One of the scariest experiences I’ve had in my career was crashing into a frigid glacial lake in the former Yugoslavia while on assignment for National Geographic.
I had hired a small, ultra-light, two-seater airplane in to do aerials over Bled Lake in Slovenia. The pilot flew down to the surface of the lake, very, very close — in fact so close that I told him to go up because we were only about five feet from the water. If I had wanted to be that close I could have hired a boat, but it was too late. The wheels got caught in the water and we couldn’t pull out. We went down and as soon as the fuselage and the propeller hit the water, the propeller blew apart.
We flipped upside down in the 40-degree water in the middle of February and immediately began to sink. The cockpit was not enclosed. The seatbelt was a jerry-rigged homemade device and I hadn’t studied it and couldn’t get it off me.
I realized I was going to die. I guess that part of your brain concerned with self-preservation kicked in, and I slid underneath the contraption, literally went underneath, and was able to swim to the surface. The pilot made it, but didn’t attempt to help me. My passport and equipment went to the bottom. Fortunately the pilot and I were picked up by a fisherman within ten minutes. Days later the plane was raised but all of my equipment is still 60 feet down.
There was another airplane incident in Africa. Again, I was on assignment photographing the Sahel, that band of land that separates the Sahara Desert from the grasslands of the Savannah.
We got lost flying from Timbuktu in Mali back to the capital of Bamako. We had left in a sandstorm and started flying along the Niger River. I guess the pilot’s navigational instruments weren’t working. He literally could not find his way back to the capital.
I watched him circling and I started to wonder what was going on. He came back down through the clouds. It was getting dark and there was a huge thunderstorm right in our path. The pilot dropped the small craft to search for his bearings.
Fuel was getting low, and we could never make it back to Timbuktu. To the south, an enormous black wall of clouds loomed from the horizon – a monsoon storm. In vain, for a half an hour we scanned the landscape searching for an opening. We had no radio contact, and and no navigational equipment. We prepared our last thoughts.
Finally, the pilot spotted a millet field, agonizingly small, but flat. As we thundered in, I watched the wheel of the plane miss a six-foot hole by a few steps.
We shuddered to a stop with a few hard bounces. Villagers ran out from the surrounding bush in wonderment as the sky opened up. We slept on the plane that night, and finally found a vehicle to take us back to the capital city of Bamako, fourteen hours of bone-rattling roads.