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Bush Pilot Blues

Scott Eden - Private Air Magazine
May/June 2008

"My nerves are going to shit," says Milne David Pocock. This isn't the sentiment you normally want to hear expressed by your pilot, and even less so on the evening before he's supposed to fly lead you through emergency canyon turns and dive-bomb landings into remote portions of the African bush. 

No one calls him "Milne," or "David," or even "Dave," by the way. He's known to all by the initials C.C., a nickname. Earlier in the day, I'd asked him what the abbreviation stood for. 

"You could say it stands for Captain Crash." 

Now, on his back porch, deep in the South African veldt, the man regarded as maybe the greatest—and certainly the craziest—bush pilot flying anywhere on the continent leans against the bar that runs along the outdoor wall of his house. He reduces another dram of Scotch. 

Early the next morning, two new students will arrive for a session of what Pocock has titled his Bush Pilot Course, known around the world—in certain circles, anyway—as a kind of Top Gun academy for wilderness piloting. Drawn by the man's reputation, I've traveled all this way to audit from the back seat. 

Looking at him now, though, it's difficult to imagine how this will all work out. "I'm totally exhausted," he says over the drone of an insect life so loud it approaches the decibels of city traffic. Naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist, he's waiting for his Jacuzzi to heat up. 

He has described the whirlpool as his "favorite spot," a place into which he pours his bath salts and retires each evening to soak away the pressures of his life. Unfortunately, his favorite spot is on the fritz—after an hour the salted water bubbles away, still lukewarm, while the whiskey continues down the hatch. Pocock has also mentioned a masseuse and an acupuncturist who periodically arrive to drive knuckles and needles deep into his balled-up neck, shoulders and back. He calls these treatments his "physic," but apparently they've lost their effectiveness. He also sees a shrink. 

The allure of the African continent itself is embodied in the person of the bush pilot. You think of adventurous lives pursued in some of the most spectacular and tragic settings on earth—Robert Redford in Out of Africa, gunrunners, humanitarians airlifting supplies to refugee camps, safari outfitters chauffeuring travelers from game reserve to game reserve, rifles over their shoulders, knives in their belts. 

Though Pocock has never pursued any gunrunning, he's done about everything else on that list—and all of it involves flying as madcap as the terrain is picturesque. On the 45-hectare plot he acquired five years ago, situated on the edge of Kruger National Park, he has carved out a 1,000-meter grass airstrip and built a two-story house and attached hangar. The rogue-adventurer persona that he has forged for himself at times approaches charicature. For his company, Bush Air, Pocock thought up the slogan, vaguely illicit, "Anything, Anytime, Anywhere." 

But the bush pilot's life has its pressures and stresses, which for Pocock have been building for months, if not years. "When you're flying this form of flying, you have to be ahead of everything," Pocock says. "Otherwise, you will crash, no doubt about it. On a daily basis, I'm dealing with somebody in the left seat who's got no experience. Even if he has a couple thousand hours, he's never been exposed to this kind of flying, and you never know when he's gonna screw up. Your mind is working so hard, at such a pace�that's what sucks you totally dry." 

Then, three days ago—24 hours before my arrival—Pocock's girlfriend of a decade announced she was ending their two-year engagement, packed up her belongings and vacated the Bush Air compound. 

Pocock disclosed this fact not long after he picked me up in his beloved Cessna 172 from the nearest large airport, in the town of Nelspruit. Initially, he did a good job of maintaining his game face, but as the weather darkened through the day, so did his mood. He kept talking about his wrecked nerves. Evidently, too, there were guns on the premises. He admitted that sometimes he gets angry and shoots at the unfortunate snakes that make their way into the house. 

I'd been planning this trip for weeks, I'd traveled 15 hours and 8,000 miles to get here, and yet I couldn't help thinking: Maybe we should reschedule? 

"No, no," Pocock says now, on the back porch, with a quick shake of his head. "We've just got to make it work." And so he raises his eyebrows and grins thinly and takes another swig of his Scotch. 

There are stories out there about CC Pocock. If you're interested, he'll narrate them himself. In African aviation circles, he has his dual reputation: madman on the one hand, expert aviator with a mysterious past on the other. A South African Air Force instructor once saw Pocock perform a maneuver at an air show. Just after taking off, Pocock pointed one wing perpendicular to the earth—a wing over, which the instructor judged to be particularly dangerous: "I'd never get into a plane with that guy," he said. Pocock particularly likes flying low—over the Crocodile River, for instance, which borders Kruger National Park. On one recent excursion, Pocock says, "I was trying to hit the crocs on the head with my wheels." Not so long ago, a friend invited Pocock for a drink at a pub some miles east of his house. "I said, 'That's too far to drive. I'll fly.'" He set the plane down next to the pub, in a clearing. Another time, flying through thunderstorms over mountains in Swaziland as the sun was setting, low on fuel, "I had to piss really bad, so I decided I had to land." He dived under the clouds, sighted a road, made sure he could see only red taillights, and came swooping down onto the pavement. Road signs nearby pointed the way into town, and he taxied on toward civilization�still in search of fuel and a loo—until the road became too narrow for the Cessna's wingspan. 

South Africa's Civil Aviation Authority, which has suspended his license several times, tends not to enjoy these Pocockian tales, but to Captain Crash, such derring-do serves a purpose. "Take a chance—otherwise, you never learn," he likes to say. At 48, he has acquired more than 5,000 hours of flight time (though he has probably flown many more, he says, not being very meticulous with his logbook), and he long ago lost track of the number of accidents and close calls he's been involved in. 

Perhaps as a consequence of all this experience—or perhaps despite it—Pocock at the stick of an airplane inspires confidence. In the cockpit of his 172, he sits close up to the yoke like a race-car driver (which he once was). He's enveloped by the space like a hand in a glove. It's a metaphor he himself uses. "You must be hand-in-glove with the stick. You must be able to fly by the seat of your pants, to fly by feel. You don't need to reference instruments—ASI, USI and all that crap. Even altitude: you should be able to judge your altitude and speed without instruments, and to use your flaps accordingly. And you should chuck your GPS out the window and use your chart and compass. Dead reckoning: it's the bush pilot's VFR. If you can't fly without color moving maps and GPS's and all that bloody shit, you shouldn't have a license to fly as far as I'm concerned." 

His aircraft is a tricked-out Cessna 172, its airframe manufactured in 1961, with a fine-pitch propeller and a heavily tweaked engine and a specially made nosewheel designed to absorb the wracking abuse of spot-landing on mountain airstrips less than 120 meters long, among rock outcrops and blue-gum forests and elephant herds. It has an army-green paint job, and stenciled on each side in yellow is a crucifix, and underneath that, the verses of John 3:16, the most relevant phrase of which might be: "shall not perish." In back of his plane he keeps a first-aid kit that's stored, ominously, in a tackle box the size of a suitcase. 

If you were told to imagine the appearance of the ideal bush pilot, you'd probably come up with a vision not far from that presented by C.C. Pocock. His business attire is an army-green jump suit with three gold bars stitched on each shoulder. Wings are sewn onto one breast and a Bush Air insignia patch onto the other. Clipped to his belt at all times is a Leatherman, a kind of Swiss Army-esque all-in-one tool. When he flies, he makes sure always to bring a Garber hunting knife the length of a swashbuckler's dagger. You can envision him out in the bush, setting up camp, carrying the blade between his teeth. He says he's in the market for a crossbow. Deep crow's feet frame his eyes, and the high-altitude sun has permanently bronzed his skin. He looks like the kind of person who would own a VW Bus, which as it happens he does, circa '77. Skinny as a rock star, he has surfer-blond hair that falls to his shoulders. In the cockpit on bright days he wears Ray Ban aviators with auburn lenses. One wants to avoid the Paul Hogan-Crocodile Dundee allusions, but there you go. In him also is a dash of vintage Rod Stewart. 

It's now the morning after Pocock's dark hour, and with his focus on the task at hand, he has brightened a bit. After a routine jaunt around the local patch, spinning the trim tab's wheel all the while, he puts the nose down and dives full-bore toward the Bush Air runway like a strafer coming in for a run, 200 miles an hour, engine roaring. We buzz the field, and the tires nearly graze the grass. The grass ends, the property ends, the land drops away into a rocky gorge and we break hard to the left, the G-forces heaving up toward three, squeezing my torso and causing me to whoop like a warrior—a 60-degree bank, the left wing pointed at the ground—and Pocock circles the plane around, back in the direction from which we'd come, turning hard and descending fast. At 180 miles an hour we swoop down, right on the deck, still banking tightly as the plane rotates in the direction of the strip. So close to the trees are we flying now that Pocock—hard as it is to believe—waggles the wings in order to miss one. 

This will be no long, linear final approach. We come careering out of the turn—fast, flat and oblique—and all of a sudden we're over the runway, and almost all at the same time Pocock kills the power, retracts the flaps, pulls the yoke and drops the plane in, his feet stomping the brakes all the way to the floor. Within the length of a soccer pitch we're at a dead stop. He taxis back to the hangar, and over the intercom his voice crackles. "We don't mess around in this part of the world! We fly!" 

Later, he explains that this particular maneuver, in addition to being fun, has a real-world application: If animals have converged on a landing area, you buzz the field, scare them away, and then set the plane down as fast as possible before the herds can return. 

"Most people think that bush flying is cowboy stuff—but really, it's safe," Pocock will say before the end of my visit. "These are the techniques that make you a safer pilot." 

Typically, the students stay at Pocock's house (it has several guest rooms) for the duration of the course, and typically they come from overseas after months of planning. The course itself entails several ground-school sessions and repeated short-field take-off and landing drills on the 1000-meter airstrip. (By "short field" Pocock means less than 300 meters, and sometimes as short as 120.) The training culminates on the third day, when Pocock takes the students into the "real world" to test what they've learned and see if they can avoid crashing the plane, which has happened on more than one occasion. 

One of this weekend's students is a young pilot Dean Stander, who has just 80 hours of flight time. A barrel-chested Boer with a thick black ursine beard, he has ambitions of becoming a professional bush flier (as were his grandfather and two uncles before him). 

Stander takes the left seat, and off we go for another round. "If you're coming in at 65 knots, it's too fast. You don't fly on indicated airspeed," Pocock says of the short-field velocity advised by virtually every other flight school in the world, not to mention the Cessna 172's own handbook. The ideal speed, then? Forty knots, give or take, Pocock insists—right at the stall speed. 

"I think they must put in a big safety margin," Stander muses. 

Pocock shakes his head. "I don't think they put in a big safety margin so much as they just don't know how to fly the airplane." 

With Stander, Pocock also covers low-level, on-the-deck flying, including what to do if power lines suddenly appear in front of you. It is one of Pocock's precepts that, counterintuitively, you go underneath them, and so we do, diving and then skimming along as the African hedge flashes four meters beneath us, missing by a comfortable margin the wires stretching above. 

"When you see power lines in front of you, you don't pull up," Pocock told Stander. "By the time you see the wires, it'll be too late to pull up, especially if you're going at high speed. You fly under—and you live to talk about it. Birds: When they're coming straight at you, they always dive. Except the odd one, who just doesn't get it right." 

Pocock also shows Stander how to follow roads and riverbeds at extremely low altitudes, steering with the rudder. I'm still in the back seat, and we are so close to the ground it's as if we're we driving. (Later, Pocock explains that if for whatever reason he gets momentarily lost while flying, he'll often dive down and have a look at the road signs.) 

At one point during the day's session Pocock says, "By the end of the course, if you're not already an alcoholic, you will be." 

Pocock is a little vague on how he came to master his field, other than to use the phrase "trial and error." If there's anything he's proud of in his life it's the fact that, in almost all matters, he's an autodidact. Born and raised in Cape Town, he wanted to be a pilot from an early age, but couldn't scrounge together enough money for lessons until relatively late, when he was 26. In the meantime, he dropped out of high school ("They couldn't teach me anything I wanted to know"), briefly entered the South African army ("That didn't work out either, because I don't like authority; I was always in the shit"), pursued a career as a professional race-car driver ("I was getting there, but it was costing me so much money I decided to stuff it"), moved to Johannesburg to become a nightclub DJ ("In those days, Joburg was the place to be; it was like L.A. Hollywood") and taught himself enough about fireworks, pyrotechnics and laser light shows to start his own business ("Eventually you just learn, and if you've got all your fingers at the end of the day, you're a professional"). 

By 1986, he'd scrounged together enough money to take his first flying lessons. Though it started out as a hobby, it quickly became his passion, and he went on to earn his South African commercial pilot's license and the same rating in the U.S., at a flight school in Kissimmee, Florida, where he moved in 1990. From the beginning of his training, however, Pocock knew what kind of flying he wanted to pursue. "Even before I had my license, I was buzzing the neighbors, landing on beaches," he says. "I wanted the extreme stuff." 

He found it in Florida, close over the swamps, where he had miles and miles of relatively unpeopled outback with which to unwind an aircraft, always on the hunt for "the challenge of putting a plane down somewhere you supposedly couldn't land: a field, a dirt track, a clearing." He subsidized his five years in the U.S. by "taking people for flips, in different kinds of conditions, mostly in the swamps, at low level." There are rumors that he buzzed Epcot. 

At some point, it occurred to Pocock that "I wanted to get out of bed and into my plane. I didn't want to have to get into a car and drive 15 kilometers to a town with a municipal airport. No. Where I live, my plane must be." He had already met the woman who would become his girlfriend and fiance—she was also a pilot—and they decided to find a piece of land on which they could build their own airfield. They bought 10 hectares in a suburban setting between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and constructed a 600-meter grass strip with a hangar. A few years later, they sold the property for a healthy profit. 

Pocock wanted to take the money and up the ante: He wanted to escape into the boondocks and create a base from which he could do guided expedition flying. Though he no longer has the patience to organize itineraries for tourists, roughly twice a year he'll get a call from someone who wants a guide and a pilot for a serious trip into the African bush—no fancy lodges, no organized game drives. "You land, you camp—in unprepared areas. All you have is your supplies, and you live off that. If you want to see the real Africa, you have to want to come and rough it up. Pick a spot and land." 

As his reputation grew, Pocock began coaching other pilots on basic wilderness-piloting techniques, and it occurred to him to turn that into a business as well. After a two-year search, he and his girlfriend found land in the Barberton Valley, and it seemed ideal—near Kruger and other popular safari areas in Botswana and Mozambique, and remote enough that Pocock would have the freedom to engage in his preferred form of flying without the hassles of authority, traffic control, officialdom or rules. Not to mention the beauty of the land itself. From the back porch, the views extend across a small lawn with a pond, and then over the expanse of the Barberton Valley, its floor covered with wooded hillocks, toward the blue-green Makhonjwa Mountains, which rise to elevations of 6000 feet, 10 kilometers to the southwest. Pocock also did well with his construction efforts. With its siding of hewn timber, its roof of galvanized steel, its rustic bar room decorated with airplane models strung from the ceiling and old wooden propellers splintered at the tips from long-ago accidents, the house has the feel of a hunting lodge crossed with an aviation club. A "tower" even rises from the roofline, like a crow's nest, topped with a water tank and a windsock. 

The flight school has become so successful, Pocock says, that he receives multiple e-mails a day from prospective students. He has recently had as many as 15 pilots enrolled in a single class. "It's growing, and I'm happy about that. But it's got to the point where I'm totally stuffed. Physically exhausted. I have to take a step back and rethink the whole thing. All of a sudden I've got a lot more than I bargained for. And of course it doesn't help if your girlfriend's just left you." 

Over the years, Pocock has taught some 200 pilots. A South African survey operation that tracks invader species throughout the country sends every new pilot it hires to take Pocock's course. He's also taught British aerobatics experts and RAF fighter pilots, one of whom sent Pocock a picture of his jet with the inscription thanks for the fabulous stay . . . and some of the best flying ever!" 

He hasn't had such great experiences with all his students, however. An Italian pilot was flying a Cessna—not the 172, but a 150 Pocock was leasing as a spare at the time—when he came into the Bush Air runway far too low. The plane hit the deck hard, the nosewheel broke off and the Cessna flipped over, landing on its roof. "A total write-off," Pocock says. "I still don't understand how someone could fuck up like that." 

Pocock has had his share of fuck-ups, too, of course. When asked for the number of accidents he's been in, it takes him a moment to give a rough count. He has totaled three airplanes while sitting in the left seat. For another two, he was sitting in the right. The number of other incidents and near-crashes he's racked up is countless. Engine failures, electrical failures, break failures, prop strikes, empty fuel tanks, dented airframes, broken nosewheels, disorientation in bad weather, instrument failure while descending through clouds, giraffes that suddenly emerge onto airstrips in front of him just as he's taking off, rotor turbulence causing his plane to flip—you name it, Pocock has a story that involves it. 

But that, he says, is how he's managed to gain his rarefied expertise: "Trial and error. And the errors were very serious accidents, which I walked away from." (In fact, he has never broken a bone or been hospitalized due to a plane crash.) The Bush Pilot Course has a textbook, a 30-page flight manual written by Pocock—a pamphlet bound by a local print shop that he hopes one day to expand into a full-length book. "Everything that's in my manual, I wrote from personal experience." 

There was the time, for instance, in the mid-1990s, when he was flying low level in a mountain range north of Johannesburg. "We were in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says. "Just screwed up." As news reports described it, the mountain out-climbed Pocock's plane. In reality, he had gone beyond "the point of no return" and couldn't make an escape—couldn't climb fast enough, couldn't turn fast enough—away from the looming high ground. The plane went into the mountainside; Pocock walked away with blood pouring from a gash in his scalp. 

In the Cessna now, Dean Stander is sitting in the left seat, Pocock in the right, as we fly among (we're too low to be flying "above") the Makhonjwa Mountains, which form the border between South Africa and Swaziland. With their valley-land pastures of green and yellow, with their bald craggy summits, these hills sometimes look like a subtropical Scotland. 

Already in ground school, Pocock has lectured us on mountain winds—rotor, shear, mountain breeze, valley breeze, convective lift, updrafts, downdrafts—and emergency 40/40 banks and canyon turns and false horizons and, indeed, the point of no return, which Pocock has judged to be among the most important lessons he has to give. 

"You'll always remember the day when I took you to the point of no return, flying toward high ground," he told Stander, and here we are now, moving at a rather alarming rate toward a piece of high ground—an enormous boulder-strewn mountain face, barnacled with scrub brush. Pocock has the controls. He's demonstrating the point of no return. In addition, he's demonstrating what might happen if you were to reach the point of no return and then experience engine failure. 

And so he cuts the engines. (I decide, at this moment, that I dislike CC Pocock.) We glide—at a stately pace—toward the mountain's wall, which has expanded until it seems to fill the cockpit's windshield. And then, with mercy, Pocock banks to the left—a 40/40 turn—after which the plane immediately sinks, and before I can sigh with relief, there right in front of us looms another huge rock, thrusting from the ridgeline like a giant's thumb. 

I don't know what you'd call the point at which we have now reached, but it seems like an open question if, this time, we'll return. Stander is saying nothing over the intercom, silent as the kid at the back of the class. Pocock chatters away in calm technical language, lecturing to Stander as if we were still down at ground school. I recall John 3:16. "We're at the point of no return," Pocock says, helpfully. 

And then the engine kicks on, and Pocock goes full power, and the plane balloons into the air, and the upthrusting rock drops instantly from view, and the Cessna's wheels dance over the bushes growing from the top of the rock—and opening up below us is a deep canyon with verdant slopes that plunge into dark, mist-topped forest. 

Two days later—Sunday was washed out by torrential rains—Pocock takes Stander up into a set of different mountains for his final test—takeoffs and landings at two particularly "hairy" high-altitude airstrips. 

The first strip is a stretch of grass the size of an access road, perched atop a high plateau like something out of Switzerland in summer. When Stander hits the ground, we're suddenly in a pasture, the wings knocking down weeds. The second strip is perpendicular to a river, which flows just below a steep mountainside. The approach, therefore, must be made obliquely, at a 45-degree angle toward the mountain. Pocock does it first, flying low along the river and banking toward the strip. Furthermore, right before the touchdown target, a hill rises up, impeding the way in. Very tall trees grow from the top of the hill. To get to the runway, then, the pilot has to pull up hard on the stick to avoid the hill and trees, then dive fast in order to reach the touchdown area—and do all of this while banking at that 45-degree angle. 

"It's unbelievable," Stander says. 

Pocock lands without incident, almost with boredom, and quickly takes off again; once he's gained altitude, he pulls his hands from the yoke and looks over at Stander. "She's all yours." 

There's a pause as the student considers what's in front of him. "This is stressful," he says. 

And Pocock's voice intones over the headset: "Welcome to the real world."

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