by JEREMY ALLAN
The great balancing act of writing literary non-fiction is determining how many words you can acceptably put into your characters’ mouths. Like other writers in my preferred genre, I cleave as closely as possible to straight reportage, raiding the novelist’s toolkit only when absolutely necessary for reasons of clarity, context, or dramatic tension.
In my case, though, as an observer of a foreign culture, another thorny issue is how many words I can put into my own mouth. Leaving aside first-person travel memoirs, which are fully intended to be the writer’s personal take on exotic places, for many readers the credibility of a book or article purporting to offer insight into a foreign culture is inversely proportional to the ubiquity of the writer’s own voice. In my previous two books, both of which explore the lives of Indonesians during times of great turmoil, I addressed this issue with the technique of popping up now and again in the narrative to provide essential clarification, my Western perspectives and biases on unashamed display, then receding into the background to let slightly fictionalised versions of Indonesian friends and colleagues do the expository heavy lifting. Reviewers and readers alike appreciated this low-profile approach, and I opted to continue my role as a minor character in my next intended book, a chronicle of a bicycle tour of the archipelago during which I would witness how people outside the main urban centers are dealing with the massive changes sweeping through their society. In June 2009, I hopped on my bicycle for a preliminary jaunt from Jakarta to Jogjakarta, and found myself not in the background, but at the centre, of one of the most important and compelling stories of the nation’s history.
I had spent the third night of my ride at a beach resort on the southwest coast. This was no accident. I am fascinated by Indonesia’s post-war struggle for self-determination as the Dutch tried to reestablish their colonial authority following the Japanese occupation of the archipelago. This unremarkable seaside village had been the site of a significant, but largely unknown, event in that history. On 7 June 1947, as the air blockade set up by the Dutch threatened to strangle the new nation at birth, a huge cargo craft had swept over the mountains and landed a few dozen metres from the spot where, 62 years later, I enjoyed a delicious grilled-fish dinner. I knew of this dramatic, but largely unremembered, incident because on another June, this time in 1986, I interviewed retired Air Force officer Petit Muharto Kartodirjo about the early years of Indonesian aviation history. Muharto introduced me to the remarkable story of Bob Freeberg, the American blockade runner who had lost his way among the mountains of west Java and been forced to land his war-surplus C-47 on that remote beach with only a few litres of fuel in his tanks.
Muharto himself had arrived at the location the following day. Aware that a Dutch patrol could overfly the area at any time, Muharto called on the revolutionary idealism manifest even in those isolated, hardscrabble settlements to mobilise hundreds of farmers and fishermen to fashion an improvised runway of bamboo matting. The plan succeeded, Freeberg lifted off and flew to the provisional Republican capital of Jogjakarta, where he was immediately commissioned to fly full-time for the Republic.
For the next year, Freeberg, with Muharto in the right-hand seat as mission leader and putative co-pilot, became an essential lifeline for the beleaguered republic. Flying by dead reckoning over endless tropical forests, deliberately avoiding the proximity of population centres where they might otherwise confirm their position, Freeberg and Muharto kept open the lines of communication between isolated Republican strongholds and regional capitals, playing an essential role in maintaining a functioning revolutionary government while Indonesia’s diplomats negotiated with the Dutch and sought recognition from the community of nations.
On 1 October 1948, shortly after Muharto had been reassigned to Air Force headquarters, Freeberg disappeared while ferrying a large quantity of gold to a Republican stronghold in Sumatra. Scattered pieces of wreckage were found thirty years later along the flight path, but the absence of identifiable human remains – and the gold – has remained an enduring mystery.
After completing my ride, I searched for images of Freeberg that I had seen in archival collections a quarter century before and that might have made their way into cyberspace. Indeed, among a number of blog posts relating to the Indonesian Revolution I found the dramatic shot of Freeberg’s aircraft lifting off from the beach as the improvised runway of metre-square bamboo mats scattered in the propeller backwash. I e-mailed the person who uploaded the image, mentioning the name Petit Muharto.
This person soon wrote back, asking: “How did you know my father?” My correspondent was Eko Muhatma Kartodirjo, Muharto’s eldest son. I replied with the details of my long-ago encounter with his father. Eko responded immediately, the astonishment seeming to leap from the words on the screen as he typed: “So you’re that guy!”
When we met in Jakarta a few weeks later, Eko told me that his father had been delighted with my profile of Bob Freeberg, and had shown the article to numerous friends and colleagues. However, in doing so he came to the appalling realization that few were aware of the story of Freeberg and his services to their nation. This experience led Muharto to write his own recollections for other Indonesian publications, and then, on his retirement, to devote his time to solving the mystery of Freeberg’s disappearance, eventually producing a lengthy manuscript. After Muharto passed away in March 2000, the family attempted to find a publisher, but the economic situation, and Muharto’s stipulation that the book first appear in English, the language in which it was written, had resulted in repeated rejections.
Eko handed me a ragged paper binder of photocopied pages. A series of housing relocations, a catastrophic computer failure, and other typically Indonesian organisational missteps meant that Muharto’s work survived only on this third-generation photocopy. The smudged characters on the cheap copy paper seemed only a few rainy seasons away from fading into illegibility, and I doubted that the contents were in any better condition than the medium. Retired military men of all cultures are prone to write sunset-years’ memoirs of their exploits. Very few rise above turgid, detail-heavy catalogues of logistics, strategy, and mess-room politics. I casually leafed through the pages, then sat back and gave the tattered manuscript my undivided attention. The ripping yarns of dashing blockade runners that had enthralled me a quarter-century before had been complemented by an equally compelling detective story. Years of painstaking research in musty archives and heartbreaking interviews with elderly witnesses had revealed Bob Freeberg to have been a pawn to the diplomatic intrigue, criminal malfeasance, and political betrayal that had accompanied the birth of Muharto’s nation.
What I held in my hands was no less than the story of Indonesia itself. During his year as Freeberg’s official but wholly unqualified co-pilot, Muharto had visited all the Republican-held regions of the former Dutch colony, and had realised the enormity of the task of building a viable nation from such a patchwork of cultures and traditions – and with political agendas ranging from hardline Stalinism to secular democracy to radical Islamism. Petit Muharto himself reflected the contradictory nature of his people’s struggle for self-determination. The beneficiary of a Dutch education in schools for selected children of the “native” elite, he had firmly believed that his new nation should be administered by fellow graduates – the best and brightest of the indigenous upper crust slipping into the polished shoes of the colonial civil service. But Muharto had also embodied the romanticism that fuelled the struggle at ground level: the passionate fervour that drove village youths to attack Dutch positions armed only with pointed sticks; the right stuff that emboldened novice pilots to harass Dutch facilities by lobbing bombs from the cockpits of decrepit Japanese biplanes; and the stoic determination that helped millions of common people endure fearful privation to keep alive the dream of a free Indonesia.
Muharto had seen these noble ideals fade over the years as regional, social, and political self-interest threatened the integrity of his still-inchoate nation. He had been particularly incensed at how the narrative of the founding of the nation had been hijacked by the military officers who had assumed power as the civilian government imploded through corruption and incompetence in the mid nineteen sixties. By exploiting the penchant for forgetting most of their history and mythologising the rest, they had recast the struggle for independence as solely the work of village boys attacking Dutch positions with their pointed sticks, disregarding the essential role played by the Air Force in connecting the Republic’s far-flung outposts, and the contributions of foreign sympathizers like Bob Freeberg. By solving the mystery of Freeberg’s disappearance, definitively refuting Dutch accusations that he had betrayed the Republic and stolen the gold, Muharto not only wished to clear his friend’s name and assure his place in Indonesian history, he also hoped to remind a new generation of the values that drove the creation of their nation, values that were not exclusively Indonesian, but shared by all decent people in the world.
I could now understand the family’s steadfast determination to publish the manuscript. Since I had been largely (if inadvertently) responsible for initiating the project, Eko proposed that I take over as co-author and do whatever necessary to see the book through to publication. That would require an extensive rewrite, but not because of any lack of literary ability on Muharto’s part. He had feared, quite reasonably, that his revisionist history, in which an American free-booting pilot is shown to have played an indispensable role in founding the nation, would have raised rabid howls of jingoist outrage. To ensure that his conclusions would be analysed critically and dispassionately, Muharto presented results of his research with meticulous care, fully documented and cross-referenced, and expressed in pedantic, dispassionate English, a language Muharto had mastered in childhood.
This posed a serious dilemma. Working from an English source, I did not have the natural leeway afforded a translator. A cursory comparison of the book with Muharto’s magazine articles (now readily available on the Internet) would indicate that I had made significant changes to the book. I could openly acknowledge my contribution, in effect reducing Muharto to little more than a researcher, but in doing so I would destroy the essential value of the book to Indonesians. For my depiction of this seminal period of national history would certainly be derided as the story of Indonesia being told, yet again, by some bloody foreigner.
A current thread in Indonesian intellectual discourse asserts that the nation must take command of its own narrative, to determine how Indonesia is portrayed to a global audience. This is a valid position. Reports of Indonesia in the international media are dominated by sensationalist catalogues of failed-state horrors. To most of the world, “Indonesia” is only a word in a newspaper – invariably appearing alongside such terms as “natural disaster”, “Islamic terrorist”, or “human-rights abuse.”
Those wishing to counter this tide of glib misrepresentation insist that Indonesians themselves must generate articles, books, and films that appeal to readers and viewers outside of specialist bookshops and art-house cinemas. Indonesians must tell simple, compelling stories of their nation and people in English and other world languages, with the inherent credibility of first-hand experience.
Like everything else in Indonesia, this is far easier said than done. While Indonesia has a storytelling tradition the equal of any great nation: the rich mythology of the wayang, the sophisticated activist journalism of the early years of nationhood, and the vibrant literary and film-making scenes of contemporary urban centres, as a nation they have been reluctant to, or uninterested in, reaching out to the world. This has many causes: an innate insularism, a minimal culture of reading – even of practical economics. The relative handful of young Indonesians with the resources to gain native-speaker fluency through extended residency abroad on their return gravitate toward gleaming offices in corporate suites, not grimy cubicles in newspapers and magazines.
By default, foreigners have taken on the task of explaining Indonesia to the world. Some have done the job remarkably well. Sympathetic colonial officials, anthropologists with a literary bent, and even some tourist guidebook authors have served both Indonesians and their foreign readership with sensitive and knowledgeable depictions of the sprawling archipelago’s history, culture, and people. But the writing (or film making) of a foreigner, no matter how empathetic, can only provide a glimpse through a grimy porthole onto an alien landscape. Unless it was told in Petit Muharto’s own words, the story of Bob Freeberg would be dismissed as another foreigner’s fanciful misrepresentation of Indonesian history.
When I met Petit Muharto, he was in his mid sixties, and embodied every ageist stereotype of a lively older man: he was sprightly, he twinkled. He had also been an engaging raconteur, so Eko and I had little difficulty recreating from our memories the scathing critiques and wry observations (and scandalous adventures) he had so candidly expressed in conversation but had omitted from the printed manuscript. With the addition of some historical background for the sake of non-Indonesian readers, and an epilogue covering events from Muharto’s death to the date of publication, we finally had a publishable book. I may be listed as co-author of Bob Freeberg and the Mystery of RI-002, but the story, and the voice that tells it, wholly belongs to Petit Muharto Kartodirjo.
The following is an extract from Jeremy Allan’s forthcoming book.
After several months of contract piloting for CALI and other charter airlines, Bob Freeberg joined forces with another adventurous young American pilot named Bob to purchase an aircraft and set up an independent aviation-services company. Like Bob Freeberg, Bob Walters was certified to captain a C-47, the military version of a DC-3, here generally called a Dakota, the British military term for the aircraft. The Dakota was the aviation equivalent of a pickup truck: reliable, simple to maintain, able to fly in almost any condition and to land (and take off again) on the roughest airstrips. It was ideally suited to pioneer the new aviation opportunities in post-war East Asia.
The two Bobs agreed to jointly buy and operate a war-surplus Dakota. Finding the aircraft was the easy part. Clark Air Force Base, the huge American facility near Manila, was full of surplus aviation hardware: North American P-51 Mustangs, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, Curtiss C-46 Commandos, and, of course, Douglas C-47 Skytrains. Bob once took me to Clarke, where I stood at one end of a row of parked C-47s and could not see the other end. He claimed that they had purchased the Dakota for ten thousand dollars, though I was not surprised when I heard from other sources that they actually paid much less.
The two Bobs eventually quarrelled, with neither making an effort to obtain civilian registration. Officially, the Dakota remained war surplus. One day, when Bob Freeberg wanted to inspect the plane, it was not at its assigned parking spot, nor anywhere else in the airfield. He immediately suspected the other Bob, but kept quiet, not confronting his partner directly. He soon learned from sympathisers where Walters had hidden the plane. Now it was Bob’s turn to steal the Dakota, flying it to an emergency field in Malabon on the northern suburbs of Manila.
When Bob later took me to the dirty and neglected field I was astounded that a C-47 could land on the short gravel runway, hemmed in by houses at both ends. In time, though, I learned to take my friend’s extraordinary piloting skills for granted, and could relax in the air knowing that what seemed to be reckless manoeuvres were, in fact, well within his ability to keep the aircraft under perfect control.
Bob would soon need to test his skills again, as he realised that he could not keep the Dakota hidden for long. He decided that his only viable option was to fly the plane out of the Philippines. He believed Walters could easily track him down in Singapore, Bangkok, or Rangoon through the many veteran pilots operating out of those cities, so he opted for the only place where he could be assured of a welcome and where Walters could not find him: Jogjakarta.
Bob recruited two Filipino flight mechanics to accompany him on what he explained as a “test flight.” If the mechanics wondered why this “test flight” was conducted at night, they did not ask questions. In post-war Philippines, a job was a job. But they were certainly surprised when the aircraft, once airborne, headed directly south, landing four hours later at Labuan to refuel. They knew they had been fooled, but their love of adventure won out, and they put their trust in this young American pilot.
They would soon discover how much adventure this impromptu flight had in store. Bob was navigating from a chart with a scale of one to ten million: Java was only ten centimeters long. Flying over an island lying near the north coast of Java, Bob decided that he had flown over Bawean, which on his chart is represented by a small dot in the Java Sea. In fact he had flown over an island in the Karimun Group, some three hundred kilometers to the west. He continued southward, following what the chart indicated would be the correct bearing from Bawean to Jogjakarta — until he reached the south coast of Java, with a large town nowhere in sight.
Thinking he was still far to the east of his actual position, he headed westward, searching for familiar landmarks. Spotting a railway line, Bob remembered how, on the CALI flight some weeks previously, we had followed such a railway line when disoriented by heavy cloud cover. At the time, I had explained that only two lines traverse the center of Java, one hugging the north coast, so Bob had every reason to be confident that following this line west would take him directly to Jogjakarta.
Bob was therefore dumbfounded — and not a little concerned — when it terminated in Purworejo. He flew north to south over unfamiliar mountainous territory until both the daylight and his fuel were almost finished. In a final desperate effort, he searched for a long stretch of flat, sandy beach on the south coast. Spotting a suitable stretch of shoreline, he set the Dakota down without a scratch, with only a few litres of fuel in the tanks.
Bob opened the rear cargo door and looked out to see, in the fading light, nothing. Then, he saw points of light behind the palms on the beach. As a few heads appeared at the tree line, unsure whether to approach, Bob shouted out the only words he felt someone would understand: “Captain Petit Muharto, Jogjakarta.”
The remarkable news of an aircraft that had dropped out of the sky onto a remote beach in southwest Java, and whose foreign occupant asked for a Captain Petit Muharto, reached me early the following day. I immediately reported to Suryadarma, who agreed that this was worth an official investigation. On his orders, I flew to Tasikmalaya, the nearest airport, and met Pang Soeparto, a lieutenant with the Republican Army Siliwangi Division, which had jurisdiction over the area. Pang organized a jeep to take us, along with two barrels of aviation fuel, to the beach.
We arrived shortly before dusk to see the Dakota, still in camouflage colours and with no markings at all. It was not a bit damaged, indicating that the emergency landing on this unprepared strip of sandy beach had been a masterpiece. During the journey, I had assumed that this had been an unannounced blockade run gone wrong, and wondered who might be the pilot. I knew that landing on an unprepared beach in fading light would require piloting skills of a high order, and that being in such a situation in the first place indicated an adventurous pilot. Therefore, as we drove up to the Dakota I was not in the least surprised to see Bob Freeberg, unshaven, unwashed, with the bright expression of cheerful optimism that I would remember, fondly, long after Bob himself was gone. It was Bob’s typical good fortune that the sand at the time of landing, near nightfall, had been moist and compact. But now, after two days of hot sun, the sand was dry and loose and the wheels had sunk twenty centimeters.
“Two days ago I kept rolling and rolling when I landed,” Bob said. “But now the plane doesn’t budge an inch, even when I apply full power.”
Bob introduced me to the two flight mechanics, whose love of adventure had overcome their quite-justified annoyance at being, basically, shanghaied. They were enjoying this mystery trip to an unknown destination, proudly explaining that the beach landing had been beautifully done and they were happy to be alive.
“The skipper is a good pilot,” one of them volunteered.
Quite typical of this optimistic pilot’s lack of familiarity, even naiveté, of the political and military situation in this former Dutch colony was his suggestion that we should contact a Singaporean firm to ship perforated steel plates by landing craft to the beach. I had to remind him that this was out of the question considering the Dutch naval blockade. Over a hundred villagers were standing closely around the plane, some of them running their hands along the fuselage, unable to believe that such a colossus could fly. By this point almost every Indonesian, even those living in remote areas, had seen an airplane in the sky; but few had seen an aircraft up close. In this hard-scrabble seaside village, the landing of RI-002 was, I am sure, a welcome diversion. Life was hard even in the best of times in this remote corner of Java. The villagers eked out a living through fishing, rice cultivation on the narrow strip between the coast and the Parahyangan range, and for the “lucky” few, penurious wages working on nearby rubber plantations.
So, as usual in those times when even the most basic necessities were often unavailable, we improvised a solution using whatever was on hand. We had little time. Many residents of this region remained sympathetic to the Dutch: chances grew with each passing hour that the news of Bob’s landing would reach Batavia and prompt the dispatch of an air patrol. The first attempt to make a runway of woven coconut leaves failed, as the strips could not take the weight of the Dakota. By this time, hundreds more villagers, some from tens of kilometers away, had descended on the village. I looked at the dense crowd of farmers and fisherman and had an idea.
The houses in this village, as is typical in Java, were constructed of woven bamboo matting attached to wooden support poles and beams. Bamboo is strong as well as pliable: a mat could easily support the heavy Dakota. Pang called together the heads of each village along that stretch of coast. Using both our authority as military officers and appeals to the desire for independence from the despised Dutch overlords, we convinced the leaders to mobilise the residents of their respective villages to weave a total of five hundred bamboo mats, in size and shape similar to the walls of their houses. We would need the mats by the next dawn, as a departure at first light would give the Dakota extra lift from the cool morning air.
The mats were delivered right on schedule. The four-square-metre mats, fashioned from five-centimetre-wide, one-centimetre-thick bamboo strips, represented prodigious – and wholly voluntary – effort by these impoverished villagers. They now faced yet another back-breaking day in the rice fields or in fishing boats. I hoped they had not lost a night’s sleep in vain.
I ordered the bamboo laid in two three-hundred-metre strips in front of each landing wheel. As the mats were being put in position, Bob and I had the first of many disagreements which would mark the time of our professional collaboration. I felt the mats should overlap in the direction of travel, while Bob insisted on the opposite. I forget which of us prevailed on that occasion, but I do remember a spirited argument.
The Dakota would take off with thirty minutes’ total fuel, the ninety-two octane fuel I brought from Tasikmalaya mixed with the remaining traces of one-hundred octane fuel from Labuan. We dug the main landing wheels out of the sand and, with engines roaring and scores of villagers pushing, rolled the heavy Dakota onto the matting and into position for takeoff. Pang Soeparto and I joined Bob and the two mechanics on board.
“Now, watch the air speed,” Bob told one of the mechanics, who was sitting in the right-hand seat. “As soon as we reach sixty, get the flaps down full, okay?”
Off we went. I felt a sudden heave as the flaps went down and we were airborne. We made a wide shallow climbing turn over the Indian Ocean, then passed over the landing site to see that the matting was scattered all over the sand by the propeller backwash. We landed in Tasikmalaya thirty minutes later, with no fuel to spare.
Leaving the Dakota in the capable hands of the two mechanics for a thorough inspection and re-fuelling, Bob and I boarded a waiting Nishikoren, a fast monoplane, for the flight to Jogjakarta to meet with Suryadarma. Our pilot, Soenario, or Butet, as we called him, was one of the remarkable success stories of our fledgling air force. A year before he had been a village boy who had barely seen an airplane. Now, after only rudimentary instruction on decrepit Japanese wrecks, he was at the controls of a nimble, powerful military aircraft. But I had every confidence in Butet, which was good, as he was the only one of us wearing a parachute.
We wedged ourselves into the open rear cockpit, Bob plumping his large frame onto the seat lying flush on the bulkhead, me squatting between his feet, face-to-face. To forget the discomfort during the thirty-minute flight, I studied the features of this remarkable foreigner: sky-blue eyes set in a cheerful, snub-nosed face. The eyes, somehow, were both piercing and gentle, the eyes of a man who would forgive you any mistake — if made only once.
Bob did not speak during the entire flight, as speaking would be difficult over the roar of the powerful engine and the wind whipping past our ears. But I regarded Bob’s innate taciturnity as fitting for a person of such preternatural skill and confidence. Here was a man who had flown his aircraft single-handed on a fifteen-hour flight to a destination in a foreign country he had visited only once before, by a very different route, and guided by a chart that showed important navigational landmarks as mere specks in the ocean. Nevertheless, he could land on an unprepared beach and take off again from an improvised runway, all without much fuss. At the time, I wondered whether he was extraordinarily skilled, incredibly lucky, or just an incurable optimist. In the following months, I would come to realise that he was all three, and more besides. Crammed into the open cockpit of what was currently the most advanced aircraft in our armada, I saw clearly how the Dakota, and Freeberg himself, could serve our revolution. Here was an opportunity to do things off the beaten track – new ways to outsmart the enemy.
The briefing with Suryadarma took less than thirty minutes. Bob was asked to return to Manila that same evening with a cargo of twenty-nine cases of quinine and eleven cases of vanilla beans. I would accompany Bob as mission leader. The rest of the crew consisted of the two Filipino mechanics, Boediarjo as radio operator, and Pang Soeparto, who would represent the Republican Army’s Siliwangi Division, the owner of the cargo.
There was one more important issue to consider. Since neither Bob Freeberg nor his partner had bothered to register the Dakota, it was effectively illegal in the world of international aviation, like an automobile without license plates. An unregistered aircraft full of cargo and passengers landing in another country would certainly encounter difficulties with customs and immigration officials. However, under international aviation regulations, the entire Republic was included in the Netherlands East Indies air territory. Aircraft domiciled in the territory were issued a registration consisting of “PK” followed by three digits. Since simply making up a “PK” registration number would also be illegal (like an automobile owner fashioning his own license plates) we decided to create our own registration system and hope for the best.
I suggested that the designation bear the initials “RI”, for Republic of Indonesia, followed by three digits. Suryadarma gave his approval, and, again on my suggestion, the call sign RI-002 given to Freeberg’s Dakota. At first Bob did not agree, claiming the call sign RI-001 for his plane, since his was the first civilian craft of the Republic. But he conceded when told that RI-001 was reserved for the future presidential plane. So, on 9 June 1947, this war-battered Dakota was christened RI-002.
We returned to Tasikmalaya immediately on the Nishikoren. We waited briefly as the refueling and loading of cargo were completed, then flew the newly christened RI-002 to Jogjakarta. Once there, we did some hasty packing, and had a quick meal and short rest while the RI-002 marking was painted on the tail and the vanilla beans loaded. At fifteen minutes before midnight we set off for Manila.
At the Labuan refueling stop, no one commented on the RI-002 markings. As in centuries past, this strategic port on the north coast of the island of Borneo, astride the busy mercantile routes of the South China Sea, was indifferent to nation and politics, caring only that the ships that docked (and now the aircraft that landed) had money to spend or goods to trade. An hour later, with full tanks and great anticipation, we began the final segment of our journey.
During the uneventful final leg to Manila through clear skies, Boedi, Pang, and I discussed our situation, and tried to plan our next move. We had no idea of the kind of welcome we could expect in the Philippines, considering that my compatriots and I carried only minimal personal documentation (the Republic of Indonesia had yet to issue its first passport) and our aircraft was identified only by a made-up registration number from an unrecognized nation. We could not even announce our imminent arrival. At the time, all international telegraph and telephone communication from Java passed through Dutch-operated switching centers in Batavia. And Boedi, try as he might, could not get the radio working. Discouraged, we all looked to the cockpit, where Bob, calm and composed, showing no sign of fatigue after an exhausting day, was on his twelfth hour at the controls. We turned to look at each other, our faces seeming to say: “Let’s just do it, come what may!”
As we approached Manila, Bob asked me to sit in the copilot seat to operate the flaps. Neither of the two mechanics were qualified as copilots, so they could not take the seat for fear of sanctions should aviation authorities discover that they had operated controls while in Philippine air space.
I had joined the Air Force to fly, and now I finally found myself at the controls of an aircraft in flight. Not surprisingly, I was quite nervous. When Bob was on the downwind approach, he had put the flaps in the one-quarter position. Now, on the upwind approach, he asked me to set half flaps. I knew how to do it, but maybe because I was nervous I overshot the neutral position. The plane sank frighteningly (it seemed to me). Without a word Bob added power and put the flap in the half position.
He only smiled and said, calmly: “Be careful not to pass the neutral position.”
I apologized, and did not repeat my mistake when ordered to put three-quarter and then full flaps on the final approach. After landing we were asked to report immediately to Department of Civil Aviation officials. I had assumed they would ask about the unfamiliar registration, and so had prepared a speech asserting the legitimacy of the Republic of Indonesia and what we considered to be our legal right to administer our own airspace. Instead, however, an official asked Bob to identify his copilot. This was evidently a requirement for a Dakota on an international flight. Bob looked around helplessly until I stepped forward and said: “I am the copilot!” After all, I had been sitting in the right-hand seat when we landed.
“Please show me your license,” the official said. I hesitated for a moment, then took out my Air Force identification card. In Indonesian, it read: Muharto – Opsir Udara III. Muharto – Air Officer Third Class. On the reasonable assumption that none of the Filipinos could read Indonesian, I supplied a creative translation: Muharto — Pilot Officer Third Class. They were satisfied and I was officially a pilot. Nevertheless, thanks to the Dutch, it would be months before I would fly again.
Jeremy Allan, a Canadian, has lived in Indonesia since 1980. He is the author of two books, Jakarta Jive and Bali Blues, both telling the stories of common Indonesians during the social upheavals after the fall of Soeharto.