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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As a member of the renowned Flying Doctors Service, Dr. Anne Spoerry treated hundreds of thousands of people across rural Kenya over the span of fifty years, earning herself the cherished nickname “Mama Daktari”—“Mother Doctor.” Yet few knew that what drove her from post-World War II Europe to Africa was a past marked by rebellion, submission, and personal decisions that earned her another nickname—this one sinister—while working as a “doctor” in a Nazi concentration camp.

In Full Flight
explores the question of whether it is possible to rewrite one’s past by doing good in the present, and takes readers on an extraordinary journey 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: 660,735
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 two hundred 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***
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.

Excerpted from "In Full Flight"
by .
Copyright © 2018 John Heminway.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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