The pilot hadn’t checked the fuel levels properly. In light planes of that sort, the fuel gauge is notoriously unreliable. If you really want to know exactly how much fuel you’ve got on board, you’ve got to climb up onto your wing, do a dipstick test and then work out from that how much fuel you have.
Factor into that the weight of your passengers, and the various fuel leaks that those things always have and you know what your range is. You just have to look aft of the fuel caps and you’ll see the fuel stains – there’s hectic fuel leaks on those things.
But the main problem is the fuel levels and the weight of the passengers. And that day in Barclay East, the passengers numbered five large farmers. Brad’s Dad was 140 kilos, and he was maybe the lightest of the lot.
So that’s probably ten normal-sized people, and the fuel gauge was unreliable, and there was a leak and the pilot couldn’t be bothered to check the tank directly.
They were flying with a gentle tailwind, it was only a brief flip over the escarpment down to Mthatha, so the fuel he’d put in in Bloem would probably suffice. That’s what he was thinking.
But the guy was so far off, it was a joke.
Just as they were approaching Ugie, Brad’s Dad leant back to get a Liqui-Fruit out of the fridge and he caught sight of the starboard-engine propellers coming to a gentle halt.
“That doesn’t look good,” he said, then glanced across to the port side, just in time to see that engine cutting out too.
He looked at the pilot, to see if, you know, it was a problem that neither of the two engines were running, and he said one thing: “We in kak.”
At that point they were still in the mountains. Deep in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg. It was going to be miles before the mountains gave way to the plains just this side of Tsolo.
How many miles? That was unclear, But they could still see Maclear, and the pilot knew that from 2000m, you could glide for 18km before you hit the ground.
They were dodging peaks and diving down valleys from there on, somewhere just south of the Barkly Pass.
At the first sign of a field, the pilot started lining up his landing. Perhaps they wouldn’t die after all. But Brad’s Dad knew that place.
“Just over the next rise,” he told the pilot. “Die teerpad is net daar anderkant.”
If they could make it, they might not even destroy the plane.
“You better be right,” the pilot said, “Because right now that field’s looking pretty damn attractive…”
As it happened, they came down on the roof of a Roadlink bus on its way to East London. They slid off the roof, bounced, left the ground again, flew through a field, and came to rest on a primary school built in 1997 by the Japanese government.
Brad’s Dad still had his Liqui-Fruit in his hand. He hadn’t taken a single sip. But once they stopped, he finished it in one go.