An Unexpected Problem at Eleven Thousand Feet
On Monday, the 3rd of April 2023, a twin-engined propellor plane departed from Worcester in the Western Cape of South Africa, the largest town in the region and about 120 km from Cape Town.
The pilot, with 2,000 hours over the past five years, was a first officer for a local airline as well as a part-time flight instructor.
The aircraft was a privately owned Beechcraft 58 Baron, a light low-wing aircraft developed as a twin-engine variant of the Beechcraft Bonanza.
The Baron 58 is a long-body version with more powerful engines and six seats.
On that day, the pilot had four passengers on board for a private flight to Nelspruit Airfield near Mbombela, with stops at Bloemfontein and Wonderboom National Airport.
The first leg was uneventful and they landed at Bloemfontein for fuel and food. They departed for Wonderboom and climbed to their cruising level of 11,000 feet. All seemed to be well, when the pilot suddenly felt something cold against his hip.
He thought at first that his water bottle, which he kept between his legs, had leaked, allowing the cold water to seep into his shirt. But then he felt the distinct slither of something cold across his lower back.
He looked down and saw a large, golden-coloured snake disappear under his seat.
The distinctive colour told him that this was probably a Cape cobra, a common snake in the Western Cape.
The Cape cobra is one of the most dangerous snakes in South Africa, with a highly neurotoxic venom. A bite from the Cape cobra can cause paralysis, respiratory failure and, if untreated, can kill a man in as little as one hour.
The pilot did not wish to be that man. He described the snake as “quite a big fellow” and said that although he was not particularly afraid of snakes, he was aware that the cobra’s venom could kill.
He contacted Johannesburg air traffic control and declared an emergency. They needed to get on the ground as soon as possible. He decided to divert to Welkom Airport as their closest option.
Then he sat quietly for a minute or two. He didn’t want the passengers to panic but if the snake simply appeared in the back, that would be much worse.
Obviously they needed to know at some point what was going on. I just said, listen, there’s a problem. The snake is inside the aircraft.
He told them that he was pretty sure that the snake was under his seat and that he needed to get the plane on the ground as quickly as possible. Welkom Airport was about ten minutes away.
Welkom is a small airport in the Free State province, with a single 2,000 metre runway. A recent local news article described the airport as “dilapidated, vandalised and ravaged.” Although there is a tower there, presumably from better days, it is a non-towered airport with no air traffic control. Pilots broadcast “blind” with their intentions to let all other traffic know what they are doing. This meant that there was no one on site who could assist the pilot with his approach to the airfield.
A local well-known aviation personality who worked for a Welkom radio station got a phone call. He was told that there was a young pilot who had a Cape cobra crawl into his shirt and asked if he could help.
He talked the pilot through the details of landing at Welkom and called fire and rescue to meet him at the airport. Then he rushed to the airport himself, arriving just before the pilot landed.
The Beechcraft Baron landed safely. As soon as the pilot could bring it to a halt, he asked the passengers to disembark as quietly as possible, in hopes of not frightening the cobra. He stayed in position until they were clear and then climbed out onto the wing. Then he leaned back into the cockpit and moved his seat forward. The snake was still there, curled up and quiet.
He estimated that it was about four foot long. For reference, I am four foot eleven inches tall, so it seems to me the cobra was just about big enough to solo a Cessna 152.
A snake handler arrived soon after but to everyone’s dismay, he was unable to find the cobra. He searched until dark, when it became unsafe to continue. He sprinkled Mielie meal (a type of coarse-ground corn meal) around the aircraft so that if the snake tried to slither away in the night, they would see the tracks.
The following day, an engineer came and carefully removed the seats and panels. Still no sign of the snake. By now, it was becoming clear that the cobra had slipped into the aircraft at Worcester. On Sunday, the day before the flight, two people at the airport had seen a snake under the wing of an aircraft, possibly the Beechcraft Baron. They took a photo of the snake and then tried to “grab” it, which seems a dubious plan at best. They lost sight of it and assumed it had slithered away. This is probably the point at which it escaped into the plane. The snake handler, who confirmed that the photograph was of a Cape cobra, guessed that it had crawled into the wheel duct and then along the wing assembly until it came out in the cockpit.
After two days of searching, however, there was still no sign of the cobra, and the Beechcraft Baron needed to get back to its home base at Mbombela. The pilot agreed to take it for the 90-minute flight. He wore thick clothing and wrapped a blanket around his seat. He had a fire extinguisher and insect repellent in easy reach, as well as a golf club, although I can’t imagine how you could fight a snake off with a golf club in the cockpit of a light aircraft.
The passengers decided that they would return home by road.
The flight was uneventful. The maintenance team stripped the entire aircraft but the Cape cobra was never found.
The pilot expressed some concern for its well-being. “I hope it finds somewhere to go. Just not my aircraft.” This was, he said, not something he had ever been trained to handle.
And a special thanks to Keyan for alerting me to the incident!