I’d spent the best part of the last hour peering anxiously at the sky, praying that the staggered patches of blue wouldn’t diminish any further than they had already since the early hours of dawn. Although the November temperature still hadn’t dropped below 20°c, the clouds had been gathering a little more of late, the rains were coming. Not today I hoped. This was the day that Omar and Charles go flying.
Omar, a student of mine with a pilot’s licence, had recently suggested that I might like to see Calabria from the air and maybe take some photos so I’d really been looking forward to this day….a true ‘Winning Over Italy’ experience.
“Hey Professor, I hope I’m not late.” Omar greeted me outside the little airport in Reggio. “We have time for a coffee I think.” We headed into the concourse and the little coffee bar beside the news stand. “Two espresso grazie.” Omar asked the barista. “The weather isn’t too bad but I think perhaps we will have to change my idea. I had thought we’d head over Gambarie and the mountains but the cloud is too low today, I’m sorry.” “No worries Omar, just getting a bird’s eye view of the city will be fine for me.” I assured him. “Perhaps you’d like to see where I work before we take off?” He offered, keen to make sure my day was not a disappointment. Now this was a real bonus. You see, Omar is one of the lucky few who’s able to combine his passion with his job. As Sovrintentdente with the ‘5° Reparto Volo della Polizia di Stato’ he spends much of his working week in a police helicopter…a technician with the flying squad. I was going to get rare access to a world that few knew about.
It felt quite cool being escorted round the back of the queue taking their belts and jackets off waiting to go through airport security. In the police office Omar signed an official looking form while an officer in Raybans checked my ID. “OK, you may pass.” We headed down the back stairs and out into the warm air that swirled gently off the tarmac…the weather was holding. After a quick visit to the flying club to register our proposed flight Omar guided me round the back of some large hangers and into the Polizia section near the start of the runway. A huge open hanger greeted us, two single engine planes and about six helicopters in various stages of maintenance and preparation were arranged tightly inside whilst on the apron two further whirlybirds sat ready and waiting for action. I went immediately for the camera. “Ah, wait a moment.” Cried Omar. “It’s OK if you take some pictures of the helicopters outside but please don’t take any with a policeman in it…they mustn’t be seen on the web, even pictures of me, I’m sorry.” It took me a moment to understand the request but I quickly realised that the Polizia in Italy, especially in the south, have to work in more unusual circumstances compared to other forces. Protecting their identity is therefore of paramount importance. “Ah, right. Of course, I completely understand Omar.” We spent the next hour looking round the craft while Omar explained their function and the technical aspects of their work.
“You will probably recognise most of these helicopters from movies like Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam stories. They’re all standard U.S. Bell machines which have been adapted for our work. This is one which is mostly used for search and rescue.” He said as he helped me climb into the pilot’s seat of a helicopter which had been stripped out to accommodate stretchers and with a control console that had more switches and dials than a 48 track mixing desk. “This is most of the work we do, helping people who’ve been caught in floods or landslides…like in Messina last year. Or sometimes it’s sailors who’ve capsized. I’m the one who has to go down on the winch and help them, so I have to trust my colleagues with my life.” He laughed. “We have to always be friends as we depend on each other…we get very close.”
We walked into the hanger to watch one of his unit put a new camera, mounted under the fuselage, through its paces. “This man’s an expert with these cameras.” Said Omar. “Some of our work involves watching the traffic or football crowds when Reggina play and of course if there’s a bank robbery we have to be ready to help the Polizia on the ground. They’re about to go up and do some training on this new camera I think. We can watch them take off if you like.” We stood back at the edge of the compound and waited as the crew wheeled out the helicopter and got it ready. “So what made you decide to take up flying.” I asked.
“Well about nine years ago I was just an ordinary policeman in Palermo, Sicily, when the opportunity came up for me to transfer to this unit in my home town. I decided I wanted to become a pilot because it would help my career and fell in love with flying….I’ve been qualified for eight years now . I spent many years studying and training to be a technician with the military in Lazio and now, thanks to my English, I’ve been accepted for training as a helicopter pilot. It means I have to go away for training for maybe 8 months and then I will probably be posted to Palermo again. I’m very excited about this…it’s been my dream.
We watched as the rotors burst into life and the huge blades began to spin, ponderously slow at first but soon picking up speed until the incredible blast of the wind they created made it difficult to look without shielding your eyes from the dust storm. Slowly it rose and hung a few meters above the tarmac before turning back on itself at an angle and soared away above us. A wave and it was gone.
We walked over to our own craft for the day. Fuelled and ready, Omar made a few checks before he strapped me in and handed me my headphones. “We can talk in English to the control tower if you want.” Suggested Omar. “It’s the international flying language and good practice for me, and you’ll understand what’s going on.” We taxied to the end of the runway and waited for the all clear. The tiny plane felt smaller than the inside of a M.G. Midget and I was a little anxious my big feet weren’t going to interfere with the dual controls as we took off. “Make sure you don’t put any pressure on the pedal controls.” Warned my pilot, as we trundled and bobbed our way down the runway towards the sea. We hardly seemed to be doing any speed at all before suddenly there was a heave and a lurch and…..we were airborne. Gradually my grip on the camera resting between my legs relaxed and I dared look down. The city spread out below us and to our right as Omar made a heading northwards across the bay and along the coast. “I think we should avoid the city while the helicopter is in the air, they’ll be patrolling the autostrada testing the camera. We’ll head up the coastline, OK?”
“Fine by me.” I nodded. We rose to 2,000 feet and hugged the shore line, Sicily to the left and the mountains of Calabria to our right. It was incredible to see the little inlets and coves, little hamlets that nestled round sandy bays occupied by a handful of tiny vessels. This was something that you can’t see, even from the coast road that winds its way around the foot of the mountains, bundles of little secrets that only now I know exist. I must spend more time exploring these places I thought, they look beautiful. From above you could see the odd villa with their swimming pools perched on rocky outcrops, steps leading down to their own private harbour. It was fascinating. “This is called the La Costa Viola.” Said Omar pointing along the mountains that rose from the sea. Aptly named indeed, for the soft light gives them a distinctly purple hue, almost as if they were covered in a carpet of heather. We flew on for another half hour, over Scilla, towards Tropea before my pilot turned us round to head back. “OK.” He said. “All yours!” He took his hands off the joystick and indicated I should take mine. “No it’s quite alright.” I said, panicking a little. “You fly. I’m quite happy taking snaps. However he insisted so I found myself flying us back towards Reggio. I was surprised at how sensitive and light the controls were and it took a minute or two of swaying about before I got the ‘feel’ just right. This was fun.
We headed a little inland as I wanted to fly over the monastery that sits high above Reggio and looks so intriguing from the road. Soon we were approaching the city and Omar took over again. The radio crackled into life as Omar contacted the helicopter crew to find out their location. “Look out below.” He instructed. They’re about a thousand feet below us, see if you can spot them.” After a moment or two I saw them, hovering above an empty football pitch a little to the south. Watching the detectives…. watching them watching you. We dropped our height a little and flew over Reggio, over the Saturday market, the castle and the stadium, watching life carry on… connections made, arrangements met.
As we landed the first spots of rain began to decorate the windscreen. With a gentle bump we were back on terra firma just in time. On the way back to the terminal I thanked Omar for a fantastic morning thinking that this would be a once in a lifetime experience. “Listen.” He said, why don’t we go for a week in Croatia or Crete sometime…or both. We’ll take the bigger plane and have four of us go where we please. It’s what I do as often as possible…it doesn’t work out very expensive and you don’t have to bother with check-ins or security checks.”
Mmm, maybe it’s time to broaden my horizons. ‘Winning Over the Med’ perhaps.
Many thanks Omar…..A true gentleman. Good luck with your career!