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The slither of a deadly Cobra in a cockpit prompted an emergency landing

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Air travel can be nerve-wracking, just ask South African pilot Rudolf Erasmus. He was piloting a small private plane when he found a stowaway of the deadly and reptilian kind. Kate Bartlett reports from Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Imagine your greatest fears - the ones that paralyze you...

(SOUNDBITE OF METALIC CLANKING)

UNDENTIFIED PERSON: ...The ones that render you helpless.

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: If the schnock (ph) horror movie "Snakes On A Plane" makes you nervous...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNDENTIFIED PERSON: Now imagine them all...

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLESNAKE RATTLING)

UNDENTIFIED PERSON: ...At once.

BARTLETT: ...Spare a thought for Rudolf Erasmus.

RUDOLF ERASMUS: I felt this little cold sensation underneath my shirt where my hip is situated. I don't really know how to say it correctly in English, but basically, where you've got your little love handles.

BARTLETT: A slithering stowaway - that's what the South African pilot discovered when he felt something cold brush up against his body on a flight to the South African town of Nelspruit this week. When he looked down, the pilot was surprised to see a highly venomous Cape cobra under his seat.

ERASMUS: As I turned to my left and I looked down, I could see the head of the snake receding back underneath my seat, at which point, there was a moment of stunned silence, to be brutally honest.

BARTLETT: Erasmus decided to turn the plane around and head back to the closest airport with his four horrified passengers plus the unwelcome guest.

ERASMUS: I then informed my passengers of what was going on, but everybody remained calm.

BARTLETT: A Cape cobra bite can kill someone in under an hour. Was he scared? The deadpan pilot said his first thoughts were for his passengers.

ERASMUS: 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.

BARTLETT: The incident has drawn comparisons to cult 2006 film "Snakes On A Plane," in which an FBI agent, played by actor Samuel L. Jackson, lets loose an expletive-laden tirade when he discovers the plane he's on is full of venomous snakes. Erasmus said he'd seen the movie some time ago.

ERASMUS: Samuel L. Jackson's - how you say it - that iconic scene in "Snakes On A Plane" of his famous saying? That is how I felt at some point.

BARTLETT: Erasmus has been praised by South African Civil Aviation Commissioner Poppy Khosa, who told local media the pilot was a hero and saved all lives on board. Since landing, however, the snake has not been found.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kate Bartlett