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Hugh Pryor of Horsham

Hugh Pryor

I was born in 1944 as the youngest of six children. My father was a vicar in Upper Broughton, Nottinghamshire. He was killed at Normandy ten days after I was born, having never seen me.

My mum lost her husband and two of her brothers during the war. I don't know how she handled everything, but we had a large family and they all lent a hand. We left the Rectory and moved south to a village near Reading.

We grew up in a beautiful place by the river, and I did have a privileged upbringing. My father went to Eton, as did my grandfather, who was a merchant banker. So along with my three brothers, I attended Eton.

I have fabulous memories of the place, although I wasn't very bright and took O' level Maths seven times. I went to Eton in an era when the teachers had survived the war. Nowadays, a teacher goes to school at the age of four and never leaves. And they're now teaching other people about life? They don't know anything! The guys who taught me were missing limbs!

Whilst at Eton I made a film on deep sea trawling. Two of us went to Grimsby and met up with a fishing family. We filmed this extraordinary way of life over two months. We tried to sell it to the BBC, but they turned their noses up at it so we sold it to Dutch television instead. There were a lot of things like that at Eton, as the place was just full of ideas.

I was beaten once by the head teacher. I was hopeless at Greek, and we were taught by a bad tempered, difficult man. I mentioned that I thought he was a bugger and so I was sent to the head teacher. He said 'I'm afraid I'm going to have to flog you.' But getting a beating was a badge of honour. You'd have to go to the gent's afterwards and show all of your mates your arse!

After school, I did Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) as they had stopped National Service by then. I signed on as an Apprentice aboard a ship and that took me to New Guinea, where I stayed for two years in a mountainous, tribal region that had only been discovered by Europeans a few years earlier.

The extraordinary thing about the tribal people was that they were genuinely Stone Age. They had beautiful stone axes, and hand-carved arrows. I still have a 'man killer' arrow from my visit. The funny thing about these people was that, although they were seemingly from a different millennium to us, they had the same sense of humour as us.

I started off with the Australian Inland Missionary, making airstrips, before working directly for the Australian government. A letter took six weeks to reach England, but we had a radio so we could call Port Moresby and then be patched through to Brisbane, Sydney and then London. I called my mum to wish her 'happy birthday' in 1964. I said 'Mum, you have to remember I'm on a radio, so when you finish talking, say 'Over' so I know when to talk.' She replied 'Okay dear, I understand. Over! Oh, and your Aunt Mary says...'

I returned to England, intending to go back to New Guinea, perhaps as a teacher. So I went to college and wasted four years on a teacher training course. My diploma was in remedial education, but I only taught for one year.

In the window of a tobacconist in Cambridge, I saw a beautifully carved meerschaum pipe for sale at £2,200 and thought 'I reckon I could make one of those!' I bought a black meerschaum pipe and carved a face on it. I christened it at a black tie dinner, where it was seen by a chap who happened to work for a specialist in such pipes. He asked me if I could make a dozen of them, and I agreed. Two weeks later, he called to say the pipes weren't selling. I said 'Give them one more week and put the price up from £5 to £25. The whole lot went in two days!'

Sadly, pipe carving never worked out for me, so I carried on teaching, until I received a letter from my cousin, Sue Wood, who farmed on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. She wrote: 'I want you to come out and join us. Bring money!' They had two farms there. One was on the plains on the bottom of Kilimanjaro and the second was a smaller 1500 acre farm up the mountainside. We grew barley seed for sale in Europe. It was high quality, as each grain was hand-picked by 63 ladies, and we were paid a fortune for it. We had two crops a year, because we were right on the Equator.

My initial aim was to build a dairy. We had a hilarious time doing that. A milk parlour has to be clean, but of course there are cow pats all over the place. You need a trench behind the cows to catch the cow pats, and one day my cousin Hugo and I drank a whole bottle of whiskey trying to work out the exact trajectory of a cow pat. We got it absolutely right!

I was there for about six years, when Sue said 'I want to see you in the office.' I thought that maybe it was time for me to go home, but Sue said: 'I've been speaking to the family about your future here on the farm. If you're going to stay here, you should go to Nairobi and learn how to fly.' So I went to Kenya and got my licence in 1972.

My crop sprayer was a 1947 Piper Super Cruiser. We sprayed 24d, a broad leaf weed killer, but I had to stop spraying at 9am as the wind takes the spray to neighbouring farms. I was getting so good at this crop spraying, flying with the wheels right on top of the crop, and one day I completely forgot to check my watch, and I carried on and killed an entire coffee crop! That cost me a box of Johnnie Walker Black Label.

Having a plane was vital, as Tanzania was communist so you had to fly to Nairobi for supplies. It was only 120 miles away, but too dangerous to drive. We lost friends who tried, mainly from hitting giraffes.

The farms were nationalised in 1975. My family lost the entire farm, although I effectively stole my aeroplane and my car from the government. We went from having a very comfortable life to having not enough money to buy one beer in one week. They turned our world upside down. It was an interesting experience.

Julius Nyerere, the President of Tanzania, was a great friend of ours and would stay on the farm. He broke the news to us, but I didn't feel any resentment towards him. He was a modest man and was on a mission to bring equality and get rid of tribalism in his country. In the end he sadly pushed his nation to the brink of starvation.

I took a job making airstrips for the Flying Doctor service, mostly in Tanzania, so there was light at the end of the tunnel for me. That involved flying a little plane, finding somewhere to land, asking a passer-by where you were and making a mark on the map! Most were out in Maasai land, and we would put some white painted tyres down to mark both ends of the runway.

Miles Barton, who was the official flying doctor pilot in Tanzania, was killed in a tragic accident, and I had to step up and take on his duties. It meant that I had to get a commercial pilot's licence and begin a proper career in aviation. I had three main jobs. The first involved setting up clinics, so the Doctor would show me an area where they needed to set one up and I would find somewhere to land. The second role was flying the surgical team to hospitals in order to carry out operations, and the third was the air ambulance, which was the work that attracted all of the media attention!

We went out to all sorts of jobs. I remember an American lady who went and patted a buffalo on the nose, and the beast just tossed her around. She was very badly hurt.

I had married Annie, who was a secretary at the company where I bought the farm plane, in 1976. Two years later, her former boss wrote a letter to me on a piece of toilet paper of all things. He ran a company called Taxi Joey in Khartoum, a city in Sudan, and wanted me to fly for him. I didn't really want to leave the Red Cross, but he offered a lot of money. It was a fantastic salary but they never paid me!

Fortunately, I landed on my feet with my next job. A friend of mine came over from Oman. He said 'We have two Pilatus Porter planes in the air wing in Oman and nobody can fly them. Would you like a job?'

I didn't know anything about Oman beforehand, but it's a lovely country. The Omanis are super people and I had the best time of my life. But I didn't have a military background, so they were not entirely sure if I was qualified. So they called me Major Pryor TLPME (Total Lack of Previous Military Experience). All I did was fly planes. They had units out in the desert that we would re-supply, and we also flew on search and rescue, and anti-piracy patrols.

On one occasion, we flew to Bahrain and on the way back had to stop in Dubai. It was just before Christmas, so us pilots had taken a massive order for duty free whisky from our friends in Oman. This was highly illegal. We loaded up the duty free with a forklift truck, and took off at night. When we were coming in to land at Muscat, we suddenly heard a Learjet approaching at the same time. On board was the deputy police commissioner, who was a verydangerous man. If he'd have seen the load, he'd have put us in jail! So my friend George used the
intercom and called Tahir in the rear of the plane, and said 'Make sure everything is covered up. I don't want them to see how much whiskey and cigarettes we have on board!' A strange voice came back saying: 'Charlie Delta, you're transmitting on the approach frequency...' We gave a box of whiskey to the control room lads for keeping quiet!

After four years in Oman, I worked with Ziegler for 16 years. My first job for them was flying for a seismic survey company in Yemen. Then I was contracted by them to work in Libya for oil companies such as Schlumberger and Agip, and in Algeria for BP. Ziegler also did a lot of work with the Red Cross, so I flew in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, and all over Africa.

I was flying in Ethiopia during the great famine of the mid-1980s. The Red Cross had seven aeroplanes there at that time. I had never seen anything like that in my life before. You opened your door in the morning and there would be a lady holding her baby dead. It was a harrowing experience, and humbling too.

I think that was the most harrowing experience of my life. The Ethiopians are very nice people and they were being decimated by a terrible man, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

We were based in Mek'ele in the northern Ethiopian mountains, flying from there to distribute food to the areas in need. It was well organised by the Ethiopian Red Cross. The Ethiopians had to dip their finger in an ink bottle once they had taken their share of food, and you could see them all trying to rub It off so they could get some more!

Flying could get quite hairy at times. Angola was particularly bad, and we lost many planes in Sudan when I was flying for the United Nations. That was shortly after the genocide in Rwanda, and the UN were trying to rebuild
infrastructure and communications again.

The only time though that I was shot at was in Mozambique. We went to a place called Meringue, a government garrison in the middle of rebel territory. The Red Cross had a good system, whereby we flew over our destination at 3000ft, circled around the perimeter so they know you are not a threat, and if the airstrip is safe there would be a white sheet at both ends of the runway. On one occasion, there was just one white sheet at one end, so we did our circle but then bullets started hitting the nose of the plane! We flew back safely but we were not happy as people did not shoot at Red Cross aeroplanes. We complained to the military and the Meringue commander said that they had fired tracers in front of us to warn us of danger below, but that we had flown into the bullets!

Before retiring, I spent the last four years in a tent in a rather unpleasant place in Sudan. Don't get me wrong, we had a lot of fun, as I was flying some of the most interesting, challenging people in the world. But sometimes it wasn't pleasant. As we were contractors for the UN, we weren't allowed to stay in their super tents with en-suite
toilets. Although we at least did have a bar!

One night, I was having a beer and a lovely blonde forensic scientist from Yorkshire came up to me and said: 'Hugh, we've run out of books to read. Go and write us a book! You write articles for magazines, so just make them a bit longer!"

I wrote myself away to a little hunting lodge in the middle of winter in northern Scotland. My first book, Run and Break, was published in Kenya as a paperback and sold pretty well so it's now here as an E-book.

I've also written Point of No Return. It's about President George Bush and his 2003 African tour. He was supposed to visit Nairobi but was diverted to Tanzania and Uganda. The reason was because Special Forces raided a house in Isiolo, north of Mount Kenya. Six suspected terrorists were detained and they found a box with a nuclear bomb inside. Well anyway, that's the story, and who knows, it might be based on the truth...

I am still very close to all my siblings, who are all still with me. My eldest brother had his 80th birthday recently. We hired a train on the Bluebell Railway, which was great fun!

I also write for two aviation magazines. I thoroughly enjoy writing and illustration, so I have written a children's book too called Aunt Effie's Family. I'm trying to get as much work published as I can.

One of the more interesting occupations which I have enjoyed since my retirement has been doing washing up duties every Tuesday, at 'The Centre', the little Christian Bookshop in Horsham town centre. Sadly, it closed at the end of February, leaving all us volunteers and their rather eccentric customers in limbo!

Run and Break, as well as Don't Bank on It, both by Hugh Pryor, are available to download as E-books