Captain Mokoena is about 180 km North-East of Upington, trying to complete one of his fuel-consuming circles, when there is a sudden loss of power. There is no way he can keep the craft level any more as the nose dips slowly towards the ground. Mokoena, an experienced fighter pilot, knows: this is it. Either he finds a suitable spot to try and land the stricken plane, or he’s going to kill them all.
Towards his left and right, the Kalahari stretches away to the horizon. Even from this height, the surface doesn’t seem suitable for an emergency landing. The uneven veld, the little hills, the rocks and the sand dunes… The angle of descent is more acute now and even the closed door of the cockpit can’t keep the muffled screams of the passengers out. If he doesn’t spot a potential landing spot soon…
Doc Woodcock opens his mouth to scream, but he produces no sound, no word. The aircraft is clearly going to crash. His worst fear, his most terrible nightmare is happening here, now, as the cold sweat starts rolling down his brow. He wants to open his eyes and discover it is all only a terrifying dream.
But…when he forces his eyes open, he can see the other passengers in various stages of panic as well. Some seem to be praying, others are screaming and a few sit, ashen-faced, staring straight ahead in the paralysis only fear can bring. As the floor angles more and more, Doc feels himself being pushed back in his seat – and his life flashes by in a series of pictures.
Almost irrationally, it seems like a Powerpoint presentation.
His first memories of his mother and the cottage they lived in, is followed by scenes of his school years, his miserable attempts to compete in athletics and the praise of the headmaster at the academic prize presentation. Then the years of study, the solace of burying himself in work. Molly smiles at him briefly, before her image fades and Gertruida appears in his mind. In contrast to the other images, her picture doesn’t fade; it become brighter, more focussed better defined. He can hear her laugh – the soft chuckle she has when she wins an argument, proclaiming yet another victory.
A hand grips his shoulder so hard, it hurts.
“I don’t want to die!” It’s the woman sitting next to him, shouting at the top of her voice.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, will all people waiting for the Cape Town flight, please assemble in the cafeteria? Immediately, if you please. We also respectfully request all other customers to leave the area. We have an important announcement to make. We do apologise for any inconvenience caused by this. Thank you.”
The woman next to Gertruida sighs, throws her hands in the air and stomps off towards the cafeteria in a rather dramatic way. Gertruida, however, stands rooted to the spot for a while. She knows… Something inside her shrinks to a painful little ball of sadness and loss as she makes her way blindly towards the gathering point. This, she knows, will be unpleasant.
The cafeteria was never designed for something like this. The crowd gathers in silence, like troops waiting for the first shots in an ambush. There’s a collective feeling of doom, making conversation impossible.
A dishevelled man in a rumpled suit climbs on a chair, holding up an unneccesary hand for silence; in the quiet, you’d hear a pin drop, anyway.
“I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you.” Now a collective murmur sweeps through the small crowd. “We’ve lost all contact with the flight carrying your loved ones.” The murmur becomes a buzz. “Please people. there’s no easy way of doing this.” He waits for the uneasy silence before continuing. “We had a sort-of Mayday about fifteen minutes ago. The undercarriage refused to come down, and the pilot notified the tower. Subsequently, all communication with the aircraft has ceased.” He pauses to let it sink in. “However, we kept track of the plane by radar. The pilot seemed to be doing the right thing, flying in wide circles to burn up as much fuel as possible. However, the last sighting on the radar was almost two hundred kilometres away, to the North-East of Upington.
“We’ve notified the authorities and they are busy – as we speak – scrambling emergency personnel and resources to engage in a search as soon as possible. Aircraft and helicopters will leave from Kimberley as soon as possible.
“Now I suggest that you await further developments in the lounge of the Kalahari Oasis Resort, where a special area is being prepared for you. Alternatively, you can go home – but please leave your contact number so we can notify you as soon as we’ve got anything new.
“I’s sorry, that’s all I can tell you now, because that’s all I know. Please remain calm, and don’t speculate. Please refrain from spreading rumours. I’m sure the media will have a field day on this, and we want to limit the trauma to loved ones.
“Thank you… Oh, there will be counsellors and clergymen available at Oasis. Pleas talk too them.”
With that, the man hurries from the area. This is the biggest emergency he’s ever had to handle; the worried faces of the crowd are almost too much to bear. Who, he wonders, counsels the counsellors and other workers?
Gertruida doesn’t follow the rest to Oasis. It’s no use to sit around with a lot of uncertain, anxious people telling each other how worried they are. She leaves her number and gets into her car to race back to Rolbos. Besides, the last know position of the plane puts it in the vicinity of Rolbos…doesn’t it?
As she reaches the tarred road to Grootdrink she wonders about the woman with the De Vil face – was she smiling when the man spoke to them? Or was it dismayed grimace? She can’t decide.
Fighting the controls with all his might, Captain Mokoena feels the nose of the aircraft lift ever so slightly. And then there – THERE! – is what seems to be a gravel road, straight as an arrow, cutting through the desert, Banking slightly to line the plane up with the only potential landing area, he glances again at the dead instrument panel, hoping to get some help from it. Without an indication of speed, height, wind…nothing…he’d need a miracle to get the craft on the ground. He guesses the altitude to be about eight hundred metres above the ground, tries the landing gear again, crosses himself, and the opens the flaps to lose speed.
In the cabin behind him, an eerie silence settles amongst the passengers. They can see the ground now; the shadow of the aircraft racing across the stunted bushes and trees of the desert. White-knuckled hands grip the arm rests. Somebody starts whispering: ‘Our Father who art in Heaven…“
And Doc Woodcock, chased by a thousand nightmares and fears, feels sanity drain from his mind. The human brain is a finely-tuned machine. Like the aircraft, it has numerous safety mechanisms and backup systems to cope with almost any input it receives. The condition we define as ‘sane’ or ‘normal’ depends of minute amounts of neurotransmitters being released at the right time, to maintain a balance between primitive urges and logical reasoning. Even so, sometimes the brain receives such a surge in input, that logic falters. We call that: ‘panic’. Should the inflow of terrifying information be even more overwhelming, the rational though-process may be damaged permanently. This is called ‘madness‘.
In Doc Woodcock’s troubled brain, the overloaded circuits experience a similar situation to that which happened to the much less complicated controlling systems of the aircraft. One after the other, they short out. He can’t…can’t…be living through this. He’s going to die. Logic and reason has no place in his brain any more. He doesn’t notice the wetness on his seat as he bites down, hard, on his wrist in a desperate effort to believe he can still wake up from this dream.
Then the blood starts flowing the pain becomes unbearable- and he starts screaming.
This time, his shrill voice mingles with the noise of the reverse thrust Captain Mokoena manages to engage as the rutted tract to Rolbos rushes up to meet the belly of the plane.