Flight Trouble

One Tuesday afternoon in Madagascar, I waited with a small handful of other passengers on a dirt runway cleared from the spiny forest a few kilometers outside of town. We all huddled in the patchy shade of the rotten shack that, maybe years ago, once served as a very small and informal terminal. Now, with no other building in the vicinity and no local Air Madagascar employees to organize the process, our bags lay strewn across the runway in no particular order. Dozens of children from town rode old rusty bicycles up and down the dirt strip while they waited to watch the event that is the arrival of the plane from the capital.

I lived in Belo Tsiribihina, one of the blessed few towns in Madagascar with semiregular air service. Every Sunday and Tuesday, a small Twin Otter propeller aircraft with a maximum of eighteen seats came with our mail, a dozen copies of the national newspaper, Midi Madagasikara, and a very small number of arriving passengers. Shortly thereafter, it left with our outgoing mail and an invariably larger number of departing passengers.

The plane arrived on time that day, circled once to allow the kids to clear the runway, then landed and taxied to a stop right at our feet. It took only a few minutes for the copilot to disembark and load our scattered luggage into the seats of those few passengers that got off in Belo. We boarded a moment later and I claimed an open seat just behind the cockpit.

The copilot returned to his seat in the back with us and the pilot started the plane. Everything sounded normal to my novice ear, but for some reason they hesitated. After another moment or two the pilot cursed, loudly, and punched the controls. He got off the plane and the rest of us followed.

The pilots hitched a ride into town to radio Air Madagascar in Antananarivo. We, once again, swatted flies in the dusty heat of the dirt runway.

When they returned the pilots grabbed the plane manual from, essentially, the glove compartment, and then opened the engine case on the left wing. They stared at a diagram in the book, then the engine, then back and forth several more times as a look of sheer confusion settled on their faces. They turned the diagram to the left, to the right, even upside down, but they never managed to make it match whatever they saw in the engine. Still they proceeded to dismantle the plane one part at a time.

Yellow sweat stains soaked through the underarms of their shirts. Doubt stretched across their faces. I imagined their conversation with the mechanics on the radio.

Mechanics: “Whatever you do, do not cut the…!” Garbled static.

Pilots: “What?”

Mechanics: “I repeat, do not cut the…!” More untimely static, then a dead line.

An hour later, the pilots looked more confused by the random plane parts scattered across the runway than they ever did by the intact engine. Thankfully, we had a savior among us. The very same chauffeur that an hour before drove the pilots to town to use the radio now stepped forward to help with the repairs. Now off duty, the copilot excused himself, stepped just a few feet away, and urinated on the runway in plain view of all.

The chauffeur and the other pilot now commiserated in a technical Malagasy well beyond my language abilities and, assuredly, just as beyond the pilot’s technical abilities. The chauffeur, very obviously frustrated with the pilot’s ineptitude, started to repair the engine himself. The pilot reclined in some nearby shade where, like his partner, he seemed happy to be off the hook.

A short while later the chauffeur declared the plane fit to fly so we all boarded again. I reclaimed my privileged seat just behind the cockpit. From there, I was able to see clearly the pilot when he pulled one last engine part from his shirt pocket. I think the gentleman next to me noticed too. He held a bilingual French and Malagasy Bible in one hand and a rosary in the other. A nervous sweat lined his upper lip as he prayed.

Someone declared the leftover part inconsequential and the pilot started the plane. Fluid sprayed from the repaired engine. Once again, the pilot cursed and we all got off, this time for good. After telling us to return at six o’clock the next morning, the pilots hitched a ride into town with the chauffeur mechanic. The rest of us walked home. The plane was left alone and unguarded on the open runway.

 

At six the following morning, I locked my house and waited outside for my ride to come get me. I paced and worried until seven when he finally arrived, with the pilots in his back seat. The driver, the one and only important businessman in town, then ran several errands with me and the pilots in tow. We collected several coolers of fresh shrimp to be sold in Tana. We visited a shop owner to talk business and a friend of his for no reason at all. We even stopped for coffee, the pilot’s idea. Then, at last, we went to the airport.

Another hour passed before a small private plane arrived with two genuine mechanics. A few hours after that, now a full day late for departure, a full day spent there on that runway, in that comedy of errors, we boarded a third time.

And then we waited some more. The mechanics, their chartered plane long departed without them, had to go into town to the Air Mad office to buy tickets for the return flight to Tana.

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