“If there's money to be made, business will go there.” And if it's a dangerous place, you'd better do your homework and have a true exit strategy.
It was a pilot's worst nightmare: Over one of the densest jungles in the world on a ferry from Florida to South Africa, Geoff Tyler had to shut down the single engine of the Piper Arrow III he was flying and make an emergency landing.
An electrical glitch had triggered a pump that shot additional fuel into the cylinders of the PA-28R's Lycoming IO-360 engine for cold-weather starting - a cruel irony in the tropics - and Tyler feared for an engine fire. Miraculously, he saw a road on the Angolan border and glided the Arrow toward it. He touched down uneventfully, rolled out and stopped. Suddenly, hundreds of armed soldiers came charging out the bush, surrounding the airplane.
It was February 1981, and Angola was enmeshed in civil war. The Angolan Marxist Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), abetted by Russian and Cuban troops sent to support and train them, had set up an ambush on the road to trap its enemy, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), backed by the U.S. and South Africa - and Tyler had had the unfortunate luck of landing right in the middle of the fire zone. He was immediately seized.
“I had all the required paperwork, all legal in the U.S.,” he recalled recently, “but here I was, a U.S. citizen headed to South Africa in a U.S.-registered aircraft.”
The event began an ordeal for the then 30-year-old pilot that was to last the better part of two years. After being flown to a succession of villages aboard Russian-operated An-2 biplanes and a Yak 50 trijet, Tyler wound up in Luanda, the Angolan capital, where he was interrogated for six weeks by Russians, Cubans and MPLA members. “It seems the Russians had somehow obtained my military records - my last assignment had been in Tehran, and I was still a reserve Army officer - and they thought I might be a spy. So they felt they had a suspicious guy who was caught delivering an airplane to their enemy.”
Following the interrogations, Tyler was thrown into a POW camp and locked up in solitary confinement. “Altogether, I spent 22 months in captivity. I was never tried, and they let it be known to me that I would be executed. For about six months no one knew I was alive until my captors announced I was going to be tried for espionage. At the time, the U.S. did not recognize Angola, so there was no embassy - an important factor when considering any flights into dangerous places.”
Tyler was eventually freed in a swap engineered by the International Red Cross for more than 100 POWs held by the UNITA. “The exchange took place in Zambia,” he said. “My military escape and evasion training enabled me to survive the imprisonment.”
After he was repatriated, Tyler returned to his employer, Globe Aero, to fly ferries, then moved to the regional airlines for a few years before signing on with American Air Services, which eventually became charter/management provider Executive Jet Management. At EJM he's served as chief pilot and safety manager, and for the past 15 years as lead pilot overseeing a management contract and captaining a Falcon 2000.