By Charley Humphrey
I wake up before dawn and turn up the flame on the kerosene lantern a bit so I can see. My wife doesn’t stir. It’s far colder than I would have imagined Africa to be. I pull my sweater on over my shirt, quietly open the heavy wooden door, and join Toby outside in the deepest, blackest morning I have ever experienced. We chat in the warm cab of his truck as we wind our way across the narrow river bottom, through the acacias, past the malevolent stares of the Cape buffalo, on our way out to the airstrip. Toby says they have had some trouble with the solenoid on the inertia starter of his plane. Since there is no way to manually engage the starter from the cockpit, it will take both of us to get her cranked up.
The lights of the little hangars sparkle through the trees as we drive down the strip rousting Waterbuck and dozens of Springhares off the grass runway. He drives up to the Ag-Cat, a dark blue biplane, as the first hint of dawn peeks over the highlands to the East. It strikes me that the local Muslims bow to a beautiful sight, the African dawn spilling over the Rift. Toby finishes his walk-around inspection and hands me a large screwdriver. I hop up on the left main wheel and open the panel about where the starter should be.
“I’ll spool up the flywheel first, and when the whine is steady, go ahead and pull that thing that engages it to the engine,” Toby says.
I just nod. Simple enough. He primes the carburetor and the flywheel spins. I pull the lever and the flywheel screams, the prop whirls, and the engine alternately purrs and coughs itself to life, emitting a cloud of blue-white smoke. I am standing about a foot behind the snapping propeller, and I’m blasted with cold, dark air as I close the panel.
Once the engine is idling, Toby jumps down and we drink some hot tea while we wait for the oil to heat up. It’s just a bit pinker in the East, the bottoms of the clouds turning the color of orange sherbet.
After a bit, Toby climbs back in, puts on his helmet, and with a blast of power, taxis out. I turn to watch him line up for take off, and I remember his words from the night before, “On the mornings I fly the Ag-Cat, no one sleeps.”
Nothing makes me want to jump up and down like a nine-year old kid more than a loud, low-flying airplane.
It is getting lighter. I discover, standing silently to my right, a tall African holding a tall spear. He speaks to me, but I don’t understand. It doesn’t matter. We nod and smile at each other and turn to watch a radial-powered biplane fly across the African dawn.
Charley Humphrey , 32, flies air tankers on wildfires from February to October. He flew air-freight all over the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean before that, and has been an aircraft mechanic the whole time. He tries to use the off-season to travel with his wife. African Dawn is drawn from their trip to Kenya.
Photo "Dawn Patrol" courtesy of the author.
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