BY BIYI SIMOYAN.
Abuja, it was Friday, June 1st 2012, a normal morning, with bright sunny weather, ten minutes to 7 a.m. in the morning. I was at the local wing of the airport. The boarding announcement had been made and I was the first to board the plane .Waiting for the shuttle bus is a waste of time to me when the airplane is just a three minute walk away. Something was odd that morning; Aero Contractors normally board first, as their flight is normally thirty minutes before Dana Air. This morning however the Aero aircraft was parked and empty. No pilots, no crew, no ground staff. What was going on this morning? I was glad my own boarding announcement had been made and I would be in Lagos in another hour. I identified my luggage and made sure it was moved into the aircraft from the pack. On boarding the plane, I made straight for the lavatory. I normally do this to avoid getting up during the flight.
I had my laptop bag with me as hand luggage and a book written by Manchester United football club coach Sir Alex Ferguson about the 1996-97 season. I reckoned I could apply the same success principles he used in my own life. I equally needed some kind of distraction, travelling by air has always made me nervous from childhood. I walked back to my seat as other passengers boarded and exchanged pleasantries with the lady cabin crew member in the rear of the aircraft. These planes are quite old, I thought to myself. On my seat, I called my wife to inform her that I had boarded and she wished me a “Safe Journey”, as she normally does when I am travelling. Other passengers boarded and I recalled an elderly man I saw on the queue when I wanted to get my boarding pass. He had lamented how people who do not like to fly in Nigeria are forced to because the railway system is dysfunctional. I saw him board, apparently he didn’t recognize me.
Captain Oscar welcomed us onboard. We were going to cruise at 31,000 feet above sea level and the weather all the way to Lagos was clear. Thank God I said in my mind. I don’t mind the height, but when there is turbulence, I suddenly become very aware of it. In no time, we were on the runway and airborne. During the flight for the first time, I got up to use the lavatory. This was what I intended to avoid in the first place. The cabin crew lady wasn’t too pleased that I got in her way while she was serving drinks and snacks. The aircraft’s engine was very noisy. “Well, we’re used to this, right”? I thought to myself. I wondered how the passengers who sat at the rear felt. These aircrafts have their engines at the rear unlike the other aircrafts of most other airlines, whose engines are beneath the wings. I hurried back to my seat. I read through Sir Alex Ferguson’s account of trying to sign England striker Alan Shearer for his club.
I haven’t read about sports personalities in awhile. Then I heard the magic words, “Cabin crew prepare for landing”, Captain Oscar’s husky voice can’t be mistaken. I was partially relieved but then I couldn’t see the ground, the clouds were quite low, only one thing came to my mind, it was probably about to rain again. Then suddenly, I saw a shadow of our plane moving in the clouds. This made me very, very uncomfortable. I would look away and seconds later look again in that direction and see the shadow. I had never seen such a thing in my entire life. The shadow of the aircraft was in motion as we descended and it moved with us the way a human shadow moves with the person while walking. It was strange to me and felt like it meant something, but I couldn’t imagine what it could be. I dismissed the thought but still felt uneasy, until we touched the ground, landing on the runway for international flights. This had been happening for the better part of the year and the airplanes would then taxi all the way to the local terminal taking another ten minutes or so. This is the most comfortable flight I had taken this whole year. When the rain season starts, pilots have a lot of extra work to do in the cockpit to make the flight comfortable for passengers.
I called my wife’s mobile phone twice, it rang out. I decided to send her a text message. I called my Dad and told him I had arrived in Lagos. I normally don’t call him before flights. He worries a lot. I had arranged someone to bring my car to the airport. I had an 11am appointment to keep in Ikoyi and wanted to get there on time, finish my business and leave before the mad weekend traffic started. While leaving the airport, there is an announcement. It was the fifth year anniversary of Murtala Muhammed Airport 2. This is unarguably the best airport in the country and I have a good feeling anytime I am landing at this airport that I don’t feel anywhere else. It can’t be described. There is a further announcement about a raffle draw and prizes to be awarded commemorating the anniversary. In my mind, I say thank God, five years and no aviation disaster involving passenger airlines reported. I didn’t know that tragedy was two days ahead.
Sunday afternoon, June 3, 2012, I am with my two brothers, one of the wives and nephew and my phone rings. It’s my friend, Segun who arrived from India last week. I can’t hear him properly. I just hear “Dana Airplane——Abuja——- crash——my area”. In my mind, I was hoping he was making reference to the unfortunate incident that happened at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana the previous day. Ghana and Dana sound so much alike, but the line is clear now and he repeats himself, “Dana, Dana Air, that airline you like to fly has crashed near my area, it was an Abuja-Lagos flight”. I was playing with my cute three year old nephew who every stranger assumes is my son, suddenly my countenance changes and the kid wonders why I am no longer playing with him. I ask my brother’s wife if she can get online to confirm if the news is true. Sad news is hardly ever false. I tried to log on to a news website on my phone without success. She takes ten minutes and comes back to confirm it. I check my phone again; apparently my mother in law had been calling me. When she didn’t through to me, she called my wife, who confirmed to her that I arrived Lagos safely two days earlier. I leave my brother’s place downcast. I have to drop off my other brother to his place before going back home. As we park in front of his house, I see a young lady at the opposite apartment, receiving a phone call and sounding vey hysterical on the phone, then suddenly she jumps up, screams, starts crying and runs into the house.
There and then I knew she had a relative on that flight. My brother and I walked up to the front porch of the house she ran into and we see two men in their fifties inside a Jeep. One of them informs us that she lost her cousin in the plane crash. He tells us that his brother, who is the other person, arrived from Abuja on Dana a day earlier, and I inform him that I arrived two days earlier! Worse news was to come, they inform us that a family of nine perished! As children my parents never allowed all of us to board the same airplane at once, or be in the same vehicle at the same time. As a child I had always wondered why, it now made sense.
My brother and I aren’t smiling as I drive off. Normally, we tell jokes at this point and have a good laugh. Today we are both sober, he tells me to call him when I get home. I had hardly driven for three minutes when I realized, I couldn’t continue. I stopped, couldn’t control the tears. There was a time I thought I was really tough and could not be moved by anything. But a lot has happened in the last four years that have moved me. I stay there pondering the fate people who had such high hopes and expectations in life. In the twinkle of an eye, it had all disappeared. I drive across the long bridge feeling numb.
I imagined how the passengers on that flight felt when the plane was going down, how the pilots would have tried to stay in control. Was it Captain Oscar? Or the funny American pilot who always entertained passengers when making weather and in-flight announcements? There was a Nigerian pilot too, I recalled, and an Indian. Which one of them was it? What about the crew? Was it the same crew that flew in from Abuja on Friday or from one of my earlier flights this year? I had flown 15 times locally this year and 9 of those flights were with Dana.
How did the pilot feel when he realized he was helpless? There must have children too on that plane. What could have been going through their minds? Some mothers would have been with their children. There is no greater anguish for a mother than knowing you can’t save your child. This was a situation that would shake the bravest of persons. There would be prayer for a miracle that was not to be. Maybe, the shadow of the moving plane in the cloud meant something after all; maybe it was merely a shadow. Who knows?