“Her First and Only Airplane Ride” – An Excerpt from Cleared for Takeoff, by Bob Griffin

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

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When the rickety bus screeched to a stop behind thehangar, I didn’t even look up. My early morning attention was totally caught upin a careful preflight inspection of the Helio Courier before starting the day’sflying. 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 wasa friend I had flown before. “So you want a ride to Arapicos?” Iresponded.

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Illustration by Dempster Evans

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

Two years earlier Miguel and his friends, along with their families, hadmoved across the Andes to carve farms from the isolation of eastern Ecuador’sjungle. Several months earlier they had come to me begging for help. The knew mymissionary plane could whisk them in minutes over a mucky, muddy trail that onfoot 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 toany and all in every way I could. But I never could have guessed what thismorning’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, andsoon bouncing down at Arapicos. Again I urged Miguel to hurry as we draggedcargo to the side, out of the way. I couldn’t afford to waste time on theground. Back in the cockpit, I jammed my seatbelt home and was just settling theearphones on my head when I heard a shout. A boy had burst from the jungle atthe far end of the strip. Seeing me already in the cockpit, he started runningand shouting “Espere, espere, wait, wait!”

What was this all about? I waited while he sprinted the couple hundred yardsto 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 freshmeat from Arapicos, but I did wonder how they had butchered it so quickly. Ididn’t have long to wonder. They hadn’t bothered. This meat was still on thehoof. 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 peopleride 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 — LatinAmerica’s universal sign for no, absolutely, positively no. I was prepared to bea servant, even a happy servant, but only up to a point. ” I can’t carry alive pig,” I explained. “Especially one that big.” And she wasbig. My farm-boy eye said this old sow weighed 300 pounds if she weighed anounce. “Then we’ll kill it,” they offered in chorus. Nope, no way. Iwasn’t about to spend an hour pulling the floorboards and cleaning blood fromthe 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 goingto be the pilot on this adventure?

“OK,” I agreed. “Get some vine from the jungle. Hurry, let’stie her up tight and I’ll fly her out alive.” But that sow had a thingabout flying. Right up front, she let everyone know she didn’t want to be a partof such foolishness. Furthermore, she didn’t want her legs tied and she told thewhole world about it.

But who cares what pigs do or don’t like? The fellows bound her legs likeHoudini, grabbed all the handles available, ears, tail and legs, andunceremoniously 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 withthat pig’s squeals. Even the bellowing engine on takeoff couldn’t drown herprotests.

But leveling off in cruise, I suddenly realized she must be overcome with thejoys of flight; no more squeals. Good, I thought. She’s going to enjoy her firstand only airplane ride. Then, looking back to see how she was doing, I lookedher 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 herhappy 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 apassenger. It doesn’t take much to make me a happy servant.