handsome ransom for me but quick enough I was escorted to the Range Rover and I got in the front seat with the blonde. She didn’t say anything so I said,
“I appreciate what you did back there. How can I ever thank you? I know, how about dinner tonight?”
She looked at me with the most beautiful blue eyes I ever saw and she said,
“For starters, you can keep your mouth shut. If you say one more word to me I’ll have my driver turn around and we’ll take you back to those soldiers and tell them we changed our mind the deals off. That will leave you right back where you were just before I arrived. You know what that means?” I looked at her and wasn’t sure what to say and she started again, my head was throbbing from the blow to the chin.
“I don’t like what you do and so I don’t like you. You are one lucky man. In five more minutes you would have been hacked to death with machetes and then buried in an obscure grave where no one would have ever known about it or you. If you’re smart you’ll just keep your mouth shut and in three more hours you’ll be safe and out of my sight.” She spoke in a French accent but in beautiful English. I decided since she didn’t like me I would dummy up for awhile so I sat there until we arrived at a small village which was another fifty miles down the dirt road.
She barked an order and the driver stopped. For an instant, I thought she was getting ready to take me back. The soldiers didn’t find my small Smith and Wesson .357 magnum I had strapped to my ankle as I reached down for it. My head hit the window and she said,
“Get in the back!”
I did and we rode on in silence. I never saw her again.
That was the end of my P-51 career.
I never was paid by Ray Ban and I was declared “Persona Non Grata” in that part of Africa and was warned never to come back. They kicked me out of Nigeria with a warning, “never come back.” I never did return to that part of Africa anyway, there were other opportunities elsewhere later on.
L Michael Rusin