March 10, 2019 has gone in the history of aviation in Africa as a Black Sunday. It was a day that tragedy struck in Ethiopia when one of the planes belonging to the Ethiopian Airlines crash-landed barely a few minutes after taking off in Addis Ababa on its way to Nairobi, Kenya.
According to media reports, the pilot of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliner, ferrying 149 passengers and eight crew members to Nairobi, had reported difficulties and requested to return to Addis Ababa. He swung the plane back but the machine vertically came down in Bishoftu, a town located some 60 kilometres south-east of Addis Ababa, burst into flames and killed everyone on board.
Although the number of passengers was small compared to similar tragedies recorded in times past, the victims spread across 30 countries. Kenya, which was the destination of the flight ET 302, had the largest number of (32) passengers, Canada had 18, the United States had eight, while Britain had seven. Among the Canadians was a Nigerian-born professor, writer and literary critic, Pius Adesanmi. All the five or so air hostesses were Ethiopians.
The other Nigerian on board the ill-fated plane was Ambassador Abiodun Bashua, a former United Nations and African Union Deputy Special Representative in Dafur, Sudan, who bore a United Nations’ passport. He was among the 14 staff of the global body in the aircraft who were billed to attend a conference on environment billed for Nairobi.
The tragedy sent panic into the aviation industry around the world, causing several countries to ground all the Max 8 model of the aircraft as a MAXimum precaution. Such countries include China, France, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore and Britain.
It is also the second time that the troublesome model would fly travellers into oblivion. In October, last year, the same model of plane belonging to Lion Airlines crashed in Indonesia, killing 189 passengers on board.
Aviation experts have attributed the propensity of the model to crash to a design error. It was revealed that the aircraft had flown back to Addis Ababa from Johannesburg, South Africa, on that fateful day before it was positioned for the Nairobi flight. Reports also had it that the plane which was just a few months old in the fleet underwent rigorous first-check maintenance on February 4, this year, and was under the command of a senior captain with more than 8,000 cumulative flight hours, assisted by a co-pilot backed by 200 flight hours when the disaster struck.
The thought of the tragedy has sent jitters down the spines of air travellers across the globe as though it was the first of its kind in the aviation history. Those ever fearful air travellers in Nigeria are now apprehensive boarding aircraft, especially of Boeing contraptions. And I am one of them, I must confess! Anyone out there who is pounding his or her chest and saying there is nothing to be afraid of must be lying to him or herself except those that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High.
I was particularly sad about the Black Sunday because I have flown severally with the Ethiopian Airlines. My first experience was in October, 1977. My destination was Cairo. We had departed Lagos to Nairobi from where we linked Addis Ababa, overflying Northern Yemen. We had a brief stopover in the Ethiopian capital. The airlines boasts of such friendly, courteous and very attractive female hostesses that a monk sitting next to me could not take his eyes away from them any time they passed him by!
The Airlines later awarded me an Equator Crossing Certificate signed by the general manager, named Tafesse Ayalew, and dated October 23, 1977. By that certification, I am forever entitled to be known as Aviaticus Solaris Empyrus.
Ethiopian Airlines, like the defunct Nigeria Airways, has excellent flight records. I am not in the habit of sleeping when I travel by air. It is not for fear of being flown into oblivion; it is not in my character even when I am on long distance flight. Even when I am travelling by road, sleep usually takes flight from me until I get to my destinations. But with the Ethiopian Airlines, I could sleep with both eyes closed. Same with the Nigeria Airways!
Now, let me tell you the reason why I don’t usually mix my flight with sleep. In July, 1978, I boarded a DC 9 jetliner from Algiers to Tunis after covering the 3rd All-Africa Games. The flight lasted for close to an hour. I was to connect a British Caledonian flight from Tunis to Kano. We were barely midway into the journey when we ran into a storm. The violent tempest buffeted the aircraft sideways as if you were vigorously sieving yam flour. It was such a terrifying experience. Within a period of five minutes that the bad weather lasted, all the passengers moved closer to God, fervently asking Him to intervene and save our souls. Some even discharged urine involuntarily. Though I was equally frightened, the journalist in me took charge. I heaved my notebook out of the bag and began to record the life-threatening drama. One of the passengers that sat next to me, a white lady from Australia, must have thought that I had gone bananas.
After weathering the storm, she asked me what the writing was all about even when the biro and the notebook were unsteady in my hands. I told her I was penning down the minute-by-minute account for my newspaper in Nigeria. Then, she said and I quote: “You journalists are an enigma. How were you sure you would survive if the plane had crashed let alone turn in any report for your paper?” I told her they were doing what was necessary, praying, while I was doing mine, writing. She forced a smile on her face.
Another experience I also had in the 80s was between Jos and Lagos. Like from Algiers to Tunis, it was a 60-minute flight. We were just 20 minutes into the Nigeria Airways flight when we ran into potholes. Yes, potholes do exist in the sky! As the aircraft tore through the thick clouds, we were bombarded with the sound… grrrrrrrrr. The tormenting sound was punctuated by ascending and descending of the plane, causing my heart to sink. So frightening was the experience that we thought the aircraft would be rendered asunder. For the remaining 40 or so minutes of the flight, we all had our hearts in our mouths.
Eventually, we arrived safely at the domestic wing of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos. And it was when I sighted an airport ground staff directing the plane to the parking point using two extra large bats that I remembered I had a tomtom sweet lodging in my mouth. I then began to toss it from one corner of my mouth to the other like table tennis players.
My sympathy goes to the families of last Sunday’s disaster, especially that of Professor Pius Adesanmi, who was my wife’s junior at Titcombe College, Egbe, in Yagba West Local Government Area of Kogi state. May the Almighty God grant the deceased eternal rest, Amen.