Rudolf Erasmus, a pilot, was forced to make an emergency landing on Monday after discovering what is believed to be a 4-foot-long Cape cobra, one of South Africa’s most venomous snakes, on board his plane.
“This was definitely a first and not something you get trained to handle,” Erasmus told TimesLive.
Erasmus and his four passengers were flying from Worcester, in the Western Cape, to the old Nelspruit Airfield near Mbombela in northeastern South Africa. The crew had to make a few stops along the way and were en route to the Wonderboom National Airport near Johannesburg at the time of the incident, after stopping at the Bram Fischer International Airport in Bloemfontein to refuel.
About a third of the way through their journey, Erasmus felt something strange against his body. “We were cruising at 11,000 feet in the air when I felt something cold against my hip,” Erasmus told local news outlet the Lowvelder.
At first, he said he thought it was his water bottle. “[But] as I turned to my left and looked down I saw the cobra putting its head back underneath my seat,” he told TimesLive.
“I had a moment of stunned silence, not sure if I should tell the passengers because I didn’t want to cause a panic. But obviously they needed to know at some point what was going on.”
As calmly as he could, Erasmus told the passengers that there was an “unwelcome passenger” inside the aircraft and that he was going to have to make an emergency landing.
After a tense 10 to 15 minutes, Erasmus successfully landed the plane at the nearest airport, in Welkom. Carefully, the passengers disembarked, with Erasmus getting out last.
“I stood on the wing on the plane and moved the seat forward to try and spot the snake,” Erasmus said. “It was curled up under my seat. It was quite a big fellow.”
Local snake catcher Johan de Klerk was called to the scene, but by the time he arrived the snake had disappeared.
“We searched on Monday until dark,” de Klerk told Newsweek. “On Tuesday morning we continued the search until Aircraft engineers arrived from Bloemfontein and stripped the inside completely, but we still could not find the snake. It must have gotten out during the night before the engineers started stripping.”
The snake hasn’t been confirmed as a Cape cobra, but two other pilots had spotted a Cape cobra slithering around near the plane on Sunday afternoon, before it took off from Worcester, News24 reported.
A photo of the plane before take off shows a snake slithering beneath the wheel. “The snake on the photo was identified as a Cape cobra so it is most probably the same snake yes,” de Klerk said.
“The snake entered the plane through the wheel duct and then through the wing assembly until it came out in the cockpit.”
Cape cobras are one of the deadliest snakes in South Africa, and one of the most venomous cobra species on the continent. “They have a potent neurotoxic venom that shuts down the nervous system and, if untreated, causes death,” South African snake catcher Steve Meighan previously told Newsweek.
The incident comes amid a nationwide antivenom shortage in South Africa, which means the risk of complications from snake bites may be higher.
“The pilot, Rudolf Erasmus, is the hero of the story,” de Klerk said. “The snake sailed up at his back and he was able to remain calm and perform an emergency landing in Welkom without getting bitten by the snake. He saved his four passengers lives through his own cool headedness.”
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