Colombian author Santiago Gamboa writes for PEN Atlas, telling the amazing story of his poet friend and what he was asked to do one day in his job as an air traffic controller

The story I’m about to tell you is somewhat sad, and I don’t really know why I’m going to tell it now, and not, let’s say, next month, next year – or never. I suppose I’m doing so for the nostalgia I feel for my friend the Portuguese poet Ivo Machado, who is one of the two characters – or perhaps because I see in the story the revealing power of the poetry, and this can be my best message for this programme.

The main character of the tale is, as I’ve said, the poet Ivo Machado, born in the Azores islands. What here concerns us most is his everyday identity as air traffic controller; one of those persons in the control tower of the airports who guide planes across the roads of the sky.

Here’s the story.

When Ivo was a young man of twenty-five – in the mid-eighties – he controlled flights in the airport of Santa María, the largest island of the Azores archipelago, in the mid-Atlantic, and equidistant between Europe and North America.

One night when he arrived at his post the boss said to him: “Today you’ll guide only one plane”.

Ivo was surprised, as the norm was to direct a dozen aeroplanes. So the boss explained:

“It’s a special case – an English pilot who’s flying a Second World  War British bomber to Florida for a plane collector who bought it at an auction in London. He made a touchdown here and is continuing towards Canada, as the machine is somewhat limited, but he ran into a storm, had to fly in zigzag, and now he’s got little fuel left – not enough to get to Canada, nor to turn back. He’s going to fall into the sea.”

And with that, he passed the headphones to Ivo.

“Try to calm him down; he’s very nervous. Tell him that a Canadian rescue squad in launches and helicopters is heading to the estimated point of his fall.”

Ivo put on the headphones and began to talk to the pilot, who was very nervous indeed. The first thing he wanted to know was the temperature of the water, and if there were sharks.  Ivo reassured him; there were not. Then they launched into a personal conversation, which is something very unusual between a control tower and an aviator.

The English pilot asked Ivo about his life, his likes and dislikes, and feelings. Ivo said that he was a poet, and the Englishman asked him to recite something from memory. Fortunately my friend remembered some poems of Pablo Neruda, Tagore, and Aimé Césaire. He recited, and so some time passed as they talked about sonnets of life and death and some verses that Ivo remembered of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where a man was also battling against the fury of the universe.

Time went by, and the aviator, now much calmer, asked Ivo to recite some of his own verses. So with an enormous effort, Ivo translated some of his poems to the Englishman – for him alone, a lone pilot in an old bomber, fighting a violent storm in the middle of the night and the ocean, the sharpest and most terrifying image of solitude.

“There’s a deep sadness and certain disenchantment in your poems”, said the aviator, and they talked of life, and dreams and of the fragility of things, and of course of the future – until the fatal moment came, the fuel gauge arrow hit red and the bomber plane fell into the sea.

When this happened, the control tower supervisor told Ivo to go home. After such an experience, he said, it would not be good for Ivo to direct other planes.

The next day, my friend knew the end of the story. The rescue squad found the plane intact, floating on the waves, but the pilot was dead. On impact with the water part of the cabin structure came loose, hitting him on the neck.

“That man died peacefully”, Ivo says to me, “and for that reason I can continue to write poetry.”

Months later, the IATA investigated the accident and Ivo had to hear, before a jury, the recording of his conversation with the pilot. They congratulated him. It was the only time in the history of aviation where a control tower frequency was saturated with poetry…

“I still dream of his voice”, Ivo tells me, and I understand. I also think that we should always write in this mode: as if all our words were for a lone pilot, fighting in the middle of the night, against a violent storm.

About the author

Santiago Gamboa was born in Bogotá, Colombia. His debut novel, Páginas de vuelta (1995), established him as one of the most innovative voices in Colombian literature. He has since published seven novels and two collections of short stories. His journalism appears regularly in El Tiempo (Colombia) and Cromos, and he is a regular contributor to Radio France International. Previously Colombia’s  cultural attaché in New Delhi, he currently lives in Rome. His latest novel is Necropolis, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions.

Additional information

Ivo Machado is a Portuguese poet, born in Terceria, in the Azores, in 1958. His work has been translated into Spanish, English, Dutch, Hungarian, Italian and Bosnian.

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