In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement

In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement

by John Heminway


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In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement by John Heminway

The remarkable story of one woman's search for a new life in Africa in the wake of World War II--a life that sparked a heroic career, but also hid a secret past.

Dr. Anne Spoerry treated hundreds of thousands of people across rural Kenya over the span of fifty years. A member of the renowned Flying Doctors Service, the French-born Spoerry learned how to fly a plane at the age of forty-five and earned herself the cherished nickname, "Mama Daktari"--"Mother Doctor"--from the people of Kenya. Yet few knew what drove her from post-World War II Europe to Africa. Now, in the first comprehensive account of her life, Dr. Spoerry's revered selflessness gives way to a past marked by rebellion, submission, and personal decisions that earned her another nickname--this one sinister--working as a "doctor" in a Nazi concentration camp.
In Full Flight explores the question of whether it is possible to rewrite one's troubled past simply by doing good in the present. Informed by Spoerry's own journals, a trove of previously untapped files, and numerous interviews with those who knew her in Europe or Africa, John Heminway takes readers on a remarkable journey across a haunting African landscape and into a dramatic life punctuated by both courage and weakness and driven by a powerful need to atone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524732974
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/13/2018
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 112,022
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

JOHN HEMINWAY is an author and award-winning filmmaker who has produced and written more than 200 documentaries on subjects as varied as travel, brain science, evolution, and natural history. He has won two Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and a duPont-Columbia Award. Most recently, he is known for his exposés of the illicit ivory trade. In Full Flight is his sixth book. Heminway lives in Montana.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 John Heminway

Prologue: THE END

On February 6, 1999, a mob of yellow-billed kites circled Wilson Airport in Kenya, the busiest civil aviation hub in all Africa. The carrion birds had just left the nearby Nairobi slum of Kibera and were exploiting an uncommon void in the airspace over the runways. They might have been honor guards as they circled above a cortege of Land Cruisers, sedans, and buses out of which poured mourners: women in dated frocks and men stiff in regimental blazers, shiny at the elbow from age. Here and there, Ismaili and Sikh women, exiting minivans, arranged their saris. The great majority of arrivals were African, dressed in clothes reserved for church, weddings, and death.

Within the hangar only a few found seats; otherwise, it was standing room only. None could recall Wilson Airport so hushed, with all airplanes tied down, as a mark of respect.

East Africa was in mourning for its celebrated flying doctor Anne Spoerry (pronounced Shpeuri), felled by a stroke four days previously at age eighty, still in harness to her life’s calling, helping the rural poor. Over a thousand people found space in the Flying Doctors’ hangar to pay last respects. The ceremony rang with the solemnity of a state funeral. Many had traveled from overseas, and no sector of Kenyan society was lacking. Infants strapped to their mothers’ backs, creaky-limbed elders, a colorful array of tribes, Asian merchants, Europeans, Americans, government ministers, the diplomatic corps, and unattended children all jostled for sight lines in the echoing metal building.

Dr. Anne Spoerry had spent nearly fifty years in Africa, tending to the health of over a million patients, drawn mostly from the far corners of Kenya. It was said no other physician could match her industry, tenacity, and productivity in the cause of Africa’s wellbeing. As a sole lifeline for the poor, it was not uncommon for patients to declare her a saint.

In the hangar the mourners were a study in devotion, stifling coughs, eyes flickering from emotion, minds reliving the triumphs of her life. The sight of Spoerry’s Piper Lance PA-32 plane, known throughout Kenya as “Zulu Tango” from its call sign, 5Y-AZT, drew many to reach for handkerchiefs. Positioned front and center, both coffin and airplane were draped in tropical garlands. For those who once awaited Anne on ribbon-thin airstrips, this Africa-scarred machine spoke of endurance and courage. Zulu Tango had been their sole glimmer of hope in a land begging for miracles.

Over the course of Spoerry’s long career, no place had been too far, no airstrip too risky, no patient beyond caring. Inside the echoing hangar, eulogies ran long, with every speaker heaping praise on the doctor for her no-nonsense style, strength, and compassion. An elderly woman whose broken arm Dr. Spoerry had set years before likened her to Mother Teresa. Another called her “an angel from heaven.” Wherever she landed, she was greeted as “Mama Daktari,” Mother Doctor—a sobriquet that met with Anne’s hearty approval. When an unscheduled speaker, footsore from travel, rushed the podium, mourners checked their programs to see if they had missed something. He was a tall, dignified farmer, dressed in his one suit, confected with the red dust of Africa, and a tie that was black and borrowed. All leaned forward to hear his love sonnet. In linen-soft words, he declared that Dr. Spoerry had saved not just him but entire villages. He was here at the urging of his community to reassure all Dr. Spoerry would never be forgotten—not in the far corners of Africa, in this generation or the next. When he finished with a barely audible “God bless you, Mama Daktari,” the Kenya Boys’ Choir burst into Ave Maria. Soon the chanting bridged into a song of old Africa with one lone alto, repeating “kaa maisho marefu,” live forever, against an alto chorus and the beating aorta of a drum. The finale cued six strong men to lever open the hangar doors. As they did, a laser beam of noonday sun formed a corona over Zulu Tango, prompting a woman to confide, “The doors of heaven just opened.”

Pallbearers hoisted the casket into the hold, then jockeyed the plane onto the apron. Outside, a throng of Wilson Airport personnel, most in coveralls, bowed their heads to honor the woman who, for over thirty-five years, they had guided safely home.

Dispensing with preflight checks, the Flying Doctors’ chief pilot, Jim Heather-Hayes, red up Zulu Tango’s engine and was soon airborne. Almost immediately, he dropped a wing and banked hard. He had one last time-honored African ritual to perform before setting off for an Indian Ocean island, 290 miles to the east. Leaning into the controls, he drove Zulu Tango at the hangar, scattering the kites and missing the roof by mere feet. Later he recalled that as he rocketed over the heads of the mourners, the uttering white handkerchiefs evoked a white-capped sea.

Once he had burst through equatorial clouds, Heather-Hayes set a course for the coast. From the ground, even when Zulu Tango was a mere pinprick, a few mourners continued to wave, as if trying to will Anne Spoerry back, for one last farewell. Many viewed her final flight as a death knell of individualism, a paean to an older Africa of boundless dreams and extravagant passions.

But Africa has a gift for concealment. This funeral was not only a tribute to a much-loved caregiver but also a triumph of transformation. In 1948, when Anne Spoerry set foot in Africa for the first time, she was consumed by two dreams: one was to disappear, the other to start over. Admittedly, she was not the first to use the continent for cover. With great spaces and laws begging to be broken, Africa lends itself to secrets. In Anne’s case, it rearranged a past of staggering complexity into a future of endless possibilities. Even now after half a century, her secrets were still safe. Among those who loved her—I include myself—no one knew what plights she once faced, how she had survived them, or the miraculous way she reinvented herself on this continent of endless beginnings.

At the time of Anne’s death, I, like the rest, believed her decades in Africa was the only narrative that counted. So overcome was I by Africa’s loving farewell and my own fresh memories of her I would set out to write her biography. In it I would showcase the exponential power of the individual—how one astonishing soul can bring hope to the world’s forgotten, on a colossal scale. Mine would be a tribute to Anne’s indefatigable will to better the lives of the down- trodden, an affectionate memoir of a blazing career, propelled by idealism on the greatest stage of all—Africa.

Then I learned the truth.

Chapter One: That’s All I’ll Say 
I first began chasing down Anne Spoerry long ago, in 1979. At the time I knew only headlines, with dozens of questions left unanswered. Was she French or Swiss? Was it conceivable she had only learned to fly late in her forties? What drove her to risk her life for a cause virtually of her own creation? Why had she never married? Was it true the desert nomads of Northern Kenya know exactly the hour and which thorn tree when where to gather by to await the sound of her approaching plane? Who did she answer to? Why did she conceal her past? Why had she really come to Africa?

Friends resorted to generalities, painting Anne Spoerry with the broadest of brushes: skilled aviator, gifted doctor and rousing character. As a freelance journalist, I was regularly on the lookout for heroes and originals, and Anne Spoerry seemed to tick off all the right boxes: a bigger-than-life personality, exceedingly self-reliant, and driven to fulfill a remarkable African calling, on her own terms.

I began with a formal letter requesting an interview. No response. I wrote again and again she did not answer. Finally, in February 1980, I called. The exchange was brief. Dr. Spoerry said she had no time for journalists and nothing to contribute to an article. Her terseness put me off. Was this a show of modesty or bad temper? Did she really believe her life was of no interest? In March, I called again. This time she answered straight away and sounded a different note—she was curious, faintly warm and, best of all, had five minutes to spare that afternoon. The date was 10 March 1980.

With thunderheads heaped above the Ngong Hills, I drove to her office, closeted in a pre-war bungalow beside Nairobi’s Wilson Airfield. She greeted me in mechanical monosyllables that cut through the high-octane rev of a country in love with aviation. Her firm handshake hinted that she had done her share of rotating props on bush strips and winching Land Rovers out of swollen rivers. As I settled into a straight-backed chair and jimmied my notebook from my bush jacket, I followed her scalpel eyes and did my best to affect an air of calm.

With Dr. Spoerry I hoped to discover a common core—a shared passion for Africa. Should we become friends one day, I would tell her my Africa tale—how, as a 16-year old, I set sail along with three other schoolboys and a self-proclaimed explorer, for Cape Town on the Winchester Castle, a refurbished Liberty Ship; how from the moment the ship’s horn sounded in Southampton, the word, “Africa,” became a fixation, tantalizing me with freedom I lacked at home. My fellow passengers appeared to have stepped out of a Somerset Maugham short story. A freshly minted missionary was bound for an outpost in Northern Rhodesia; a breakfast beer drinker, having failed as a prizefighter, was returning to Natal to take up sugar farming. One Lancashire family sought their fortune in the mines of Southern Rhodesia, a saucy girl, disappointed by Britain, was returning to Piketberg to grow apples and to break up with her tiresome boyfriend. By the makeshift pool, and in a dark paneled saloon, I threw liars’ dice, drank Pimms Cups, listened to tales of the veldt, and tapped my foot in time to songs of the Great Trek. I had staked everything that in Africa, I, all of 16, would find my way.

Braced for transformation, I spent the last night of the two-week passage lying on hemp ropes in the bow. When dawn mists cleared, Cape Town’s perimeter landmark, Table Mountain, all lavender, towered to port. Soon, Malay stevedores jousted us to the dock. The gangplank was barely in place when I took my first African footstep. Straightaway I crossed a threshold into the epic.

It only got better. In South West Africa we climbed into a cave with a 2000-year-old petroglyph of a warrior, in the Kalahari Bushmen fled from our Land Rover and, at night herds of elephants ghosted past our cots, under the stars. When I fished the Zambezi, amber eyes cut the river’s surface and ghosted towards my knobby knees. Stunned and seduced by Africa’s ferocity, generosity, and primal heart, I barely slept for two months.

Now in Anne Spoerry’s office, after twenty years of knocking about the continent, I was ready to acknowledge a kindred spirit. Surely, she too must be a victim of “le mal d’Afrique,” the Africa passion. As she organized the clutter on her desk, my eyes ranged around the room. On a shelf lay a model of a dhow, the wooden ships that traded along the East African coast for well over 2000 years. To the right were Makonde carvings of stylized, emaciated women, propped against thick medical tomes. She had not yet bothered to frame a munificent commendation honoring her “ten years of service to the Foundation,” signed by “His Excellency Hon. Daniel arap Moi, The President of the Republic of Kenya and Commander in Chief of the Kenya Armed Forces.” Notebooks were stacked willy-nilly on her desk, and at her feet, lay two kikapus, sisal baskets, bursting with the bouquet of fresh fruit and vegetables. The moment I began my pitch, Dr. Spoerry interrupted: “OK, meet me tomorrow morning at eight. Sharp. Otherwise I leave.” 

Table of Contents

Prologue: The End 3

Chapter 1 That's All I'll Say 7

Chapter 2 If 23

Chapter 3 La Coquille 40

Chapter 4 We Are Finished 48

Chapter 5 A Pukka Place 65

Chapter 6 The Emergency 83

Chapter 7 The Piper 97

Chapter 8 Miss Mary 118

Chapter 9 L'Enfer des Femmes 129

Chapter 10 Begin the Beguine 144

Chapter 11 Dr. Claude 155

Chapter 12 No. 40 Flat Heels 174

Chapter 13 Rabble of Communist Fomenters 200

Chapter 14 The Scorecard 210

Chapter 15 The Wrong Side of the Binoculars 220

Chapter 16 I Know What I'm Doing 230

Chapter 17 I'll Be Back 245

Chapter 18 Hiding in Full View 260

Epilogue: In Memoriam, Africa 270

Acknowledgments 273

Notes 279

Bibliography 307

Illustration Credits 315

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In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
KHartnett 11 months ago
Fascinating book – very well researched and written in a way that kept me riveted. Anne Spoerry was a hero, a dedicated doctor who flew thousands of miles in her tiny plane around Africa to help people most of the world ignored (and ignores). Her "back story" is the sort one could not make up – including a well-hidden young adulthood spent at the opposite end of humanity's spectrum – assisting the Nazis as they terrorized and murdered. Heminway's regard for his subject did not keep him from facing hard truths or from digging deep to understand the life she led. This is a book for anyone fascinated by the contradictions of human nature or who loves being transported to another time and place. Africa is as much a character as the humans in this story.
WSSimmons More than 1 year ago
A really remarkable book…I read the first 100 or so pages as I would my favorite Graham Greene novel (The Power and the Glory maybe or Our Man in Havana) – a bit languorously, not wanting it to end, simply enjoying the beautiful writing and riveting storytelling. The Ravensbrück passages I read like I watch a suspense movie, fingers poised on my brow in case I needed to close them like a blind on a terrifying tale. I feel like I’m just back from the four corners of Kenya, its dusty airstrips, exotic coast, teeming Nairobi. Thank you, Mr. Heminway, for your impressive undertaking, expertly telling this gripping story.