Close to the Edge

November 15, 2011

in Airplane Stories

“African aviation has the worst safety record in the world.” Over many years and millions of miles flying across the length and breadth of Africa, I had a true appreciation of that seemingly innocuous phrase. Yeah, well it’s still safer than crossing the road, isn’t it. Is it? Depends. One of the things it depends on is the weather; I learned a lot about African weather – particularly what weather to avoid. The middle of Africa is one vast, wet, broiling tropical jungle that stretches across the entire belt of the continent; and breeds sudden, short but extremely violent storms.

I once overheard a Kenya Airways pilot and chief engineer arguing about whether or not it was safe to take off from Douala in the middle of a tropical storm, particularly as the de-icer had broken. I didn’t know what a de-icer was but it sounded like we needed ours to be working. We took off anyway. That flight, from Douala to Nairobi on Kenya Airways, was one that I knew very well; I flew it dozens of times en route from Cameroon to Johannesburg. One night that same flight took off in the middle of one of those same tropical thunderstorms – and crashed two minutes after takeoff. The plane sunk so deep in the jungle muck it took them a week to find it. I wasn’t on board, but I could easily have been.

I was working with the World Bank in Johannesburg, South Africa. One weekend I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Abuja, Nigeria on Sunday, and apart from that I had no real reason to be going to Nigeria. I had agreed to do it, but as the time got closer I got more reluctant to go. It was taking up my whole weekend just to give some stupid speech! What tipped it was that my family had just arrived in Johannesburg for an extended visit and although I could have gone, I decided at the last minute to do what my employer says and “put family first.” On the Saturday night I sent my speech to a colleague in Abuja and asked him to present it on my behalf. Problem sorted.

The next day, Sunday, I discovered that the 9:30 PM Bellview Airlines flight from Lagos to Abuja the previous night, the one I had been booked on before aborting the trip, had crashed in a tropical storm en route, killing all 117 people on board. That one shook me up: Jesus Christ, I was booked on that flight – I had flown on that same plane, many times! On Monday morning I called my colleague in Abuja to ask how the conference had gone, but before that I said that I hoped he didn’t know anyone who was on the crashed plane. He said,

“My wife was on that flight.”

Oh God….

– Brian
My Facebook page: Island Boats Grenada

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Arend January 16, 2012 at 12:04 am

Fascinating story of multiple true close calls. I fly over Africa a lot too, and it's really quite a sight with the massive multitude of storms forming. It is also incredibly scary.

I'm sorry to hear about your colleague's wife, and I wish you many safe travels in the future!


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