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194 navigator Peter Briscoe and Fatty Pearson. (Imperial War Museum)

Who Was Fatty Pearson?

A World War II British foot soldier’s best friend in the air, and the man who rescued Ernest Hemingway.

In Africa, Pearson regarded himself as little more than a taxi driver, but the flying wasn’t always routine. The con­tinent presented a steep learning curve. “MMBA”—miles and miles of bloody Africa—was broken by abrupt geological aberrations such as the Great Rift Valley, on the east. Downdrafts were sudden and unnerving. Maps were unreliable, and nearly all landings had to be made on soft surfaces of varying trustworthiness. Pearson mastered the terrain’s challenges, as Hemingway’s story shows.

The boys had picked up the cot and carried it around the green tents and down along the rock and out onto the plain…to the little plane. It was difficult getting him in, but once in he lay back in the leather seat, and the leg was stuck straight out to one side of the seat where Compton sat. Compton started the motor and got in. He waved to Helen and to the boys and, as the clatter moved into the old familiar roar, they swung around with Compie watching for warthog holes and roared, bumping, along the stretch between the fires and with the last bump rose and he saw them all standing below, waving….

With his confident, sunny nature, Pearson was a good fit for safari work, “a terrific personality,” recalled hunter Romulus Kleen in Bror Blixen: The Africa Letters. He could easily hold his own in conversation with celebrity clients, ranging from Hollywood royalty to actual monarchs. Yet he was no snob—a good thing in the logistically demanding safari trade, in which teamwork with everyone, down to the lowliest cookboy, was essential. (I speak from personal experience: I was born in 1949 and grew up in Nairobi—our neighborhood bordered Wilson Airport, Pearson’s old base—and was no stranger to safari travails.) Fatty’s RAF ratings to fly multi-engine airplanes helped make him the right man at the right time. As head pilot, he was part of Wilson Airways’ ambition to be a scheduled mail and passenger carrier.

Wilson attracted Britain’s Imperial Airways as a shareholder. The fresh capital paid for eight twin-engine de Havilland Dragons. These included an advanced variant, the eight-passenger D.H.89 Dragon Rapide, whose elliptical wings and streamlined silhouette are familiar from old travel posters. Unadvertised to would-be tourists were stomach-churning thermals and hot, stuffy cabins.

We can picture what it was like on a flight from Europe down to Nairobi from a letter written by Pearson’s pal, professional hunter Bror Blixen. They were the only two aboard; Pearson was probably delivering the Rapide, while Blixen, a native Swede, was hitching a ride. The two friends had much in common, including reputations as bons vivants.

They crossed the Libyan coastline and landed at a village. Though the sun was setting, they decided to press east along the coast to Mersa Matruh in Egypt, which had accommodations. Fifteen minutes later, all was dark except a white line of surf. Then they saw the lights of Mersa Matruh. They circled low in hope of getting someone out to the airfield to light it up. No one did.

Guessing that a certain dark patch was the field, Pearson landed blindly, braked hard, and discovered that he had stopped five yards from the hangar’s door.

Another night dark beyond belief: monsoon season, 1943. Again, he was at the controls, again a good friend beside him: Wilfrid Russell. This time, Pearson was flying for the RAF; Russell, who recalled the incident later in his book Forgotten Skies, was a fellow wing commander. The usual occupant of the copilot’s seat, Pearson’s bull terrier, Sue, had been assigned to the rear with the only other human passenger, Russell’s terrified aide. No navigator. Their C-47, the military transport version of the Douglas DC-3, was deadheading back to India after delivering troops in Burma.

Below the aircraft, the Himalayan foothills climbed to 8,000 feet; ahead, also unseen, monsoon cumulus towered to 20,000 feet. Pearson’s attempts to skirt the massive cloud bank failed. Rain hammered on metal; lightning boomed.

“Whizzo,” said Pearson, impressed.

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