It was late in the afternoon, too late in fact. With the setting sun in my eyes about to disappear over the endless horizon of the Sahara desert, landing an aircraft between the dunes was always going to be a risky proposition – not for the fainthearted. I had waited nearly half the day for supplies to arrive and to be loaded on the aircraft but they hadn’t been very forthcoming. When eventually the small truck arrived it took yet another hour to load the aircraft. I had no idea what all those mysterious boxes contained and frankly couldn’t care less. The only thing of direct concern to me was the distribution and gross weight of all this cargo so I could calculate the “Weight and Balance” for the aircraft; I suppose that made me pilot and dispatcher at the same time.
When they were finally done I filed the usual compulsory flight plan, checked the time and figured I could still make it back to base somewhere deep into the desert before dusk would set in… just.
After two and a half hours in the air, scrutinising the empty horizon, I finally detected the lonely transmitter antenna sticking out like a forlorn needle in a haystack and further in the distance the tower of the Agip oil rig. I began my descent to fifteen hundred feet above ground level and at last flew over the concealed and abandoned airstrip to begin a classic traffic pattern. At low level this particular airfield is completely concealed from view nestled on the only bit of relatively flat real estate available for miles.
From my left window I glanced down at the wind sock hanging limply in the still evening air, placed next to the fuel tank, the only two objects on the field. The strip was surrounded by large dunes stretching out as far as the eye could see – and in the desert one can see over vast distances. I made a sharp left turn keeping the runway at all times on my left side and then backtracked on a perfect left downwind course. With the runway now behind me, I went through the usual approach sequence, flaps, gear and power settings and then turned base followed by a final approach.
There was only one serious problem with this airfield. As soon I was on final and only just above ground level – if one can call the rolling terrain like the swell on the ocean ground level – I was no longer able to see the runway… at all; it was completely obscured by several large dunes I was now flying over.
It doesn’t help either that at that precise moment there is still a sliver of sun setting over the horizon like a huge orange ball and it now sits exactly in my line of sight. Once I clear this obstacle, no more that ten feet above the sand, the airstrip suddenly reappears a hundred feet below and one has to literally plunge the aircraft down into it. There is no second chance here; if one doesn’t hit the threshold, a bit like on an aircraft carrier, one has to add full power and do it again… I’m not frequently proud but I dare say, I never missed.
Every time it’s a challenge and every time it gave me a feeling of satisfaction to park the aircraft, and think, “Well we did it again”… we being me because I was completely alone out there and seven kilometres from the camp; the terrain in this area did not permit an airstrip to be bulldozed any closer.
I tied the aircraft down, locked up and walked to my parked Jeep, jumped in, turned the ignition key and… nothing. The engine coughed a few times politely but clearly it had no intention of responding to my insistent request to get the hell on with it. Eventually, without any doubt supplemented by some colourful language, I gave up and switched the big military style radio on with its huge antenna. After yet another futile attempt to raise someone’s attention it became clear that no one was listening. It is entirely possible that, courtesy of the powerful radio I used, my irritated voice may have reached France or who knows, perhaps even as far as western China courtesy of the radio signals bouncing off the ionosphere, but only five miles away, within my own sandy neighbourhood, no one was listening.
By now, the sun was gone completely and the problem with tropical latitudes is, once the sun sinks below the horizon it’s like someone just switched the light off… dusk does not linger around for long. The golden rule is “Don’t go wandering off in the desert at night, they may never find you” – especially if you’re the only pilot in the region.
I now had to take a decision: I either had to resort to sleeping in the aircraft and wait for daylight or… go have a look and see if I could find the trail left behind in the sand by the tyres of my jeep, only that was yesterday and a lot can happen in the desert in twenty-four hours. There was still a tiny bit of light left but that wasn’t going to last for long. I walked towards the trail to see if nature had left the landscape exactly the way I had last seen it the previous day or had the wind been playing games with my by now precious tyre tracks. To my surprise I could actually see the trail quite clearly, but that still meant I now had to decide if I was going to go walkabout into the desert or back off.
Now some of you may have run up and down the dunes along the beach with your bucket and spade on a sunny afternoon when you were kids, but frankly, that doesn’t even come close to walking seven kilometres on an iffy trail in the sand in the dark. But I thought, screw it… I can do it; seven K… pfff, it’s only a small matter, and so I began on my journey back to camp, keeping a relatively good pace. The first thing I noticed – though not for the first time – was the immense silence, a deep all-immersive silence like most people will never experience in their life, a sort of peaceful tranquility that, as far as I was concerned, was rather pleasant. To the average disco-dancing teenager however, it would probably classify as their worst nightmare – the more decibels the better.
To my surprise I could see the trail a lot clearer than I had expected, even though the light had by now been switched off once and for all. Much like the snow in the mountains however, the pale sand was now reflecting a brand new light that had slowly begun creeping into the black night sky, a light that took my breath away, a light that has illuminated the heavens for billions of years and it now steadily worked its way towards its crescendo in the dry winter air. Above me lay a solid carpet of a zillion stars illuminating my path and ushering me on. Sirius, the binary star and Orion – mighty Osiris for the ancient Egyptians – dominated the eastern sky while directly above me a stunning display of stars shone with such clarity that it gave me the feeling that I could nearly touch them… nearly. I forgot all about the damn jeep that had left me stuck in the desert, and for the time being I also forgot that evidently no one manned the radios or that my flight, by now, should have been declared overdue. For the time being all I could do was trudge through the sand with my nose in the air marvelling at the display above. I must have walked along the sandy trail in a state of near trance for almost two hours; however long my nocturnal walk in the desert may have been, I didn’t notice time go by.
When finally the blazing lights of the camp began to appear, a brief feeling of anti-climax crept over me. Soon I had to say goodbye to the eternal burning lights in the cosmos that had shown me the way back to camp and come back to earth. It had been a long trek, a trek of pure beauty; then again, it was almost ten o’clock and I was hungry like hell and in a hurry to reach the mess hall and attack the leftovers.