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“You can be a pilot for British Airways, for Emirates, flying Dubai to London, big shiny planes – big computers with wings – back and forth, la-la-la,” says Captain Ruben Gamero with full Latin American gesticulation, quarterback shrug and a roll of the eyes subtle enough for the far reaches of the dress circle. “Or you can do this – you can be an aviator.”

This? This is an ex-Alitalia md-82 from 1985; this is African Express flight 557 from Nairobi to Dubai via Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Berbera. That’s a start at the mostly calm Kenyan capital. On to the notoriously dangerous and piratical Somali port. Then to a pair of staging posts in Somaliland – the break-away desert territory that offers the infamous Gulf of Aden a coastline. And then the two hours and 50 minutes that separate a one-camel town from that most glittering costume jewel in the Middle East’s otherwise high-carat tiara.

That, though, is the end of the line. Currently we’re a quarter-way along it, making our descent into Mogadishu. Big, garrulous Captain Gamero is manfully landing in manual, his fellow Venezuelan first officer Dimas Diaz is alongside him – slight, watchful, intent on the dials. I’m in the jump seat, watching the Somali desert run into beach and the beach to sea as we bank right, correct our approach and show more wing to the wind to brake us. It’s a nod to the emerald Indian ocean with which it seems we’re flirting as we dip, glance and shadow-box with knots and crosswinds feet above sea level – thousands, now hundreds, now less. But let’s not flirt: it’s warm but it’s wet and the turquoise soon turns dark blue and deep cold. Sharks are lithely circling in their own holding pattern, looking as big as our plane and far more natural masters of the element to which they were born than the one we’ve chosen to adopt. Up here, thin air. “Welcome to paradise,” says Gamero with as much courtly flourish as a pilot’s double seat belt will allow.

A jolt, a bounce, a squeal of wheel and a shudder from the bird as she lands. We’re down, eating runway as the reverse thrust roars and the foreignness of this foreignness is made plain from the east to the west of the tropically modern, elegantly wasted Aden Abdulle International airport in Mogadishu. Car parks, sure, but not rows of patient saloons awaiting the return of their sun-kissed families. Barbed wire and lots of UN armoured personnel carriers predominate. Catering trucks? At a pinch but not dishing up the sort of stuff you’d expect on a seat-pocket menu card. Tinfoil and cardboard carted up the steps will do just as well. A business-class lounge, perhaps? Very much so – but don’t ask twice about what sort of business.

The airport is overseen by the UN and the African Union (AU); uniformed soldiers-as-peacekeepers focus on snakes of passengers disembarking, chatting on phones and scenting the air. Going home or leaving it; going to work or hoping they’ll find some. Ghanaian AU personnel supervise with smiles and subtlety as our flight becomes the airport crush, a heaving sea of humanity eager as any to get through immigration and onward. Our bird refuels, unloads and sits in the heat haze as a city-hopping turbo-prop job from Kenya clears its cargo of khat, that stimulant synonymous with Somalia. A UN chopper busies itself and wheels away, a sparkling World Food Programme 737 and a hulking white-liveried UN Hercules look too pristine to have sat still for long in the Somali dust.

Aden Abdulle International is desert-hot, tempered by sea breeze. It’s an attractive old airport (see issue 67) crowded by the utilitarian seriousness of peacekeepers’ temporary structures and the architecture of surveillance: towers, turrets, barbed wire and low-slung barns like contemporary Nissen huts, where international intelligence watches and, inevitably, waits. Then the shanties of Mogadishu’s sprawl. Too close for comfort but there’s not a lot of that here anyway. “Come, I’ll introduce you to some people,” a voice says, a palm in the small of my back. Suddenly I’m being guided through the throng by a very black man with a very white beard, a wicked grin, a busily patterned shirt and 10,000 megawatts of charisma. Across the runway, through the crush and shortcutting through immigration, my guide is embraced by old men in robes, soldiers in uniform and big men in shiny suits. We arrive in a well-guarded room of smoked glass and floor-length curtains. “vip lounge?” I ask, trying to meet his charm halfway. “vvip,” he corrects with a wagging finger.

I meet the minister of ports and marine transport, Yusuf “Baadiyou” Amin, two men from Mogadishu’s Chamber of Commerce (“How’s business?” “Very good”) and the owners of Hormuud, Somtel and Nation, the three telecom companies of Somalia. Everyone’s a man, everyone’s in a large suit or a military uniform and everyone stands around Arab-style sofa-and-coffee-table suites made of heavy leather. It’s dusty but air-conditioned. Everyone is big. Mr Big? Probably that, too.

Where are all these men going? What a coincidence that they’re all in the same departure lounge, these scions of the Somali business world. “This is where all the business is done,” says my guide, registering the look of slow calculation on my face. “It’s safe here.” This new friend of mine is Professor Ibbi, the former deputy prime minister who now sits in the Somali parliament on the foreign relations and international cooperation committee. No ID card required.

Back onboard with new passengers (grave, robed) and more cargo (who knows?) and strapped into the cockpit jump seat, we’re bouncing down the runway to turn and make our take-off. “Look at these guys,” says Gamero pointing out of his open port-side window at a patrolling armoured vehicle bristling with machine guns. “We have an armoured escort – does it make you feel special?” Special… That we’ve got the guns is nice; that we need them is troubling. But it’s always too soon or too late to think. The rear-engined md-82 hitches up her skirts in relatively eerie quiet, we’re down the runway and up, over those shanties and the fabled plane-downing rocket launchers of Mogadishu’s port town (friend, foe or entirely uninterested in the affairs of those who choose to fly on African Express 557). We make a seawards right turn so hard it must be a degree shy of evasive and we’re gone, rising over the Gulf of Aden to Yemeni airspace, then Omani – then a swoop left and north to Dubai.

The day before, we’re sat at Gamero’s big, file-swamped desk in his unspectacularly all-in-one-piece office at the African Express HQ, cheek by jowl with Nairobi airport’s perimeter fence. We’re dreaming of the airline as cult, as brand, as belief system. “I’ve had to change a lot round here,” says Gamero, also chief pilot and director of operations, “I’m like a religion trying to convert the atheists into believers – but my mantra? Compliance.” Gamero is big like his desk, but nimble. “Have you ever made a big decision?” he asks. “Because when you’re making decisions at 980km/h with 100 people sitting in the cabin, they’re all big decisions.”

What about his decision to become a pilot for African Express? Gamero’s father was a colonel in the Venezuelan air force and the young Ruben caught the flying bug from daddy’s exciting office in the sky. After flying for Aeropostal, he wanted a change. “In Spanish we have a saying that we stole from the Chinese,” he says. “You can either be the head of the mouse or the tail of the dragon. Here I’m the head of the mouse; we’re a small mouse but everyday we’re getting bigger and better. I’m training pilots, we’re making the airline stronger.”

African Express has had its non-aerial ups and downs and has endured a reputation among the vapour-trail-gazing cognoscenti and the general international traveller alike of falling short on a few key points. Such as safety. The airline’s seven planes are on the vintage side (our bird has a sister ex-Alitalia md-82 joined by a dc9-30, a brace of Embraer x120 turbo-props and two Bombardier crj200s) but the concern for Gamero is tailoring his airline to the territories in which it operates. “We go back to our nice BA or Emirates pilot on his yo-yo to London and Dubai with his computer,” he says, making yada-yada-yada signs with his hands, “but flying to Mogadishu? Ha! Flying to Berbera, which has a tiny short runway at high altitude with strong winds? Operationally, these are a completely different set of problems for a pilot.”

According to Gamero there are a number of challenges practically unique to the African Express pilot: disease, criminality, sick cases – “I’m not an air ambulance” – and fake passports. There’s one thing that, the day before we fly, is at first heartening and then worrying to hear: “Al Shabbab terrorists aren’t stupid enough to bomb us because it would be bombing themselves.” I tell a lie, though. It is Captain Gamero, cult leader albeit, who is the most heartening thing about African Express.The lazy phrase “seat of his pants” comes to mind – but I believe.

It’s an 07.00 flight from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport to Mogadishu and the flight is delayed due to the arrival and security detail of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta (yes relation: the son of) whose big new Kenyan Airways 777 is, rather poetically and ironically, parked next to our non-big, non-new md-82. The caravan of passengers is a window on the airway we’ll be flying: Kenya’s mostly secular-looking population are thin on the ground and it’s all robes and thobes for the men and headscarves and henna for the ladies. We’re going from Christian to Islam in an hour and 20 minutes at a cruising altitude of 32,000 feet.

Onboard I’m in business class, which is like business class on any other short-haul carrier except the chairs are old, the cabin’s ancient, the loo is pre-Wright brothers and the food is, in some guileless way, absolutely amazing. Oh, and the steward and stewardesses are the loveliest with which I’ve ever flown. And you know what? I thought, “These people definitely don’t deserve to die so we probably won’t.” Plus, Gamero’s up front probably thinking of some new and amazing lines to test out on me. “No,” I thought, “this is going to be incredible.”

Breakfast is served: sausage and baked beans, a slice of sponge cake and an apple washed down with sweet and milky Nescafé. The cotton wool gives way to the thinner stuff and we are high. Beneath races the Earth, parched red in places, peat-black in others, brown and lazy rivers snaking through dark green forests and plains of rocks and deserts. After Mogadishu we head northwards as Somalia became Somaliland; sandy both, brush and brittle growth but not much underneath the belly of our bird to raise a nation of farmers. Hargeisa is friendly. “We are democratic Somaliland, not Somalia,” say men on the runway and in the little airport of which I am given a tour. Like a dignitary, I am gravely shown how an X-ray bag-scanner works and get to keep my water despite it being against the rules because I’m “British, very good”. Star treatment but by the time I’ve thought of something to say about the décor of the mid-construction business-class lounge (“I really like the tiles, very cooling”), Gamero is firing her up again and it is time for the short 20-minute hop to Berbera. The infamously short runway features something that was also present at Mogadishu: a wreck of a Russian plane on the apron of the runway. “Oh, every east African runway has to have at least one crashed Russian fighter, it’s like a trophy,” chuckles Gamero as he pulls down his sunglasses.

Berbera is the one-camel town (I saw it run away as we came in to land) where more people get on than there are seats for them to sit on. This old chestnut is just the sort of thing that I know will enrage Gamero. The day before he’d been talking about keeping a “watertight flight manifest”: a list of who’s on, how many are on and what’s in the hold. I’d been told that the problem was overzealous sales representatives who, on the strength of good rates of commission and the fact that the entire African Express booking system is done in cash, often overbook. This happens, especially on larger airlines keen to fly full planes, but they don’t let you on and have you standing in the aisle, or waiting for someone to get up and talk to a friend so you can pounce on the temporarily empty seat. They don’t say, “It’s not that far, can you squeeze up a bit?” Luckily, Mr Jump Seat is again willing to take one for the team so off we fly, this time somewhat grumblingly. Lunch cheers us up, probably mostly because we steer clear of the three ways in which the hand-written menu offers gizzards. Meatballs and turmeric rice does just nicely. Then a snooze.

Who is flying on this chock-full aeroplane? There are tribesmen in thobes and dish-dashas. There are also more big men in the full Idi Amin African warlord get-up of heavily epauletted, short-sleeved safari suit finished in brown with a Cuban-heeled boot peeping, but not shyly, from a slightly flared trouser. There are jeans, shiny suits, gold teeth, beards – long, short, dyed, devout – African print suits, robes, veils, headscarves, heavy jewellery modestly worn and a dozen solo women with children swaddled to their breast. There’s one white girl, an aid worker from Nairobi to Mogadishu, with a rucksack of improving literature and a fresh and optimistic French manicure. Why are they travelling? On the last leg, a lean and stylish Malaysian had been in Somalia, talking to the people with whom he’s hoping to build a power station; he is now heading home from Dubai. When asked, most say “business”, as in “It’s none of your…”

And now the Burj Khalifa hoves into view and the impossible verdure of the hanging gardens and estates of the grand villas of Dubai. Pitted against the inevitable desert, the fan-assisted sunshine seem foreignness itself next to the dustbowls of smalltown Somaliland. Landing at Dubai International presents entirely different problems for Gamero that haven’t yet detained him on the 13 hours of duty he’ll have done today.

Dubai’s airways, like its highways, are all about traffic. The radar shows seven planes within 15 nautical miles of us. There will be monstrous double-decker a380s, booming old jumbos, broad and belligerent 777s and all the rest of the droning and zooming private jets, city-hoppers, short-haulers, connections, layover-stayovers, transits and cargo craft, like Luc Besson’s skies-as-streets vision in The Fifth Element. In the cockpit, listening to the constant radio between all the planes in the near sky and the air-traffic tower is as buzzingly bewildering as listening to wasps in a jam jar. Is this the stuff pilot’s dreams are made on? Does Captain Gamero now feel like an aviator? “Mmmm,” he murmurs, “welcome to the jungle.” What, this?

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