Italians, the Art of Flying and the Laws of Probability

Ciampino airport, Rome. Day 1 of the Kosovo re-entry.
‘Vaffanculo’, the pilot shouts, ‘Que putana de merda!’, as he pushes some buttons. The only thing we hear is a deep hesitating sound, which reminded me of my car refusing to start when we left the headlights on during the night. ‘Vaffanculo, vaffanculooooo’. The pilot is clearly an Italian, more so a Roman.

The problem with small planes is that you can see and hear everything going on in a cockpit. You’re sitting just a few inches away from reality. In a big commercial jetliner, it looks like all goes automatic. You can ‘Sit back, relax and enjoy your flight’. Our reality is a bit different at this moment. I don’t know why, but pilots that go off cursing and act all agitated don’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. I have no fear of flying, but I do not like to be reminded of the fact that flying an airplane is only part science. The rest is luck, skill, art, habit and experience. All very grey things if you ask me. A thin line between ‘to be or not to be’.. Looking at the co-pilot who is all sweating, I am sure that Shakespeare is not the first thing on his mind.

Reminds me of a flight in a small twin engine Beechcraft we once took from Mpulungu in Zambia to Entebbe Uganda. I was sitting just behind the pilot. And all of a sudden, in the middle of the flight, he goes ‘Oooooh shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,…’, while banking sharply to the left.. The co-pilot had just dozed off, his head bouncing slowly on his chest, with his headset sliding off his ears, woke up with a shock: ‘What, what?’ ‘Thunderclouds ahead. I don’t like to flying through thunder clouds in this small plane..’. I thought: ‘And how do you think this makes me feel, eh’.

There is no science in flying.. Ok, ok, ok, let me rephrase that. The basis is science, all the rest is nothing.. Luck. Thin air. A combination of random features. Sometimes I think ‘If someone up there decided this is my day to die, then there is nothing I can do.’ Especially with the flights we are taking. Bush flights. Control towers manned by amateurs, hardly paid, hardly interested, hardly equipped. We often use old Russian planes. A Russian pilot once told me that IATA rules stipulate pilots can not drink liquor less than 24 hours before getting onto the plane, and how that the rule was translated into Russian as ‘pilots can not drink liquor less than 24 paces before getting onto the plane’.

Meanwhile, we are still sitting with a bunch of relief workers cramped behind the Italian pilot who is getting more and more agitated. Cramped in a Learjet, one of those small fancy jets you see in the movies flying business people around. Or movie stars. When they told us yesterday, we would fly to Albania using a Learjet, we thought ‘Well, if we go, we might just as well go in style!’. Unfortunately, they had not told us this was the only plane available on charter. Every man and his dog apparently were flying into Albania and Macedonia since Milosovic had signed a treaty with NATO and pulled out of Kosovo.

A Learjet, hey?!.. Hmm.. We were cramped with too many people, sitting with our luggage in between us, on our knees, looking at the lights in the plane that dimmed each time the pilot pushed the big green button. A Learjet with dead batteries.

To kill time, and to make each other obviously more comfy, we exchanged horror stories of planes with the other relief workers in the plane. Stories of the Russian crew that shuttled between Kisangani-then Zaire and Kigali-Tanzania. Flying cargo in and refugees out. The Kisangani runway was a bit too short for the Ilutshin76 plane, so the pilot had to pull the brakes real hard. As soon as the plane stopped, a crew member would jump out of the plane and throw buckets of water on the tires to cool them off. On the same airport, an IL76 got stuck, because someone had forgotten to pull away the big wooden wedges blocking the wheels. So the pilot gave full throttle trying to get the plane to move. The massive jet wash this created, blew away the corrugated roof of the only hanger at the airport, and flattened all stalls of the local market just behind the plane.

Once approaching Kabul airport, our plane was forced to do a flyby. The pilot pulled up the plane as much as possible to avoid the mountain ahead. The plane then banked that sharp, people thought it was going to roll.. The pilot announced a few minutes later: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for this aborted landing. There was a guy with a bicycle riding on the runway. We’ll try again now’. Try? Try? How about giving some confidence, eh?

I once shared offices with Nigel, our UN flight coordinator. He had the best stories ever. Of the pilot who mistook the lights of the Corniche along the banks of the Nile in Khartoum, for the runway. And had landed neatly. Onto the Nile. Of the first approach at Kigali airport after the genocide. How the UN troops had said all was safe to land, and the pilot responded ‘and what are all those tracer bullets then, I can see flying towards my windscreen?’. Of the sign at Mwanza airport that said: ‘Beware of the potholes in the runway’. Of the loadmaster on the Russian cargo plane who was not briefed his IL76 was an ex-military plane, and had heavy armor plating on the bottom. He had loaded the plane full, like he normally did, making the plane too heavy. Nigel said they flew forever at just a few meters above the ground, leaving behind them a trace of huts and houses with caved in roofs. Guess the armor plating did work well after all…

Lacking a door between the passenger seats and the cockpit, we are witnessing a story which we will add to those string of anecdotes, I am sure. A cheap Italian comedy play. The pilot tries to call the control tower, asking for a start-generator, but the radio does not work either. Of course. Flat batteries, remember.. Even I knew that! He slides open the side window and shouts at a guy walking on the tarmac, past the plane. I seem to understand that with the flat battery, and some mechanical problem, he can not open the main door anymore. So we are all locked up. Stuck in a fancy Learjet, cramped with stuff under, next and on us, hot, stuffed air.
We, the passengers, the audience, are just sitting there, laughing our heads off. The pilot tries to ignore the laughter behind him, getting more agitated every minute. One of the passengers hands him a mobile phone. First he calls a friend to get the number of the airport. Then calls the airport, is put on hold, gets agitated, and in the end, speaks to the control tower. ‘Yeah, euh, this is flight UN23-4, can you find me a start-generator please? We are the white Learjet on the left from hanger number two.’ ‘No, my left, not yours’.. ‘No, no, the white one, not the silver one’. ‘Ok, look at hanger number two, I will wave through the window. You see me now? Yeah, a start generator. How much? Just a second’. And finally he turns to us. Asks if someone has some money. They ask him to pay for the use of the start generator in cash. He does not have enough on him.

Half an hour later, we are airborne.


Three months later, I was still in Kosovo. I thought of this story and the jokes we made in the plane, when we got a radio call from our flight coordinator at Pristina airport. The sound of hesitation and trembling in his voice, his words will remain in my head for ever. ‘Please call the security officer. The control tower just informed me they lost our incoming flight on the radar.’

BBC World Wednesday, November 19 1999
Kosovo plane crash leaves 24 dead
Nato has confirmed that all 24 people on board an aid flight died when it crashed in northern Kosovo on Friday. The plane, chartered by the United Nations World Food Programme, came down 15km northeast of the town of Mitrovica.
A spokesman for the Nato-led peacekeeping force K-For said it was too early to speculate about the cause of the crash. He said it was extremely unlikely that the aircraft had been shot down by the Yugoslav military, despite the fact it had strayed into Serbian airspace.
The wreckage was found on a steep mountainside close to the Serbian border. The K-For spokesman said Nato troops had recovered the first bodies, and that the plane's black box flight recorder had been taken intact from the wreckage.
The plane was located late on Friday after a search involving helicopters fitted with searchlights and infra-red equipment. The hunt had been hampered by the fear of mines and the difficult terrain.
The plane disappeared from radar screens at 1213 local time (1113 GMT). The WFP said that the ATR-42 plane had left Rome at 0900 (0800 GMT) on a daily shuttle flight to Pristina. The aircraft was reported to be carrying staff from the WFP, the UN Mission in Kosovo, various non-governmental organisations and a Canadian official.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has expressed his shock and sadness at the plane crash. "Once again men and women of many nationalities have had their lives cut short in the service of the United Nations, on a mission to bring relief to the suffering and peace to a war-torn community," he said.

An investigation would show the crash was caused by a combination of human error and an equipment failure. Someone up there had decided it was their time.

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Unknown 08 March, 2007 14:11  

I took part in the search for the crashsite. Good writing!

Anonymous,  28 November, 2009 21:17  

What do you mean with that final "Italians...."?

Anonymous,  20 July, 2010 01:22  

In August/September 1999, I was one of the pilots on the 'Kosovo 3275' service. We were mostly military crew, flying a South African registered CASA 235 aircraft, a Spanish built military equivalent to the ATR 42 that subsequently crashed.

It was a great contract job flying all over the Balkans during the day and then being back in Rome every night for dinner.

One of the most profound aspects of the contract was how upset the Italian authorities were about South African's being awarded this job on Italian own turf.

The Italian airport management and airport police/ security went out of their way to make things difficult and unpleasant for us to work there.

Finally at the end of September, and bowing to political pressure, the job was pulled from the South Africans and granted to an Italian charter company.

Only weeks later the accident happen'd, the investigative results thereof are well documented on the internet.

My own opinion is that the Italian crew were dropped into the 'deep end'.

We had been flying through out the entire European summer and were well versed with the conditions and procedures into Pristina airport by then.

The Italian guys had to take this job over, going into the European winter and the associated dangerously bad Balkan weather, without the benefit of having become familiar with the approach into Pristina during the fine weather summer months.

Additionally, the situation in Kosovo at the time was volatile and we regularly had problems with comms and ground based equipment failures including the Pristina ground based ILS being driven over by a Russian tank, thereby rendering the Instrument approach system unservicable for weeks.

I think someone made a bad and ill thought out decision to switch the operation going into winter weather flying conditions.

Possibly things would have been different.

Just my humble opinion though....

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