07 Apr A Cobra Appeared Mid-Flight. The Pilot’s Quick Thinking Saved Lives.
A South African pilot is being hailed as a hero this week after he unexpectedly came face-to-face with a venomous snake 11,000 feet in the air.
The pilot, Rudolf Erasmus, 30, laughed about the incident in an interview on Friday, but he and his four passengers, all colleagues, were not hurling any “Snakes on a Plane” jokes on Monday, when he noticed a Cape Cobra, one of South Africa’s most dangerous snakes, slithering around the cockpit.
The group was on the second leg of its journey from the Western Cape to Mbombela, in the eastern region of the country, when Mr. Erasmus, a pilot for an engineer consulting company, felt something unusual. “I felt this cold sensation that was underneath my shirt, underneath where the hip area is,” he said.
He initially thought his water bottle was leaking. As he turned to the left, he saw the head of the snake under his feet. He estimated it to be between four and five feet long.
“I had a moment of stunned silence, like a moment of disbelief,” he said. “It’s as if my brain didn’t register what was going on.”
Not long before he set off for his journey that day, airport workers told him that a Cape Cobra had been spotted climbing into the engine of the aircraft, a Beechcraft Baron 58, a small airplane that seats just a handful of people. But no one found the snake before takeoff, he said, so it was assumed that it had left on its own.
Cape Cobras typically live in the Cape provinces of South Africa, but are also found in southern Botswana and Namibia, according to the African Snakebite Institute. A bite from this snake, which comes in a range of colors and can grow to more than seven feet in length, can cause progressive weakness, issues with the respiratory system and even death. Most snakebite deaths in the southern portion of Africa come from Cape Cobras and Black Mambas, the institute said.
On the plane, Mr. Erasmus was considering what to do next. He was scared that the snake would slip through to the back of the cabin and cause panic among the passengers. Knowing that, he spoke over headsets to say that there was an uninvited guest onboard.
“No one was panicking or getting hysterical about the snake,” he said. “And there was a moment of silence in the cabin. You could hear a needle drop.”
It didn’t take long for Mr. Erasmus to make arrangements to land at the nearest airport. “That was definitely the longest 10, 15 minutes of my life,” he said.
After landing, the passengers exited the plane one by one. Mr. Erasmus was the last to leave.
“As I was standing on the wing, I moved the seat forward a little bit, and I saw this snake curled up in a nice little bundle underneath my seat,” he said.
A snake handler later arrived on the scene, but, again, the snake was nowhere to be found. After two days of searching, and disassembling parts of the plane, its whereabouts remain a mystery.
By Wednesday, Mr. Erasmus had bravely decided to fly back to the Western Cape on the same aircraft — this time, covering up as many holes as possible. “I was not really in the mood to come to a face-to-face with that again,” he said.
Poppy Khoza, the director of the civil aviation in South Africa, praised Mr. Erasmus’s quick thinking this week. “Great airmanship indeed, which saved all lives on board,” she told News24.com, a local news site. “Such an amazing story and great handling of the situation by the pilot.”
Richard Levy, an aviation expert and retired American Airlines pilot based in Dallas, said it was rare for pilots to encounter such scary incidents while mid-flight. He too praised Mr. Erasmus’s quick and calm thinking, and said the extensive training pilots undergo prepared them for unusual situations.
Mr. Levy mused that Mr. Erasmus could now land a job at any major airline, if he wanted. “I give him an A-plus for how he handled it, mentally, and for a very successful emergency landing,” he said. “He’s a hero, in my mind.”
It’s now four days after the ordeal and Mr. Erasmus said he was shocked that his story had become so popular. He said that by Tuesday he had become overwhelmed with calls from reporters, friends and family.
He’s currently enjoying the long Easter weekend and planning to get back to work next week, flying the same aircraft.
This time, he’ll be much more vigilant before setting off, he said.