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Hard Landing in Freetown: Seat Belts Not Mandatory

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 13, 2008

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Arriving in Freetown isn't exactly arriving in Freetown.

Sure, the plane lands and the flight attendant chirps happily, "Welcome to Freetown." But there's a hitch. The airport's one dimly lit little runway sits on the opposite side of a very wide body of water that separates it from downtown.

That's when the adventure starts.

There are four ways to get to the city. If you had a big 4x4 truck, you could drive around the water. But that takes two to three hours on tortuous roads -- even longer in a standard taxi.

You could take the ferry, which many people do. But because it seems to sail only when the captain feels like it, the ferry requires a certain readjustment to African time.

There is also a hovercraft, a big, whomping boat with two huge propellers in the back, like one of those airboats you see in the Florida Everglades.

The hovercraft breaks down a lot. Locals talk about the adrenaline jockeys who pilot the craft way too fast, and about the time last year when the sucker caught fire and nearly sank. Nobody was injured, but the hovercraft's reputation suffered disfiguring wounds.

When my flight landed, it was nearly midnight, thanks to a four-hour delay at Heathrow Airport, which is a small, barely functioning third-world nation just west of London.

The ferryman had gone home for the night, the hovercraft was in bed, and I didn't have a car for the long haul overland.

That left only the fourth option.

The helicopter.

I had heard about the Freetown chopper a week before my trip. A friend learned I was going and mentioned it to me, laughing. "Look it up," he howled.

A quick Google search led me to news reports from June 2007, when the airport helicopter crashed, killing 22 people, including the nation of Togo's sports minister, who was in town for a soccer game. The Russian-made Mi-8 helicopter crashed and burst into flames near the airport.

Great. Ancient Soviet aircraft in one of the poorest countries in Africa, where light bulbs and running water are hard enough to find -- let alone qualified helicopter mechanics.

The company that operated the helicopter was grounded. The Russian-owned firm that took over still flies the same kind of choppers -- one of which crashed in Russia in July, killing nine people.

Midnight at the Freetown airport is a swirl of chaos. Huge suitcases tied together with twine and tape rumble around the conveyor belt while hustling young men grab at passengers' bags, offering "help" in exchange for tips.

Customs agents in sweat-stained shirts rifled through bags in the hot, stale air. As I stood in the crush of people waiting for bag inspections, several young guys approached me, all at the same time, asking, "Helicopter? Helicopter?"

"No more ferry tonight," they kept saying. "Ferry finished. Only helicopter."

Seeing no other choice, I -- and almost everybody else on the BMI flight from the Republic of Heathrow -- followed the touts to a dark, run-down hangar next to the terminal.

I forked over the $70 fare to a man in a barred ticket booth. After about an hour, I boarded an ancient bus with about 20 people, and we were driven down a dirt path to a gate -- guarded by a man with an AK-47 -- which opened onto the runway area.

We went onto the tarmac and waited, and here it came, the Mi-8, whump-whump-whumping down from the sky. When it landed and turned toward us, its lights woke up a skinny yellow dog sleeping on the runway.

The helicopter was big and fat and white, with a half-dozen round windows on either side. The pilots left the propeller whirling as a dozen young men rolled a huge luggage carrier up to the door.

They ducked to avoid the spinning blades and passed the bags inside. When they finished, they waved at us to come aboard.

I was at the front of the line and hopped up the three small steps into the thing. The luggage was piled high down the middle of the compartment and lashed down -- sort of -- with a heavy rope net.

The mountain of suitcases took up most of the interior. There were benches along either side of the cabin, with just enough space to sit with your knees against the baggage.

In the back, there were two of what looked like church-hall folding chairs welded to the floor, where I sat.

There were a few canvas seat belts, which looked as if they might have last been used by Hawkeye Pierce in the Korean War. Mine was knotted, broken and unusable. Hardly anyone bothered to even try wearing the belts.

Next to me, a woman with a worried face and a stylish gray suit closed her eyes. Next to her, a mother carrying a bag from Hamleys, the fanciest toy store in London, tried to figure out how to strap in her young son, who was holding a Scooby Doo backpack. She gave up.

A bearded pilot looked us over. No belts? Check. No life vests? Check. Porthole windows wide open? Check. He disappeared back into the cockpit.

The woman with the eyes closed covered her ears. See no chopper. Hear no chopper.

Then the big engines started screaming at an extremely high pitch, the propeller whirled even faster, and, with a little jerk and jump, we were up.

As we climbed over the water, no one spoke. The worried woman still wasn't looking. The bags started listing heavily to starboard, looking as if they might fall. I tried not to contemplate what that kind of a weight shift in mid-flight might do to stability.

I tried to remember the capital of Togo. I couldn't.

Seven minutes later, the helicopter shuddered and screeched as we descended into a circle of yellow lights at the heliport.

We had finally, actually arrived in Freetown.

And the woman next to me finally opened her eyes.

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