Arriving in Somalia can be a tricky business. My first glimpse, after our aircraft touched down near a line of dunes south of Mogadishu, was of a pick-up full of drug- addicted Rambo wannabes.
The young militiamen were of puny build but wielded fierce firepower: AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, a powerful mounted gun that could punch through a tank. Their eyes were glazed with khat, a bitter leaf that produces a mild amphetamine effect and seems to keep most of Somalia's gunmen in a state of fragile sanity.
Thankfully, though, these were "our" gunmen, sent by the hotel management to assure security on the bumpy ride back into town. But not every welcoming committee is a friendly one.
Last January a Kenyan pilot was caught in a dispute between rival gunmen over his cargo, a load of khat. He baled out of the window just before they plastered the aircraft with bullets.
The man in charge of Somalia's turbulent skies is to be found hundreds of miles to the south, in the relative cool of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Joe Brunswig, a Canadian, has been running Somali airspace by remote control for six years.
Airstrip gunfights, aircraft getting shot at in the air there's not much he hasn't seen at this stage. "You get used to that kind of thing," he says with a shrug.
He still keeps a flak jacket in the drawer beside his desk, a souvenir from his stint at the Mogadishu control tower during the ill-fated United Nations Operation in Somalia (Unosom)of the early 1990s. "Stray bullets and mortars used to hit the airport buildings so we had to wear this all the time. Bloody heavy, though, and hot, too."
Mr Brunswig was one of the last to fly out of the now- deserted Mogadishu airport in 1995. The following year the UN moved air control to Kenya, where a suburban house was converted into a control tower and the UN Civil Aviation Caretaker Authority for Somalia (Cacas) was set up. It is a no-frills control room: no banks of flashing lights or glowing radar screens just a pair of telephones, some high-powered radios and a rudimentary grid to follow a flight's progress.
But there is a solid safety record, as illustrated by the growing numbers of aircraft passing through his patch. The Air France jets carrying honeymooners to the Seychelles pass over at 30,000 feet; at low levels, buzzing Cessnas ferry aid workers, warlords, businessmen and many, many, tons of khat on to rough airstrips below.
When incidents arise, it is usually the fault of foolish pilots. A couple of years ago an Airbus carrying Malaysian businessmen was circling low over Mogadishu when someone on the ground took offence and opened fire. The hydraulics were hit and Mr Brunswig's team had to help the jet limp down the coast to Mombasa. "At first they wanted to land at Kismayo but we said, 'No way'," he says, shaking his head at such folly. "That would have been more dangerous than where they were coming from."
Although one of the most unusual air traffic systems in the world, Cacas is an undoubted success. Each of the 1,800 flights pays up to $240 (£170) to pass through, making it one of the few self-financing UN projects. The real value, though, is felt by ordinary Somalis.
While large areas of the south are controlled by ruthless clan warlords, the self-declared state of Somaliland (formerly British Somaliland) in the north-west is quietly prospering. Two international carriers, Ethiopian Airlines and Regional Air, recently started flying to the capital, Hargeisa.
Mr Brunswig is passionately convinced that rebuilding the air infrastructure is vital to help at least one corner of Somalia resurrect itself. "These airports are more than just places to land. They are major trading platforms."
But today the commercial runways are dotted with potholes, the buildings are crumbling and funds are low. "You can only stitch a carpet so much," he says, appealing to international donors for further funds.
Then there are the goats. Some time ago an aircraft mowed down a goat grazing on the end of the runway at Hargeisa. As is tradition in accidental killings, the airport manager paid the owner twice the market value. But Mr Brunswig was furious.
"I told them not to do that," he smiles. "Otherwise we'll have all the local guys coming to the airport, trying to get their goats killed."
Declan WalshReuse content