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Moments Before An Air Crash

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In a metal tube 40,000 feet above the ground, anything can go horribly wrong. A survivor recounts the moments before her plane crashed, and pilots tell us why we needn’t be as apprehensive today. 

This is your captain speaking, we are about to land,” said the voice on the intercom, as the passengers fastened seat belts.

The plane was descending calmly when it suddenly began to shake – vigorously.

A woman started shrieking.

Shock and horror all around.

Two students held hands in prayer.

In minutes – but what seemed like an eternity – the aircraft crashed into the ground, bursting into flames, killing 108 passengers.

Kechi Okwuchi, one of the two students who prayed, lived to tell the tale.

She was also one of only two survivors.

Thirteen years on, her scars, external and internal, run deep.

On December 10, 2005, 16-year-old Okwuchi, from Imo State in Nigeria, was heading home for Christmas with her school mates.

She was traveling on Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145 from Abuja to Port Harcourt.

“I remember just being in shock at what was going on and I couldn’t quite grasp that this was reality. You only see these kind of things in the movies. You never actually are involved in it. It is just surreal,” she recounts to FORBES AFRICA.

“I remember the plane was late and when we all boarded, everything was normal.”

Okwuchi was in an aisle seat next to one of her friends.

“It wasn’t until about 15-20 minutes before we landed that things started to get a little crazy and the turbulence kind of got out of hand,” she says.

“People started panicking. I remember a lady in the back who screamed and that was what got everyone in chaos and screaming. The last thing I remember was hearing these metal scrapping sounds, whose origins I didn’t know. It was just this loud sound in my head.”

The plane had crashed.

“My next memory after that was seeing my hand raised up in front of me like I was lying and I could see my skin hanging off my arm. And I was looking at my hand back and forth…My skin was hanging,” she says of the aftermath.

Five weeks later, Okwuchi opened her eyes again for the first time since the crash. She was now at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, being treated for third degree burns that scarred her entire body.

Kechi Okwuchi, Air crash survivor. Photo provided

She was told none of her school mates had survived.

“Prior to that time, I thought that I if I was alive, everyone else was alive,” says Okwuchi.

“I just remember feeling shock and my friends’ faces were flashing before my eyes like someone flipping a scrap book in front of me…I was in that state of shock, depression and denial for about two-three days, just crying and crying.

“No one could comfort me from the pit of depression I was in,” she says.

To date, Okwuchi has undergone more than 100 surgeries – she has almost lost count.

At the time of the interview with FORBES AFRICA, she had just undergone yet another surgery in Los Angeles.

Okwuchi’s life is a miracle.

Despite the experience, she says she is not afraid of flying. She is a frequent flyer now pursuing a busy career.

She is studying for an MBA degree at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

She is also a vocalist, and has released her first single after being a finalist on the 12th season of America’s Got Talent last year.

Auditioning in front of thousands, including celebrities Simon Cowell, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum, she fearlessly performed a rendition of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud after sharing her life story.

She is also now a motivational speaker and has featured in TED Talks.

Kechi Okwuchi. Photo provided

The same decade as Okwuchi’s crash – the 2000s – Nigeria had experienced five major and fatal plane crashes. Experts suggested they were due to engine failure, bad weather, poor airport design or dysfunctional runway lighting.

Since then, the number of airplane accidents have thankfully declined.

On a continental level, a quick Google search reveals 23 headline-grabbing plane crashes in Africa in the first decade of this century.

Post 2010, there were five, the deadliest being the Algerian Air Force Il-76 crash as recently as April 11, 2018, when all 257 people on board were killed.

One of the reasons airplane accidents have come down today is thanks to the advancement of aviation technology. And thanks to phone cameras and social media, we also have better insight into what happens moments before an air accident.

However, to date, no technology has been able to solve one of the planet’s biggest unsolved mysteries – the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 in 2014 with 239 people on board.

Flying solo

The same year as the Sosoliso plane crash, thousands of kilometers from Nigeria, trainee pilot Noni Radebe was doing her first ‘night test’ in South Africa.

In the pitch-black sky, the 19-year-old was all by herself in the small plane hovering over Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape.

In the middle of the flight, the engines began to fail. Radebe felt unusual vibrations. Some plane components simply stopped working.

Panic and shock consumed her.

The plane began to lose altitude and flew over a dense forest.

Radebe couldn’t see anything and her plane started losing power. Her only hope was to try and somehow land it on any empty stretch of land.

“I had only been taught to respond to [such a situation] in daylight,” she says recalling what she thought would have been the end of her career – and her life.

In the end, with great trepidation, she somehow managed to land the plane on the runway of her training school.

She passed her pilot’s test and went on to become one of South Africa’s pioneering female pilots. Redebe has been flying commercial planes for the last 13 years.

Noni Radebe. Photo provided

She currently flies her dream plane, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 for Comair, which has advanced technological systems.

 “We have reached a point where you can basically land when you cannot see the ground. That’s how good the technology has become,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

She no longer panics in an emergency. She remains calm and reacts quickly to any potential danger in the air.

She finds flying one of the most enjoyable experiences on earth.

“By the time you actually line up on that runway and are ready to take off, it feels like you’ve been orchestrating this humongous stage play,” she says.

Radebe hopes to train young pilots to be better equipped for situations like the one she encountered during her first flight alone.

READ MORE: Heroes In The Sky

‘AT LEAST 500,000 PILOTS OVER THE NEXT 20 YEARS’

In Germiston, a small city in the East Rand region of Gauteng in South Africa, we meet yet another pilot, Rico Botha, who trains young aspirants at the U-Fly Training Academy in what used to be South Africa’s main international airport, the Rand Airport.

We are with Botha in a flight simulation room, and he fishes out his mobile phone.

He shows us an app on it displaying as many as 10,000 planes criss-crossing the globe in real time.

On the app, they are tiny yellow airplane symbols like colonies of ants. The app makes

it easy for anyone to keep track of the planes traveling in and out of various destinations.

“As air travel is predicted to increase over the next couple of years, we are going to have more planes in that same amount of airspace,” says Botha.

“They predict there will be at least 500,000 pilots over the next 20 years.”

Rico Botha. Photo by Motlabanna Monakgotla

He says there have been significant safety improvements with the arrival of advanced technology.

At the moment, a Boeing 737 is produced 47 times every month catering to a strong worldwide demand. The world’s other leading aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, has been flying the A380 for a decade and is the world’s largest passenger jet.

However, with more planes in the sky, pilot-training has to be undertaken with utmost caution and precision.

“One of the worst things to happen to a pilot is when [he/she] has lost a passenger. Nobody dies on your watch. It’s normally a career-breaker for a lot of people because it was your job to keep them safe…that guilt normally ends a lot of careers,” he says.

With the sky as your daily office, being a pilot may seem like one of the most glamorous jobs on the planet, but it comes with its own baggage of stress.

You can hit air pockets anytime in your career if not alert.

Aside from illnesses, if pilots go through any form of depression or trauma, psychometric tests are done and if they fail, they are deemed unfit to fly.

In 2015, a German co-pilot committed suicide by crashing his aircraft, killing all 144 passengers and crew members in the process. He initiated a deliberate descent until the aircraft impacted a mountain and blew up. Doctors had declared him “unfit to work” but he allegedly concealed that information from his employers.

“Family life is also a very big factor – your wife, your kids. You are going to miss birthdays, you are going to miss Christmas, you are going to miss the birth of your kids. These things do affect pilots and they do tend to become a little depressed at times,” Botha explains.

As for the planes, a thorough inspection must be conducted before take-off.

Botha takes us to one of the planes he uses for training purposes and demonstrates how a simple issue such as water mixing with fuel could cause combustion.

“Because fuel is so dense, you need to make sure there isn’t any water that gets in because water actually sinks in the fuel reserve,” Botha says, showing us a fuel test tube with water.

Both Radebe and Botha praise the level of training they have received.

“The training and level of maintenance in South Africa is one of the greatest in the world,” Radebe says.

Botha agrees, saying a majority of his students are overseas students who choose to study aviation in South Africa as opposed to their own countries.

“Africa is very much on par in terms of technology and also in terms of safety and training with the rest of the world,” says Radebe.

“Technology is changing every single day…

“[Planes are] burning less fuel, [there’s] less carbon emissions and they are much better for the environment…we are [using only] half the fuel we used 10 years ago just to get to Durban from Johannesburg…,” she says.

With an estimated 10,000 planes flying at any given moment, there is a sizeable population of humans up in the air, hopeful technology is on their side and that their pilots are not having a bad day.

 

Sit Back, Relax And Enjoy…?

These business travelers and frequent flyers have encountered some nerve-racking moments.

Claudette Thorne

Country General Manager, Southern Africa for Travelport

Before Travelport, her job entailed traveling to over 22 African countries. There’s one particular flying experience she will never forget.

Working in the mining industry, Thorne, only 22 at the time, boarded a chartered plane from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi in the DRC. It was a 45-minute flight.

“I remember it so clearly. It was a Rolls-Royce – the engine was literally almost held together with duct tape. And then I got on to the plane and that was the time I literally saw nuts and bolts next to me. So yes, petrified wasn’t even the word,” she says.

“I still have so much to accomplish in this life,” says the 37-year-old who finds herself on a plane at least four to eight times a month.

 

Thando Hopa

International model, writer, actress, lawyer

Turbulence while on a plane is Hopa’s worst nightmare.

“I suppose in my own mind it would feel like I should say a prayer because I’m about to die. That’s what I at least thought initially,” she says.

“It’s a resilient discomfort, I have to say,” says the 29-year-old.

Her first overseas flight was to the Sundance Film Festival in the United States. It was 23 hours of flying that Hopa had to endure including transit stops.

Due to albinism, Hopa has problems with her eye sight and requested special assistance.

“When I got there, they gave me a wheelchair and said ‘no, if you want special assistance, you have to sit in the wheelchair’,” Hopa laughs.  “I don’t need the wheelchair, I just need somebody to walk with me; the issues are with my eyes and not my legs,” Hopa told them.

In the end, the South African model, known to sashay down the country’s fashion runways, was pushed through the terminal on a wheelchair. It was an amusing on-ground experience.

If anything were to happen mid-flight, Hopa says her first thoughts would be her immediate family.

 

Brian Dodo

CEO and Founder, MAPP Africa and BmDodo Strategic Design

Resident in Canada, Dodo often travels to South Africa for business and to Zimbabwe, his home country.

There was that one flight he was on overseas that failed to take off.

He was headed to Havana from Montreal, and the passengers waited on the plane for two hours due to some technical issues before take-off.

“They didn’t explain why or give us anything to eat or drink that entire time,” he says. It was stressful not knowing the perceived danger.

As a frequent flyer, Dodo says flying is “taken for granted and the experience is no longer special”.

“I remember when people would clap once the plane has landed. Now, it doesn’t happen… it’s become really commuting more than flight travel,” he says.

 

Fred Eboka

Fashion designer

He has dressed up the rich and famous including tech billionaire Mark Shuttleworth, and the first lady of South Africa, Tshepo Ramaphosa.

His work takes him places, and he says he travels on a plane at least eight times a year.

He recalls a flight he once took from Cape Town to Johannesburg in the midst of a raging thunderstorm.

“We were all looking at each other like ‘what next?’ It was very scary. Suddenly you are feeling your stomach, your heart and your head, and praying!” he says.

The pilot had to turn back.

Eboka is grateful aviation technology has come a long way today.

“We feel a lot safer and we feel like the plane is becoming more and more intelligent,” he says.

Eboka’s philosophy has prepared him for any exigency.

“I plan as if I am going to live forever and I live as if I am going to die tomorrow,” he says.

Arts

Oliver Mtukudzi The Soldier With A Big Voice – Yvonne Chaka Chaka

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In January, Africa lost Oliver Mtukudzi. His friend and fellow musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka fondly remembers the global icon. 

In October 2012, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, South Africa’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kenya’s Suzanna Owíyo produced Because I Am Girl with musicians from around the world.

It was released to promote the global launch of Plan International’s ‘Because I am A Girl’ campaign, marking the first UN International Day of the Girl Child, on October 11.

READ MORE | Tribute To Oliver Mtukudzi – Zimbabwe’s ‘Man With The Talking Guitar’

Dressed in African prints, they sang together, spreading the word about the empowerment of the girl child.

Mtukudzi’s bass and Chaka Chaka’s soulful voice in harmony, they became more than co-artists; they become brother and sister. It was the first performance of many for the two.

Seven years on, Chaka Chaka is teary-eyed about Mtukudzi’s death 23 days into 2019, when not just she, but Africa lost a music legend.

In a strange coincidence, Mtukudzi died the same day the continent lost the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, last year.

On the phone for this interview, Chaka Chaka describes Mtukudzi as a soldier at work.

“When he was on stage, he was a totally different man. When he had his guitar, it was like a soldier. Like a soldier who has a gun at work,” she tells us.

“I think there were two different people. Offstage, he was just an ordinary man, and on stage, people ate out of the palm of his hand.

“I’ve never known Oliver to never be fit. He has been a skinny man and he would just twist that body with a guitar and that gravel voice of his. A big voice in a small body,” she says.

“He has never called me Yvonne, he has always called me Fifi… Fifi means sister.

“The man was always humble, he never raised his voice, I have never seen him angry and all he has ever wanted is just to see Africa thriving. He wanted to see Africa beautiful. He wanted to see Africa with less disease, less hunger, less corruption, a happy Africa – that was his wish.”

One anecdote Chaka Chaka shares is when Mtukudzi was made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Zimbabwe in 2011.

“You know he sat there with me and asked, ‘so, what does this entail, my sister? You have been a goodwill ambassador for a long time. You will tell me what needs to be done. How should I act? How should I react? How should I do things?’

“And I’m like, ‘no, but you know, you are more of a star than me and you have been in this industry long before I’. He was just so down-to-earth and had no chip on his shoulder.” 

The last performance the two did together was in October last year in Harare during the Jacaranda Festival, attended by more than 2,000 people and other artists around the continent.

“Oliver was not in his changing room or at home. He stayed there and watched other artists perform, which was so great,” says Chaka Chaka.

“This year, he promised that we would do it [the Jacaranda Festival] in Bulawayo,” she said. They had planned to make it a big show and use their status as goodwill ambassadors to encourage and inspire more youth.

 But sadly, that promise will never be fulfilled.

“The legacy he will leave behind is a legacy of love, the legacy of pro-African and I think for me he was a pan-Africanist. That’s what he was,” she says.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi Dies At 66

To this day, Neria is still one of Chaka Chaka’s favorite songs by him.

 Mtukudzi, who died aged 66 of diabetes, was laid to rest on January 27 in his home village of  Madziwa.

Thousands sang and danced to the melodies of his songs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared him a national hero, posthumously, a status that has previously been reserved for ruling party elite and independence veterans.

He may be gone but his music will live forever in the hearts of the fans that loved this legend who soldiered on until the end.

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Economy

What A Failed Johannesburg Project Tells Us About Mega Cities In Africa

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Six years ago a major development was announced in South Africa. Billed as a game changer, it was meant to alter the urban footprint of Johannesburg, Africa’s richest city, forever.

The Modderfontein New City project was launched amid much fanfare, expectation and media hype.

Zendai, a Chinese developer, bought a 1600-hectare site north-east of Johannesburg for the development, which it quickly dubbed as the “New York of Africa”. Early plans showed it was to include 55,000 housing units, 1,468,000 m2 of office space and all the necessary amenities for urban life in the form of a single large-scale urban district. The cost estimate was set at R84 billion.

The developers believed that Modderfontein could function as a global business hub and would become Johannesburg’s main commercial center, replacing Sandton. The project would also change Johannesburg’s international profile by strengthening relations with Asian corporate interests.

But, despite the release of futuristic computer-generated images which led to significant publicity for the project, it was never built. Instead, the land was eventually sold off. Another developer has since begun construction on a much more scaled down project, in the form of a gated-community style housing development.

Modderfontein has faded away from the public consciousness. The story of why it failed has never been adequately told in the media.

Our research, which took place over the course of several years, sought to understand the factors which led to the project’s demise. We also wanted to find out how Modderfontein’s failure relates to the broader African urban context.

We found that the project was hindered by conflicting visions between the developer and the City of Johannesburg. Moreover, unexpectedly low demand for both housing and office space meant the original plan for the project was incompatible with the city’s real estate market.

The project’s trajectory also shows how African “edge-city” developments, which are generally elite-driven and marketed as “eco-friendly” or “smart”, can be influenced by a strong local government with the means and willingness to shape development.

Conflicting interests

Zendai’s aspirations to produce a high-end, mixed-used development did not fit with the City of Johannesburg’s approach. Rather than a luxurious global hub, the city wanted a more inclusive development – one which reflected the principles outlined in its 2014 Spatial Development Framework.

At the heart of the framework is the desire to reshape a trend that saw capital leave the old central business district for affluent Sandton at the dawn of democracy in 1994. This was accompanied by an upsurge in securitised suburbs further north towards Pretoria, the country’s capital city.

These spatial trends were incompatible with the ideals of South Africa’s new democratic government and its strategy to mitigate the effects of apartheid-era planning. During apartheid, black people were prohibited from living in more affluent areas, which were reserved for the minority white population. Instead, they were forced into sprawling “townships” on the periphery of cities, far from work and economic opportunities.

To this end, the city demanded that Zendai include at least 5 000 affordable homes in its plans. It also wanted to ensure that the development was compatible with, and complemented, Johanneburg’s public transport system. The city was willing to contribute funding for the necessary infrastructure and inclusive housing.

Yet Zendai remained steadfast in its commitment to its vision, eventually deciding against fully integrating the city’s wishes into its planning application. This saw the city draw-out the planning process.

Meanwhile, problems were mounting for Zendai. The owner, Dai Zhikang, was eventually forced to sell his stake in the project to the China Orient Asset Management Company. Rather than continuing with the project, the asset managers sold the land to the company behind the new housing development on the site.

Smart cities in Africa

Over the last decade, a variety of developments like Modderfontein, including Eko-Atlantic in Nigeria, New Cairo in Egypt, and Konza Technology City in Kenya, have been touted by both public and private sectors as panaceas for Africa’s urban problems. The thinking is that as the developments are disconnected from the existing urban landscape, they won’t be burdened by crime or informality. However, these projects can take badly needed resources away from the marginalised areas of the city.

To make them more palatable to domestic and international audiences, the developments are usually marketed as “smart” or “eco-friendly”.

But these developments can fail at the point of implementation. This is because, as speculative projects, they generally don’t recognise the need to fit in with the wishes of the local authorities or adapt to the existing city. In the case of Modderfontein, the city government had the capability to push back against the developers and, in the end tried to shape the project to better fit Johannesburg’s urban realities. – The Conversation

-Ricardo Reboredo; PhD Candidate in Geography, Trinity College Dublin

-Frances Brill; Research fellow, UCL

The Conversation

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Focus

4 Ways To Develop Employment-Ready Graduates

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Chris Pilgrim, the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, on the potential game-changers in higher education on the continent.


It is to a verdant academic campus in Ghana   that Chris Pilgrim will be packing his bags from the dunes of Dubai. As the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group (TAG) West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, Pilgrim will provide students across emerging markets access to post-secondary and executive education.

TAG currently owns and operates Lancaster University’s campus in Ghana, Curtin University’s Dubai campus, and South Africa-based ABN Training in partnership with the Australian Institute of Management in Western Australia.

Pilgrim, who has helped develop TAG’s expansion in Africa and has over 25 years of experience in the higher education sector, spoke to FORBES AFRICA about skills-building, STEM and job creation:

READ MORE | Education Quality and the Youth Skills Gap Are Marring Progress in Africa

1. Are more universities looking to set up here?

A. With over half a million African students studying abroad annually, the continent has the highest outbound student ratio (number of outbound tertiary students/total number of tertiary students) in the world. Along with this annual migration of students comes capital flight, increased brain drain, and a hesitancy to build further world-class higher education capacity on the continent.

TAG partners with globally top-ranked universities to provide the highest quality of higher education in emerging market nations, thereby reversing, albeit modestly, the flow of students.

Our campus in Ghana, in partnership with Lancaster University (ranked sixth in the UK), provides world-class higher education capacity for West Africans, and it has seen students from other countries, including outside of Africa, take up enrolment.

TAG’s Lancaster University Ghana is the only comprehensive UK university campus in mainland Africa, and while TAG is undertaking steps to open similar branch campuses in other African countries, other investors and top-ranked universities have not moved to open campuses in the region.


Chris Pilgrim, the CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana.

2. How can Africa build skills, capacity and create more jobs?

A. While there has been a modest growth of employment in the formal job sector in some countries, many of Africa’s youth are more likely today to take up work in the informal sectors and in family enterprises.

Africa, as a region, has the largest youth population in the world, and with over 11 million young people expected to enter the job market each year, its economies are stretched to productively absorb Africa’s greatest asset – this youth population.

While the continent’s education capacities and output are integral to leveraging this youth population into a potential demographic dividend, investments, both private and public, into relevant higher education capacities, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) capacity, are limited.

In the long-term, addressing the underlying causes of unemployment and skills-gap lies in increasing enrolment in secondary and tertiary education, with a focus on STEM, thus enabling graduates to participate in the new economies and globalization emerging with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship are fundamental to creating the jobs of the future.

3. What is the increasing role of STEM programs?

A. While the vital importance of STEM education to infrastructure development, healthcare, energy security, agriculture, and the environment are well cited over the past decade, the role of STEM and digital skills in preparing for 4IR are potential game-changers.

READ MORE | Kenyan Approach Holds Promise for Boosting Early Childhood Education

African nations need to develop “future-ready curricula that encourage critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as well as accelerate acquisition of digital and STEM skills to match the way people will work and collaborate in 4IR” (Source: WEF 2017 The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa).

Lancaster University Ghana has been delivering relevant computer science curriculum since its inception, and is set to launch programs in engineering this year, followed by additional programs in STEM disciplines.

4. How are you creating future leaders?

A. TAG Ghana works closely with Lancaster University to assure that our students receive an education that is relevant both locally, and in the global context. We work closely with industry and the community to understand their needs so our graduates are employment-ready.

Interviewed by Methil Renuka

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