It began as a routine diplomatic courier trip, an early morning flight originating in Dakar with twenty-one diplomatic pouches on one of the region’s most notorious carriers: Zambezi Airways. After an airport exchange in Banjul, the flight was scheduled to continue on for exchanges in Conakry and Freetown before terminating in Abidjan.
Zambezi Air only had three planes in 2003. This particular 737 had to be one of the oldest in operation. When wheels-up came, I found my heart and mind maintaining high anxiety levels as we rose over pirogue-crowded beaches framing the peninsula jutting from the African continent like a crooked finger. We got to Banjul, a trip of only forty minutes, just fine. From our sea approach heading upriver, we had spectacular views of the city built on a sand-spit. We beheld the Gambia River as we banked to land: from wide estuary to rapid diminution in the direction of its mysterious desert origin. On the ground as we taxied, I could see the embassy contact waiting with outgoing pouches. Before exiting, I asked the flight attendant to save my seat, explaining that I was the diplomatic courier and I’d be flying on to Conakry. She nodded unconvincingly.
The escort and I exchanged pleasantries before signing over our respective pieces. We kept an eye on the classified pouches that were to be loaded in the rear hold. Everything seemed fine . . . until I returned to the cabin to discover my second row seat had been taken. The flight was oversold.
The attendant looked vacantly down the length of the aircraft and shrugged. I offered to sit in the cockpit jump seat. But on this plane that seat had been “removed.” Finally, the attendant slowly walked along the torn carpet, glancing at each row. At row twenty-seven, eight rows from the back, she spoke rudely to a woman seated with a young boy. They argued. The woman looked angrily at me, then motioned for the boy to sit on her lap.
The old bird again lifted into the sky like an eager fledgling, leaving the opaque, arid Gambian countryside under blossoming cumulus clouds as we headed south along the estuary-carved coast. As I completed paperwork in the cramped space, the woman shot nasty glances and muttered. About halfway to Conakry, at 25,000 feet, refreshments were served (a mysterious orange drink). The captain came back to chat and imbibe some of the liquid. Five minutes later, the copilot joined him. The aircraft was obviously on autopilot. A short time later, as I meditatively sipped the last of my enigmatic orange, we hit a bad patch of turbulence.
The plane dropped precipitously for a few seconds, the pilots actually catching air before being dashed against the fuselage. A few passengers ended up on their neighbors’ laps, but the autopilot righted the aircraft quickly, so damage was slight. Everyone seemed to shrug the episode off with nervous laughter as the pilots gingerly picked themselves up. But the copilot had a look of panic. He stepped toward the cockpit and tugged frantically at the door. It was locked. The bump had jarred it loose and slammed it shut. The key, if there was one, was apparently in one of their coat pockets, inside.
So we were flying south over Guinea Bissau at 500 miles per hour with both pilots locked out of the cockpit and twenty-seven diplomatic pouches in the hold. The pilots pulled on the door, picked at the lock, kicked it, hit it, all to no avail. The situation was dire, but they were remarkably calm. Scrunched in my dilapidated seat, I too took it in stride, initially anyway, writing it off as typically WAWA: West Africa Wins Again.
After about twenty minutes the seriousness of our predicament began to sink in, as the door built to protect pilots from hijackers refused to budge. Passengers shouted advice, but the pilots waved them off. Then a burly man in a dashiki offered his help. The pilots respected his size and agreed to let him try. Lowering his shoulder, the man gained momentum in the aisle before ramming the door. It shuddered and buckled a little. The crowd roared encouragement for him to try again. He held up one hand like a savior, reassuring all that on his next try the impediment would collapse and all would be right.
He took a longer run down the aisle, but before he got to the bulkhead he tripped on the ragged carpet and went down hard at the feet of the pilots. He was hurt. A collective moan filled the cabin. He held his right shoulder and shook his head dejectedly as he was helped to his seat. Even the pilots looked at a loss. I glanced out the window and, despite a yellowish tinge, saw the distinctive shape of the Conakry peninsula with its impoverished masses jutting out to sea.
There was obviously only one solution, but the captain had avoided it. He marched to the back of the plane, his stoic face revealing the vaguest tinge of anger or embarrassment. His was the only plane that serviced this route and was a third of the nation’s fleet. Having to replace the door might cost him his job.
He reappeared carrying an axe with an unusually long handle. The sight of the axe startled the passengers into a frenzy. The captain was oblivious to their reaction. The copilot offered to do the dirty deed, but the pilot would have none of it. He hefted the ungainly tool and with the entire plane in anxious silence, swung down at the locked door handle. The axe caught just a bit of door before glancing off and narrowly missing his leg. I slumped back in my seat, muttering, “Come what will.”
About an hour later, little remained of the door. Never able to bust the lock, they opted to slice a hole through the door. It was barely large enough, with jagged metal ripping their clothes as they squeezed through. By the time they were back behind the controls, we had passed over not only war-torn Freetown, with its fine beaches and green mountains plunging dramatically into azure seas, but perpetually strife-torn Monrovia as well. We were already well offshore, just three degrees from the equator.
After a sharp turn to the northeast, the pilot came over the intercom and apologized. He said that we didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to our scheduled destinations. We were flying on to Abidjan. Half the plane was enraged since flights to the missed stops were a rarity. It’s always interesting how soon people revert to their old habits after narrowly escaping disaster. I was content to be alive. The pouches would only be delayed a week, and as far as I knew there were no urgent pieces. Flying in over the pounding surf and palm-fringed lagoons of Cote d’Ivoire, then past the soaring skyscrapers of the harbor city, Abidjan had never looked so good.
—By James B. Angell
James B. Angell ’81 is deputy regional diplomatic courier director for the U.S. Foreign Service in Frankfurt, Germany. He has previously served in Seoul, South Korea, Bangkok, Thailand, and Washington, D.C., where he was based when this incident occurred. The names of the carrier and its base of operations have been changed. He is the author of Water Is the Animal, a journal of global travel, and In Our Dreamtime, a short story collection.