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Around storms, above suspicion

Our flight requires sharp eyes - and sharp outfits

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When was the last time that all you could see of your flight captain were the soles of his shoes (sandals, actually) poking out the belly of his aircraft as he tried to repair a fuel leak? This happened the other day when Arthur Hussey and I stopped in Libreville, Gabon, where we found ourselves in the situation - I'm not making this up - of considering baling wire to affect a temporary repair, but opting instead for duct tape.

All turned out fine in the end, much to the astonishment (and, I'm sure, amusement) of the Gabonese fuel-truck crew. But for a time there, I was wondering whether I might have been just a touch rash in volunteering to accompany Mr. H. on his 12,000-mile journey to Alaska in a small Cessna.

Then there had been his pre-launch instructions that we both had to dress like airline pilots to smooth the way through airport security, especially in this part of the world, where persons such as ourselves (that is, non-Africans traveling in an unusual fashion) might legitimately be confused with diamond smugglers or some other ne'er-do-well.

After our first week together in close quarters, on our way north to Europe, we've gotten into a sort of daily routine. As command pilot and owner of the aircraft, Arthur has full responsibility for everything. But we share the preflight checks and preparations, and I do some of the straight-and-level flying in order to give him a break on the long hauls.

Most days, however, have included something decidedly unroutine and sometimes challenging.

The other day, for example, we were flying across the Gulf of Guinea to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, an eight-hour, 859-mile flight that would be the longest over-water leg of our entire trip. This put us some 200 miles from land - many times farther than a Cessna droning along at 6,000 feet and 140 m.p.h. can glide, should something go wrong. For hours, we were out of radio contact with anybody. We tried to get an Air France pilot whizzing along six miles above us to relay a mandatory radio report to Accra, Ghana, but this failed.

Then a wall of "weather" loomed up ahead of us. (Pilots say things like, "Did you run into any weather out there?") There were towering thunderstorms and occasional lightning, not unexpected in this "zone of tropical convergence" where winds and moisture can be a particular challenge to aviation, especially to light aircraft that can't climb above it.

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