JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Of all the things to go wrong midair in the cockpit of a plane, finding a venomous snake under the pilot’s seat must surely be one of the worst scenarios.
So spare a thought for South African pilot Rudolf Erasmus.
“I felt this little cold sensation underneath my shirt where my hip is situated — but basically where you’ve got your little love handles,” he tells NPR.
When he looked down, the pilot was surprised to see a highly venomous Cape cobra under his seat.
Erasmus felt the slithering stowaway as he was piloting a private flight from South Africa’s Western Cape to the northeastern town of Nelspruit on Monday.
“As I turned to my left and looked down, I could see the head of the snake receding back underneath my seat,” he says. “At which point there was a moment of stunned silence, to be brutally honest.”
Erasmus decided to turn the light aircraft around and make an emergency landing at the closest airport of Welkom.
“I then informed my passengers of what was going on… but everybody remained calm,” he recounted.
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A Cape cobra bite can kill someone in as little as an hour. Erasmus says his first thoughts were for his passengers.
“I was more afraid of what the snake might do. Luckily it didn’t strike anyone, otherwise that would have changed or complicated the whole situation,” he says.
The incident has drawn comparisons to the cult 2006 film Snakes on a Plane, in which an FBI agent played by Samuel L. Jackson lets loose an expletive-laden tirade when he discovers the plane he’s on is full of venomous snakes.
Erasmus says he’d seen the movie some time ago and the tirade was playing out inside his own head. “That’s how I felt at some point,” he says, laughing.
Erasmus has been praised by South African civil aviation commissioner Poppy Khoza, who called him “a hero” and said he “saved all lives on board.”
Since landing, however, the snake has not been found. It seems to have boarded (and disembarked, everyone hopes) on its own.