It turned out that I had six minutes to sketch out my plan, a plan I hoped would save our lives as the jumbo jet hit the sand at hundreds of miles per hour. I was prepared to bend down in the emergency position which the flight attendant nervously commanded us to take. I began to wish I had read the flight card demonstrating the position in hopes that bending properly would somehow help cushion the blow just a little more. Fortunately my wife, thinking quickly, handed me a pillow recently handed out to those on the overnight flight from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa. She smartly thought that the added material around the back of our heads would add protection against the impact of flying debris. I hoped the same.
We were going down, a nearly full flight of over 300 passengers. As I looked at the monitor on the seat back in front of me I could see we were dropping quickly. It served that just a few seconds ago we were flying at 35,000 feet and now at a little more than 20,000. I could also hear the intensity of the whirring engine. As the captain turned the plane around our speed increased from 545 mph to over 800 and the sound intensified due not only to our quick decent but also because of what sounded like the strain on the engines. The sound of the plane speeding ahead acted like a vice around my head as I began to nervously piece together a way to save our lives as we were sure to hit the sand of the Sahara Desert.
Only a few hours earlier I was sitting in my window seat looking down on this masterpiece of nature. The Sahara Desert a place I had only seen previously on TV. As a boy I recalled Laurel and Hardy joining the French Foreign Legion and being stationed somewhere in the Sahara. Humphrey Bogart, in Casablanca also went a long way in promoting the image of desert intrigue. Never did I think I would I be gazing down on the Sahara’s white sand let alone being somehow perilously intertwined with it. The Sahara was for other people, maybe Indiana Jones types but not for regular guys like me hailing from steel towns in the Midwest.
I had just awoken from a nap as most other passengers were sleeping off the effects of a late lunch, including free wine, when I decided to open the shade separating me from the piercing sun outside. Seeing the desert out my window was a surprise. It had not been factored in to our vacation highlights as we planned to Safari in Tanzania, many miles south of our present location. Our plane had just refueled in Khartoum, Sudan and was well on its way to Addis Ababa where we would connect to our last flight to Kilimanjaro the site where we would begin our vacation. We were off to the Serengeti by way of the Ngorongoro Crater. Going on a safari was not on our bucket list but we jumped at the chance when our friends asked if we would consider Africa in place of Italy. Why go to Italy when planning a safari was possible, they argued? Italy was a beautiful country for sure but it could be enjoyed later as advancing years had begun to creep up on us. Besides, why Italy by ourselves when a safari could be enjoyed with friends.
We accepted their offer and after what seemed like weeks of planning we were finally on our way. This was supposed to be one of the last legs of our journey. From the start I worried not only about the total length of the flight but wondered about our route. A stopover in Addis Ababa? It seemed over the top exotic and I wondered if all safari goers passed through this airport on their way to Tanzania. If nothing else I felt that a stopover in a place like Addis Ababa would make for a good story as we returned to the States with tales of our trip to Africa. At the time I did not know how much the city would play into our tales and now as the plane dove down to 15,000 feet I was wondering if we, my wife and I, would be able to replay any of our visit.
Our friends, fortunately, were on a different flight. The four of us agreed, however on the same safari and we were landing, within minutes of one another in Kilimanjaro and spending the next two nights in Arusha, Tanzania. Arusha, apparently, had become the Mecca for safari vacationers. With increasing numbers people, especially those nearing or immersed in retirement, were saving their dollars for such an exotic trip. Most of us boomers had been raised going to zoos and watching TV programs where brave men drove onto the Savannah in Land Rovers snaring giraffes and withstanding collisions with enraged rhinos. A safari would allow us to relive our childhoods substituting rifles for high powered SLR digital cameras. Equipped with cameras, the exact percentage of Deet in our insect repellant and properly attired as Frank Buck lookalikes, Americans and various others from around the globe, were descending on Africa and its wildlife perhaps reasoning before it was all wiped out or we die first.
It was only a few years ago when my wife and I moved from a blue collar city to an upscale suburb near Boston when I found myself laughing after overhearing a discussion in a local grocery store. Two women, approximately my age were simultaneously fingering the nearby produce while one nonchalantly discussed her recent Safari. “Oh,” she said. “We just returned from a Safari and the weather was simply beautiful. Ya know, we saw just so many exotic creatures...” doo dah doo dah day.
I snickered to myself because it appeared that trips, such as safaris, were commonplace in this well-heeled city and a visit to Africa must have seemed for them just another walk in the park. No big deal. At the time I remember thinking that talking loudly in the supermarket about vacationing in Africa was about as snobby as it gets and that I, Mr. “Cling To My Blue Collar Roots,” would never “safari” let alone hold a news conference about my trip in an upscale supermarket while standing between the avocados and artichokes.
Fast forward a few years and now we had become one of the well-heeled and were on our way to Tanzania followed by a few days in Johannesburg, South Africa. Oh the stories I would be able to tell should I be lucky enough to be questioned about my summer vacation while cruising through the produce isle in the local grocery.
Our flight, the first connection after setting down in Frankfurt, Germany was doomed from the start. We were to leave Frankfurt at 10:30 a.m. on our way to our next connection in Addis Ababa. From Addis Ababa we would catch our last plane to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. From there we were to head out to the bush and what we hoped would be a grand viewing opportunity of all the animals we had previously only seen in zoos. Somehow, seeing African animals in their natural habitats, we conjectured, would not only be authentic but be a rare learning experience we would cherish for many years to come.
The flight from Frankfurt started poorly and should have served as an omen for things to come. Being the nervous and suspicious type I soon noticed, after buckling my seatbelt, that one passenger, a young college aged female was standing by her seat with a frown on her face. My mind raced from, is she being oppositional, planning a highjacking or just what? Her behavior seemed suspicious to me. It was not very long afterwards that an airlines mechanic came on board to have a look at her seat. She apparently sat down and as she did the entire seat fell backwards. By itself this is a bit unusual but could be overlooked as something freaky that just happened. No big deal.
Time to take off, we hoped, but instead we continued to sit at the gate for many minutes before the captain explained through the public address system that we were waiting for a mechanic to board the plane due to a strange smell emanating from a forward washroom. After some time we were entertained as numerous men went in and out of the john to take a whiff of the toilet before expressing their opinions about the problem. Without knowing their thoughts or being privy to their exact conclusions, clearance must have been granted because the pilot announced, after some minutes, that we were now ready for takeoff.
By this time, unfortunately, we were two hours late and our layover in Addis Ababa was less than this amount of time. Panic now replaced relief for many passengers while still hoping that we would either make up the time in the air or our connecting flight would wait for us to arrive. The captain must have anticipated passenger concerns because he finally announced that schedule adjustments were being made to enable us all to make our connections.
No sooner had he made this announcement and before I could begin to feel satisfied that we would not be spending the night in Ethiopia, a loud high pitched grating sound, as if metals were rubbing against metal began beneath the plane. It was obvious that this was not a normal sound because the flight attendant summoned the copilot who came into the cabin to hear the sound for himself. More head scratching and discussion took place in German before he disappeared back to the flight deck and we continued on our way. Fortunately, before the sound drove us all stark raving mad it stopped. Immediate relief, both physically and psychologically replaced pain as the sound abruptly disappeared. Adding that noise to the two previous occurrences, the loose seat and smelly washroom, did not build, I must say, my confidence. I wanted things to go well, as I figured all the passengers did, so I tried to forget the airplane’s increasing list of problems. I also tried to persuade myself not to dwell on these factors even though none of them had ever occurred on any of my prior 100 or more flights.
I remember just beginning to feel some relief as the attendants began handing out salami sandwiches. My relief was short lived because it was likely only a few minutes more before the captain announced his emergency directive. “Emergency descent! Emergency decent! Flight crew prepare for a possible emergency landing. Passengers assume the safety position if directed.”
In certain circumstances thoughts seem to flow quickly through one’s mind particularly when faced with unlikely situations. At first, as I heard the pilot’s stern and matter of fact announcement the gravity of the statement did not register. Somehow the tone and cadence of his pronouncement did not fit the life threatening nature of his message. In a split second I found myself sorting out, “Is he serious, does that mean what I think it means, if so we could die?” I recall looking at my wife and as our eyes met we did not have to say a word. It registered. This could be the end.
I began thinking about all the stupid things I have done in my life including surviving a risky operation, high speed car races, jumping hundreds of feet into a quarry, hitchhiking while drunk, hopping trains and other equally foolish behaviors and was astounded that it could simply come down to this. Death in a plane wreck over the Sahara desert. Who would have predicted this one? At least our friends will classify our death as being interesting and somewhat out of the ordinary. Anyone can die of cancer or a heart attack. People would have to admit our death was classy, flying over a desert near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while in transit to a safari on the Serengeti Plain. I figured there was almost no one from my high school graduating class who had the opportunity to perish with this kind of style.
I thought about our children, now adults. How would they respond? I worried for them, dumb things such as, “How would they even get the bodies back to the U.S.? Where would they think to bury us if any remains were gathered?” My wife and I had lived in five different places, our respective Ohio hometowns, West Virginia, Upstate New York and recently a suburb west of Boston. Here I was about to die and still worrying that our kooky death would burden the kids and interrupt their schedules.
One thought spilled in to another. I began thinking about our parents. Who would take care of the three of them now 89, 90, and 91 years old? With only a few years left to live between them, would our death mess up the little bit of happiness and security left in their lives? Who would cart them off to their doctor’s appointments and make sure the rent was paid on time. What if their health worsened and one or more of them required a nursing home placement? Who would have the time to negotiate that dilemma?
My thoughts were not all gloomy for I kept hoping the plane would level off and quit falling and wishing everything to turn out all right. Some people in intense situations relate that during the crisis they felt as if they were part of a dream. Split seconds after the pilot’s announcement, I knew, this was real, it was not a dream.
The sound of the speeding jet engines seemed to intensify. I looked around the compartment purposefully to search for hope and to search for a way out. As I gazed back at the passengers behind me their faces seemed frozen and silence summed up the feeling of doom. We were all members of a new club whether we wanted to pledge or not.
When I was growing up protection was found everywhere. At home there were loving adults who always seemed to make things right. Away from home there were exceptions. For example I remembered the playground and a classmate named Bruce in kindergarten. Somehow ordained chief of the five year olds he made a habit of plunging aggressively through the crowd and punching anyone in his way. I recall feeling helpless as he slammed into kids eventually knocking me to the ground. Later on there was a guy named Carolac, never knew his first name, who was a great guy until we found ourselves faced with him and his buddy near the outdoor shrine situated next to St. Peter’s Church. That is where he dunked Tony’s head in to the pool to see if he could snare a koi out of the water with his teeth. Even here salvation came unexpectedly from Father Labella grabbing Carolac by his neck just before Tony gasped his last breath.
As an adult my mind raced to a time when my wife and I were invited to go with friends up in their hot air balloon. We usually had good reasons preventing us from flying but one day, caught off guard, we had no excuse ready so we agreed to go up in the sky.
It was a beautiful day in the Finger Lakes, sunny with just the right amount of wind creating perfect conditions for ballooning. The balloon’s owner was busy filling the balloon’s envelope, as it is named, with hot air as we drove up the driveway. Another friend and his daughter also agreed to a balloon ride that afternoon and arrived just before us. As we had all assembled the balloon’s owner explained a few rules for assisting the piloting of the balloon. He explained that one tether was pulled for going left, another to go right and one to leave alone since it is designed to deflate the envelope.
The friend and his daughter opted to go up with the owner first and we were to follow in the chase vehicle, a pick up truck. We watched the balloon climb to a safe height above the trees as it began to float over the farms with their corn fields almost ready to be harvested. It was truly a serene sight watching the wind slowly carry the silent balloon across the fields at a pleasant, even clip.
All was going well as the balloon glided above a group of trees demarcating the deed line between two farmer’s fields when suddenly I noticed that something was wrong. The balloon unexpectedly began dropping into the trees below. As we parked the truck and ran into the woods we arrived just in time to witness the balloon breaking branches as it fell upright through the limbs on landing with a thud on to the ground. Had the basket tipped over it is likely that the occupants would have either died or been severely injured but luck was on their side.
It could have easily been my wife and I in that balloon and it could have just as easily tipped over. We determined that our instincts were correct from the start, that is to stay away from hot air balloon rides and that is exactly what we have done ever since.
The hot air balloon story flitted through my mind as we presently expected our plane, just like the balloon, to recover. I had to wonder how many near death experiences a person gets before luck finally runs out. How many more would we be allowed? Did I, we, have any left?
The flight attendant broke the silence. “Please be ready,” she interjected with her voice breaking, “to assume the emergency position if directed.” She meant well but the fear in her voice only corroborated what we already knew. This was real, it was not a test. I felt sorry for the attendant because certainly her training included maintaining a confident reassuring voice while in the midst of an emergency. In training, however, maintaining such an aura is easy when digesting a crisis is solely cognitive and when emotions are compartmentalized. How does an airline ethically weave a real crisis into their training complete with its weighty emotions? It cannot be done. No matter how good the training no one knows how they will react until faced with a real life or death situation. The attendant’s fear response was out of her control just like shock takes over the body when one is seriously physically injured. No one on the plane was going to hold the attendant’s cracking voice against her, no one on that plane would likely have done any better.
As I gazed at the monitor we were now below 10,000 feet and the engines were still roaring. The engine’s sound was all there was as we all waited.
Strangely, the salami sandwich came to mind. I had never heard of a salami sandwich being served as a snack on an airline and I stupidly wondered if it would be hard salami, some German type or the best kind, Genoa. Why was salami on my mind? I should be saying goodbye to my wife while holding her hand.
As the seconds passed and I processed the emergency, saying goodbye would mean all hope was lost and that we were going to die. Remaining close to normal and refusing to say goodbye served as a way of fighting back, a silent protest, this plane could not kill me.
Instead I began to plan. I searched for the closest exit. Three rows up. Between us and the exit was a mother and her two year old who had been screaming the entire flight. No sooner had I dozed off when out of nowhere the child gave off a blood curdling scream. The mother had another child, a boy, around five years old who had decided to sit in an empty seat away from his mother with a young woman right in front of me. The young woman, I found out later, was nineteen years old and from Canada and had never flown before. What a way to begin.
Behind the mother and child was a woman, perhaps in her forties who seemed unsteady on her feet. I had been walking behind her as we entered the plane and noticed how slowly and cautiously she moved. I figured now, in a disaster requiring quick movement to the exit, that she could be a major barrier between my wife and me getting to the exit. I made note that somehow we would have to get her to move quickly.
While still considering how to deal with the woman I moved on to finding a way to remain close to my wife. I would grab her hand and then advance to pick up the little boy in front of me, if necessary, and move the three of us quickly to the door. I did not think the mother could maneuver her two year old and little boy at the same time and was prepared to help. I knew that if the situation presented itself that we would need to move fast. Given that we were over the desert I knew we would not need our flotation devices but beyond that I did not know. At least the salami sandwiches were out of my mind and I had a plan, of sorts, should we survive a crash in the desert.
Soon the flight attendant addressed the passengers again, slightly more controlled with the same message. “Please remain calm and be prepared to assume the safety position if directed.”
We sat. The monitor read, 4,400 feet. As I sat I slowly felt that something had changed. The noise level, the whir of the engines, were no longer squeezing my head making it hard to think. After a few seconds I remember whispering to myself, “I think we are going to be all right.” My wife and I turned to one another and we both whispered, “It seems okay.” The plane was no longer dropping and the engines sounded more like when we were cruising at 500 plus miles per hour. It seemed as if we had recovered.
The cabin remained quiet until the pilot came on and explained that the emergency was over and the descent was due to the computer indicating we had lost cabin pressure. He needed to take the plane down to an altitude that would stabilize the pressure and that accounted for our quick drop. We were now out of danger and returning to Khartoum.
The passengers exploded into applause and all agreed that the pilot saved the day. We were grateful. My question was answered, we had at least one more near death experience left in our bag of good luck. Now we were off to spend the night in Khartoum, Sudan, and as much as this was not our final destination it was a far cry better than a night in the desert.