Excerpt from the Ethiopian Intercept: Rescue mission

Here is a sample from The Ethiopian Intercept. Ross Brannan and two defense attaches from the Nairobi embassy are en route to the Sudan on a rescue mission. They are flying in a Pilatus Porter single-engine turboprop and land to refuel. Lake Rudolf has since been renamed Lake Turkana. 

Tuesday, 21 February 1978: Northern Kenya

The green jade waters of Lake Rudolf stretched off to our left. A small bush camp: two Land Rovers and about a half dozen safari tents lay to the right, the only sign of life for miles in the austere landscape.

Barker lined the Porter up on the approach to an isolated desert airstrip, little more than a dirt track cleared of rocks. He dipped the nose, pushed the throttle forward, gained speed, and came straight in. At the last second, he pulled up and buzzed the dusty airstrip at low altitude.

"What was that about?" asked Santini.

"Make some noise to scare the animals away. Don't need a warthog or some other critter lumbering out on the runway when we come in. I almost learned the hard way up here last year."

Barker looped around and banked left in a steep turn towards the runway. The sunburned earth rushed up to meet us. The large flaps deployed, and Barker eased the yoke back. The Porter leveled off. At the end of the dirt strip, he eased back once more and brought the nose up. The aircraft decelerated, shuddered, and gently touched down. Barker applied full brakes and reverse thrust. We rolled only a few hundred yards before he spun the craft around and taxied back to the tents.

A large man with a weathered tan face and a thick black beard strolled up after Barker killed the engine. He wore a wide brimmed safari hat, khaki shorts, shirt, and rough well-worn safari boots. A hunting rifle slung over his broad shoulders. He casually inspected the Porter and asked Barker with a vague accent, "Hey Bark, you steal this from Dieter?"

"If you only knew how much he was charging me."

The man laughed heartily. Obviously, they had met before. "Who these guys? … You go in competition with me?"

"Nah, we’re on our way further north."

The man's smile evaporated. "Over the frontier … Sudan."

"Yeah, need to top up on fuel. Any problem?"

"Sure, anything you want, I no ask why." He turned and yelled in a local language and an old Land Rover with a small fuel trailer began to move towards the Porter. Barker stepped down out of the cockpit and the man confided, "Better be careful, things been hot up in the triangle lately."

Barker nodded in acknowledgement and said to us, "Guys, this is Domingo de los Santos. He owns this place. These guys are Al and Ross." I had forgotten Santini's first name was Albert.

Dom spied our AK-47's and the Weatherby in the back of the Porter. "You guys going after hyena? Lots them up that way." He didn't wait for an answer and ambled over to the fuel truck to help with refueling.

I wandered around and checked the place out while they refueled. A basic safari camp for those who wished an authentic experience: tan canvas tents, no obvious tourist amenities, no bars, no shops, and only crude sanitary facilities. Three almost naked men stood motionless on the far side of the dirt runway.

"Turkana," spoke a voice from behind, it was Dom. "This is those guys homeland. They've lived this way forever. Some professor called this place the cradle of mankind."

"Looks more like the graveyard to me."

He laughed. "No, you would be amazed what's out there. When you got a week, come back sometime. Just ask Bark."

The Porter took less than 300 yards to lift-off. Barker banked to the left and cruised out over Lake Rudolf’s jade waters.

After we leveled off, I asked, "What's this triangle business?"

Santini answered, "He was talking about the Ilemi Triangle, a disputed area between Kenya and Sudan. Won't cause us any problem unless we have to land."

We passed beyond Lake Rudolf and flew on in silence. The morning had started early. Barker insisted we take off before dawn. We first caught the sun rising in the east after we gained our cruising altitude at 8,000 feet. He worried about maintaining our airspeed and wanted to make a re-fueling stop.

Our route north traversed the Great Rift Valley past Mount Kenya and over the northern desert. Now, the Porter flew northwest under large fluffy clouds lifted up on thermals rising from the hot dry plains. The vast African savanna spread below, random yellow and green patterns superimposed on a brown landscape unbroken by roads or settlements. Three hundred fifty miles had passed under our wings, Pibor Post less than two hours away. We were half way.

*  *  *

We flew on and spotted the Pibor River snaking its way through the bush. Barker guided the Porter north along the river until the Pibor Post settlement came into view. The map showed a small airfield in addition to the military post. We turned early to avoid visual detection by Sudanese authorities.

Barker flew by dead reckoning with no navigational aids, the maps old and sometimes unreliable. The bush offered few identifiable landmarks, just trees, dry washes, and the occasional rock outcrop. Navigation was by necessity a matter of time and distance on a constant heading. Santini calculated and plotted a vector towards the northeast. Barker banked the Porter to the right and followed the new course over endless bush.

Forty-five minutes later, a red dust column rose from the plain. Barker said, "Must be the Sudanese Army detachment." From 2,000 feet above, three open trucks and two smaller jeep-like vehicles became visible off to our left.

Santini peered through the binoculars. "They number less than fifty men. We're on the right track, should be getting close."

A few kilometers later, Santini said, "Captain, why don't you zigzag a bit to cover more territory, we'll keep a look out, Ross you take the left."

The monotonous landscape passed under us: brown dirt, brown rocks, more brown dirt, almost brown trees, and even more brown dirt. A few miles later, a contrasting flash of color caught my eye. Lost sight of it for a second and then a glimmer appeared.

"Something at ten o'clock … see that open space?"

"Got it," acknowledged Barker and he dipped the nose down for a better view. Soon a small low-wing aircraft with a white paint job came into focus.

"Looks like a Piper Cherokee," said Santini.

"More likely a Marchetti 205," I said. "Remember seeing one in Asmara."

Barker agreed, "Yeah, you may be right. … Ethiopian registration. ET-A… can't make out the last two letters … has to be the one."

I asked, "Wonder what happened? Think they ran out of fuel?

Santini responded, "They should have had plenty fuel, perhaps something else. Take us around again."

Barker circled back and flew low over the landing spot. The small plane sat alone, front wheel strut broken and twisted at an angle under the fuselage. The right wing crumpled from a hard swipe along the ground. Everything else seemed intact and no signs of a fire.

"Don't see them. Do you?" I asked.

"No, I'll make another pass and try to keep the speed down."

"Up ahead at two o’clock," shouted Santini.

Barker climbed, banked, circled around, deployed the flaps, and made a slow speed run towards the downed aircraft. "There, under a tree." Four hundred yards past the crash site at the edge of a clump of trees lay what appeared to be the carcasses of two animals.

We passed the remains and it was clear they had at one time been human. Hyenas, vultures, and everything else had taken their toll. Only the presence of scattered clothing scraps testified to their human origin. We didn't speak, too shocked to comment or speculate. My stomach rolled, I was about to throw up.

Barker pulled up and began to search for a place to land. I stuck my face out the window, desperate for fresh air. A thought occurred to me: Is that the way we're going to end up? I refocused my attention to survival mode and offered a silent prayer: Please let us survive this day.

"Over there, a patch … open ground," said Santini, pointing to what seemed like a clearing about a half mile away. "Can you do it?"

"Let's see."

Glanced forward, the spot was small — no, tiny. Is Barker nuts?

Barker flew over the postage stamp sized patch and circled around. Tightened my harness and Santini did the same. Barker lined the Porter up, deployed the flaps, and set the craft down. We bounced once and rolled to a stop with fifty yards to spare.

"I'm impressed," said Santini. "If this was a real mission, I'd recommend you for a DFC." He was talking about the Distinguished Flying Cross. I had noticed back at Huachuca, Santini wore one on his dress blues. Barker didn't respond and took a deep breath.

We taxied to the far edge of the clearing where Barker wheeled the Porter around, ready for a quick take-off. He was preparing to shut down the engine when a dozen armed men popped out of a clump of trees a hundred yards away.

Author's Note: In 1974, I flew out of Syangboche Airport in Nepal after a month-long trek to the base of Mt. Everest.  The pilot of the Pilatus Porter was Emil Wick, a legendary Swiss glacier pilot. The Porter will also be featured in my next book, The Iranian Intercept. Sign up now and I will let you know when it is published.

Pilatus Porter landing at Syangboche  airstrip in Nepal  Elevation 12,402 ft / 3,780 m          (Photo by Author)

Pilatus Porter landing at Syangboche  airstrip in Nepal

Elevation 12,402 ft / 3,780 m          (Photo by Author)