He has qualified for six different pilot's licences in his aviation life: From England, the USA, the Bermudas, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Germany. He has spent 2000 hours in helicopters; has flown with the English military many different aircraft types; has flown well-to-do businessmen out of Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Bermudas in the Learjet and the BAC1-11 half way around the world, and has sat in the left seat, more or less, of every airplane type which was at one time on the market. Nigel Ironside has flown the MD-11, which was introduced in 1998 to Lufthansa Cargo as a freighter, since 2005 and it is his 58th aircraft variation.
He calls himself a “gipsy-pilot”. However, he has been settled since 1988. Since that time he has had a German licence, and he is a sort of the Godfather for the Cargo pilots in Germany. As one could expect, he met his wife while flying. More precisely, he met her on a lay-over in Cairo. At that time, he was flying for an American airline. Barbara was a flight attendant with Lufthansa and also had a lay-over in Cairo. But this is still another story.
He would probably never have “landed” in Germany if he hadn’t stuck out like a sore thumb. Whoever gets around so much in the world, creates his own network. In June, 1988, when he was earning his wages with Evergreen International Airlines in Oregon (USA) while sitting in the cockpit of a McDonnell Douglas DC 8, a phone call from good old Germany reached him. Could he imagine recruiting qualified DC 8 pilots and flight engineers for a new cargo airline with the name German Cargo? The whole thing had only one snag: It should be in the bag in eight weeks time at the latest! After a good 60 days it was ready to roll. Nigel Ironside had his team together. A colorful troop it was: Belgians, Americans, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Canadians, Englishmen, Icelanders, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes and three Germans. On the 1st of September, 1988, the training began for the DC 8.
Today only one of the former colleagues flies for Lufthansa Cargo- he himself. However, from the former working relationships have sprung up true friendships: One calls up often on the telephone and gets together from time to time. Nigel Ironside regrets that there isn’t any sort of “regulars’ table”. However, the pilot's life-style stands in the way here- constantly on the go, sometimes ten days at a time. Anyway, the colleagues from old DC. 8-times are scattered around the whole world: France, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Brazil, the USA and South Africa. Ironside and his wife live in Obernburg on the River Main, 35 minutes by car away from Frankfurt airport. Their house stands on the highest point in town -just like it should be for an aviator-couple: Always nearest to heaven.
If he meets with his old colleagues, there is always a lot to tell. Even in 1988, although already 78 years old, air cargo aviation was now and again still an adventure: So also at one time was the approach to Bujumbura. At that time the town in Burundi was served, just as Entebbe and Kampala in Uganda, from Nairobi (Kenya) by a shuttle. As Ironside with his DC 8 was approaching Bujumbura one day, the tower-controller laconically informed him that he could land, but as far as it was possible, only on northern half of the runway- since in the south, rebels were presently exchanging shots with the country’s military in wild gunfights.
Thanks to a full braking, half of the runway was also sufficient. After the dust had settled, the crew tried to make a deal. At that time, at least in Africa, it would often occur that one had to pay the landing fees and the kerosene in cash in US dollars. So Captain Ironside sent the loadmaster (which at that time with flights to Africa was also on board) to the Tower with the instructions to pay only half of the landing fee. However, the man high above the runway remained adamant: “No, no, no- the whole runway was operating. I only said, as far as it was possible, you should avoid the southern part“.
In India, the feet of the captains were sometimes kissed. One day, during the loading process and during the outside check in Indian Madras (today Chennai), Ironside noted that four cargo- loaders in the rear cargo hold were about to loot the food for the crew which the aircraft should take on for the onward flight. When he complained about it, a stern, grim-faced man wearing a uniform appeared shortly, enquired about the four men, had them line up in front of the DC 8 and pulled out his Lathi - a traditional Indian fighting stick - then started to beat the alleged thieves. This was their punishment. Finally, to excuse themselves, the four had to get on their hands and knees and kiss Captain Ironside’s feet.
Perhaps the life of a cargo-pilot was earlier more exciting than it is today. One thing is certain- it was more demanding and less comfortable. In the cockpits, real manual labour still had to be done. Pilot and co-pilot still had to prepare the flight plans, procure the up-dated weather charts, while en route keeping the navigation constantly on track and sometimes even on arrival searching for a hotel. “If we fly today from Frankfurt to Dakar in Senegal“, tells Ironside, “we program the FMS computer once before the takeoff - and the machine automatically flies over the predetermined waypoints“. Earlier the numerous navigation points had to be tediously entered individually as co-ordinates during the flight.
„One of the last Mohicans“ (Ironside describing himself) says: „Many colleagues don’t know at all how comfortable they have it today“. Here, he’s really not referring exclusively to the equipment with high-resolution weather radar or the flight-management- system. “Today we navigate much more precisely- which is a boon to the people below in their densely populated communities”, the experienced pilot stresses and knows perfectly well from experience, “how much the autopilot relieves us and how, for this reason, we are thus able to concentrate on other jobs“.
Still, he is a little worried that in aviation, because of the progressive application of electronics, “the pilots could lose the basic instincts for the aeronautical fundamentals“. With Lufthansa one tries to take countermeasures in which, as far as possible, every start and every landing is flown by hand. Nigel Ironside is and always was a fully dedicated cargo-pilot, because in airfreight, on the one hand, one can carry out his work with greater peace of mind, the special “spice” which working on an airplane at its peak performance level brings, while always remaining a major challenge. ”There you must not ask the 350 people behind you for their understanding that the takeoff will be delayed, unfortunately, about 30 minutes because the luggage of a “no-show” passenger must again be unloaded. And you must also not ask anybody to take his seat because of expected turbulence and to fasten his seatbelt again“.
In the loading bays of his MD 11 everything is strapped down and lashed. And he doesn’t have to ask any mobile phones from China, roses from Kenya or luxury cars for Dubai for forgiveness if the flight schedule is slightly turned upside down.
He has had his share of illustrious guests in the cargo hold on more than one occasion. He has already flown jumping and dressage horses to the Olympic games in Sydney, has brought Argentinean polo-ponies for the Sultan to Brunei, carried a whole circus from the USA to Abu Dhabi, had thousands of day-old chicks aboard, has brought live dolphins from Moscow to South America as well as a rhinoceros, once, to be released into the wilds of South Africa.
He will not miss all this when he takes off his uniform in January of the next year and goes into partial retirement. He won’t mourn his MD- 11 either, because by then, he will have flown in his 64-year life-span nearly 47 years.
What he will miss, however, with certainty, will be “the many dear colleagues at Lufthansa Cargo“. “I will miss the people“, he says, “not the machines“. This is the so oft-quoted Cargo Spirit. There it is again.