Accidental Tourist

It's best to stay awake after boarding a 'Beetle Boeing'

Jacques Botha's plane trip to the Congo would turn even the most blasé traveler into a nervous flyer

14 April 2019 - 00:00 By Jacques Botha

I have never been a nervous flyer. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I was awake during takeoff. When the plane pushes back, my mind switches off. I remember very clearly, though, a time when I felt I had to stay awake.
A few years ago, I was required by work to visit some offshore oil rigs in the Atlantic - two in Angola and one in the Republic of Congo (Pointe-Noire). So the whole trip went as expected, until I checked into Cabinda airport in northern Angola for my flight to Pointe-Noire.
I first realised this was a much less "commercial" route as I sat waiting to board and saw my suitcase being dragged across the runway by hand and placed into what looked like a six-seater plane.
Now I am no plane expert - I can't tell you what type of plane it was - but I instantly knew this was going to be interesting. Fifteen minutes later, four of us were asked for our boarding passes and escorted towards our so-called "economy class" flight to the Congo.
We boarded through a little door on the side of the wing and took our seats. There were no seat numbers. Instead, we opted for the ones where the seatbelts were working. The seatbelts themselves were a trip down memory lane and looked exactly like the ones in the Volkswagen Beetle my mom had in the '80s - two metal pieces, one with a hole and the other with a knob, which push into each other with some effort.
What was great about the flight was that our luggage was lying right behind us and I could easily reach over the back seat and grab a chocolate from the side pouch, wondering if it might be my last.
The pilot, a tall, skinny Frenchman, took his seat in front, flicked a few switches, turned the key and … nothing.
This happened another few times and then he started talking loudly in French in such a way that - though I spoke no French beyond eau de cologne and croissant -I instantly knew that this was not wholesome language.
A few minutes later, after even more French swearing, we were asked to get out of the plane, please take our own suitcases and go back to the airport to wait.
As I sat there looking at the maintenance crew running towards the plane and shaking their heads, I suspected that I was saved from this flight. No such luck.
After about 30 minutes, one of the mechanics came back with what seemed like a huge battery pack and proceeded to jump-start the plane - something which made me want to "jump and start" running.
Five minutes later, we were ushered back to the plane, propeller now in full force. After having had to load our own luggage at the back, I noticed that the boarding door was ridiculously close to the moving propeller. I need not have worried, as we were asked to enter through the pilot's door, climb over his seat and to take our places, again buckling up the Beetle belts.
Shortly thereafter, we sped down the runway and into Angolan airspace. Since you are reading this, it should be painfully obvious that we did land in Pointe-Noire safely - a surprisingly easy and soft landing. This was still the only flight in my whole life where I was alert the whole time, fearing that I might lose my joie de vivre in a "Beetle Boeing".
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