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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.