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.