By MARK BURGESS
THE distinctive form and livery of the former Norwegian military DeHavilland Twin Otter aircraft at Tingwall airport over the weekend may have drawn an interested glance or raised eyebrow from passersby on the roads west or north, but few could have imagined the extraordinary story of the journey that took her to the calm and friendly Shetland airstrip.
Piloted by American Jerry Jacques to Shetland from Africa, the events that took him here are almost guaranteed to leave anyone in stunned admiration. Based in Boston, Jerry and his business partner were employed under contract to provide a transport aircraft to the relief operations in war-torn Chad by companies acting between relief agencies and the government. Chad is currently considered to be one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in Africa, with increased oil developments since 2003 doing little to stabilise a country under almost constant threat of revolution.
While flying there it was necessary for Jerry to check the aircraft for bullet holes during daily operations transporting people, livestock and food within the hostile country. After a long month of no payment and constant danger, Jerry’s open intentions to leave Chad with the plane were thwarted by a local agent’s removal of his long-range fuel tank, charts and survival gear in an attempt to guarantee that he and the aeroplane remain in Chad.
In what is the stuff of aviation legend, Jerry spent two weeks planning an escape that would get him clear of both Chad and its equally hostile neighbours and so it came to be that he took off from Chad one day with apparently innocuous barrels of fuel in the plane’s cargo hold, some plastic tubing, a National Geographic map for navigation, some accumulated water bottles, rudimentary survival kit of an axe, knife and whatever else he could conceal from what were effectively now his captors.
With the maximum range of the aircraft keeping him within the airspace of Chad his plan now took a turn for the heroic, or perhaps plain crazy. To guarantee his escape he had to refuel the Twin Otter from outside the aircraft whilst in flight.
To facilitate this he climbed above the range of the stinger missiles used in the region and, with no autopilot, trimmed the aircraft to fly straight and level. He then attached a rope from his webbing trouser-belt to the cockpit harness and attached a length of hose to the barrel and exited the cockpit through the side door at 12,000 feet with the plane travelling at around 100mph.
With one hand holding him to the doorframe and standing on the tiny fuselage footstep, he used his other hand to feed the hose into the external fill point of the plane’s underbelly tank.
As Jerry says, he was reasonably confident that had he slipped during this manoeuvre he could have hauled himself back into the cockpit but the matter was far from certain and he has understandably dreamt of these moments every night since.
All the more pertinent when you see the proximity of the Twin Otter’s propeller to the position he was perched in. His success in this technique not only left him alive but also got him into friendly airspace, whereby he has hopped from country to country through Europe and Norway to Shetland.
This is roughly halfway home to Boston with a further 10 stops in prospect in Faroe, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Jerry remains remarkably un-fazed by this adventure, perhaps due in part to the nature of the routine flying he is engaged in back home.
He has spent all of his working life from 18 years old flying light aircraft commercially, splitting his year between summers in Alaska and winters in Idaho. In the rugged mountains and lakes of Alaska he was chartered for hunting and fishing tours, flying to remote lakes in float-planes or flat ground or sandbars in wheeled planes to deliver hunters to their prey of moose or massive bears up to 700kg, anglers to monster fish, or to deliver white water rafters upstream to return via the river.
A typical governmental charter he relates is vermin control that requires pilots to fly between 10 and 20ft off the ground while a gunner despatches coyotes with a shotgun from the cargo hatch at 60mph.
He has also flown for similar charters in southern Africa and swapped posts with adventure tour operators in central America. Even Jerry’s aircraft, built in 1966, could tell many a tale and was equipped to carry the royal standard, for transporting royalty, during its time with the Norwegian Military.
The twin-engine aircraft is ideal for skydiving charters which must seem surprisingly tame in comparison to its pilot’s backwoods exploits. Jerry had actually retired four years ago before a change in his home life drew him back to aviation.
With great humility Jerry describes his home life as more exciting than flying and is eager to get home to the wife and five kids that await him in Idaho. He describes his time in Shetland as a lot of fun and enjoyable and “a really pretty place” that reminds him of the landscape and scenery of remote western Alaska, albeit much more developed. He expressed much gratitude to engineers John and Matt of Tingwall airport and pilot Marshall Wishart for going out of their way to assist him on his journey.