The hype was real, to say the least. With bated breath, Liberians from all over the world, from all walks of life, were glued to social media for updates on “the Liberian pilot flying home from the United States in his own airplane.” But you wouldn’t know the magnitude of expectation until Abner Yonly, 37, safely landed and parked his aircraft at the James Spriggs Payne Airport on Thursday, November 23, 2023.
Flying across the North Atlantic has always been a lifelong dream for Abner, he says. “In March/April this year, I visited Spriggs Airport and it just hit me in the sense that, this is Liberia — I was born here. I graduated kindergarten from Barnes Foundation in Lakpazee, about a stone’s throw from the airport, therefore I’m no stranger to this neighborhood. So coming to the airport and realizing that we don’t really get to see Liberian pilots was the motivation. My wife and I fly everywhere, so how can I inspire a child growing up in Liberia?”
The journey was no simple feat, Abner recalls. The logistical and financial planning came at a great cost to him personally and to his family. With barely 600 hours of flying experience under his belt, he could not have anticipated the setbacks and uncertainties he encountered along the way. From navigating weather conditions, not being able to find the specific kind of fuel for his aircraft, as well as other aviation logistics were an eye-opener for him.
“Every major airline has an operational office and a dispatch. So I’m that guy,” Abner says while describing the process of planning his voyage. “I had to do my flight plan. Most African countries don’t have numbers that you can call, for example, and find out if they have fuel. So you’re doing it blind. But I came across a company in Dubai, called Jetex, and they were handling everything for me. They have contacts for every airport. Leaving America (U.S. and Canada), it was simple. You can see the airport and go there. But I spent a week in Canada alone, due to weather. When it’s freezing, all the bigger jets have ice protection — I don’t have it, so I have to watch what I’m doing. I can’t just go up there into the ice. I flew in different situations I’ve never been in before; I’m not a professional and I don’t do this for a living. I have less than 600 hours of flying, so this is a big feat.”
Abner flew from the U.S. with consecutive stops in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Pharos, UK, France, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone, before reaching Liberia. he was delayed in Sierra Leone because the specific fuel for his aircraft could not be found. According to him, the alternative fuel he managed to obtain was not allowed into Lungi airport, a situation he had to work his way through to be able to finally fly into Liberia.
“Seeing is believing,” he explains. “If a child walks up to the airport and all he sees is someone who does not look like him, it seems impossible. But if he sees someone who looks like him, speaks like him, then it’s like, ‘if he can do it, I can do it.’ So that was a motivational step for me. I went back [to the U.S.]. It’s not a cheap journey to do — it’s very expensive — and if anyone follows me on Facebook, they’ll know I love my sports car. I had to sell that car… in order to make this inspirational journey to inspire a kid in Liberia.”
Abner was expected to have landed in Liberia much earlier. On Wednesday, Nov. 22, some journalists had a stake-out at the Roberts International Airport (RIA) in Margibi County, but in vain. He had reached Lungi International Airport, Sierra Leone, his last stop before Liberia. Journalists were later advised by aviation authorities that, though Abner would first reach RIA from Sierra Leone on Thursday, it would be logistically appropriate to hold media activities with him at the Spriggs Airport, located in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
On Thursday, the parking lot at Spriggs, a domestic Airport for smaller aircrafts such as the one Abner flies, was scanty. Two of his prominent uncles, Isaac Yonly and Alexander B. Yonly, Sr., along with other family members and friends, waited patiently in the vicinity of the airport along with journalists, a few uniformed elementary and junior high school students. But when it was confirmed that Abner was flying into Spriggs from RIA, it was as though people grew up from the ground and flooded the tarmac, that not even the riot police deployed there were able to control.
Around 4:30pm on Thursday, Abner finally touched down at Spriggs in his single-engine 1976 Beechcraft Sundowner 180 airplane. No sooner had he climbed out of his cockpit to the wing, did the crowd rush to the aircraft, eager to get up-close photos of him. It would take those riot police nearly 20 minutes to secure him in the airport’s arrival lounge, waiting for the crowd to disperse before transferring him to another building where a press conference would be held.
“I always wanted to be a pilot because my friends always use to say that doing pilot work gives plenty money, saves people all over the world and travels people here and there,” said 10-year-old Angel Barclay, who showed up at Spriggs Airport with her schoolmates and teachers to witness Abner’s historic flight landing. A sixth grader at the Rosetta Stepps Education Center, located at Caldwell Junction, Bushrod Island, Angel said she had never seen an airplane with her own eyes.
“I feel proud,” says Abner. “Growing up in Liberia, I went through the civil war; I lived as a refugee in Ivory Coast and in Ghana, so it’s inspirational. Even landing in Scotland, there’s a wall of fame with the names of everyone who has ever done this trip, and you don’t get to see many people who look like us on there. It’s historical in a sense it’s not just me. I was doing it to represent Liberia.”
Growing up in Liberia, you really don’t get to see [people like us]. There are a lot of professional Liberian pilots out there, flying for Delta and other big airlines, but if you don’t see it, you don’t know it. You read history and you get to know about people because you hear about them but if you cannot hear about our own people, it’s not something that is there to know.
Also at the airport to meet Abner was a representative from the office of Joseph N. Boakai, President-elect of the Republic of Liberia; a pilot of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), representing the AFL Chief of Staff Prince C. Johnson, and other aviation stakeholders, including the Spriggs Payne Airport manager. They all heaped praises upon Abner for his brave act that will no doubt inspire many of Liberia’s youth to dream big.
Abner did not fail to acknowledge his wife who was a tremendous source of inspiration and support to him for his journey, as well as all those who helped him along the way.
In the United States, the last Thursday in November is Thanksgiving Day — and clearly there was much thanks to be given for Abner’s safe travels, especially flying solo.
The only other Liberian known to have flown solo from the United States to Liberia was Captain Prince Page, who flew twice — once across the North Atlantic and another time across the South Atlantic. Both times, Captain Page flew twin engine airplanes. Interestingly enough, the day Abner landed in Liberia — the U.S. Thanksgiving Day — was also the 84th birthday of Captain Page, who also lives in the U.S.
Source: Daily Observer