Pilot Rudolf Erasmus was on his way to Nelspruit in a Beechraft Baron with four passengers on Monday when he had to make an emergency landing — to drop off an unwelcome passenger, a highly venomous Cape cobra.
Erasmus, who obtained his commercial licence in 2016 told TimesLIVE it was definitely his first such experience.
“This was definitely a first and not something you get trained to handle to be honest,” he said.
Together with four passengers, Erasmus was scheduled to fly Monday morning from Worcester in the Western Cape to Nelspruit, with few stops on the way.
The first stop was Bloemfontein and the second Wonderboom.
“When we did the preflight [procedure] on Monday morning, the people at Worcester airfield told us they had seen a Cape cobra lying underneath the wing on Sunday afternoon. They tried to catch it themselves but unfortunately it sought refuge inside the engine cowlings.” The group opened the cowlings but the snake was not there so they assumed it had slithered away.
Erasmus said they were on their second leg of the flight, having earlier stopped for snacks, and were headed to Wonderboom.
Just around Welkom, Erasmus said he felt something strange on his body.
“I usually travel with a water bottle that I lodge between my leg and my hip towards the side wall of the aircraft. When I felt this cold sensation where my love handles are, I thought my bottle was dripping,” Erasmus said.
“As I turned to my left and looked down, I saw the cobra putting its head back underneath my seat.
“I had a moment of stunned silence, not sure if I should tell the passengers because I didn't want to cause a panic. But obviously they needed to know at some point what was going on,” he said.
“I just said, 'listen, there's a problem. The snake is inside the aircraft. I've got a feeling it's under my seat so we are going to have to get the plane on the ground as soon as possible.”
Luckily they were not far from Welkom so Erasmus declared an emergency with Johannesburg.
“I told them I had an unwelcomed passenger. As soon as the aircraft came to a stop, we started getting out. The three passengers in the back came out first and then the one sitting in front with me,” Erasmus said.
They all tried not to get out too hastily or abruptly as they were not sure where the snake was at the time.
“I got out last and as I rolled the seat forward I saw it curled underneath my seat. We contacted a few people around trying to get some snake handlers but by the time they arrived it had disappeared inside the aircraft again,” Erasmus said.
He said they had engineers strip the plane trying to find the snake, to no avail.
Erasmus said they are hoping it found its way out. Meanwhile, he will be flying the plane out on Wednesday.
Aviation specialist and SA chief air show commentator Brian Emmenis, who has been in aviation for 38 years, said Erasmus displayed “the greatest skill in aviation”.
When asked if such incidents happen often, he said: “Hardly ever — he is an absolute hero.
“He could have panicked. He could have put that aeroplane in an uncontrollable spin. He could have rolled the aircraft with passengers falling all over the show, and with the bad weather, he could have lost sight of the ground and crashed, not only killing those on board but also people on the ground.
“To stay calm — when I saw them all they were calm, nobody was erratic — he really displayed the greatest skill in aviation,” said Emmenis.
Emmenis said he was called on Monday to hurry to the airport “as there was a young pilot that had a Cape Cobra crawl into his shirt”.
“I immediately realised the danger because cobras are lethal. If that cobra bites, that guy is dead.
“When I got to the airport, I saw the aeroplane as in the meantime, the pilot had radioed and put out an emergency call requesting landing at Welkom.
“The weather was horrendous. The pilot had already done well, having to concentrate on foul weather, having a cobra in his aircraft and four passengers to look after,” Emmenis said.
Emmenis said once they landed, he arranged for a snake catcher to come and they worked until last light to catch the snake.
“Once it was dark, they realised that they were endangering their lives by trying to find the snake. They put mealie meal around the aircraft so that should the snake come out they would see the tracks in the morning. At 9am, everybody was back on the scene but there was no sign of the snake so they continued the search,” said Emmenis.
He said the passengers opted to drive back by road.
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