Today there was a report of M23 shooting at UN helicopters and a possible plan for FARDC to use their helicopter gunships against Cobra’s FRPI militia just south of us. I wrote an email to our pilots warning them to stay a bit higher in these areas and give them a wider berth. I got a letter back from our new lady pilot asking “exactly how high do you need to fly over people shooting at you?” It brought back a flood of memories. It is a peculiar part of flight training for the average pilot to know how not to be hit by ground fire, but there could be a valuable lesson there I guess.
Going high is a good option. But how high? I was once flying down the Mozambique coast with Peter Cunningham between Beira and Inhambane when we heard what sounded like someone had thrown a handful of gravel against the side of the plane. We were at about 2000 feet and it was a bit of a shock but although we could see slight marks along the side of the plane by the tail, there was no real damage to the plane at all. I would probably say be above 3000 feet to avoid small arms fire.
The go high doesn’t always work when you are taking off and landing. I was taking off from a refugee camp after dropping off a load of food northeast of Tete. Another plane was on the ground and the pilot, Russell Kilner, got on the radio and asked, with some intensity in his voice, if I was alright. I had not even heard a thing but he assured me that I was being shot at as I took off. It is common to sit off the end of a runway and fire at the low and slow moving planes as they depart. The standard practice is to come in high over the airport and make a very steep approach to land, giving the least amount of time as a target. Then just climb as fast as you can on departure avoiding the areas with cover for shooters.
When I was in the environment of flying bullets I asked many questions of people with experience and the old Rhodesian war pilots told me they liked to stay low. Very low indeed. Maybe 200 feet. The idea was that if you were low, the people on the ground could hear you coming but not see you for the trees until you were right overhead. Then their time to shoot at you would be so limited it would be very hard to get off a good shot. It is a nice concept but it does depend on good ground cover. I can tell you that it doesn’t work well flying down a river! You could read more about that in the story “Shot At and Hit”, in True Tales – Mozambique on this site. I have been hit using this technique without much cover, but it is not without merit. The problem comes when you are not actually going by in a blur and you are going off the horizon. You then look more stationary and guys can shoot high and hit you. I do remember being very happy for bags of grain or cement to put in the pod went I was getting shot at. I would always try to place them strategically to protect the people.
In the end, thankfully, it is pretty hard to hit a plane flying by at 120+ mph and it takes a bit of luck or shooting skill that is not common. God has also watched over us as we fly. I can’t help being glad for that.