Plaything Of The Wind

Treasures from The Pioneer Era, reported by Ernie Tanner:

On our more than six-thousand-kilometer return flight from Cameroon to Switzerland, we had to fly over the Hogger Mountains in Algeria as we had done on our outward flight. 

The red rocky towers of the Hoggar mountains rise up steeply into the blue desert sky. In the scorching heat of the desert they are like a giant oven pushing the heat upwards. This creates an enormously strong, fast thermal current that drives a small aircraft up like a feather. Higher up, the air cools down again and falls just as fast over a wide radius, causing powerful turbulence that throws the helicopter up and down and back and forth in all directions. In conditions lie these, you just long to feel your feet firmly back on the ground.

On our return flight I now intended to outwit the turbulence above the Hoggar mountains by taking off and flying over them very early in the morning. Sadly, my early start didn’t happen. The airport is located in the desert about ten miles (17 km) from Tamanrasset. When we landed the previous evening, we met two Swiss people who offered to take us into town. There was a small “bargain” attached to this. In exchange, we were to take them for a short flight the next morning so that they could take photos of the Hoggar mountains for a book they were writing. Now, we had no other transport, so we accepted this offer. Because of this “short” sightseeing tour, we missed our early start and I found myself with a full fuel tank being lifted way up high by the hot air. At an altitude of around 10,000 to 13,000 feet (3,000-4,000 m) it was relatively calm, and I was rejoicing at having overcome the dangerous turbulence. Then suddenly the helicopter sank. I was caught in the falling cold air and literally racing downwards. Despite full throttle, there was no stopping the fall, and with a full tank of fuel I was a flying bomb. I screamed to the Lord for help. He took His time. Not until about 1,600 feet (500 m) above the ground was our plunge halted by calm air. The rotor blades rattled and shook the whole machine. I wasn’t sure whether the blades would stand this monstrous test of strength and I didn’t have the experience that comes from many hours of flying. Praise God, they didn’t snap and the helicopter gradually quietened down and flew smoothly again. With terror freezing my bones, I flew northwards as low as possible in calm air.  

However, as I flew into the Arrak mountains I was once again tossed around by huge gusts of wind. In every side valley, a new blast of wind seized me. After about half an hour I couldn’t go on. I had to land to gather my strength and calm my nerves.

At this moment, a column of five white Land-Rovers suddenly emerged on the sandy track. They stopped, and the travel guide dashed over to us. “Ha,” he sneered. “I’ve seen a lot on my travels through the Sahara, but never before a helicopter forced to land!” I smiled back, took my courage in both hands and resumed my stormy flight. As soon as the mountains were behind us, the journey continued to be calm and normal.

This time I crossed the sea between Algeria and Sicily, as the distance above water isn’t much greater than across the Strait of Gibraltar. What a feeling of joy and relief when the coast of Europe finally came into sight!