Friday, 22 May 2009

Pleasures of flying - Post 37

‘I really have chosen a wrong job! I hate flying so much, and I am on a plane at least twice a month…’ Kacper wrote to Franek, who is a pilot in LOT Polish Airlines. ‘Please suggest something… What can I read or do so it can help me stop being that scared each time that I enter planes?’ he begged in his email.

Kacper tries to make jokes out of his fear of flying, and this often helps, but as soon as there are some bigger turbulences out there in the air, he gets pale, sweats, and in extreme situations, he even grabs other passengers’ hands unconsciously. Luckily no one ever got upset with him, when he does that, on a contrary, he even made friends with some of his air victims. The fact remains: KACPER IS SCARED OF FLYING!

It is not always that he was afraid of planes. As a kid, he always dreamt of flying, and thought it was such a fantastic way of travelling. It is his later experiences that made him dislike aircrafts.

Flying around places like rural Angola, South Sudan, Chad, or Afghanistan always involves elements of surprises and adventure. Villages and towns in South Sudan actually don’t have proper airstrips (not mentioning airports). Planes land and take off from fields that are adapted to be airstrips. This adaptation usually means that one just makes sure that there are not too many big wholes in the ground… Someone on the ground usually checks this each time before arrival and departure of planes. Kacper still remembers working in Upper Nile of South Sudan. It was his responsibility, to walk around the filed (airstrip) twice a week (plane was coming twice a week) and make sure that there were no new wholes in the ground, just before planes arrived. He would then need to report his findings via radio to the United Nations base in a neighbouring town. Only, when they received his confirmation, the plane would be allowed to fly in. On top of this, Kacper also needed to report weather conditions in his village. He truly hated doing it. He felt that he had too much responsibility… indeed he was never trained to work for air industry business, and he didn’t think he would like to. 

Arrival of planes always attracted attention in the village, where he lived. It was a social event. Planes came with interesting people, brought colourful boxes, supplies of medicines… People loved it, and always found it interesting to come and observe offloading and loading of aircrafts. The interest actually created serious dangers to safety of people. People simply didn’t realise of how powerful aircrafts could be, and instead of running out to give space to landing planes, they would chase them with excitement. Kacper and his colleagues tried to teach the residents to be careful. They did many awareness campaigns, during masses in churches, or services in mosques. They helped to some extend, but there were always some more adventures people, who thought it was fun to chase planes!

Kacper admired pilots of these small aircrafts. As far as he was concerned, they just managed to do impossible work every day – and successfully.  He still remembers his first time, when he was arriving to his Upper Nile village. They were in their tiny Cessna plane, approaching to land. The plane started descending steeply. There was a river on one side, and swamp on the other side. In the middle a bit of dry land with cows and goats on it! ‘This is where we are going to land…’ announced the pilot. Kacper obviously thought, he was joking, just to realise seconds later that in fact he wasn’t. They were about to touch down in the middle of herds of cows!  The plane was already around 20 meters above the ground. It looked like they were going land soon… For some reason, this never happened… At some point the pilot pulled some levers and their plane steeply gained height again. ‘We were chasing all animals away’, one of the passengers informed worried Kacper. ‘Now, as we cleared the land, we will turn around and descent for final landing’ he stated reassuringly. Kacper’s face must have said it all.  ‘This is a normal procedure… Nothing to worry about’ he added to calm him down. Whey they eventually reached their destination, Kacper learnt that the pilot was also assessing how wet the ground was. Had it be too muddy, they would have never landed, because the plane would have difficulties to take off again. ‘Fantastic’ thought Kacper with sarcasm… ‘I am at the end of the world’ he concluded.

Food drops were other operations that engraved themselves in his memory. The famine in Bahr el Ghazal State in Sudan some years ago, prompted the World Food Programme to drop food, which Kacper and his team would later distribute to local inhabitants. They chose the dropping spot far from buildings, and in a place that looked safe. Local police and army secured the place, and the villagers were advised to stay away from the location, so that no one is injured.

Obviously, the news spread fast, and some curious Janjaweed militiamen decided to visit the place, hoping that they could steal a sack or two of grain for themselves. The arrival of 5 men on horses worried Kacper, but he couldn’t do anything. He just hoped that the governmental officials would make sure all went as per plan, and that Janjaweed wouldn’t be of nuisance.

Finally they heard the plane coming. Soon after that they saw it on a horizon. It approached the site, and the pilot started circulating, assessing the safety for the drop. Until then, the Janjaweed seemed to have shown patience. They were just observing what was happening patiently. Kacper thought, the police had convinced them not to make any trouble. As the plane was making its final approach to open its back part and eject pallets with food, one of the militiamen kicked his horse’s belly, and… off he went… chasing the plane! Kacper looked with amazement in his face. ‘What the hell is he thinking…’ he thought. Everyone started shouting, hoping he would abandon his idea. Everything happened very quickly. Kacper just turned around… He didn’t want to see what was going to happen. Later he was told that one of the pallets with a few hundreds kilos of grain on it landed on a poor man and a horse… Needless to say that no one could save neither of them… Both were killed instantly.

Another time, Kacper travelled with TAAG Angolan Airline plane from the town of Lubango to the country’s capital Luanda. They were in a descent looking Boeing 737. Everything looked okey, and the flight was actually quite pleasant. They were approaching the airstrip of the Luanda airport. They were touching the ground, and Kacper started relaxing a bit. Seconds after, something was going wrong… They were on the ground, but the plane didn’t seem to be stopping. All of the sudden, everyone around started realising that things were not right. Some people started shouting. Kacper grabbed a seat in front of him and held it tight, waiting nervously what was going to happen. He looked out of the window, and noticed that the airstrip was about to finish… With full speed, their plane overshot the paved runway… There was some noise in the front of the plane, and in the same time, slowly they started loosing some of their speed. More suspicious noise of things being broken and things falling could be heard. Few more shakes, and the plane stopped. No one said a word for a few seconds. Then pe0ple started clapping. As they found out later, something was wrong with the aircraft’s brakes, and plane couldn’t stop. What saved them was a fact that there was enough space behind the airstrip for the plane to loose its speed. They also found out how extremely lucky they were. Their plane apparently ended up in a mine-infested area… (meant to protect the airstrip from attacks of rebels). It took soldiers 5 hours to evacuate the plane. They needed to de-mine the area, before allowing the passengers out. Within these five hours, one of the Angolan ladies gave birth to a premature son… Happily, both mother and son survived and were well!

There were many, many other scary, and funny plane stories in Kacper’s career. One of those, was particularly special. Kacper and 5 other passengers were waiting for cargo to be loaded onto their small aircraft. It was their last stop on their way to Lokkichoggio in Kenya. They were in a small village of Akobo in south-eastern Sudan, literally on the border with Ethiopia. ‘Okey, you can board the plane’ announced the pilot. Kacper was pleased; they were finally going to travel. It was a long and tiring day. He just wanted to reach Kenya, so that he could catch a plane to Nairobi, and then off to Zanzibar for his one weeklong holiday.

The engine started and the plane slowly made its way to the beginning of their dirt airstrip. The noise intensified and their aircraft started gaining speed. It smoothly started making its way up. They were not very high yet, perhaps on the height comparable to 5th or 6th floor. Suddenly a black smoke appeared somewhere in the front of the craft. The engine started making strange noises, and soon after died… ‘God, we are crashing’ must have come through everyone’s minds. Their plane glided for a few meters, and then started loosing its height dramatically quickly. ‘Brace, brace, brace’ heard Kacper. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do… He just realised that they were in trouble. Kacper saw water… they were about to hit a nearby swamp, just outside of the village.

The impact didn’t hurt. Kacper thought it would be very painful, and imagined the worst. In fact he didn’t have time to think of pain… Kacper looked at other passengers. They were all shocked, but it seemed like everyone was making some physical movements. They were all alive! ‘Everyone ok?’ shouted distressed pilot. His chin was bleeding, and his shirt was torn. ‘Yeah…’ came from everyone’s mouths. Kacper was worried that their plane would start drowning, but none of this seemed to have been happening. It was not going down at all. He felt severe pain in his elbow, and around his waist – where the seatbelt was. He unfastened himself and waited. Very soon after, they noticed canoes that must have come from the village to rescue. The people outside helped one of the passengers open the emergency door. One by one, they were pulled out. The three canoes took them to the village. They were saved!

Kacper had his elbow broken, and had some bleeding wounds all over the body. He was more shocked rather than injured. The other passengers and their pilot also seemed distressed, but besides minor injuries, they all appeared fine.

It was the International Red Cross that came to their rescue. They sent to light aircrafts with doctors to pick them up. ‘We are taking you to safety’ announced the South African pilot, before they took off. ‘We will just wait until the medicines that I injected in you will make you sleep’ added a friendly Swiss doctor. Kacper and his travel companions were to finish their trip asleep…


PS. Kacper is wondering whom he should vote for in the European Parliament elections. 


  1. Bezpiecznie dotarłeś do domu :)?


  2. Tak, tak, dotarłem, dziękuję!

  3. Your tale reminded me of the first time I was on a plane. I did freak out but since I was sat next to a gentleman who noticed my nervousness and calmed me down through the gift of polite conversation I soon fel in love with flying and nowadays it's my wife who gest the jitters when the plane is about to take off.

    You sure have had your share of adventures, haven't you?

    Greetings from London.