The Highest Country in the World – The last moments

Women were crying openly in the cabin; I was gripping the seat in front fiercely with my left hand while my right had tried to keep the book steady.  It had been a good life, I thought.

We had so far travelled the hour from Maseru, had been kept in the holding pattern for thirty minutes and taken another thirty minutes to try and land.  Could the plane fly for much longer?  Could the pilots stay concentrated?  Could the plane stay intact with the buffeting it was receiving? Could our nerves take more of this?  There was only one answer to all those questions – We had to!

We came around once more.  The routine was now familiar – dark clouds punctuated by lightning, the navigation lights and pools of orange from the street lights below.  The sudden clearing of the skies revealing the airport hangars, terminal and runway. This third time was different as there was no inevitable throttle up as we headed into the sky.  Instead, before anyone had noticed we had bumped down on the ground and the brakes were applied.  We drew up quickly to a slow taxi, turned off the runway and were safe.  The rain was still pelting down outside but now looked innocuous.  We had to cross another couple of runways to reach the terminal.  As I looked out to my right I saw a line of lights of four other aircraft desperately trying to get down on the ground.  Our captain gave us his farewell message over the tannoy, using as nonchalant a set of clichés about “bit bumpy” and ” sorry for the slight delay”.  There was a twinge of nervous relief in his tone, but also pride as he told us we were the first plane to have landed at Oliver Tambo in the last 40 minutes.  Hence the stack of planes now trying to land on every available runway.

I looked at my watch as we continued to taxi past busy scenes of planes being loaded with passengers and freight, fuelled and watered ready for their journeys.  In theory my Virgin Atlantic flight  was due to depart in thirty minutes time.  I knew already that this was an impossible timetable.  If no planes had been able to land they would not be able to allow others to take off.  We parked up out on the airfield and dashed down the steps and onto buses.  I caught all the passengers exchanging glances and smirking with relief.  We’d not talked much, we may never meet again, but we had shared a big experience that evening.  When I got inside the terminal building it was crowded with people waiting for their delayed flights.  I was surprised to see my own London flight was not badly delayed and we would be boarding in about 20 minutes.  In a way I was grateful for the slick transfer.  If I had sat around the terminal for much longer I may have had too much time to think about whether to ever fly again in my life.

My fellow passengers were all aware of the hassle and delays caused by the bad weather, but none of them had the same story I had.  I settled back and got myself comfy for the long haul back over Africa and Europe to home.  It was still lightning and rain outside but nowhere near as intense.  The wind remained strong as I could see the rain passing the floodlights horizontally.  But a fully loaded 747 at full throttle is more than a match for a headwind and after a few bumpy moments as we passed through the cloud, the storm gave us no further trouble and I was away.

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Flying over Lesotho still spectacular

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The Highest Country in the World – We are going to crash!

We only turned a couple of times before we felt the aircraft take a more purposeful direction indicating we were starting our approach.  We came lower and lower but that made the shaking of the aircraft worse.  We dropped into the lower level of clouds.  Lightning was illuminating the cloud around the wings, the little regular port and starboard navigation lights also lit up the cloud.  If I’d known I was safe I might have enjoyed the display.

Everyone jumped when a squall of hailstones hit the fuselage.  I focused in on my book but found it a struggle to concentrate on the words; I just stared at the black print on the white page and tried not to look beyond the edges.  But I could not help my eyes wandering back to the window.  The plane was at forty five degrees to the right, I knew this as a brief opening in the clouds below revealed, a few hundred feet below me, the orange street lights in an industrial estate.  We were close to the airfield, I hoped.  You could sense the pilots struggling to keep control of the aircraft.  The engine noise was up and down, you could feel the tug on the flaps as they fought against the swirling winds.  A ping in the cabin told those in the know that we were on final approach.  The stewardess had been strapped in for the last five minutes for her own safety but she reached for the intercom handset and recited the routine landing announcement as calmly as she could muster.

This situation was anything but routine.  I still could not see the ground as we came down and down – was it still a few hundred feet away, or were we about to be smashed against the tarmac.

The floodlights next to the terminal suddenly appeared and the ground  came up to meet us.  We were still struggling in the swirls of wind and at the last second, the pilot had to abort, the engines roared once more and we were heading back up in to the cloud.

The woman in front of me screamed and reached for her handbag under her seat.  I saw her remove her rosary and she started muttering prayers.  I read my book.  I tried to read my book.  If these were my last moments, I thought, give me time to read the last ten pages of this book.

Tossed and turned again in the dark clouds, the lightning close by; even above all the engine noise I was sure I heard the thunder, we circled another five minutes and came in for second approach.  We had to land this time.  We had to get on the ground.  How much fuel do these little planes have in reserve?  We lurched to our left, we lurched to our right.  Another fist of air thumped on the undercarriage and we were thrust upwards.  How can the pilot keep control?  With the cockpit concentrating on flying the plane, we were getting none of the announcements that usually reassure us that everything was OK.  Of course very little was OK.  We were still alive but our destination seemed as distant as ever.

We came around again and I could feel that we were making a second approach on the runway.  We must get down this time.  This is only a small plane – the runway could take Jumbo Jets that needed miles to take off at Johannesburg’s altitude.  There was the terminal building again, the lights smeared through the raindrops covering my window.  There was the runway, glistening with water, below us.  Another jerk to the left, one to the right, a frightening dip just at the wrong moment, and a second abort as the nose of the plane went up and we were once more heading into the cloud.

There was obviously nowhere else to go in the vicinity.  We had seen the wall of cloud stretching across the sky – this storm was bigger than Gauteng.  How far was it to an airport that could take us and would we have enough fuel?  We got no messages from the cockpit but we could work it out for ourselves.  It was land at Oliver Tambo or…. well, you know the alternative.

The Highest Country in the World – The Nightmare begins

It was always hard to say goodbye to Becky and Lesotho.  Chris and I had driven from Jo’burg to Maseru and back; the other two times I flew.  Maseru Airport was one of the cutest, quietest little international portals I have ever seen on any continent.  Just a few flights a day, just a handle of passengers each time.  You had to set out early as you could never predict the traffic across the city.  Perched on a plateau just off the Main South Road, its wide grassy airfield could just have been plucked from anywhere in the country, the same grasslands that must have carpeted big swathes of the country.

My first flight back to Jo’burg turned out to be a horrific nightmare.  It had been a hot sunny day in Maseru while I finished up my meetings, tidied up the handover with Becky and gathered my bits together.  There were a few clouds in the sky as we drove over to the airport and some were thickening up in the heat , but the terminal remained bathed in golden sunlight.

There were about 20 people aboard the small prop plane from South African Airways to take us the hour up to Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport.  As we set out the captain did his usual introduction but warned us that the ride might get a bit bumpy once we approached Gauteng.  We passed over the border not far from Butha Buthe and it became increasingly difficult to discern features below.  The haze had become so thick the sunlight was bouncing off it instead of the ground.  I turned to a book I had and began to read, glancing once or twice out the window to see if I could see progress.  The fourth or fifth time I did this all I could see ahead of the plane was the darkest, thickest wall of thunder cloud I had ever seen.  There was no way round it.  The seatbelts lights came on and the stewardess told us to buckle up.  The captain came on to reinforce that we were going to have some serious turbulence.  With that we plunged into the cloud.

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The wall of cloud – obliterating the last of the sunshine

We were only about fifteen minutes out from Johannesburg at this point and even without the turbulence we would have had to put on the seatbelts as we descended.  At first there were the little bangs and bumps which are a regular part of flying.  We kept a steady course and you could hear from the engines that we were slowing and despite being jerked up once or twice in the updrafts we were dropping in altitude.

We proceeded like this for another ten minutes, then the captain came on to say we would not be able to land immediately as there was congestion coming into the runway.  This unsettled the passengers.  We had steeled ourselves to be up here while we were travelling towards the final destination, but the thought of going round and round in circles tossed about in the storm was not good news.  Our unsettledness was punctuated as when the pilot turned the aircraft the turbulence increased and we could feel ourselves being flung sideways.  Hands went out to grab the seat in front.  A few gasps went up from the most nervous passengers, but the rest of us were just one notch below them on the frightened scale now.