National Geographic : 1957 Jul
Flight to Adventure The bottles were a suggestion of Brig. Gen. Charles A. Lindbergh; they'd be less likely to break, he said, during a crack-up. He also gave us another piece of counsel: in a single engine plane, avoid flying over terrain where you can't land. Sound enough advice, but a bit odd, we thought, coming from him! Finally we took off. Our first major goal: the Belgian Congo, in the heart of Africa's green jungle.* During the next 70 days we flew a long, curving route eastward across the breadth of the continent, a journey of more than 5,000 miles, as far as a round-trip flight across the United States.f We did it, of course, in daylight hops of 300 to 600 miles. And on the way we learned a great deal about the joys and hazards of substituting a small plane for the family car in seeing the world. One hazard was made very clear the first day. Looking out Charlie's window, we spotted far below on the sand the scattered parts of a small, single-engine aircraft. Its pilot, a young Frenchwoman bound for Dakar, had run out of gas and cracked up the day before. She had escaped with a broken leg, but there was little left of her plane. Dive-bombed by African Storks Following the Niger River east toward Goundam, in the French Sudan, we met hazards two and three. Number two was peculiar to the time and place: migrating storks. Flocks of them filled the sky around us. They seemed half as big as Charlie and had a habit, when we passed beneath them, of folding their wings in mid flight and apparently diving straight at the plane. So we took turns bird-watching to avoid them. This in turn complicated hazard number three. We had chosen a route that led over the Niger River, and the stream, along with map, radio, and compass, was to serve as our guide. At first it was easy to follow the river -a bright, broad line paralleled on both sides by cotton fields. But within an hour it began to wander and branch, to form lakes and ponds and swamps in a completely haphazard manner. In cases like this our maps were almost useless, and it was all too easy to follow some riverlike strip of water completely off our route. Similarly, African roads were apt to divide and subdivide into ill-defined tracks or disappear from view entirely under the spreading tops of green forest. African weather, of course, was a constant problem. Sandstorms over the Sahara or fast rising thunderheads over the jungle could play hob with our flight plans, and sometimes did. This was usually less of a risk than an incon venience: if the weather was bad ahead, we simply stayed on the ground. Engine Failure a Constant Threat The most frightening of all the dangers on a flight like ours was the possibility of engine failure, particularly over dense jungle. "How could we make a forced landing in that tangle?" Tay and I would ask ourselves as we looked down on some trackless sea of green below. It was a question I, at least, had to be ready to answer as best I could. Our only hope would be to plop into the treetops just at stalling speed with the tail low, praying that the forest's heavy canopy would hold the plane by wings and fuselage, preventing a crash to the ground more than 100 feet below. Even if we came through such a jungle-top landing, what then? Charlie's remains would settle into the forest and be lost to any aerial search. And unless we could shinny down a liana and find a road, there would be little hope of our survival. This was another rea son we tried to fly above roads or rivers where possible. It was also why we treated Charlie like a pampered baby, straining every ounce of gas he drank, changing his oil and cleaning his filters and plugs at every opportunity. Yet, despite all our precautions, we had alarms. Emergency Develops at 7,000 Feet Setting out one morning from Niamey in French West Africa, bound for the Nigerian city of Kano, we leveled off at 7,000 feet. Just as we reached cruising speed, there was a frightening clatter and a heavy vibration up front. I thought a bearing had let go. But the engine kept running; oil pressure and tem perature were okay; so were the magnetos, the cylinder-head temperature, and everything * See "White Magic in the Belgian Congo," by W. Robert Moore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1952. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Sa fari Through Changing Africa," August, 1953; and "Safari from Congo to Cairo," December, 1954, both by Elsie May Bell Grosvenor.