'Over-the-hill' U.S. pilots find 2nd careers in Africa


LUENA, Angola -- Bob Nolden has one of those cured-in-Texas voices that oozes confidence with a slight swagger in the intonations. You can just hear it soothing nervous passengers as he eased a big Braniff 747 aloft from U.S. airports.

But now Mr. Nolden is looking out over the airstrip at this remote city in eastern Angola, getting a wry grin on his face as he points out the recently-filled mortar holes in the tarmac.

If Mr. Nolden spoke over the intercom of the 727 he just landed at Luena's airport, his audience would have been 17 tons of corn, relief supplies flown in to feed refugees from this country's civil war.

He's flying for TransAfrik, a freight operation working on a contract to the United Nations' World Food Program, because he's a refugee from a different kind of war, the economic one that's devastating the U.S. airline industry.

Now 63, Mr. Nolden spent 36 years with Braniff before that carrier went belly-up a couple of years ago. The search for work brought him to Africa a few months ago.

He sits in the pilot's seat of the 727 as it lifts off the Luena runway, flies above the Angolan government troops dug in around the airport and then climbs up in a steep spiral to avoid the rebel UNITA troops that surround the city.

"I'd say we get fired on every four or five flights," Mr. Nolden says.

Behind Mr. Nolden in the flight engineer's seat is Darrell F. Alessi, a 51-year-old who spent a decade with Continental.

"We're all pilots," said Mr. Alessi, seated in the flight engineer's position, explaining that the three members of the cockpit crew are all qualified to pilot the plane. The third, in the co-pilot's seat, is Joe Sturm, a German who flew for European airlines.

"We just take turns as to who sits where," he said. "I haven't sat back here in years. This is fun."

Since losing his job with Continental, Mr. Alessi has flown in South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Rwanda before joining TransAfrik in Angola earlier this year.

"It's impossible for us to get jobs in the United States," he said. "It's all age discrimination. They would rather hire some DTC 26-year-old when there are all these experienced pilots out of work. They don't care anything about passenger safety."

Mr. Alessi's bitterness at the airline industry has fueled a novel. He pulls a thick typewritten manuscript augmented by several legal pads full of handwriting out of his case.

"It's a novel, but it's based on fact, on what happened in the airlines. It will tell you things about Frank Lorenzo you never knew before," he said, referring to the former president of Continental and Eastern who is a villain to many of his former employees.

"I'm just glad I didn't finish it until I got to Africa," he said.

Now he will be able to include in the book a visit to Rwanda's gorilla colony of "Gorillas in the Mist" fame and night landings on darkened Angolan runways when his plane was without lights to avoid drawing fire.

"Let's just say they don't have any FAA here," Mr. Nolden said of regulations in Angola, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration. When he flew for Braniff, his hours in the air were strictly limited by FAA rules.

"But here, the only way to make money is to keep your fanny in the pilot's seat," he said.

In fact, Mr. Nolden couldn't sit in the pilot's seat at his age in the U.S. where mandatory retirement is 60, although pilots may move to flight engineer.

Control of planes in the Angolan air is also a bit below U.S. standards. Luena once had a control tower, but it hasn't been staffed in years.

On the other hand, Luanda, a major international airport, is controlled. But everyone in the cockpit keeps his eyes open as Mr. Sturm brings the plane down beneath the clouds over this coastal city.

As he circles around to line up for landing, the trio spots another plane in the pattern. Mr. Nolden speaks to the control tower about it. A few minutes later, just as Mr. Sturm has the 727 over the end of the runway about to touch down, the cockpit suddenly erupts in expletives.

That other plane, an Angolan Air Lines 737 on a training flight, appears directly overhead, coming in for a landing on a runway that angles off to the left.

"Welcome to Africa," he says.

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