High altitude heroes…

High altitude heroes…

As our intrepid heroes carry on the 'Mildmay Pathfinder' makes a forced landing near Asmara, Eritrea, on-route to Ethiopia. Story by Stuart King.

‘We had planned to fly to Ethiopia, via Eritrea, to survey the need there. We took off from Khartoum late afternoon, with the understanding that Air Traffic Control in Khartoum would send a message to Asmara, in Eritrea, to expect us after dark.’

‘The message, however, didn't get through. We arrived in the dark and discovered there was no flare path to highlight the runway for us. 

‘It was the moonlight reflecting off the runway surface that enabled us to identify where it was, and thereby land safely. Next day we loaded up the plane to continue on.

Wheels down

Jack began the take-off run. The plane left the ground briefly, touched down again then staggered over the airfield fence.

The briefest of conversations took place: Stuart. 'What are you going to do?' Jack. 'Land.' Stuart. 'Wheels down?' Jack. 'Yes.' Clunk.

The emergency release shot the wheels down. Straight ahead was a small ploughed field onto which we plonked down - it certainly wasn't graceful - and rattled across the sun-baked ruts for the briefest of landing runs.

The only flat spot in Eritrea

The aerodrome officer arrived 20 mins later, looked at the plane and said 'You've chosen the only flat spot in Eritrea!'

He gathered people together, who had by then stopped to gaze, and marshalled them to push the plane out of the field, down into a ditch and up the other side, and through a hole that he had cut in the airfield fence.

Stuart: 'What are you going to do?'
Jack: 'Land.'
Stuart: 'Wheels down?'
Jack: 'Yes.' Clunk.

In a hangar I promptly put the plane on jacks to do a retraction test on the undercarriage. Amazingly, nothing had been damaged in our bumpy landing in the field, but we abandoned our plans to visit Ethiopia.

Lightening the load

We offloaded all our supplies and spares and sent them back to Khartoum by a commercial flight, and then flew the Pathfinder back there ourselves three days later.

'You've chosen the only flat spot in Eritrea!'

With Asmara being at 7,600 feet, we learnt an important lesson that day about some of the dangers of operating such an aircraft at altitude, with the low-density air and the heat of Africa.

Read the story from the start? 

The UK Tour - Landing 70 years ago 

Or why not watch the film - Fights of Faith