It must have been somewhere around eight-thirty; a moonless night in Libya had plunged the Sahara desert into near-total darkness, at least seen from the cockpit of my plane. In insane Gadhafi-land at that time, it was strictly prohibited to fly at night, but there is always a volunteer to fly a last errand for the oil company and, in this case, I am, of course, referring to myself. After all, they pay a hefty price for the services of aviation contractors willing to put up with the harshness of life deep into the desert for four to six weeks at a time.
I was flying in the dark, without navigation lights, a mere hundred feet above the sand keeping an eye on the fires blazing on the oil rig illuminating the otherwise black horizon. I knew that as long as I could see the lights and the fires I wouldn’t hit a sand-dune.
Departing from the isolated outpost that went by the colourful name of R-82 in the dark was tricky enough, returning in case of trouble however would be impossible as it was hidden between large dunes and wasn’t equipped with any form of lights, apart from the stars. The trick to avoid the Russians, who at that time manned the radars, was to fly low enough to collide head-on with a truck. Quite frankly, I counted on the fact that the Russians in faraway Sarir, even further south into the desert, probably couldn’t care less about a lone cargo plane braking insane Gadhafi’s rules, as long as it wasn’t a formation of fighters coming from Egypt flying at Mach Two.
Werner was quietly sitting near the sandy runway in the other aeroplane, manning the radio... and waiting for me. I called him the “Squirrel”, a smallish thin young man with loads of flying experience, both in the jungles of New Guinea and the desert, and dependable. The dispatchers of the oil company probably liked ex-military pilots because they knew they may be willing to push the boundaries a bit further than others, but not always. Squirrel was not an ex-anything, he was a farmer’s son and an extraordinary person who was totally reliable. That night was no exception as he was patiently waiting for the last plane to come in from the dark, check the wind and then at the last moment turn on the landing lights among all the other blazing lights and burning gas fires, all of it illegally of course but I doubt anyone cared.
How had I gotten there? As a child, I used to build small model planes, mostly WW2 fighters of course, and of course, I imagined myself in one of those Douglass Dauntless dive bombers, plunging towards a Jap battleship and help send it to the bottom of the Pacific. With time, however, the child’s dreams faded away and reality sets in. University followed school, maybe a job as a photo-journalist or whatever it is that one does with a study of political science and English literature. At some stage, I applied with the Royal Dutch Air force considering I was. after all, a Dutch citizen and after a week of testing was finally rejected.
As an alternative I first ended up on Centurion tanks in the Netherlands and Germany; but who likes the freezing cold in some godforsaken Cold War Joint Army camp facing Eastern Germany. A transfer to the last of the Dutch Colonial Army, an all-volunteer outfit in the Amazonian jungles, seemed like a good option, and of course, there was the lure of adventure. The dream, of ever flying an airplane seemed to be further away than ever.
Later in the early seventies, soldiers with loads of jungle and intelligence work experience were in high demand in some parts a world where war was a way of life. Somehow someone, or more likely an Agency noticed me and I was recruited for a six months tour in Vietnam towards the end of that endless war. Instead of leaving when my time was up, I stayed on long enough to witness the near destruction of more than half of a platoon of Vietnamese Rangers along with everything we believed in and fought for. I frequently searched the sky, hoping to see the all saving formation of South Vietnamese Douglas Sky Raiders, flying so low, one could see the pilots wave at us… but that day, none came.
When I returned I vowed no more mud and blood. Me too I wanted to get into the nice and clean environment of a cockpit and see the world from above and once more I tried, older and possibly wiser, although that is a matter of opinion. To my surprise, after a series of exams, it was not the Dutch that accepted me in one of their academies, but the Americans.
After two years of academy, I signed on for a further six years in the Air Force Reserve. It is rather ironical, that yet again I was wearing another nation’s uniform but I will forever be grateful for the opportunity because at last, the child who built model airplanes so long ago and dreamed of flying was now also sitting in a cockpit; the dream had become reality.
That night in a faraway desert, however, in a place called Alpha One-Hundred, it was not an Army or Air Force Buddy waiting for me making sure I would return safe and sound in the dark. It was an ordinary but dependable young Swiss farmer’s son. Werner Wyder was the only survivor of a kidnapping in West Papua, ex Dutch New Guinea that went wrong right from the beginning. His story goes back to March 1984; not so long before we were stationed together in the Libyan Desert. When he set his plane down on a bleak jungle airstrip, somewhere deep in the country, members of a Papua resistance group were waiting for them and the first thing they did was execute Werner’s two passengers; they were Indonesian officials, and therefore occupiers as far as the Papua were concerned.
Werner, however, was spared and taken prisoner by the Papua guerrillas. He was forced to walk through dense jungles and up and down, mostly up, along endless mountain trails. I don’t doubt that he experienced his harrowing ordeal with the same calmness and dry humour he always portrayed. But this is a story that is best told by the man himself.
The way I remember him, he never complained, he just got on with it. The truth is, he was no squirrel at all, more of a lion really who didn’t have to roar to be respected.