Photo by Jim Massara
“I had a lot of fun,” Cecil Mullins says of his cargo-flying days. “That’s what I enjoyed more than anything.”
JONESBORO — Ask Cecil Mullins why he flew cargo missions through war zones back in the day, risking life and limb, and he’ll answer with a smile: “I was an adventurous guy back then.”
That’s something of an understatement.
A former Air Force and Air National Guard flyer, Mullins took breaks to pilot private cargo jets over the rebel Nigerian state of Biafra around 1970, and later over war-torn Angola in the 1990s. He flew for Joint Church Aid USA, among others.
He also flew by the seat of his pants, and people shot at him from time to time.
Think “Air America,” the Mel Gibson movie, and you’ll have the general idea, except Mullins wasn’t flying covert missions for the CIA — that he knew of.
“I still miss that stuff,” Mullins says, smiling again. He pauses. “I miss that stuff.”
That’s why Mullins, now 76 and semi-retired in Jonesboro, wrote a book about it.
His self-published trade paperback, “The African-Bush Pilot,” details his adventures and brushes with danger. It also provided Mullins with a bit of therapy.
“I enjoyed it,” he says of his writing sessions, which at times kept him up into the wee hours of the morning. “It took me back to what I was doing.”
A lanky, low-key gentleman with a drawl, Mullins was the son of a Virginia coal-miner. Equipped with only a high-school education, some time spent as a flight engineer and a taste for adventure, Mullins lucked into co-piloting a private cargo mission in 1969 and never looked back.
Mullins says his work paid as much as five times what he could have made flying more conventional — and safer — assignments. It cost him, as well: Two marriages and time spent away from his kids.
And it wasn’t as if Mullins couldn’t have flown safer routes. He did, for several carriers, including the erstwhile Air Atlanta and Emery Worldwide, among others. In fact, the more down-to-earth jobs were what brought him to Clayton County in 1985, so he could commute easily to work from Hartsfield.
But “just getting in there, flying a Delta or somebody like that — boringest thing I ever done,” he says.
Not like flying through war zones.
“That’s real flying,” Mullins says, smiling again.
Mullins finally committed his experiences to paper as a legacy for his fellow pilots and for his kids — who, he says, didn’t have any idea what kind of work he really did until he wrote the book.
With 530 copies printed and about 150 sold so far, Mullins says he’s looking for markets for his book. He’s sent copies to the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins. He’s also waiting for what he hopes will be a positive review from Barnes & Noble and perhaps a place on its shelves.
Until then, he waits. Still active with the American Legion’s Jonesboro post — he used to be its commander — Mullins works bingo there two nights a week. He also inspects houses part-time, something he’s been doing for about 20 years.
Is he still “an adventurous guy?”
“That’s the way it was. But I’m not that way any more. I go to church every day,” he says, gesturing to a chapel set up at the Jonesboro Legion hall where he sits. “I’m just calm. Most of the guys I flew with back then wouldn’t believe it. Your lifestyle changes.
“But,” he adds with a smile, “I still miss that stuff.”
To purchase or read excerpts from “The African-Bush Pilot,” go to www.theafricanbushpilot.com.