Beirut, the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kashmir, Chad, Libya, if something was happening then Charles would be there. From the late 1970s to the mid ’90s Charles organised emergency aid for war zones.

Drinking tea in a rural English sitting room I noticed a photograph tucked away on a bookshelf of someone who looked like Charles standing with someone who looked likeĀ MikaelĀ Gorbachev, I asked what he had been doing in Russia ?

I was in Moscow because I had to go somewhere called Perm. I went up there on a very dodgy aeroplane for a series of meetings about buying Russian aircraft.  We didn’t buy them. It was at the time the old USSR was breaking down and there were opportunities to make money. They thought they’d like to sell us some brand new aircraft to use in the West. 

“What didn’t you like about the aircraft ?”

The report that came back said they weren’t very good, they didn’t have capacity to carry very much,  I think we leased 5 or 6 to use in Ethiopia. We used them and their drivers to do airdrops.

Unfortunately Charles has mislaid many of the negatives from his adventures but there are some very interesting pictures.

“Can you tell us about your time in Beirut and about the photograph of a boy sitting on a shot up car”

I was there bringing in supplies for the International Red Cross, we were the only civilian aircraft allowed in by who ever was in charge of the airport. I went down there and told them it was purely humanitarian aid and the International Committee of the Red Cross would be distributing the food and water to all of the  different factions in Beirut at that time. Whilst I was there I thought I’d better have a look around Beirut. It’s an interesting thing that even in the midst of a civil war and awful hunger children are still playing. The boy was playing a copycat game, pretending to hold a gun and shoot people, he and his mates were re enacting what was going on around them, it was like a scene from a post apocalyptic film. 

“Did you say you were shot at whilst you were in Beirut ?”

Yes I certainly was, that was the first of three times where people have tried to kill me. I was running to a  restaurant from where I was staying. I put the Red Cross thing on my arm convinced that that would save my life. I was sort of walking and jogging past an area where there were lots of high rise flats and the old Holiday Inn, I’d been told they’d all been cleared but some of the snipers were still up there and as I ran along I could see the bullets going into the wall to the left of me and being very silly and very young I just carried on. I didn’t know what else to do. Do you stand still and make an easy target or do you run like the clappers ?

I did the latter and I’m still alive. I’m pretty sure it was hunger that was driving me on. It was one of the last restaurants in that area that was still open. They were a French speaking restaurant, we had quite a good natter, they thought I was completely off my rocker and shouldn’t do it again.”

“You mentioned you had a driver and you wanted to photograph a tank and your driver was getting quite upset ?”

I don’t know who was driving it but it was a Russian tank, I don’t think it was crewed by Russians. I thought that will make a nice photograph so I asked the driver to stop. He got all shirty so I asked him to pull up a bit further along and just wait whilst I did the shot. That was the same day they started to take hostages in Beirut. Although I’m not from there I have vaguely cosmopolitan looks so they may have thought I was from there. The driver thought he would be killed for stopping, he was very nervous.”

“Where were you when your driver crashed through a check point ?”

“That was the second time I was shot at. It was in a place called N’Djamena in Chad. There were a series of different checkpoints with ragtag troops with their AK47s. I don’t know what they were doing, they probably wanted money. When we got to the third one the driver just went all the way through so the two guards started shooting at the  minibus and bullets went through the rear screen. No one was injured but it was a bit scary, you could hear the guns firing. They were probably rubbish shots at aiming or maybe they just didn’t want to kill us but they certainly made their anger known so we turned on the driver and asked him why he hadn’t stopped and he said,  “Had I stopped we’d all be dead.”

“Did things get a little hot when you were in Libya ? You said you were in Libya when the Americans bombed Colonel Gadhafi.”

I was staying in a hotel in Tripoli, I was in charge of a team of 5 Americans. We didn’t have email then. we had telex machines. I went down to the hotel telex machine to see if there were any messages and there was a message saying Dear Charles, we don’t know how to tell you this but this morning US aircraft shot down two Libyan jets, our suggestion to you is either A. hide B. evacuate.  I went to explain to the Americans and they behaved very bizarrely, no one quite knew what the Gadhafi regime would do. I speak good French so “became” French which enabled me to go around and talk to the various security people who were saying it’s nothing just a bit of a dog fight in the Gulf of Sirte, don’t worry we are only after Americans.  I negotiated transport to take us to the aeroplane. We left all our stuff at the hotel as we decided we could always buy it again.  The tower refused permission to take off which we didn’t think was very positive so we waited half an hour and the tower then said we could take off. After take off we climbed to 5000 feet then dropped down and hugged the sea until we came to Malta which is the next reasonable sized airport then we declared an emergency. I can’t remember what we said but we sent a mayday and asked for an emergency landing. The Maltese said certainly so we landed. We didn’t leave anyone behind. I didn’t settle the bill because I had a debate in my head. If I settle the bill they’ll think we are leaving, perhaps they’ll stop us leaving. If they think we are just going to the airport to do a spot of maintenance there wouldn’t be a problem.

“Are you able to say who the Americans were ?”

I think we’ll just say a few Americans, I think they were pilots and engineers.  The whole time in Libya was very unfortunate. Two or three people decided they would take their chance and took a vehicle and drove to the border with Tunisia, I have no idea what happed to them, if they did or didn’t make it, they were part of another team. I don’t think we ever went back. I certainly didn’t, I was persona non grata. I could go back now as Gadhafi and his thugs have gone.

“Weren’t Libya and Chad at war in the 1980s”

I did go back to Chad where I saved the president. One evening I was sitting in an aeroplane talking to head office in San Francisco over something called Bern Radio which is a relay system; you call Bern in Switzerland and they patch you through via the phone to talk to people. On the other frequency I heard an aircraft broadcast a distress message. It was a Zairian Airforce plane asking for the runway lights to be turned on. I replied to say you are calling the tower at N’Djamena Chad but there is no tower its been blown up and there are no runway lights, so I suggest you go to your alternate which is what you tell aircraft when they can’t land, he came back and said we have insufficient fuel to reach our alternate. I sent a message to the UN camp asking them to bring cars up to light the runway. We put three cars at the end of the runway to show red lights, cars down the side to light it up and three cars at the other end with white lights.  With the runway lit he came blundering down and landed very nicely. I went back to the cockpit to talk to San Francisco then all of a sudden two very dubious characters turned up and said are you the pilot who brought that plane in?  I said yes, I thought I’d at least get a knighthood but they said you come with us. I’m very skittish about going anywhere with anyone under these circumstances. They weren’t very nice, I said I can’t come with you at the moment as I’m on the radio but I’m staying at this hotel so I suggested they contact me there. They said you must come now. I said I really can’t so we had bit of a lively disagreement, they wandered off in a sulk so I took the opportunity to get back to my hotel. I went to the restaurant as it’s safety in numbers but they had followed me. They came into the restaurant and just stood at the door staring at me then they just fucked off. 

“Maybe they wanted to take you to the president to personally thank you ?”

Quite possibly but it’s best not to take that chance. The president only died a few years ago. The plane would have crashed as it had little fuel.  In Ethiopia there was another civil war, I seem to have been to lots of civil wars. The situation was we had leased the aircraft from Ethiopian Airlines. We loaded an aeroplane up at Addis Ababa and we were to go to Asmara in Eritrea. At that time they were at war so we were having problems getting permission as planes were being shot at. I said to the guy at Ethiopian airlines I don’t mind sending my pilots into a war zone as long it’s for a good reason.  They assured me it was safe so I suggested they come with me then they can check for themselves. He bottled out at the last minute but we were ready to go, so we went to Asmara, the problem was we had all sorts of  things on board. We put the food on the manifest as for famine relief but as soon as we landed the military came along and took it. Then the other side being a bit miffed about the food started to mortar the airport. I was waiting with the  mayor of Asmara who wanted to be photographed in front of the food for PR stunt and as we were having the pictures taken mortars were going off so we thought the best thing to do was get out quickly . We did a barrel take off which is a bit like the ducking and diving I did in Beirut but in an aeroplane. We went back after the International Committee of the Red Cross had arranged a cease fire.

“When you used to get home you would be going from somewhere nasty to somewhere normal in the space of a day. “

Yes, there was a food camp in Mek’ele  and that was being run by Medicines San Frontiers and the Red Cross. There were thousands and thousands of people just sitting in silence. I asked the doctor why they were so quiet and he said they always go quiet just before they die. I remember getting on an aeroplane just after that conversation going from Mek’ele to Dubai to Miami. Within 24 hours I was making a speech in a five star hotel at an event and you never saw so much food in your life. The contrast was quite shocking. To go from a famine camp to too much food for anyone within the space of 24 hours was very weird, in fact it was all very weird. My head was in Mek’ele but my body was in Miami. I used to come home and not talk about it. 

William Lansbury 18th February 2022