U-turn over the Atlantic

We had been in flight for about nine hours, traveling from Johannesburg to New York’s JFK Airport, when things abruptly changed. I knew that something was not quite right when a flight attendant went running from the back of the plane to the front with a flashlight. Shortly afterwards, the lights came on at about midnight Virginia time, and the pilot explained what was happening. He stated that the plane had developed a fuel leak in the #3 engine, and that it had progressively gotten worse. As a result of this leak, the pilot decided to do a u-turn over the Atlantic Ocean and return to Dakar, Senegal. Forty-five minutes later, we were sitting on the tarmac at the Dakar Airport.

Having no answers for any passengers, the flight crew worked to keep everyone calm. About 30 minutes after landing, the pilot came back on the PA system and stated, with a slight chuckle in his voice, that the decision to return to Dakar was a good one, since the entire inside of the #3 engine was coated with jet fuel. Let me stop for a moment and remind you that we had been flying for nine straight hours, with everything being pretty hot, and the jet fuel did not ignite. If you’re looking for a miracle, here is a good place to focus. We soon found out that we would be going to motels in Dakar, while South African Airlines brought another plane up from Johannesburg, eight hours away. Also, the flight crew was going to need a 10-hour break, so we knew that this was going to be a prolonged delay.

The events that followed were nerve-racking, at best. We claimed our checked bags, and followed other passengers, like sheep being led to slaughter. We left the airport, and entered an area where people were asking for money and attempting to sell us things. We then ended up with the other passengers in an area where there were five or six charter buses, with everyone impatiently attempting to get their luggage loaded and boarding a bus. We finally got our stuff loaded, and got on the bus. We traveled for what seemed like an eternity. The route took us on the outskirt of Dakar, along the Atlantic Ocean. It was a picturesque ride, but we had no idea what the next hours would involve.

The bus driver stopped at an intersection, got out, with the door open and the bus running. Fortunately, he returned and motioned for us to disembark. We gathered our luggage from the busy street side of the bus, and again followed everyone to a motel that was located on a side street. I will say that I felt better about the whole situation when we walked into the lobby and a South African Airline representative was standing at the front desk.

We got our room keys, and went upstairs to our rooms. We took the time to SKYPE with our contact on the African continent, and then talked with our wives. For the next several hours we rested. At 12 noon Virginia time, a bus picked us up and took us back to the Dakar airport. When we walked into the airport, we realized how unprepared the Dakar Airport was for handling the number of passengers on SA Flight 203. We stood in line for three hours, waiting to obtain new boarding passes.

After about 15 hours, we boarded the plane that SAA had flown up from Johannesburg. At about 5-5:30 p.m. Virginia time, we took off for New York. I will have to say I was glad to be in the air. After a 7-1/2 to 8 hour flight, we landed at JFK. We arrived safely home at 11 a.m. This journey, tacked onto the tail end of our work in South Africa, caused me to realize how quickly our lives can change. Thank you Lord for your protection.    

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