With a very gentle roll. The aircraft bounced and wobbled forward. The wasps spluttered more, and Baxter’s knuckles were white on the throttles. At least two thousand feet of runway later the needle on the airspeed indicator touched 50 knots. The large spongy tires made Pemba’s concrete seem soft and smooth. The tail lifted off and the airspeed started to climb incrementally. The bird lumbered towards the right hand half of the runway. Savic, seemed to be battling the controls, constantly pulling and coaxing the aircraft into some form of straight line. At 70 knots the tail swung to port, the nose to starboard and the aircraft lifted gently off the ground. Baxter’s eyes constantly flicked over the gauges, while his right hand stayed firmly clamped onto the throttles. Savic skilfully brought the aircraft ever so slowly up. The two men were flying, but in a sideways crab fashion. The aircraft seemed to stop in the air and the cockpit filled with the acrid smell of burnt oil. But the halt was deceptive, some trees flashed below the cockpit window at just under a hundred miles an hour. The windows were open, and the breeze soon snatched away the smell of oil.
I leaned forward and looked out of the open window. Hang on, forward out of the side window? Out of the open window? There has to be something wrong here. Airliners don’t fly with open windows and they certainly are not supposed to fly sideways! But there was no mistaking this. I was definitely looking forward and down on the last thousand feet or so of Pemba’s runway.
This was no ordinary airliner, this aircraft was 5H-DAK, Tanzania’s only serviceable Douglas DC-3 Dakota. It was (barely) airborne on its daily run from Pemba to Dar es Salaam via Zanzibar. Captain Baxter had invited me to sit in the cockpit for my first flight in this type. The aircraft wings rolled gently from side to side as we made slow progress over the trees of Pemba. While Savic looked relaxed, he was constantly making adjustments to the wheel. Baxter used the radio and helped trim the aircraft. To my untrained eye, it looked like these two were really flying, I mean having to do some flying; there was none of the computer inputting of a “glass cockpit” Airbus or Cessna Caravan. Indeed the only glass on this cockpit was half open to let the breeze in. I could hear in my earphones Captain Baxter on the radio. He was talking to the incoming Zanair Caravan, that had been heavily delayed by the Aga Khan’s people turning up late.
“Scotty that you?” said Captain Baxter into the radio.” We are at about two thousand five and the coast is coming up, so we should not interfere with your decent”. With a phut, the radio died. While Baxter engaged a second set, Captain Hamilton came back asking where we were.
“Delta Alpha Kilo is your radio not working?”
“Ja, our number two just packed up” replied Baxter. “anyway, we have the coast coming up, so we should not interfere with your descent”
“Aye, no problem there Tony”
“Ja we’ve got some of your passengers on board today. Seeing as you were so late. Raf says hello”
“Aye, the diver, say hello back. But I cannot stop, I’m off to Arusha next”
“So you having fun today?”
“Yes, you could say that, about as much fun as a funeral”
At that point, the Dakota rumbled over the palm fronds and over the blue waters of Panza Lagoon. The dak rolled and wallowed low over the water. I suspect that this is what the pilots who went to drop paratroopers on Arnhem saw. The coast came up and rolled slowly underneath the cockpit. It was a majestic site. I went back to the wing and looked back at Pemba disappearing. This was a privilege, to see Pemba this low and this slow. Normally I like to fly as high as possible overwater, but the Dakota holds the world record for the longest single engine over water flight in the world. In the 1940’s a US Navy DC-3 has lost an engine just over the halfway point from Pearl Harbour to San Diego. They spent 11 hours in the air on one engine. So the 35 minutes low flying over the Pemba channel did not bother me at all. After all, both engines were working!
Prior to crossing the Zanzibar coast, I was invited again to the cockpit, and watched the crew fly 5H-DAK down. We were sent into a stack to allow some less than truthful Caravan pilot to land.
“We are on short finals:” said the Tanzanian pilot,
“Alpha Kilo make a turn” said Zanzibar tower. And we banked slowly to the right. And the Caravan came into view a good while later.
“Hmm seems his finals weren’t as short as he said” murmured Captain Baxter into the intercom.
We eventually lined up for our own finals. The wind pushed us sideways, and first officer Savic, seemingly expertly, coaxed and pushed and shoved the dak down towards the tarmac. Like Pemba, we were approaching sideways.
“Do you want me to do it?” Asked Captain Baxter. Savic was sweating now, in spite of both cockpit windows being wide open.
“No thanks” He replied coolly, but he was earning his money now. Savic was working. Baxter was nonplussed, but made constant adjustments, and assisted Savic in everything. The first officer had two hands locked onto the wheel and was struggling. But he got the dak over the tarmac and Baxter dropped the flaps.
The same soft squidgy tires contacted the tarmac gently, Baxter hauled the throttles back and with some gentle brakes applied we were down and in Zanzibar. My first flight on a Dakota had been quite something, but what stays with me are the wide open windows.