"Her First and Only Airplane Ride" — An Excerpt from Cleared for Takeoff, by Bob Griffin

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A special supplement to Joe Godfrey's profile of Bob Griffin.

When the rickety bus screeched to a stop behind the hangar, I didn't even look up. My early morning attention was totally caught up in a careful preflight inspection of the Helio Courier before starting the day's flying. It promised to be a busy day.

The crunch of shoes on gravel and a cheery greeting broke my concentration. "Hola, don Roberto, would it be possible for you to carry us to Arapicos?" I glanced up, irritated with the interruption, them smiled a welcome. Miguel was a friend I had flown before. "So you want a ride to Arapicos?" I responded.

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Illustration by Dempster Evans

I needn't have asked. Arapicos was only 12 minutes away, and I'd been there so many times I'd almost worn a groove in the sky.

Two years earlier Miguel and his friends, along with their families, had moved across the Andes to carve farms from the isolation of eastern Ecuador's jungle. Several months earlier they had come to me begging for help. The knew my missionary plane could whisk them in minutes over a mucky, muddy trail that on foot that would normally cost them three days of agonizing slogging.

I was glad to help. That's why I was in Ecuador. I wanted to be a servant to any and all in every way I could. But I never could have guessed what this morning's offer to help would lead to. "We'll have to hurry," I urged.

Short minutes later, after a hasty weighing and loading up, we were off, and soon bouncing down at Arapicos. Again I urged Miguel to hurry as we dragged cargo to the side, out of the way. I couldn't afford to waste time on the ground. Back in the cockpit, I jammed my seatbelt home and was just settling the earphones on my head when I heard a shout. A boy had burst from the jungle at the far end of the strip. Seeing me already in the cockpit, he started running and shouting "Espere, espere, wait, wait!"

What was this all about? I waited while he sprinted the couple hundred yards to the plane. "Can you carry out a load of meat?" he gasped. "They're bringing it already."

That was a normal request, and no surprise. I had flown many loads of fresh meat from Arapicos, but I did wonder how they had butchered it so quickly. I didn't have long to wonder. They hadn't bothered. This meat was still on the hoof. Waddling slowly my way was a big sow -- and I mean a big one -- about to become a passenger in my airplane. Why not, they reasoned. Live people ride in the airplane, so why not a live pig?

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Jumping down from the cockpit, I waggled my finger from side to side -- Latin America's universal sign for no, absolutely, positively no. I was prepared to be a servant, even a happy servant, but only up to a point. " I can't carry a live pig," I explained. "Especially one that big." And she was big. My farm-boy eye said this old sow weighed 300 pounds if she weighed an ounce. "Then we'll kill it," they offered in chorus. Nope, no way. I wasn't about to spend an hour pulling the floorboards and cleaning blood from the belly of my bird.

Faces fell. What to do now? They couldn't carry the meat out; it would spoil. Nor could that portly pig endure the rigors of the trail's knee-deep mud. Nope, I knew if this pig was going to market, she had to fly. And guess who was going to be the pilot on this adventure?

"OK," I agreed. "Get some vine from the jungle. Hurry, let's tie her up tight and I'll fly her out alive." But that sow had a thing about flying. Right up front, she let everyone know she didn't want to be a part of such foolishness. Furthermore, she didn't want her legs tied and she told the whole world about it.

But who cares what pigs do or don't like? The fellows bound her legs like Houdini, grabbed all the handles available, ears, tail and legs, and unceremoniously dumped her in where I tied her down as best I could. Then, belted in again and earphones on, I could hardly hear the answer to my "ready for takeoff" call. The whole airplane was reverberating with that pig's squeals. Even the bellowing engine on takeoff couldn't drown her protests.

But leveling off in cruise, I suddenly realized she must be overcome with the joys of flight; no more squeals. Good, I thought. She's going to enjoy her first and only airplane ride. Then, looking back to see how she was doing, I looked her right in the eye. Feet loose and standing with legs splayed out for balance, she was quietly oinking her contentment, the picture of a happy pig.

Lord, I breathed, don't let her try for the co-pilot's job. Just keep her happy and quiet until I can get this airplane on the ground. He did. She did. And I did. And, I'll tell you, this pilot was never happier to discharge a passenger. It doesn't take much to make me a happy servant.