Saturday, 24 August 2013

The helicopter, the Executive and the bridge

In some of the areas in the Kruger National Park helicopters were used to augment fixed wing aircraft for the annual game census.
In the far north of the KNP there is a bridge with several arches spanning one of the bigger rivers.
During winter, when the bush is less dense (best time for game census) the river levels are also low, making the arches slightly wider…..

I will refrain from naming the chopper pilot this time – Civil Aviation might want to talk to him.

At the time “Oom Johan” was acting head of the KNP.  An extremely astute man, with a wicked sense of humour. He made a point of always occupying the left front seat in the chopper on this particular grid. He also made very sure that one of the back seats of the Bell Jetranger was occupied by a rookie game ranger. 

On approaching the bridge just above water level, he would activate the footswitch to the communal earphones: (let’s just call the pilot Hugo, to make it easier for me to write this). “Hugo, which span do you think is the widest?”
“Umm…  Oom Johan, what about the one dead centre?”
“Looks good to me.”
The chopper would skim the surface, heading for the arch while Oom Johan would lean back in anticipation, watching the rookie in his peripheral vision. Invariably the rookie would perk up, watching the narrow space coming at him at him at high speed.  There was just no way….

At the very last moment Hugo would pull the collective and jerk the chopper up, going over the bridge with inches to spare.  Sometimes they had to land in the bush to make the cockpit habitable again, laughing their heads off.

Shortly before the next census Hugo clandestinely visited the Works Department, got the plans of the bridge, and started measuring.  Not much room to spare, but it could be done….

The scenario repeated itself, with Oom Johan watching the new rookie go catatonic with fear and disbelief as the bridge came rushing on. The moment for the gut-wrenching lift of the chopper came and went, and Oom Johan whipped his eyes to the front, the bridge looming.

Hugo made it with no room to spare, and there was hell to play.

There was also lots of laughter in the staff village at Skukuza that night.

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