Even by helicoptEr

By Roger G3SXW

Landing at Lungi airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone, you are faced with the problem of crossing a 1-mile wide river estuary to reach Freetown. The British Government travel advice section offers various choices: river taxi, ferry, hovercraft, 200 mile road trip to reach a bridge or helicopter. Their web-site states: “None of these routes is recommended”. Hilarious! They also advise that if landing after dark (as all flights from Europe do) we should stay at an airport hotel and cross the river the next morning, in daylight: government advice is always over-cautious. Apparently, the statistics show that only one ferry and one hovercraft had sunk during the previous year. Gulp!

We chose to ignore this last piece of advice and took the ferry, a 30-foot chug-chug, all passengers being fitted with life-vests. This was fine. For the return journey we selected the helicopter. This would be a short flight. What happened was amusing or scary depending on your disposition. We arrived at the heli-pad in plenty of time, and waited. There were a handful of other people, including a couple of passengers. As it started to get dark a French pilot arrived and began getting things organised. As far as we could tell he did everything: check-in, luggage, re-fuelling . . . the lot! There remained only one problem: they had no petrol for the generator. This French chap dug into his pocket, handed some cash to a boy who walked off down the road with a jerry-can. Returning a few minutes later the lights came on and we then realised that this was also essential for the helicopter’s starter-motor!

It was an ancient Russian helicopter, no doubt ex-military, with about 20 seats. Luggage was loaded and we were each given a pair of ear-defenders. Inside that helicopter was absolutely deafening, without them. We flew at just a few hundred feet and landed safely at the airport. The cost of a one-way ticket, about $60, was a good investment and by chance we did not end up in the river. So, all’s well that ends well!