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Airlift to Ethiopia: a view from the cockpit

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We are 17,000 feet above dry, red, Grand Canyon-like terrain as no-nonsense Flt. Lt. Nigel Watson eases himself out of the pilot's seat of his Royal Air Force Hercules C-130 transport plane.

He takes off his headset, glances at a pad sewn into the knee of his flight suit, and remarks: ''We've flown 2,100 miles today, and carried 87,000 pounds of grain. Not bad....''

He, his copilot, and his cheerful crew, a long way from their home base in southern England, ply this correspondent in the cockpit with soft drinks and questions about how the drought-affected people below will prepare the emergency food.

In a grueling day, they had flown from Addis Ababa to Makele, capital of Tigre Province, on to the port of Assab to pick up grain, then across to the city of Aksum to unload, back to Assab, back to Makele, and now, with two US and several British correspondents hitching a ride, back to base at the bustling Addis Ababa airport.

This thundering plane, with its camouflage paint, its circular red-white-and-blue Royal Air Force markings, and its yawning 20-ton hold, is part of Operation International Airlift carrying relief supplies to the starving in Ethiopia.

Droning ahead of us in the late afternoon sky, also en route to Addis Ababa, is the huge shape of a Soviet Antonov-22 transport, its extra-heavy metal frame requiring the thrust of four engines - each equipped with distinctive contra-rotating double propellers.

On the ground behind us in Asmara, loading for a dawn takeoff Tuesday for Makele, were two L-100 transport planes chartered by the US government from TransAmerica Corporation. Sporting stylized green-and-white ''T'' markings on their tails, they were each to make four trips while Americans were voting back home in the presidential elections.

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