The Misadventures of Paolo the Pilot
Sometime in 1988
By David Blumenkrantz
Dr. Andreas Steiner, the masterful Swiss surgeon who runs our medical programs in Zaire, recently made a rare appearance in Nairobi, to purchase supplies and make contact with the outside world. Due to fly the several hundred miles back to the bush the other morning, he arrived at our Wilson Airport offices in a state of some agitation. It seems that Paolo, the pilot who was scheduled to fly him back in our little Cessna had, perhaps while intoxicated, injured himself on a broken toilet seat the night before. "This idiot!" Steiner growled. The gash in his rear end would need to be stitched quickly, the doctor ordered, so that they could leave Kenya on schedule. The operation was performed on a conference table there in our offices, and away they went.
Not unlike Andreas Steiner, the fortyish Paolo Pompili is one of those characters you might find in a Paul Theroux novel, or Boyd’s “A Good Man in Africa.” Handsome, invariably charming and generous, he speaks gregariously in passable English with a heavy Italian accent. When in Nairobi he can been seen in all the usual places drinking Kenyan beer and chatting up the ladies. We've become friendly away from work, though like others who have flown with him I'm a bit tense when airborne.
Technically an amateur pilot, ICA began using him recently, for reasons that remain unclear. I think he lacks only the requisite hours and a better knowledge of navigational skills to become a certified pro. On a continent where the cliché’ about expatriates being characterized as either "mercenaries, missionaries or misfits" holds water, reputations are often earned in dramatic fashion.
Paolo earned his at the controls, his flying technique occasionally blurring the line between adventure and terror. Yet he's obsessively concerned with the weight before takeoff, personally checking the heft of every bag, an annoyance to the veterans who are used to flying with the former Vietnam pilots and their own devil-may-care attitudes. Thus his legend has grown quickly, prompting one top administrator to recently introduce him with rolling eyes and a sarcastic chuckle as "our new pilot."
We met during my second visit to Zaire—he had flown in from Kenya carrying medical supplies and Steiner’s shopping list, with me assigned me as his return cargo. Upon departure he immediately aimed to thrill, showing off his white-knuckle skills by skimming low across a wide river, an experience that had me sitting up straight.
It seems that everyone has an anecdote about flying with Paolo theme all too often a frightening mix of comedy and chance. The first time he flew to Lumumbashi (the major city in the extreme south of Zaire), Dr. Steiner said Paolo couldn't find it, raising concern that they would fly into Zimbabwe airspace where they could possibly be shot down. Another tale has him carrying some of our European administrators and fundraisers up to the Kenya-Ethiopia border to visit water development projects. When the plane disappeared into a thick bank of clouds just near Mt. Kenya, the passengers feared a collision with the landmark snow-capped peaks. Curt Reynolds, the Indiana native who runs our water development program in Marsabit, recalled that when the plane finally reached him in Sololo, he watched it approach the makeshift grass runway at an awkward, careening angle. When it landed, the passengers were decidedly green around the gills, but happy that they hadn't accidentally flown into Ethiopia where they could have had the plane impounded indefinitely. Comic relief came when Paulo neglected to put wooden blocks under the wheels, and a strong wind caused the plane to roll dozens of feet before they were able to chase it down.
The adventure resumed on the flight back: they were supposed to stop over in the Rendille and Samburu tribal region of Ngurunit, where one of our passengers, British water engineer Adrian Ratcliffe, had prepared a huge feast for the visitors. But Paulo declared the airstrip too short, insisting that he wouldn't be able to take off again with all the weight, so he bypassed the site. Back in Nairobi, Adrian was lucky to catch a ride with another plane that was able to get him back to Ngurunit.
On every trip I've taken with Paolo, we end up charting the route as we go. Peering down over his shoulder out the window, he'll ask me, "is that a village?" or "is that a railroad track?" or "that's mount so-and-so-- no, it's mount so-and-so." This actually makes the trips more interesting, as I get familiarized with the terrain while spotting little towns and other landmarks for him.
Two weeks ago I accompanied the water engineers on the flight to Maikona, the Gabbra village near the frontier that blends into Ethiopia and Somalia, where they were to survey the area for future well-drilling sites. It was a beautifully clear day, and Paulo once again flew as close as possible to the craggy peaks of Mt. Kenya. It must be one of the most spectacular sites in East Africa, with mountain lakes, snow, and air so crystal clear you felt as though you could reach out and break off one of the icy peaks. This gave way to the northern country, it’s beginning marked developmentally at Isiolo, where the paved road ends in that part of the country until somewhere probably near Addis Ababa. Once again it was "look for a small dirt highway there, a landing strip here, a village there . . ." We passed Marsabit Mountain, which I knew well from several previous road trips. Then it got tricky. Maikona is tiny town-- just a village really-- an old missionary settlement, some 60 kms northeast of the mountain. Following the compass directions as best as he could, Paulo was keeping us near the dirt road, which had to eventually lead us to Maikona. We were looking for a region where the basaltic lava flows end and the desert begins; the landing strip for Maikona was supposedly along there somewhere. A new web of dirt roads confused Paulo and I, putting him in a tense mood. When he gets like that the sweat pours, and it's better not to say anything, even if it's meant to be helpful. More than once I've had him slap my hand away from a map he'd positioned on my lap, as we crossed over the forests of Zaire, or the deserts of Kenya . . .
This time it was getting thick. We were surely nearing our destination, but uncertainty still prevailed. I said something to the effect that I thought I saw the town. Paolo snapped back, "Don't tell me what you think you see, tell me what you see!" Eventually we positively identified Maikona, a minute cluster of tin roofs and huts, with the mission school next to the rocky landing strip. As we made a complete circle over the town and headed downward, I couldn't see it a landing strip, not realizing yet that it was merely an open area marked by a few stones along the sides. As the plane came wavering in, I was still wondering where the runway was-- we were only a hundred or so feet off the ground, descending at a crazy angle, over treetops and camels, and heading straight for an old mission schoolhouse. Suddenly Paolo muttered through gritted teeth, "Shit, I can't see the landing strip. I've lost it!" At that point I was ready for anything . . . then seemingly at the last second he regained his bearings, straightened the wings and took us down for a bumpy landing.
As a humorous epilogue, when the goats were cleared off the runway and we took off two hours later, it was into a strong headwind that caused us to once again careen wildly, this time directly toward the cluster of Gabbra schoolchildren that had gathered to watch the plane. Screaming, they scattered like chickens in every direction, leaving me laughing at the wonder of it all . . .