Flying bananas with an unexpected passenger
It has always been called the flying SUV—rugged, can take a good load and indeed a utility vehicle for both people and cargo. The Cessna 206 has proven its mettle around the world and perhaps in my company at least, fills in a rather unique role—that of a corporate plane. After operating a Piper Chieftain and a 172, the 206 has proven to fill in the perfect profile for us in terms of transporting people, cargo, and everything in between to points within 100nm of our home base in the southern Philippines. Its reliability and its simple operating economics make it the best choice for our needs. And as a pilot, it is an honest, dependable, rugged, and fun airplane to fly.
It was a cold, rainy day sometime in August many moons ago when my schedule called for me flying multiple legs within our network, shuttling people around all day long. This is my kind of flying—more time in the air and less on the ground in comfortable weather. It might not have been sunny, but with a 10,000 foot overcast in light, drizzly rain with absolutely no wind or turbulence, and visibility for more than 50 miles, it was an absolute delight. I started my day at 0700 and was expecting to be done by 1300. I could feel my steed was satisfied as well as she hummed in the air with the ever-present Cessna “singing struts,” as what rain hitting the leading edge of the wing struts does. I couldn’t be more pleased with the best job in the world for me.
As more and more of my legs got completed that day, I was given word during my last trip before returning to base that 12 boxes filled with bananas will accompany me back, as there were no passengers to fly with me anymore. I work for a banana export company and we have several farms scattered about, hence the plane is indeed a necessary asset.
As a bonus for that haul, the farm manager said that one of those boxes was for me to take home. I tell you, I’ve never been worried about having too many bananas until I saw how many are in one box and the added challenge of consuming them before they all get over ripe! Going bananas over bananas is perhaps a proper way of putting it. Nevertheless, it was free and I shared the blessing with friends and neighbors and all were pleased at getting export-quality fruit that would have not otherwise been available locally.
So after the last human cargo deplaned, I loaded up on the more delicate produce that can sometimes get more attention and nurturing than a human baby! After all, this is also the reason for our company’s existence, for my job, and for the airplane so it is just as precious.
With rain still lazily pouring in a steady drizzle, I pushed the throttle on my trusty 1982 U206G. All the might of the IO-550 engine and the McCauley prop clawed on every available molecule of air from our high elevation airstrip, and off I went. I was looking forward to a fruitful (works both ways, right?) end to my long day and a long weekend with no schedules for the next few days.
As I was steadily and confidently climbing to my cruising altitude of 7,500 feet, I could feel the sure-footedness of the IO-550 and the poise of the airplane as I headed towards the first valley crossing out of the farm. This was going to be a 35-minute, 62 nautical mile flight through lush green forests and sprawling fields. This is a sight I will never get bored of and I hope global progress will not change the way these last vestiges of Mother Nature look.
Settling in cruise, taking a deep breath for a job well done and thankful for the chance to experience all of this, I noticed some movement on a box strapped on the copilot’s seat. It sure looked quite large for our company logo and was not as colorful. A momentary distraction from a radio call diverted my attention but as I clicked on the mic, that “logo” sure moved! As I would have not wanted to believe it since I was alone in the plane and bananas are not known to have any means of mobility, I was hesitantly beginning to admit that it was some live creature that had somehow hitched a ride.
After all day flying multiple legs, what better way to end it than having someone with eight legs cap it off! I was staring, about two feet or so from my face, at what looked like an adult brown recluse spider. Locally it is called tapayan and no one to my knowledge has made any official association with this to its North American cousin. But they sure look very much alike in appearance and size (it pretty much was as wide as my hand with all its legs splayed out!). Perhaps this was its sunburned, beach-going cousin. Whatever it was, I didn’t care and as a certified arachnophobic, it was definitely an unpleasant sight. Any spider bigger than a thumbnail is cause of concern to me.
So here I was, 42 nm from home in great flying conditions, having a face-off with a spider. It was the longest 42 nm in my life. I remembered one passenger had left a roll of newspaper in the back seat, so as I slowly reached for it and shifted my gaze to my chosen “weapon” to whack it (while shaking in fear), the stowaway vanished! They are known to move at the blink of an eye and God knows where it went this time. Was I going to be the realization of a comic strip, where an expensive aircraft was lost because there was a spider in the cockpit? I couldn’t lean back on my seat since it might be there. I kept looking around since it could be anywhere and I just prayed that the saying that spiders are just as afraid of you as you are of it was true—because I think I was more scared of him than he was of me.
As I neared our home airport, in a major city with a lot of airline traffic, more and more radio chatter clogged the frequency and due to the dilemma I was in, I was at one point thinking of requesting priority for landing. But how absurd a reason it is to have a spider in the cockpit as a cause? I don’t talk spider, so I was just thinking to myself that wherever he might be, he had better stay there until I jumped out of the plane (when already parked, of course).
To add insult to injury, as I joined downwind for runway 05, I was told to make two circuits in the hold for one departing and one landing airplane. The gods must be crazy… Why me? Nevertheless, when it became my turn, I asked for a short approach, got it, and taxied as fast I could to our hangar. As I shut down, I did not forget my end of the bargain with my spider companion—I jumped off the plane and the ground crew, knowing of my fear, almost immediately knew what it was about and started laughing.
Something good came out of this encounter though—it somehow made me braver and bolder when confronted with large arachnids or otherwise distracting events. There were many choices available to me in dealing with it and losing my wits and professionalism was certainly not among them. Fly the airplane, fly the airplane, fly the airplane! So, this time around, it was mind over matter and my subsequent encounters with these creatures emboldened me to “solve” it quickly, either for the spider or me. If he stays long enough within reach of whatever implement is available to me, I will use such object as a weapon; getting rid of one of them will not send them to the endangered species list anyway. If he is out of sight, at least for the time being, he is out of mind and I can press on with the task at hand.
Thankfully, I made it back in one piece and with all bananas intact, with nary a sight of my passenger or its relatives/accomplices (I think he acted alone). I had the ground crew comb the aircraft and my banana box for any sign of Mr. Skinny Legs and they never found him… maybe he just wanted a ride in an airplane. And oh, people at the farm now know that whenever they send cargo with me, they’d better make sure there is no live creature with it!
P.S. After relating the incident to the farm manager, I found out that the boxes were already at the hangar early in the morning, since they did not know my exact ETA. It was during that time that Mr. Skinny Legs must have found his way into the box through the breather holes. He must have come from the surrounding foliage.