NOV 10, 2022
Twenty minutes later, they arrived at the airport. Mapacha was the first one out followed by the taxi driver and Banou. Mzee Tembo was the last one out. He felt utterly surly about Una's words as he turned to Banou.
"Hey you know she did not mean anything. She is just old-fashioned."
Banou smiled. "Don't worry about it. I did not take any offence."
Josephine's airport by all measures was considered small. The moderate stately brick-built building was spartan and merely had the national flag and the airport insignia on the facade. Its terminal complex was divided into arrivals and departures by a sturdy wall. You needed to climb the short flight of stairs and present your travel documents to one of the two guards before being allowed to proceed to immigration and customs. Gwafa exited from the arrivals side with his holdall followed by a porter.
"Bonjour mes amis," he greeted them.
They all greeted him back.
He stood on the other side of the taxi and removed a pouch from the holdall and unfolded it.
"Hardware," he instructed them.
Banou was surprised. So blatantly in broad daylight? She opened her train case and carefully dumped her revolver and ammunition into the pouch. Mapacha got his duffel and pulled apart the drawstrings before he carefully palmed his into the pouch. Mzee Tembo followed suit and pulled his out of the pocket.
"Excellent. Merci." Gwafa said as he zipped it and placed the seal.
It was already pre-stamped. With his left hand, he motioned for a porter who instantly laid the bags onto the trolley. Mzee Tembo paid the taxi driver who was ignorant of the situation as he listened to the radio and they all slowly made their way up the stairs. They removed their passports, while Gwafa removed his operator's license, passport and the plane's passenger manifest and handed the papers to one of the guards.
"These are my clients and they are travelling with me"
"Passports." The other guard ordered.
Banou pulled out hers first.
"Rui." The guard called her as he examined the new passport.
After a moment, he returned it to her and directed her off with a finger.
Mapacha was next.
"Braga." He stared at the passport and recognised Mapacha. Stunned, he returned the passport.
"This way please."
Mzee Tembo was last. The guard examined the passport. His eyes popped in horror as he stood to attention.
"Tenente-general Diria! Sir!"
He clicked his boots as he stood to attention and saluted him. His companion was confused but followed suit.
Mzee Tembo stood at attention for a moment and saluted them back, took his passport with a sly smile and headed into the terminal. The 'RTD' part of his title mattered little. He liked the fuss of being recognised. As the others followed him into the terminal, Banou could hear the urgent whisper of the guards.
"So Mzee Tembo really was a big deal in the army?" she thought to herself.
The customs officer looked over their bags, then released them to the porter and directed him to wait at the door that led to the airside.
Meanwhile, Mzee Tembo and the others were at the battered wooden immigration counter that mirrored a kiosk in town. The dawdling officer wearily stared at them.
"Passports! Where are you going?"
Mzee Tembo spoke for them all.
He examined the passports and the pictures before brandishing them under the ultra-violet light to check for the fluorescent authentication seal. With the airport being practically devoid of passengers, he was in no hurry. One by one, he slapped their exit stamps and handed them back.
"Have a safe flight."
"Thank you." Mzee Tembo said as he picked them up.
"This way," Gwafa led them through the sliding door and onto the airside, as the porter pushed the trolley towards his aircraft.
"Ah, there she is." Gwafa proudly presented his plane, both arms outstretched.
His Douglas C-47 Skytrain proudly peacocked itself on the apron. Its imposing nose pointed upwards, eagerly waiting to swoop into the sky. She exuded speed and grace as the sun gently lathered its sleek rays off its olive-coloured fuselage. Affixed to each wing was a powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engine that impelled a 3-blade Hamilton Standard propeller. Her sleek lines seduced Mapacha who followed Gwafa carefully as he walked around his plane. This was not Mapacha's first time in a Skytrain. Ironically, it was the only plane he had ever flown in. He had ridden in one during airborne training as part of his deployment, during his stationing in Biafra, and though he was unconscious, on the return flight back when he was injured. Since his war was over the world of aircraft had ceased to exist for him till now, when he could patiently examine one without being rushed. A World War II relic, it had initially been converted for diplomatic use by the British then later, Gwafa had transformed it into a cargo carrier.
Gwafa carefully attended to the plane, directing tremendous attention to all the bits and bobs, whose purpose Mapacha did not quite understand. Mapacha, however, was impressed by Gwafa's meticulous scrutiny. Earlier on seeing him tipsy, he had harboured some doubts about his professionalism, but this was a different man.
The fumes of aviation fuel diffused everywhere as the groundcrew pumped fuel into the tanks. Gwafa finally got back to the back of the plane and stowed the bags into the rear storage compartment. Mapacha wanted to help, but he was uncertain about what he considered an extraordinarily complex situation. With a mighty bang, Gwafa shut the door and latched it.
"Mzee Tembo, you and Banou jump in the back. Mapacha, wait here, we shall go through the front. Let me first go pay for the fuel."
He skirted towards the British Petroleum office with the tiny chit the ground crew had provided. Mzee Tembo clambered in followed by Banou who was disappointed by the foldable canvas rail chairs that Mzee Tembo unhooked from the fuselage rack. She sat opposite Mzee Tembo close to the cockpit and stared at the tin can they were now in. After a minute, she heard the rear door close and lock and saw Gwafa outside chatting with one of the ground crew. The crew door opened and a gust of wind washed into the cabin.
"In you go." Gwafa directed Mapacha.
He gingerly climbed in, crossed the pilot's seat and settled into the copilot's seat. Mapacha had never seen so many buttons and dials concentrated in one single place before. Gwafa climbed in next to him and gave him a mischievous smile.
"You like it huh?"
Mapacha returned the smile.
He had no idea what was happening.The groundcrew trollied the ground power unit to the bottom of the nose, and Mapacha had the clink as it was hooked up to the connecting unit on one of the lower crew doors. Gwafa slid on his aviators and started going through his checklist. He murmured to himself as he checked the various controls. When he finished, he stuck his left hand out and jabbed a thumb up. Barely a moment passed before the power unit's diesel engine rumbled to life, blasting a mighty cloud of black smoke. Inside, Gwafa verified that the park brake was set and that the gear lever was latched. He set the fuel tanks and the props and cracked open the throttles slightly before setting the trigger and the mixtures to rich. Afterwards, he flipped open the cowl flaps, setting them to trail and finally he depressed the ignition button. With the primer on, he energised the main starter followed by the mesh starter after which the right propeller started spinning. Mapacha watched the intense concentration Gwafa had applied. He counted the propeller rotations then when he got to fifteen, he hit the magneto switch which caused the giant radial to cough and rumble to life shaking the entire fuselage. Without thinking much, he switched on the main battery, stuck his head out and told the ground crew to kill the power unit. They heard the drone die down, and they were left with the sound of the thundering engine which slowly muffled as it stabilised. The ground crew threw up a thumbs up, and he pulled the crew door shut. He then slowly repeated the procedure and before long, the left engine thundered to life. Inside, the whole plane shuddered as the engines picked up rhythm before they settled to a quiet hum. Gwafa flashed another thumbs up and the ground crew pulled out the chocks.
"Hey big guy, are you ready?" Gwafa asked Mapacha.
Mapacha smiled in marvel as he nodded. Gwafa pushed the throttle lever and the plane inched forward slowly as he turned towards the taxiway while he flipped on the radio, navigation switches and lights after which he donned the headset. He pointed to Mapacha to wear his. As the plane turned, the golden sun glared off the windscreen and this forced Mapacha to unhook his Persols from his shirt and put them on. Gwafa initiated contact with the tower controller while Mapacha listened, though he did not comprehend what was being said. The plane throbbed towards the runway as Gwafa relayed and received instructions all while he adjusted the various buttons and dials in the cockpit. They approached the end of the runway, where Gwafa wheeled it right and he finally got clearance to take off.
"Here we go," he said excitedly as pushed the plane's throttle wide open.
The power of the engines exploded and pitched the plane forward. It run the length of the runway as the engines screamed as they created thrust. Gwafa tugged on the rudder and the plane slowly hovered upwards in a lazy liftoff. Thirty seconds into the flight, he retracted the gear. The back-and-forth squawk on the radio between him and the control tower continued as he turned the plane to the bearings set by the control tower. The headset Mapacha wore was filled with chatter that featured a whole narrative with the radio tower and among pilots in the area. It took them almost ten minutes to get to cruising altitude and Mapacha peered out as he watched the expanse of the ocean.
Gwafa made the last navigational changes and happily announced, "We are off to Conakry."
"Wait, I thought we were going to Abidjan."
Gwafa smiled at his confusion.
"Island fuel is expensive, so I put what I require at Josephine. It will be enough to get us to Conakry where we can fill up with more affordable fuel."
Such things had never occurred to Mapacha. Before long Gwafa and Mapacha were engrossed in a deep conversation regarding planes and military service and in that single moment, the intricately locked perplexity that was Mapacha's mind was suddenly flung wide open. From the cabin, Banou and Mzee Tembo silently watched bewildered as the two talked and laughed as if they were long-lost kin.
"Hey old man, did you know he was like this?" Banou whispered over the din of the plane's engines.
He shook his head.
"I've known him for years, and I have never heard him laugh. He barely holds a conversation."
Mzee Tembo was soon lulled into a deep slumber by the vibrations of the plane. Banou cracked open her train case and pulled out a large collection of fashion magazines that she slowly thumbed through. After an hour, Gwafa trimmed the aircraft, engaged the Sperry Autopilot, tweaked the pitch and bank and finally let it all go.
"Auto-pilot. I let it do some of the work," he explained to Mapacha.
It was an uneventful four and a half hours. Gwafa did some 'business administration' as he put it while he chattered over the radio. As the hours whiled by, he explained to a keen Mapacha what the assorted controls accomplished.
Over the horizon, Mapacha could see the breathtaking deep green that rushed outwards to a narrow strip that merged with the transparent waters. From his horizon, the various inlets that fed around Conakry in the interior from Sangareya Bay snaked their way into the hinterland, creating a dramatic labyrinth.
"Beautiful isn't it?" Gwafa declared.
Mapacha was captivated.
Gwafa received instructions from the tower to land so he banked the plane right and followed the prescribed path. They flew over Îles de Los before banking left and faced another myriad of inlets. Gwafa kept it steady and tweaked it per the instructions he received. They flew over one wide mouth of a tributary before Gwafa did an abrupt turnaround. Underneath them, the tiny houses suddenly appeared as the plane dropped altitude. Gwafa was cleared to land, and he slowly approached the airport. They could see the runway grow as the plane neared its landing. For a moment, the plane felt as though it was plainly floating in the air. The houses became larger as Gwafa lowered the landing gear. In the cabin, a now awake Mzee Tembo and Banou braced for the touchdown. The plane bounced on the runway, before it steadied itself on the ground, the pitch of its engines screamed before they quietened down. Gwafa had slowed it down before he turned left onto the taxiway and headed towards the apron. The groundcrew slid and set chocks on the plane's wheels as Gwafa killed the engines.
"Welcome to Gbesia International Airport," he called out. "We will be here for an hour."
He opened the crew door and climbed out, as Mapacha followed him.
"Open the cabin door, while I find fuel."
Gwafa greeted the ground crew, who seemed to recognise him. A small tanker reversed towards the front of the plane. A ladder was pushed to the wing, and one of the crewmen climbed up and towed a hose up that he connected to the plane. Banou and Mzee Tembo climbed down and walked towards one of the hangars that Gwafa pointed to.
"If you need facilities, go there."
He and Gwafa followed them a few minutes later. The hour passed very fast and with the plane fully laden, Gwafa took the payment chit and went off into the terminal to make payment. A few minutes later he returned and motioned for everyone to get in before he locked the cabin door and went through the take-off procedure. This time, Mapacha followed Gwafa's actions and he took incredibly comprehensive mental notes. A short while later, the Skytrain galloped down the runway and took to the air with zeal. They were finally on their other leg to Abidjan.