Elmo Jayawardena, whose original title runs thus “First Time in the African Sky”
The year was 1986, the month, September to be precise. The Non-Aligned conference was being held in Harare under the leadership of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. 120 countries sent their leaders or their representatives to take part in the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). All the details of NAM can be found in Google and I shall not waste your time as to who started it and where and when. The story I have for you is about flying the African Sky and the background is the conference in Harare.
Honorable Prime Minister, Mr Ranasinghe Premadasa too was participating in the NAM gathering and I, along with two other pilots, were rostered to go as passengers to Harare and fly back a Lockheed Tri-Star carrying the VVIP entourage. It was only a day’s flight; after all they were not asking us to fly to the moon. Of course, none of us had flown an African sky and had no clue as to where Harare was. As we were to fly Harare-Colombo finding Harare did not go into our “to-do” list. Nevertheless, it was prudent for the three of us to meet in Colombo and discuss and plan the flight before we went to Harare. Dulip de Alwis was the First Officer and Sam Ranabahu the Second Officer, both very competent operators (they in later years became Chief Pilots of Sri Lankan Airlines). Back to that planning in Colombo, looking at the performance of the aeroplane and considering that Harare Airport was located 5,000 ft above mean sea level it had a considerable penalty on take-off weight in spite of the runway being 15,000 ft long. We had to fly all the way from Harare to Colombo. After all it was a VVIP flight and they did not want any pit-stops.
Our usual Take-Off flap was 10 degrees, but that was not going to work on 5,000 feet elevation. We looked at a flap 4 degree take off. 15,000 ft runway helped. But we needed a temperature below 24⁰C to make a safe take-off. Bear with me I do not want to confuse you with our flight jargon. Simplified, the three heads put together calculated that we could lift off from Harare with flaps 4 and a temperature of 24⁰C or below and fly directly to Colombo. There was one major obstacle to overcome, we could reach Colombo but would not have enough fuel remaining to go anywhere after Colombo. Our plan was to fly out of Harare and cross the African coast north of Madagascar and fly oceanic till we came past Male to a calculated ‘Point of no return’ (PNR) and make one beeline to Colombo. If the weather was bad in Colombo we could safely divert to Male as long as we had not flown beyond the calculated PNR.
The weather worry was over, but there was a bigger worry. What if the weather was good and we passed the PNR, and while descending to Colombo another plane landed earlier and broke its leg on the runway, or had some emergency that blocked the landing strip? Ratmalana was way too short for a Tri-Star. We would have no place to go as we had no alternate fuel to do so.
So we played our first trump with the gods of the company. We could do the flight, bring the Tri-Star from Harare to Colombo as long as the authorities closed the airport for other traffic when the VVIP flight was abeam Male. That way the runway would be available for us when we arrived. Of course they agreed to close the airport for our arrival. After all it was the Prime Minister’s flight.
All cleared, plans made except for one nagging factor. We planned to fly at 33,000 ft and 37,000 ft and it was of paramount importance for us to get Air Traffic clearance to fly at F/L 330. Anything lower, we would burn a lot more fuel than we could afford and would have to land in Male to refuel. We could not imagine a solution to get F/L 330 from Colombo. We had to sort that out in Harare. Of course, we knew when the Conference was over on the 6th there would be a stampede of flights leaving Harare and every pilot would be pleading with ATC for their planned Flight Level as most were flying long distances to get to their homes. Well, we did have another trump up our sleeve. That I will tell you as we go along.
Off we went, destination Zimbabwe. We passengered to Bombay and caught the Air India flight to Dar Es Salaam and onwards to Harare. We were loitering before departure and saw a Duty-Free shop and bought a bottle of Chivas Regal, kind of an insurance policy for Africa. Not that we wanted to drink, but one could never know for what and when a bottle of whiskey would come in handy.
Off we went to Harare to fly the Prime Minister back through the African Sky.
After landing in Robert Mugabe Airport, it was the 5th of September, we decided to go and meet the tower boys who controlled the sky. This was Africa and they were not that fussy about who went in and out of the airport corridors. The ATC man there said a warm hello to us when we introduced ourselves as pilots from Sri Lanka who had come to take their Prime Minister home. The controller’s name was Moses and that is when we played our last trump to get Moses’ help to cross the Indian Ocean. After all he was Moses and he’s already done it at the Red Sea. We told him of our Flight Level problem and casually asked whether he would be working on 7th afternoon, which was our scheduled departure date and time. He sure was, and by this time we were on very friendly terms, and I made the request for F/L 330 two days prior to our departure and he was so glad to reserve that for his three Sri Lankan friends. That’s Africa for you. Of course, we sealed the contract with the Chivas Regal that came out of Sam’s bag and went straight into a control tower table drawer.
“Moses, the day we depart if you can come to our plane, we could give you a few more bottles as a parting gift.” Our need for F/L 330 was so vital that I would have given him the whole aircraft bar to get my level. I was sure our new friend would reserve 33,000 for us, after all he was Moses, he would make sure we got to the Promised Land.
The next day we had nothing to do except enjoy the sights and sounds of Harare. Our departure was on 7th September in the late afternoon. We kept a close check on the temperature as we still had to have less than 24⁰C to roll this heavy Tri-Star to the air. We came to the airport early for the departure. We picked up the flight papers that had been telexed from Colombo and waited for our Tri-Star to come. It had been diverted from some European destination. The airport this time was packed with departing delegates and totally disorganized. When our aeroplane landed and taxied in, we wasted no time in going on-board to set up the aeroplane to fly the African Sky.
All preparations made, Prime Minister on board, and we were about to request for start clearance. The temperature was in our favour at 22⁰C. I could see from the cockpit the taxiways clogged with departing aircraft all carrying their VVIPs home. Getting our F/L 330 in this melee sure did appear a pipe dream.
“Captain, there is a Mr Moses here to meet you” said the Chief Steward.
There was no time to waste, I knew what the score was. Moses had come onboard to collect the final payment of our flight Level deal. In this pandemonium time of closing doors on this VVIP flight, I had a whispered word with the cabin chief and picked a Vodka and a Brandy from the first-class bar to trade with Moses. He took the bottles and beamed saying, “have a good flight Captain” and vanished.
“Air Lanka you are cleared to start for Colombo Flight Level 330”.
Moses had kept his promise.
We taxied out and lined up on the 15,000 ft runway 23. Dulip was flying the sector and we rolled out the heavy aeroplane gathering speed and eating the runway. We ran almost to the very end before Dulip eased the yoke gently to lift us off to the sky and we were on our way to Colombo.
The flight was uneventful. We flew through the night on a serene star splattered African sky. Sammy watched the fuel gauges like a hawk and carefully monitored how much we burned at each waypoint. Dulip kept flying the aeroplane whilst I backed him up watching the big picture. Abeam Male we looked good. The weather in Colombo was excellent and we had adequate fuel to get home. I radioed our position to Colombo, and they closed the runway as agreed till we landed.
And we brought home the Prime Minister.
It’s been 35 years since we flew out of Harare. What I wrote is exactly how it all happened. Dulip, Sam and I did nothing spectacular except fly a plane on a demanding sector with professional caution.
Perhaps it is one of the best flights I have flown in my life.
Of course, Moses the Controller was the man of the hour! He may not have parted the sea nor did he give us another ten commandments, but he sure gave us the flight level we direly needed.
Capt Elmo Jayawardena …… firstname.lastname@example.org