South African pilot Rudolf Erasmus has been lauded by flight experts for a safe emergency landing after a highly venomous Cape cobra reared its head in the cockpit mid-flight.
Erasmus, who has been flying for the past five years, maintained his nerve as the cobra slid back under his seat as soon as he saw it.
He was flying a small aircraft with four passengers on Monday morning, from Worcester to Nelspruit.
Erasmus explained his dilemma to the website TimeLive.
“When we did the preflight [procedure] on Monday morning, the people at Worcester airfield told us they had seen a Cape cobra lying underneath the wing on Sunday afternoon. They tried to catch it themselves but unfortunately it sought refuge inside the engine cowlings. The group opened the cowlings but the snake was not there so they assumed it had slithered away,” he said.
“I usually travel with a water bottle that I lodge between my leg and my hip towards the side wall of the aircraft. When I felt this cold sensation where my love handles are, I thought my bottle was dripping. As I turned to my left and looked down, I saw the cobra putting its head back underneath my seat," ,” Erasmus said.
He said that for a moment he was stunned silent.
“I had a moment of stunned silence, not sure if I should tell the passengers because I didn't want to cause a panic. But obviously they needed to know at some point what was going on,” he said.
“I just said, 'listen, there's a problem. The snake is inside the aircraft. I've got a feeling it's under my seat so we are going to have to get the plane on the ground as soon as possible,” he said.
The flight was close to the airport at Welkom, so Erasmus declared an emergency with the control tower in Johannesburg.
“I told them I had an unwelcomed passenger. As soon as the aircraft came to a stop, we started getting out. The three passengers in the back came out first and then the one sitting in front with me,” Erasmus said.
“I got out last and as I rolled the seat forward, I saw it curled underneath my seat. We contacted a few people around trying to get some snake handlers but by the time they arrived it had disappeared inside the aircraft again,” Erasmus said.
Engineers stripped parts of the plane in an attempt to find the snake but were unsuccessful by the time night fell, when they decided to continue the next morning.
They also left some maize meal around the plane, to see if the cobra perhaps slithered out during the night, but this was still undisturbed the next morning.
Erasmus said they are hoping it found its way out earlier while they were waiting for the engineers.
Aviation specialist and SA chief air show commentator Brian Emmenis, who has been in aviation for 38 years, told the website Erasmus had displayed “the greatest skill in aviation”.
Emmenis said he had never heard of such a case in his four decades in the aviation industry.
“The weather was horrendous. The pilot had done well, having to concentrate on foul weather, having a cobra in his aircraft and four passengers to look after,” Emmenis said, adding that if the cobra had bit the pilot, he would have died.
“He is an absolute hero. He could have panicked. He could have put that aeroplane in an uncontrollable spin. He could have rolled the aircraft with passengers falling all over the show, and with the bad weather, he could have lost sight of the ground and crashed, not only killing those on board but also people on the ground,” Emmenis said.