The pilot, though, said that he had had a paternal word with the 39-year-old captive and put him at ease before he was brought on board.
"LIKE A SMALL CHILD"
"I spoke to him like he was a small child," said Abdullah al-Mehdi, a diminutive, heavily mustachioed ball of energy in a green jumpsuit. His ambition - typical of Zintanis in these anarchic days in Libya - is to start up a whole new air force.
"I told him he would not be beaten and he wouldn't be hurt and I gave my word," said Mehdi.
He and the other two crew in the cockpit chain-smoked their way through the flight, navigating over the barren wastes the old-fashioned way, on analog instruments, with just occasional help from a new GPS device clamped awkwardly to the windshield.
The howl of the propellers was numbing, and there was little conversation during the flight.
Saif al-Islam by turns stared ahead or turned back to crane his neck out at the land he once was in line to rule. Every so often, holding his scarf across his mouth Tuareg-fashion, he would say a few words to a guard.
The calm was in stark contrast to the frenzy that greeted the capture of Muammar Gaddafi on October 20 as he tried to flee the siege of his hometown of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast.
Fighters from the long embattled city of Misrata filmed themselves on cellphones hammering the fallen leader, howling for revenge and inflicting a series of indignities on him before his body was displayed to crowds of sightseers for several days.
The reporter caught Saif al-Islam's eye a few times, but on each occasion he looked away. At one point he asked for water, and a bottle from the journalist's pack was passed up to him. The other prisoners, too, did not want to speak.
After the plane bumped down on the tarmac in the mountains at Zintan, it was surrounded within minutes by hundreds of people - some cheering, some clearly angry, many shouting the rebels' Islamic battle cry, "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Greatest).
Some held up cellphones to the few windows in the cargo hold, hoping to catch a snap of the most wanted man in Libya. At one point others were rattling the catches of the doors, intent it seemed on storming inside.
While his companions, clearly nervous, huddled together, Saif al-Islam seemed calm. He sat back and waited. The plane rocked gently as crowds clambered over the wings. The prisoners talked a little to each other and the guards.
Asked about The Hague court's statement that he was in touch through intermediaries about turning himself in to the international judges - who cannot impose the death penalty - he seemed to take offence: "It's all lies. I've never been in touch with them."
After more than an hour, the fighters decided they could get the other four captives off. They were helped out of the front door. Gaddafi remained where he was, on his own at the back, silent and aloof.
A further hour went by, the crowds still idling on the runway. The guards suggested it was time for the journalists to leave.
Moving back to speak to the solitary Gaddafi, the reporter asked, in English: "Are you OK?"
"Yes," he replied, looking up.
The reporter pointed to his injured hand. He said simply: "Air force, air force."
"Yes. One month ago."
The reporter moved past him to the aircraft steps. Gaddafi looked up and, without a word, briefly took her hand.
Later, television footage showed him being helped off the plane as people among the crowd on the tarmac tried to slap him. His captors shoved him into a car and sped off for a hiding place somewhere in town.