The Year of the Comet

Normal operations out of Dar-es-Salaam in the early morning went first to Mombasa, on the Kenya coast, less than three hundred miles away, then on to Nairobi on the central plateau. The first, short, sector took no more than twenty minutes which kept the co-pilot busy changing radio stations from Dar tower to Departure Control, to Tanzania Air Traffic, to Kenya Air Traffic, and Mombasa Tower. The Captain had his hands full of high-speed aeroplane designed to thunder up and out, and climb to forty thousand feet at four hundred miles and hour. In the cabin they were busy serving a modest breakfast to seventy people on a floor sloping steeply up at first, then over, then down. The only person with a quiet moment was the Flight Engineer who had only to control the cabin airflow and manage the little bit of fuel we had for such a short sector.

This all changed when we reached Mombasa – when the cabin staff could rest while cleaners came through and the pilots could go to the terminal café for a hearty breakfast. Hearty was the word because we had each left home the previous evening around seven o’clock, flew into Dar after ten o’clock, and reached the hotel around eleven where the coffee shop was dark and deserted. There was no food service available then, and still none available when we set off at five the next morning. Certainly there was no time for the cabin staff to feed us between Dar and Mombasa so it was a hungry crew, in search of a hearty breakfast, that trooped into the terminal restaurant during the transit. Well not quite. I couldn’t go. I had an aeroplane to refuel – fluid levels to check, tyres and brakes and wings and intakes to inspect and generally see to the safety of the machine.

Assistance was available in the form of a large Uncle Remus of a man in spotless white coveralls who called himself Elijah. Whatever Elijah’s engineering limitation might have been they were overridden by his unbound enthusiasm. He called me Sah, as opposed to Bwana used by the less informed folks thereabouts, and would come up to me when I was arranging the fuel distribution with a slip of paper detailing the expiry dates of all the fire extinguishers on board, which was informative, not to be ignored, but hardly relevant to a fifty minute transit stop of a jet airliner.

I suggested he might use his time better by checking the engine and hydraulic systems’ oil levels and taking a careful look at the tire treads for signs of damage. He beamed. “Oh Yessah. I will check most carefully Sah. Thank you very much Sah,” he said before rushing off to his newfound duties. He seemed pleased to gain my attention but was hardly finished before the refuelling was complete. I had taken the interval to eat the fried egg sandwich which arrived courtesy of the pilots as they lingered over their ‘hearties’ served on china, on a white tablecloth, in the pleasant, air-condition cafe while I sweated it under the fuel dripping wing with the smell of toilet servicing truck in my nostrils but, I was young, and I was hungry.

Fuel on, panels closed, tyres kicked, I was joined by the pilots with full bellies and egg stains here and there on once immaculate white shirts. Then it was all go go go again except for Elijah. Elijah didn’t go go go. In response to my call to start the engines Elijah said, “Hello Cockpeet.” as if calling up the wire between his headset and the aeroplane. “Are you ready for my checks now Cockpeet?”

We were – most certainly we were because when we reached Nairobi the rest of the day was our own to hit the golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, mount horses, wives . . . let’s get this show on the road. “Go ahead Ground.”

“You are ready Cockpeet?”

“Yes, yes, we are ready.”

“Okay then,” pause “the chocks they are in position.” Pause. “The intakes they are clear.” Pause. “Awllll, the doors and hatches they are closed.” Longer pause. “The fireguard he is posted.” Pause. “So you are clear to start number three engine,” he finally ended his rendering with the relief of a child finishing a schol recital.

The Captain hit the number three engine start button. We watched the dials spin up, the fuel went in, the jet pipe temperature started to climb, she was on her way. “Turning four,” I stated.

“Hello Cockpeet, do you wish to start number four engine now.”

“Four turning.”

The process continued, at slower pace than we might wish but it was being done. It dawned on me that this might be a more congenial interval in which to eat my breakfast sandwich – I could call down to Elijah between mouthfuls – might not be too bad. When they were all running and the electric, hydraulic, pneumatics were all working in unison I said, “Finished electrics Ground,” so he could take the ground power unit away.

Before he could offer a lengthy reply the Captain said, “Chocks away Ground. You can disconnect now. Thank you very much.”

“Hello Cockpit, you have finished?”

“Yes, yes. All done.”

“Hello Cockpeet. Can I disconnect now?” His tone suggested he was disappointed we were leaving – perhaps he enjoyed his new duties.

“Tower Eastaf 844 we’re ready for taxi.” The Captain was anxious to get away to an appointment before the Sun reached its high point or, before a husband came home.

The man in the tower was sympathetic. “Eastaf 844 you are clear to taxi, take-off runway zero six. Call reaching transition and the boundary.” Nothing pedestrian about that rendering so we were off – a short distance to the runway with the co-pilot rushing through the checklist as the captain turned on to the concrete strip opening up the throttles and we were rolling with the Comet pushing our backs into our seats as we sped home where we would be enjoying the day at leisure before the morning was over.

Later, when the Sun had dropped below the horizon, and a cold beer kept me company out on the deck, Elijah popped into my mind. I wondered how teachable he might be. East African Airways had African pilots and two flight engineers were under training so why not Elijah? He was keen enough. Once we started, once he locked on to what could come out of personal instruction from the Bwana Ndege Musungu there would be no going back. He wouldn’t let go – no matter how long it took he would hang in there enjoying every second of his new status as the Ndege Musungu Kidogo, bird expert little – me being the Ndege Musungo Makubwa, bird expert large. Did I want to start that ball rolling? Maybe I already had. Maybe that little nudge Elijah received this morning has already sent him down the path to Chief Engineer East African Airways – small beginnings

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