This story is 100% true, those of you who know me can imagine this happening, everyone else please strap yourselves in for an experience that takes us all out of our comfort zone. Drink driving and planes falling out of the sky stuff!
Who loves a drink? And I mean really loves a drink? Well I do, in actual fact I love a beer as much as a fat kid loves cake. But I blame one of my previous jobs for that love/addiction.
I ran a large liquor wholesale company in PNG and part of my job was to fly around the islands selling and drinking booze.
Before I continue, let me provide some insight into our nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea (PNG). I lived in the capital, Port Moresby, for 8 years from 1998 to 2006. Port Moresby has been voted one of the three most dangerous capital cities in the world for the last 20 years, almost as dangerous as Surfers Paradise during schoolies week. Port Moresby is small, so small that my phone number was 8, but I still managed to be held up at gun point 3 times. Stories for future blogs.
Whilst I was in PNG there were no drink driving laws so drinking and driving was commonplace, even encouraged when you considered the alternative of hailing a cab driven (pushed for 80% of trips) by a local. Being drunk and driving was the least of your worries on the roads of PNG…..seriously……the bigger issue was making sure some naughty rascal didn’t climb in through your drivers window after dark on the way home. Yes, that’s right, climb through your driver’s window! Note – PNG is a tropical land with very warm evenings, this combined with old cars that had unreliable aircon and handles to wind the windows up and down (none of those fancy electric windows!) meant the drive home was normally with the windows down if it wasn’t monsoon season. Those of you who are Seinfeld fans can draw the comparative mental picture of Kramer fighting off the mugger whilst driving the bus and making all the stops! ‘Because they kept ringing the bell!’ Kramer yelled to Jerry and George. Yes, you had to be Batman in Port Moresby.
As I said drink driving was commonplace and the AFP (Australian Federal Police) tried to educate the expats and locals about the consequences of driving under the influence. They would set up RBTs around the city on Friday nights, pull you over and get you to blow in the bag. Their approach was to show a series of unsettling pictures that demonstrated what could happen to you with a reading of over .05 and being behind the wheel, issue no fine or punishment but give you a stern warning. This exercise in driver education produced no results so the AFP decided to ‘up the ante’ and publish the breathalyser readings along with drivers’ names in the paper Monday morning to ‘deter and shame’ those with excessive counts. Once again, no fines or punishment. In true Aussie-Abroad fashion, all this did was start a competition to see who could blow the highest ‘score’. Blokes would drive around all night between bars looking to beat their previous score, top the list on Monday and win the kitty!
The stakes were high but no one I knew ever achieved the top result in the paper, it seemed to be some old guy who kept topping the charts, becoming a local legend of sorts.
PNG is rated one of the toughest countries in the world to be a pilot, and those that do their flight training in PNG are said to be some of the best pilots in the world. We’ve all heard about the Mountain crashes taking groups to walk Kokoda as testament to the difficult flying conditions and terrain.
So when I had to fly up to a remote mining camp for a meeting I wanted to make sure I went with the top airline in PNG and the locals told me who the best bloke for the job was. But I took an experienced bloke called John Smith (name changed of course!) because I couldn’t afford the best.
So off we went – me next to a pilot (an old bloke) in a 2 seater Cessna to Porgera mine camp at 7,000ft – going there to talk booze at a wet camp.
Up in the mountains the fog often comes in quickly and there’s no visibility, but John had a reputation as a good pilot because he’s the only bloke who backed a plane into a cliff! The legend as I was told is that he was flying near the Hindenburg Wall (1km high cliff face next to Tabubil mine camp airstrip) and the bad weather came in very quickly, the cliff suddenly appears in front of him, so he swings the plane around, tails it into the cliff and survives. Begs the question: If he’s a crack pilot, then why didn’t he just miss the cliff?
Any rate, we land at the mining camp on a short strip that has a 6 degree slope from left to right. He keeps the engine running ready to get out of there before the weather closes in (as it can in the space of 20mins up there) and I have my meeting on the airstrip. I could have stayed the night, but who’d want to when you can only have 4 beers max a night and you can’t smuggle any in!
My meeting was a good one but went overtime, so by the time we took off the fog was low and thicker than a German’s Beer Fart which meant John needed to gain altitude quickly to ensure line of sight at all times. He proceeded to spiral up to a cruising altitude of 10,000 ft (his planes max altitude) to be above the mountains (7-9,000ft) but at about 8000ft the altimeter stopped working! Leaving us to guess our altitude whilst bad weather closed in and threw us around the sky like Beyoncé on a bouncy castle. We were both very nervous…..
The higher you go the less oxygen there is and the tireder you become, but I wasn’t tired a bit because I was shitting myself. For reassurance and comfort, I turn to John wanting to hear him say ‘it’s just another day on the job young fella, don’t worry.’
To my dismay and horror I see he’s fast asleep!
I punched his arm to wake him, causing him to jump violently and shove the yoke (steering wheel) forward which sends us into a nose dive. We were going down quicker than a 2 Kina Meri.
It’s true what they say about when you’re staring death in the face your mind becomes very clear and focused, well mine decided at that point to remember who the old guy was who kept topping the drinking charts back in Port Moresby. It was none other than John Smith, the bloke alongside me!
We got lucky and the dive took us between mountains and into a clear patch of sky, a patch clear enough for John to navigate our way to safety, land and a bottle of scotch.
John’s dead now, died a few years ago in a plane crash due to bad weather at Porgera.