No place like home
Our boarding time came and went, but the South African Airways pilots and cabin crew were unmoved, sitting a few seats away in the international departures lounge of Leon M’ba International Airport in Libreville, Gabon.
It was past midnight and the 30 or so travellers waiting to get back to Johannesburg were getting edgy. After a while, the pilots and crew headed for the aeroplane.
Progress, we thought. But an hour later the pilot was back in the departures lounge and, after an angry passenger accosted him, briefed everyone on what was happening.
The aeroplane, he told us, which had arrived from Douala, Cameroon, had an overheated air-conditioning system and it was being fixed before we could depart.
“An engineer is looking at it now,” the captain said, reassuring us that this was not a major problem.
The annoyed passengers seemed to relax, realising that safety was more important than punctuality. Then, sometime between 2am and 3am, we were led down to the tarmac to board. At the top of the stairs an air hostess and another crew member seemed to be having a heated discussion.
Then I watched a passenger leave the aeroplane, luggage in hand. He strode down the steps and walked past. “Get on this plane if you want to die!” Another passenger came down the stairs. “I fly all the time,” he said. “I am not getting on that plane — there was smoke in the cabin.”
I was starting to freak out; this was hardly an ideal situation. More and more passengers got off. The rest of us were directed to board and climbed the stairs as hysterical passengers passed us heading in the opposite direction, mumbling words about how we were going to die. One said the cabin had filled with smoke and there was a noise that sounded like a washing machine for the whole 45-minute flight from Douala.
I turned to one of the cabin crew members. “Is the aeroplane okay?” She sheepishly replied: “It looks like it. The pilot says it’s okay and I trust the pilot.” Hardly convincing.
I took my seat and tried to rationalise the situation: the pilot is a middle-aged man from South Africa and probably has a wife and kids. Surely he is not going to take a risk flying under suspect conditions?
Eventually, the aeroplane took off and for the next five-and-a-half hours we were dealing with the fact that, at any minute, we could fall out of the sky. Then came those comforting words: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have now started our descent to Johannesburg.”
All we had to do was land.
As the aeroplane’s wheels touched down on South African tarmac, the passengers let go of a whirlwind of emotions. Some were praying aloud to God, others were whooping and cheering. We survived and you could feel the sense of relief in the air.
Ten minutes later, as I approached the passport control desk and presented my South African passport, the official smiled at me and welcomed me home. “You have no idea how glad I am to be home,” I shot back. He smiled again and said: “There is no place like home.”
I could only nod in agreement.