Kosovo-crazy pilot crash-lands in Sudan desert
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Last Updated: Sunday, June 05, 2011, 12:00
  
Khartoum: When he took off in his Cessna 172, 4-seater from Texas two years ago, James Berisha vowed to visit every nation on earth to raise awareness of his beloved homeland, Kosovo, proclaimed independent a year earlier.

His dream came close to ending in tragedy, when an engine cylinder blew at 8,500 feet, forcing him to crash-land in the Sudanese desert when he was just two countries short of conquering the African continent.

But the 39-year-old pilot is undeterred, despite the logistical challenge of getting a new engine shipped to Sudan, funding constraints and the possible dangers ahead.

"If I die from what I'm doing, it's just me. Who is benefiting is two million people. That's what is important for me," he said.

"I love my country, I love my people and I want the world to know about it."

Berisha admits, however, that he got "a big wake up call" about one hour 20 minutes into his journey from Port Sudan to Khartoum last Sunday, when his engine stopped, probably because of the heat and the age of the aircraft.

He managed to glide the 1967 plane to the ground, and after surviving the 10-minute descent then found himself in the middle of the desert, in "40 something degrees" Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) with nothing to drink.

"It's kind of terrifying when you find yourself out in the big wide world, worrying that you're going to starve or die of thirst," he said.

Somewhat miraculously, a truck passed by two hours later and the family on board gave him water and took him to a gold mine, 43 kilometres (27 miles) away, where he was welcomed and looked after.

After being interrogated by at least 10 suspicious Sudanese police officers for most of the following day, Berisha returned to the mine, whose manager helped him to load the plane on a truck and have it towed to safety.

With "Please recognise the independence of Kosovo" emblazoned in blue on the side and the national flag painted on its tail, the single-engine aircraft now sits at the mine awaiting repair before setting off for the next country.

Berisha has powerful personal reasons for taking his message to the world.

He left Kosovo in 1988 at the age of 16, in search of opportunity, moving to Switzerland and Australia first, before settling in the United States.

During that time, the conflict between Serbia and the Kosovan rebels escalated, and Berisha was just finishing his pilot training in Florida when his father, a farmer, was shot dead by Serbian militiamen on March 1, 1999.

He returned a month later to try to find his family, who had abandoned their village, Brestovc, and fled to the border along with thousands like them.

"There were 200 houses in Brestovc. Sixty-eight people were killed in that one small village," he said.

"Seeing hundreds of thousands of people on the border, in makeshift camps, bleeding and living like animals, that image was engraved on my heart," Berisha recalls of an experience that prompted him to do something for his country.

He now has a multinational team working for him, and a letter from Kosovo's foreign ministry to deliver by hand to each country he visits, with a formal request for recognition or to say thank you to those that have already done so.

"Out of 193 countries around the globe, 75 have recognised our independence, just 12 of them from Africa," he said.

NATO's no-fly zone means he will have to steer clear of Libya for now, but otherwise he has just Eritrea and Egypt to go. And then of course there is Europe and Asia.

"But they should be relatively easy," Berisha said with a smile.

Visiting 53 African countries brought a whole range of challenges with it, including having to change his route after being denied entry by Gambia, and needing 34 visas and 13 vaccinations.

But the experienced pilot says his scariest mid-air encounter took place over the North Atlantic.

"I saw death in front of me when I flew from Greenland to Iceland in May last year," he said.

The plane's alternator broke down four hours into the journey, and Berisha said the only way he managed to avoid crashing was by transferring fuel manually into the main tank.

"Otherwise I would have had to ditch in the water 45 minutes before reaching Iceland."

Asked whether he will fly to south Sudan, which is also seeking full international recognition when it secedes from the north on July 9, the Kosovan pilot said he had not originally planned to.

"But now I'm here for two or three weeks, I might pay them a visit."

Bureau Report


First Published: Sunday, June 05, 2011, 12:00


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