The Unlikely Admiral

    Helicopter Adventures in the Niger River Delta

      In the mid-1980s we were contracted to fly a medical service out of Port Harcourt. It was a health project sponsored by the U.N. to provide immunization to remote villages in the Delta area. The Nigerian military supplied the medical personnel and Pan African Airlines supplied one Bell 206L helicopter. Pilots took it in turn for a one week tour. It was interesting work and a good change from the normal offshore operation at Escravos. Each day we flew to two locations where we would shut down for a couple of hours while the medics immunized the villagers. These were the days before GPS and finding these remote villages a hundred or so miles from base took careful map-reading.
     On this particular morning the first location was a village about fifty minutes flying time to the north-west of Port Harcourt. I can’t remember the village’s name but it nestled on the side of a small creek amidst dense and encircling jungle. We came overhead while I took in the small thatched huts, dugout canoes pulled up on the foreshore and the upturned faces of villagers probably seeing a helicopter for the first time in their lives. There was an area of reasonably open ground near the village centre and here I landed and shut down. While the medics did their stuff, I took a stroll through this primitive hamlet, observing life as it must have been in the stone age and ‘savouring’ the smell of wood smoke, fish and cassava mixing with the ever-oppressive aroma of tropical humidity. The people were smiling, friendly and inquisitive but terribly poor in their rags of clothes and God-knows-what existence. Fifteen minutes saw me back in the cabin of the helicopter, feet up and reading a paperback to pass the time. I was lost in my novel when there came a knock on the cabin door.
      Outside stood a young man, much better dressed than the rest in white slacks and coloured shirt. I opened the door to his smiling face.
      “Morning, Captain,” he said, cheerfully, “would you like a cool drink in my house while you’re waiting?”
      I took a quick glance at the dilapidated thatched huts around us. “Er, no thanks; I can’t drink while I’m flying.”
      He seemed to read my thoughts and smiled again. “Not here, Captain; my house is a short distance away and a glass of iced fruit juice wouldn’t do any harm.”
      It certainly wouldn’t and I was intrigued at the thought of “ice” in this steaming jungle. “Your house?”
      He shook his head. “Not mine, exactly: it’s the home of my uncle, Vice-Admiral Ngomo, once Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Navy.”
      Now I really had caught the hook. I closed my book, climbed out and said, “Lead on.”
      He led me along what was virtually a tunnel through the jungle. With some misgivings at this seeming trek into the underworld, I kept a good lookout at the arching trees above for Mambas. I had been told these snakes got their victims by dropping on the unsuspecting walking below and this seemed as good a place as any for them to lurk. No Mambas though and ten minutes walk brought us to the clearing.
      It was a large clearing and I was surprised I hadn’t seen it in my recce before landing, especially the house. In reality it wasn’t so much a house as a huge brick-built two-storey mansion right here in the middle of the jungle, a diesel generator purring somewhere in the background but multi-miles from the nearest civilization. My host led me through patio doors into a blissfully cool lounge where background music played over expensive furniture and thick piled carpet. He rang a small bell and a white-coated steward came and took my order for iced orange juice. It was all quite unreal. As I relaxed in a deep armchair and sipped my drink, I asked the inevitable questions.
      “You say your uncle was Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Navy?”
      “Yes, until he retired a few years ago.”
      I glanced around me. “But why build his house here in this remote area; we must be at least a hundred and fifty miles from the sea?”
      He explained and a fascinating story it was too.
      “The reason my uncle built his house here is that this is his village. He was born here in one of those thatched huts you’ve just seen. But, when he was eight years old, he heard that there were missionaries many miles down-river providing education. So, he bid farewell to his parents, piled a few things in a small dugout canoe and paddled away. He reckoned he must have paddled forty miles before he came to the mission station and there, true enough, he was taken in by the missionaries and educated until he was fifteen. With this learning under his belt, he decided his future lay in Lagos and there he made his way, securing a position as a clerk with the Elder Dempster Steamship Company. Nigerian independence was now only a few years away and, like other British companies, Elder Dempster were committed to training Nigerians for their new challenge. They were looking for suitable lads to train as sea-going officers and my uncle had made a good impression in his time as a clerk. He was offered a cadetship, served his time at sea and eventually qualified for his second mate’s certificate. By now Nigeria had achieved independence, seeking to form her own navy and looking for qualified navigators to become naval officers. My uncle applied and, in spite of having no family connections or influence, was accepted and sent to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in England to train as a naval officer. He returned, made a name for himself as a competent leader, and eventually rose to command the flagship of our navy, the destroyer Nigeria. From this command he was promoted Admiral and ultimately commanded the Nigerian Navy.
      It was an amazing story, the most amazing I had heard in all my time in Africa. This was a man I would love to have met in person but he was away in Port Harcourt “on business”. I asked the nephew if he had a photo of his uncle. He rang the bell again and told the steward to bring the photo of the admiral. Minutes later two stewards returned, struggling between them to carry a huge framed portrait of the man himself, big and resplendent in full naval dress-uniform. There was certainly character in those fine features and kind eyes.
      It was time for me to go and, on our return walk, the nephew told me that his uncle now paid constantly for the education of ten boys from the village. I wondered if those missionaries from far back ever knew of the fine crop they had sown with their educational seeds.
      Twenty minutes later we were lifting off and heading for our next location but my thoughts were with a small boy launching his primitive canoe and paddling off down-river for his rendezvous with destiny.

A true Short Story by Chris Crowther. Chris has recently published a novel titled "BladeStrike". You can reach him through his web site

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Last modified on April 13, 2007 .
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