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Out of Africa

Pilot freed after month in custody

POSTED: September 23, 2009 4:00 a.m.
Michele Hester Dawson Community News/

Commercial pilot Bobby Young enjoys time with his dog after being jailed and held for close to a month in Sierra Leone for what the country called an illegal landing.

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A commercial pilot from Forsyth County isn’t planning to fly back to western Africa anytime soon, if ever.

  

Bobby Young took off Aug. 15 from a London airport carrying corporate executives to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where two of the passengers own a fishing company.

  

He returned home Sept. 14 after a month in captivity. The unexpected stay resulted from his arrest for what officials in Sierra Leone, a country known for government corruption and bribery, claimed was landing the aircraft without permission.

  

Back home, Young still shakes his head in disbelief, noting he was “a victim of circumstance.” The pilot went the first couple of days without food and water and lost 15 pounds while in custody.

  

“I never felt that my life was in danger,” Young said. “I just didn’t know how long it was all going to last.”

  

His wife, Jenny Young, said her husband makes it sound so simple, despite “having to endure that and in filthy conditions.”

  

“I had seen the movie ‘Blood Diamond,’” she said of the film set during the Sierra Leone civil war in 1999. “I wouldn’t even look on the Internet to see if I could learn anything about where he was being held. I knew if I did, I’d let my imagination get the best of me.”

  

Some of the couple’s friends did research the country and soon learned about similar arrests where suspects were held for years on bogus charges and without trials.

  

“We just prayed that wasn’t going to happen,” Jenny Young said.

  

Luckily, Bobby Young was allowed to call home on occasion.

  

“So I knew he was not being physically abused,” his wife said. “But just the fear of not knowing the outcome, if it was going to take 12 weeks, 12 months, 12 years to get him out of there. It was almost like you were living in a dream or a movie.”

  

Bobby Young’s story sounds like something out of a movie.

  

Following a layoff due to corporate downsizing, the veteran pilot accepted a high-paying position over the summer with United Kingdom-based MK Airlines.

  

With just a day’s notice, the job took him to London, where he filed international flight plans and left for Sierra Leone.

  

About 12 miles outside the country, Young and a co-pilot from Cartersville were notified there was no landing order on file. They were told they couldn’t land the plane, even though it was low on fuel.

  

The news caught them off guard.

  

“We understood all of our permits were in place,” Young said. “We had national security clearance to enter the country. Our flight plan was accepted, and we had a verbal agreement with the ground handlers that we would either receive our landing permit number en route or upon landing he would meet us on the ground.”

  

Such arrangements are not uncommon for international flights, Young said. But in this case, the man who had been paid to take care of the task did not follow through.

  

“We didn’t have the fuel to go to any alternate airport at this point,” he said. “We radioed back and declared an emergency. It was either land at the airport or in the water, and we chose to land on the pavement.”

  

Once on that pavement, the two pilots and six passengers were met by dozens of angry, armed men and arrested for entering the country illegally.

  

Early reports from Sierra Leone media outlets indicated the commuter plane Young piloted may have been the same aircraft suspected of previously bringing cocaine into the country.

  

Young said he learned of the suspicions later, after authorities found nothing illegal on the plane.

  

“It was about the money,” he said.

  

The group was incarcerated at the airport for several hours before the passengers were released. The pilots were the only people officially charged in the incident.

  

Several more days passed without word on when they would be released.

  

In the meantime, friends and family scrambled to come up with the $100,000 they thought they would need to get Young home.

  

MK Airlines hired attorneys in Sierra Leone, hoping locals would have less difficulty getting the men released.

  

“Once we knew the charges were dropped and we knew it was just going to be fines, it was a sign of relief,” said Bobby Young, who’s still employed by MK Airlines.

  

In addition to a $20,000 fine, Young estimated the airline paid thousands of dollars to officials to get him released.

  

Still, hours turned into days and days to weeks before the fines were settled and the pilots allowed to leave the country.

  

Young had been detained about two days before he could contact his wife.

  

The couple’s 7-year-old son still has no idea what his father went through.

  

“One day we may tell him, but right now he just thinks dad was on an extended trip, and he’s home now,” Jenny Young said.

 

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