There was a pretty hectic storm last night, with thunder that sounded like heavy artillery and lightening that lit the whole room. This morning our road was completely washed away… again (see my piece on fundis!). Weather like that always makes me think of the poor people who happen to be in an aeroplane when it strikes for some reason, and that got me thinking about some of the pretty great little stories I have on the subject of flying. Particularly in light of the recent Air Tanzania crash – the last of the fleet as I understand it (thank goodness!).
Flying within East Africa is something we all do quite a bit, far more than the average European. That’s partly because we have to travel larger distances to reach civilization in this vast land, and also partly because the roads are crap (did I mention that before?!). Pretty much every time we go there is some sort of an adventure, whether it’s lost luggage, a crazy drunk guy repeating the one line of Shakespeare he knows (for two hours!), turbulence that leaves your stomach way outside the plane you’re in, or the wheels not actually engaging when you need to come in for landing!
Yes, it’s all rather more hit or miss than it ought to be. Now don’t get me wrong, the standards here are set at exactly the same levels they are anywhere else in the world and there are rarely any major, life threatening problems (I know I’ve mentioned a couple in the first few paragraphs but that was just for dramatic effect, honest!). The problems we do encounter are generally the sort that aviation standards may not have thought to consider. Take, for example, rain that it is so severe that the chocks holding the planes in their parking spots all floated away and the planes begin to skate around the airport! Who would have known that it could rain metres of water in one night?! Or the fact that cockroaches appear to have made their home in the panels of first class and like to crawl out at several thousand feet – maybe the pressure is hurting their little ears! How do you plan for that?
One of my favourite anecdotes about flying involves a trip from Dar I took recently. I ended up on the same fight as a friend of mine. He’s a writer, treasure hunter, jewellery maker, factory owner, you name it, and he carries a gun!
Right. I’m now going through the airport with a guy with a gun! (He’ll be reading this now amused as I managed to play it totally cool at the time!).
I’m telling you I had a whole new insight into the systems…
Surprisingly things go pretty smoothly, as he hands over his certificate and ammunition and the weapon is taken away for him to collect up on the other side of security. It’s once we’re through security that really gets me. We go through to a little room, once we’re all checked in, and a ticket is handed over to confirm it is his gun (he can’t actually take it on the plane so it is taken on board by an official and returned to him the other side). They then must secure the weapon in front of him. As they examine the empty chamber and take it apart and count the number of bullets that are with it, my friend points to the ceiling… It is full of bullet holes.
Evidently when checking them in the past mistakes have been made! “Yeah, he laughs, the day they shot the air-conditioning out they were pretty annoyed!” Seriously? …How has no one died?!
To be honest the whole thing has become a bit of a joke to those of us who have to live with flying over here. Flights are frequently cancelled and no one thinks to tell the passengers, and last year one airline launched a loyalty card. Brilliant! Except we live in Mwanza. One of the privileges is access to the VIP lounge. Ha ha ha! The airport is a building with one waiting room with the least comfortable metal seats you can imagine and two very loud TV screens which shout at each other from across the room. When you queue for customs you do so through someone’s office, and when you collect luggage (if you collect luggage – it goes missing fairly frequently) you help yourself to a pile, there’s no such thing as a carousel or conveyor! VIP Lounge? I don’t think so.
The main company here is Precision Air (you can imagine some of the sarcastic comments made about that name when they cancel flights with no warning or turn up hours late!). Actually their service and their staff have improved about a million-fold in the past five years, but I did laugh the other day when I received an emailed photo from someone who had just got off a flight where the two stewardesses were both fast asleep at the front of the plane – great service!
All the experiences I’ve mentioned so far are in the bigger planes (we have Boeings and jets here that are the common city hoppers – do I sound like I know what I’m talking about, because I really don’t!), but a lot of mwanza folk frequently take smaller planes if they’re heading to the mines or more rural destinations. I have no doubt some of you guys have some stories… do tell!