In 1975, following a long drought, southern Ethiopia was afflicted by severe floods. The river Wabi Shebele overflowed and spread out to a width of up to 10 miles (17 km). At that time, the communist regime sent students off to do forced labor in every part of the country. A hundred and fifty young people stationed on the southern shore of the river near Kelafo had been cut off from the supply line for days on end.
Through General Mobratu, the government asked me to evacuate these students. Our helicopter was the only privately owned aircraft allowed to fly by the communist government. This enabled me to carry out several other rescue operations.
My assistant Georg and I immediately set about preparing for this mission. We installed a reserve tank but due to a misunderstanding this was only half filled and I didn’t notice this fateful error until we were airborne. All the same, I hoped to reach the airport at Gode near Kelafo.
To make matters worse, the cartographers had confused the names of the two towns Gode and Kelafo on my Michelin road map. I had estimated the flying time at three hours. After three and a half hours we could see no sign of any airfield far and wide so I began to think we must have overflown Gode and were close to the Somalian border. I landed in a village to ask for directions. The people were emaciated and dead animals were everywhere. I asked about Gode. The people pointed in the direction we had come from and said, “Kelafo.”
Kelafo was the mission station, and Gode was the airfield. We hadn’t seen either of these places so we had to fly back. I found the river and followed its course along the northern shore.
With a heavy heart and no more than ten gallons in the tank, I took off in a westerly direction towards the setting sun. Then I spotted a large field on a plateau next to the river and assumed this was Gode. But as we approached I saw to my horror that the enormous airfield with an equally huge runway was completely deserted. I had run out of fuel and so I had to land in the middle of an oil exploration company where there had once been houses and probably hangars. Now we were stranded there and had no idea how far away we were from Gode. In fact, Gode was further to the west of Kelafo.
We hurried to collect firewood from the nearby jungle so that we could make a fire before darkness fell. That was our only way to protect ourselves from wild animals and allow ourselves to risk leaving the helicopter during the night. We took turns sleeping and keeping watch by the fire. We had had no radio signal for a long time, but we figured from our map that we ought to be able to reach Gode on foot.
Next morning, Georg climbed a tree to get a better view into the distance. However, there was nothing to see. So, we took our pajamas, cameras and water filter and set off. But first I laid my hands on our helicopter and prayed for God’s protection on it.
(to be continued)