Monday, 10 June 2013

30,000 feet over the Sahara - Flying in Africa & Central Asia

Across Africa and Central Asia international flights are by and large uneventful, with  regional hubs such as Abidjan and Nairobi perfectly OK.   However, mention old favourites such as N’djili and Murtala Muhammed and hardened field workers will wilt at the memory.

In fairness many of the truly awful anecdotes hark back to darker times.

Murtala used to be nothing more than an organised crime shakedown from the plane to and including the taxi outside.  No one who knew would go anywhere near the place. You either flew to Kano or over to Togo and drove back across the border.

These days it is a revelation in comparison. This was certainly helped by a shoot to kill policy, to deter the habit of blocking international aircraft taxiing on the ramp and then robbing the cargo hold as passengers looked on through the plane windows.

N’djili in DRC certainly has seen better days. Today it is OK getting in if you retain a steady nerve, though more of a challenge getting out. 

International flights from the better organised hubs can still be interesting.

Two from memory are a hard landing at night in Jomo Kenyatta. The pilot of the twin prop came on the tannoy to announce that whilst we may have considered it a hard landing he thought it was excellent, as the airport had just had a total power failure including the landing lights.

Having found our way into the customs hall by a set of stairs (it was pitch black), I spent the next hour  standing over the customs officer with my torch whilst he stamped everyone’s passports.

At Dushambe the plane was wildly overloaded.   The standing passengers forced off through the front exit, promptly ran to the back and returned through the rear exit. This continued in suffocating heat until the guards finally closed the front exit and stood with pointed rifles at the rear.

A vivid memory was an airbus flight from Abidjan on a European airline that thankfully no longer exists. Suffice to say it was the national carrier for a country created in 1831.
Somewhere over the Sahara on a beautiful moonlit night one of the engines made the sort of noise you really do not want to hear at 30,000 ft, on a two engine plane.

Then slowly and inexorably we began to descend.

Absolutely nothing was heard from the flight desk as crowds began forming at the windows pointing excitedly. Time passed the dunes grew larger, and ground speed increased.  By now the passengers was really excited, some were kneeling and praying.

The sound of the landing gear going down caused even more panic as belly landings are not performed well with wheels extended. Looking out the windows there was absolutely nothing to see apart from high moonlit dunes, speeding past just below us. Then suddenly we flared and with a loud bang we were down.

All was still and calm. There was no communication from the deck. Time passed until an exit door slowly opened and a head appeared in the darkness. We were all marched down a set of steps and into a small passenger holding area. The crew disembarked separately and vanished forever.

It turned out that we were in the Algerian Sahara. Our onward journey to Europe was finally accomplished in one of the decrepit Russian planes that abound Africa.  After the fall of communism, they just never went home.