“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
Shot at and Hit
It was Ron’s Martinson’s first check out trip to Mozambique after arriving from the United States. The day before, we had flown up to Manje taking loads of food to the refugee camp. We had been able to feed over 200 hungry kids who had gathered around the airplane, making a noisy din of chatter. We did quite a lot of work that day and Ron was excited. “This is it! I love this. This is why I came to Africa!”
Ron is an interesting man and one of only two men I have met in my life so far who have given up all they have to serve the Lord. Well, there are other people who do that but they are usually young and don’t really have anything to give up when they do it, so I am not sure it’s the same thing. But Ron had been a very successful businessman when I met him in Oregon. He owned a business and his own plane and asked me to teach him some of the bush flying techniques we use in the rougher areas of the world. I was happy to do that and there was a very nice bit of bush type flying right there in the Rogue River Wild and Scenic area not far from where we were. I had flown for the BLM and Forest Service in that area for a couple of years in between Micronesia and Africa so it was like my back yard. After a day of flying into short grass strips on the slopes of hills and down in the bottom of river valleys with saw toothed mountain ridges all around, Ron said that this is what he had always wanted to do. I told him he had great influence in his community and that he could be a “missionary” right where he was, he didn’t need to go half way around the world for that. He went home looking thoughtful. First thing in the morning he called me and said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said and I am going to do it!” I said, “What is that Ron?” “I am going to sell my business and everything and go to Africa!” Wait a minute. That was not what I’d said. But his mind was made up. He was going to Africa and he did sell his business and home and cabin in the mountains and airplane and snowmobiles and boat and everything. He went back to school and studied for his Aircraft mechanics licenses and got his commercial pilot’s licenses and instrument ratings as well as Bible school. And now here he was, in Mozambique, with me again, saying “This is why I came to Africa.”
The next day we were flying down the Zambezi River taking in another load of food and one of the World Vision workers who would help with the distribution in Mutarara. We flew here so much that it seemed like there should be a path burned through the sky that the plane could just get in and go by itself. But this was Ron’s first trip. It was all new for him so I was showing him the sights and things to avoid. The river was beautiful in an Africa sort of way. We saw hippos at the confluence of the Lucia and Zambezi Rivers.
Just a bit further down the river there is an interesting place where a short mountain range crosses the Zambezi. It is situated just right so the prevailing wind, the humidity along the river and rising air as it comes over the mountains consistently combine here to form clouds that cover the tops of the ridge, blocking your progress further downstream. I had flown the area for months before I was able to get between Tete and Mutarara without going down low through the pass the river had carved through the mountains.
Pilots don’t like cruising through narrow mountain passes when they don’t know what is up ahead and are uncertain if they can get out again. With this in mind I thought I would take the opportunity to familiarize Ron with the area and refresh his memory on some of the mountain flying techniques we use in such circumstances. The Zambezi is one of the biggest rivers in Africa with long stretches of ever changing mazes of shallow water and shifting sandy bottoms. Livingston had much trouble trying to navigate it while he explored the area in his disassembling steam boat without great success. There are some nice gorges up by Cabora Bassa Dam wall where the water is deep and the walls so high and close that you would never want to try this. But in this spot, although tight, if you do it right it is not so narrow that it can’t be done safely. It would be easy to want to go down the center of the canyon but that would be a mistake. Instead, by slowing the Cessna 206 down to 80 knots with 20 degrees of flaps and staying close to one side, up against the wall, you can easily turn the plane in less than half the distance between sides, which is our minimum for continuing into tight areas. You start our turn at a 45 degrees and the shallow out as the turn is assured. I demonstrated to Ron, slowing the plane down to 80 which reduces the turn radius significantly and with 20 degrees of flaps you have a much better visual picture as the nose comes down letting you see over the cowling. In this way we could turn around anywhere in the pass without using up even half of its’ width. This is all part of the checkout process for a pilot when they come to a new area of operation. There is not enough time in a pilot’s life for him to make all the mistakes there are to make himself. He must learn from others if he is to stay alive. Having gotten through the mountains, we carried on down stream looking for more things so see and opportunities to “familiarize”.
A couple of weeks earlier I had seen an airstrip that I had not used before only a few miles from where we were. There had actually been a small white airplane going in there at that very time. I had tried to call him on the VHF when I saw him, but he did not reply so I continued on my way. World Vision wanted to work in this area and I thought this might be a possible airstrip for use flying food in for starving people if the strip was alright. I could also teach Ron how to evaluate an airstrip from the air. We entered a downwind along the river running parallel to the strip and looked it over from about 500 feet. But as we got directly abeam the center of the runway I heard a funny static in the radio. And it was getting louder. As my mind puzzled trying to figure it out, the engine started popping and banging like backfires. “What is going on here?”
But when I took my headset off, what I heard was not engine or radio noise but the un-muffled crack of bullets as they flew past our windows!
It got quiet for a few seconds (as the men on the ground were changing clips on their AK-47’s) and then the static sound started again as hundreds of rounds came our way. Vasco, the man in the passenger seat behind me on the right side of the plane where all the firing was coming from, put his hands in the air in the position for firing a gun and yelled “They are shooting at us! They are shooting at us!” I turned around to inform him that I was very aware of that and as I did, a bullet came through the side of the plane not 3 feet from me and tore into Vasco’s upheld hand. (Things happened very fast and yet seemed to be in slow motion.) He cried out in pain, grabbed his hand and held it in his lap as he began to rock back and forth. I could see that it had ripped across the back part of his hand and opened it all up like a Zipper. I remember seeing all the little tendons and bones moving and thinking that there was surprisingly little blood. Ron got on the HF to his wife (who was flight following that day for the first time in her life) and yelled “We’ve been hit!” As he did this he pulled the yoke back, putting us into a steep climb to get away. He looked intensely straight ahead and said, “I did not come here to get shot! I do not like this! No, this is Not good…” Unfortunately, pulling into a climb slows the plane down, exposing a great deal more of its’ surface, giving a bigger target and more time to shoot at it. I quickly pushed the nose back over to get some speed and get us down low and beyond the shooters horizon as quickly as possible. Ron continued to make a great sweeping circle away to the left and headed back to Tete. We didn’t want to pass back over the airstrip again. I took my seatbelt off and turned around to see what I could do to help Vasco. He continued to chatter away excitedly and very rapidly in Portuguese, trying to communicate more of his problem. He pointed to his head where there was a line that looked very much like the burn lines I had seen on so many fishermen in Micronesia. They would catch very large fish bare handed on heavy nylon line. Often the line would be ripped through their hands at high speed by their troubled prey and before they could get rid of it there would be a life long sign of their fishing trip across their palm. I had seen one man with the fishing scar like that right across his face through his mouth. Now I thought, “Is this what happens when a bullet grazes you? Does it burn your skin as it goes by?” But then Vasco was grabbing his leg and yelling something else. There was no blood or rips on his pants indicating a wound and I couldn’t figure out what he was on about. I motioned at him to slow down. “Relax. I will help you but you must talk slower.” He gathered himself up and began to talk quite calmly as if he was starting to tell some kids a bedtime story in hopes that I could understand him. He said that the wound on his head was, in fact, from the last time he had been in an airplane. Then he rolled up his pant leg with his good hand to reveal a huge wound in his calf from the time before that, when he had been riding in an Antinov and received yet another wound.
This guy was a bullet magnet! I thought I would really like to get him out of my plane as soon as possible. But for now we had to get him back to the hospital in Tete. The plane was running fine and Ron flew on as I tried to give first aid to Vasco. The bullet had hit his right hand and traveled, without hitting bones or tendons, coming to rest in the meaty part between his thumb and index finger. In fact, if he had not had his hand up in the air shooting his imaginary “air gun”, the bullet, which was heading directly for Ron’s neck, could have easily killed him or paralyzed him for life. We had been very lucky!
I radioed Tete tower to tell them to get an ambulance prepared for our arrival and they assured us that all would be ready. But as we pulled into the parking area there was no ambulance in sight. There was not even a plan for an ambulance. I rushed to get our MAF truck and we loaded Vasco in. Ron stayed with the plane to look it over for any further damage and to see if we could continue our operations while I took Vasco to the Hospital in town about 10 miles away.
Now, things do not always run as smoothly as possible in Africa. I sat Vasco down in a chair and walked through the hospital until I found the doctor. I personally took him to where Vasco sat and handed the patient over to him. There was a promise of swift service. I drove back to the airport where, after careful inspection, Ron had discovered that out of all the rounds fired at us, and there were hundreds, only the one had hit us! We really were blessed that day. It could have been so much worse.
Ron and I went back to the hospital a couple hours later and to our surprise we found our patient untreated and sitting in the very same chair I had left him in hours before! I was irate! I stormed through the corridors again until I found the doctor, who looked very sheepish. I took him by the arm and didn’t let go of him until we all put Vasco on a gurney and were rolling him into the operating room. I assisted the doctor in theater and we took the bullet out of his hand. There was no tendon damage or broken bones, for which we were grateful. That would have been much harder to fix. I gave the bullet to Ron as a memento of an exciting first trip to Mozambique during the bush war. I was quite sure Vasco didn’t want it, having all the souvenirs he needed on his person.
There is a funny “rest of the story”. This place, Tambala, had been a rebel MNR base when I had first seen the little supply plane flying in. But only a week later it had been overrun by Government Frelimo troops. The plane had come back on another supply flight and actually landed in what had become his enemies’ area. As he was rolling out he noticed all the soldiers dressed in the “wrong” uniforms and realized he was in trouble. But he was extremely cool headed. He came to a stop at the end of the airstrip in front of all the soldiers, opened the door and said, “Is this Tete? I thought Tete was supposed to be bigger that this!” They were very helpful and told him he was about 30 miles short of his destination. Yes, it was much bigger and if he just followed the river upstream he would come to it in no time. “Just look for the big Bridge and the airport is right there.” So he got in his plane and flew off never to be seen by them again.
The Soldiers radioed Tete and asked if the lost pilot had found his way to Tete. They told the story of the plane and were informed that the Government had been looking for this plane for months and that the soldiers were stupid and in BIG trouble for letting him go.
So….a week later we flew by and when they saw we were not going to land they all rushed to the riverbank and began shooting at us with everything they had. The entire company must have been emptying their AK’s on us.
As they saw us turn and go up and then down below the trees where we were no longer visible, they assumed we were down. They got on the radio and excitedly told Tete they had finally shot down the enemy plane everyone was looking for, hoping to have redeemed themselves in some way.
By that time our radio message had reached Tete telling them we had been shot and would need the ambulance readied. So Tete informed the troops at Tambala that they had actually shot a friendly plane and they were in big trouble yet again.
Sometimes you just can’t win!
About 5 years later I was flying around Mozambique after the war and who should come to ride in the plane but Vasco. As I was taxiing out for takeoff I radioed Cher with my details. “I’m taking off Tete, one plus 5 and 3 hours of fuel on board for Mutarara. I will give you a call in the air” “and by the way, one of the pax is Vasco.” She just said, “Oh no, not the bullet magnet!” “Yes it is”, I replied, “and he is fine!”
I left that bullet hole in the door of the plane for years because it reminded me of God watching over us and it always made for a good story. But when I came back from a trip to the States I found someone had patched it up. I was actually a bit sad about that.