Captain’s Log-26 October 2013-Not Getting Shot in an Airplane

UN helicopter bringing supplies while ladies carry loads of grass the old way.  On their heads.  The grass is for repairing the roofs on their houses before the rains get too bad.

UN helicopter bringing supplies while ladies carry loads of grass down the airstrip the old way, on their heads. The grass is for repairing the roofs on their houses before the rains get too bad.

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.

UN Mi-8 helicopter flown by Bangladeshi troops.

UN Mi-8 helicopter flown by Bangladeshi troops.

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9 Responses to Captain’s Log-26 October 2013-Not Getting Shot in an Airplane

  1. P NOBES says:

    Hi Jon, Very interesting, When I was in PRAW I was based from time to time at Mount Darwin during our war. Gordon Marshall was often operating out of Karanda Mission. He did not have the advantage of military intelligence which I did, of course. If it was suspected that terrorists were in the zone in possession of Sam 7’s, we were fly tree top height or above 10000ft. I agree with you, the best deal is low level to avoid small arms fire, although I was hit on several occasions. SAM 7’s took out two of the local airlines Viscounts and Mike Dunk was instrumental in developing counter measures. Love to Cher Phil

    • Jon says:

      Hey Phil, Great to hear from you. See,the kind of guys I got good advice from in the day. What are you doing nowadays? Hope you guys are well. Love to Annette, Cheers my friend,

      • P NOBES says:

        Hi Jon, Annette and I are living in Maidstone, Kent .- left Zim 3 1/2 years ago after my flying career and income ended but managed to fly professionally until 71 years young. Annette is disabled with knee replacement and arthritis, but is still active doing mentoring and such like. Paul our son is still there and grand kids also. Bi for now. Keep up the good work.

        • Jon says:

          Hey Phip and Annette, How lovely to hear from you and catch up a bit. Was looking at Christmas pix of us in your house on Waverly Cl. Good memories. Thanks for that. Jon

  2. Pierre says:

    Good morning captain,
    I am planning my retirement in about five years and I have a few questions regarding aviation. I am a private pilot that would like to relocate around Goma where I was born and bring back with me a small airplane. I currently fly a Cessna 172, but could upgrade to a 182.
    My questions are:
    Who does your maintenance and repairs on your aircrafts?
    Is this done internally?
    If yes, would you consider working on a private plane?
    How do you get fuel? Is it Avgas?
    Have you seen float plane in the eastern Congo? Better yet, are float planes allowed?

    Also, I would like your advice on a STOL aircraft. One of my missions would be to fly from small village to small village. Can I land on any empty field? The Zenith 701 only needs about 100 feet or so for safe landing.
    Your help is greatly appreciated. I have been reading your blog for years and enjoy the stories tremendously.


    • Jon says:

      Hi Pierre, I thought I answered this the other day but don’t see it here. Goma is a beautiful place to be but not very peaceful right now. A C182 is way better for the density altitude around Goma. Lots of mountains as you know with the passes being at 7000 feet and mountains up around 14,000. So a bigger engine is better. The parks plane at Virunga is a C182 that is certified to us car fuel. that might be a good idea for you as avgas is very hard to come by. We do our own maintenance but mostly in Uganda at our base in Kajjansi. I have not seen any float planes here but one would be very nice on the lakes. We were thinking of putting on the Congo River at Kisangani. Didn’t work out.
      Cheers for now. Jon

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