Malawi - The President's Plane, by Peter Woodrow (1977)


Late on a Tuesday evening in June 1977, standing in the foyer of Limbe Club wearing a sort of skirt and plastered in the heavy makeup demanded by ‘Orpheus in the Underworld,’ I took the call from Air Malawi’s General Manager. He needed to discuss “a problem”- not tomorrow, right now. Once quickly converted back into non arrestable male human form, I drove across town to his Robbins Road office, assuming that either he or I were about to be P.I.’d (deported) as that was very much the fashion of the time.

The problem was something entirely new. His Excellency the Life President, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, (always to be spelled out in full, of course) was due to fly to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference the following Saturday morning. To do that he had taken over Air Malawi’s London VC10 flight in its entirety. So far so good, and nothing to do with us. However, the aircraft had been at Gatwick for some days and thanks to the discovery of what seemed to be a major fuel leak in its centre tank, probably caused by an unrecorded heavy landing at some time in its life, it would not be ready to fly south to honour its Presidential commitment. The government view was that the solution was easy. They would just take over our fully booked British Airways Friday afternoon flight instead and its other intended passengers would just have to find something else.

I doubted if BA were going to be helpful about that. They had never done it for anyone, anywhere, before and had a rather unsmiling attitude to being hijacked by a President or anyone, even for money. On the other hand the Malawi government had a rather unsmiling attitude to anyone who did not come up with whatever the President or his inner circle wanted. I could see our time in the country drawing to a close.

I rang the route General Manager in London, something one only did in those days in event of dire emergencies. Deaths maybe. Certainly not births.  There was absolutely no question of the BA flight being emptied for anyone, not even the small First Class cabin. What about the RAF? They had VC10s. The military quickly replied that there was no way they could send a plane for one President and not trigger requests from others, so no question of them helping either. The always helpful GM, renowned for his expression “Tell him from me...” said he’d see what he could do, but not to hold out much hope. BA was never flush with aircraft and didn’t like to have any just sitting around waiting to be hailed by last minute customers.

Wednesday came - and went. As did the calming tablets between my desk and Jenny, my colleague in Blantyre; moments of stress were a familiar feature of doing business in a country whose national airline wasn’t doing too well in competition with us. There were times when I’d even kept a small case of warm clothes in the car boot in case of being accommodated somewhere cold and uncomfortable by the ever present Special Branch, whose remit seemed to extend to protecting the national airline from anything but the most passive competition.

Thursday arrived, and with it bald and desperate statements from the Air Malawi office “You’ve got to do something”. Eventually we did. The VC10 operating the Friday London/Cairo/London trip would shed its return load in Cairo, something the airline had never done before in circumstances like these, and come on down to Blantyre instead, arriving about 2 hours before His Excellency’s scheduled Saturday morning departure. That would just about do it. We, unlike the passengers in Cairo, were overjoyed.

Attention now turned to the large folder of instructions about how the Presidential flight was to be conducted. First it wanted the front row of First Class seats to be removed. This was so that those who were summoned to speak to the President during the journey could approach and remain on their knees. Our Cairo engineers agreed to do that and stow them in the hold, quite an easy task but not one we wanted to be doing at the last minute at Chileka Airport. Then the rub. The cabin crew are also expected come out of the front galley and approach, serve on their knees and retire the same way. The expressions on their faces if thus instructed didn’t bear thinking about. I said “That is just not going to happen. We won’t even talk about it. He’ll just have to find out on the plane”. In the event not an eyebrow was raised.

Friday - and our scheduled VC 10 came and went. All day we crossed our fingers for Saturday, dreading any mishaps in Cairo meaning a late operation - or even none at all. Aeroplanes can be fickle things and come up with all sorts of surprises when started. Fortunately all went well and the aircraft landed around 9a.m. and taxied in. Some of our landings on Chileka’s very narrow, often draughty and always tricky runway verged on the spectacular and were the highlight of Air Malawi airport staff’s weekly entertainment. Jenny wouldn’t even watch, and always stood with her back to the approaching aircraft. This landing was, though, achieved with appropriate decorum. Unfortunately at the time many of BA’s aircraft exteriors were in a pretty dire state.  We relied almost entirely on flying through rain to keep them clean. It didn’t work .They became filthy and then paint started to flake off. Bad luck would have it that the one presented to us that day must have been the scruffiest of the lot. It looked dreadful. Good luck though meant that the assembled press were told - on pain of the unpleasant usual - to minimise and crop shots of the aircraft so that it wasn’t obvious that its operator was BA, not Air Malawi.  There could be no further dents in national pride that day.

As departure time neared the ululating by the mbumba (ladies), all dressed in their Banda finery, his face on it either smiling or scowling depending where upon their anatomy it came to rest with each movement, grew more and more intense until His Excellency eventually emerged from the VIP chalet, fly whisk aloft, and slowly made his way to the aircraft. The mbumba were now on a different planet. Then, just as we were thinking it was all over, the head of the airport security, a little man about five foot square missing many teeth, possibly as result of assisting other branches of the police with their enquiries, came bustling over, also in a state of high excitement. With a broad smile and waving another folder.  He looked like a man whose hour had come.

“How long has this aircraft been here?” he demanded.

“About two hours” I said. 

“That’s not enough, not enough” he insisted, “The security instructions say it must be in a secure area 24 hours before departure!”

“Fine” I said, “You go and tell the President”.

He sort of melted into the distance. We didn’t see him again that day. Nor did we ever speak about it again.

A few minutes later the VC10, always impressive, headed noisily into the air and pointed north. We headed a few yards east to the little shack that passed as the Chileka Club. Its cold (Malawi) Carlsbergs were perfect.  Thank you Denmark!

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