Frederick Forsyth

My brush with death in Africa’s skies

I had scrounged a lift on the third-from-last plane out of the dying enclave of Biafra at the end of the Nigerian civil war. Behind us on the airstrip, the last two aircraft waited in the pitch-black night. My lift was on a clapped-out old DC-4 flown by its owner, an Afrikaner really called Van Der Merwe. The destination was Libreville, Gabon. The fuselage was overloaded with dying Biafran children and Irish nuns.

After takeoff, also in pitch darkness, somewhere over the Niger delta, the port outer coughed and gave up. We struggled on three engines towards the ocean. After turning east towards Gabon, the starboard outer began to cough and splutter. It was clear the old rust-bucket would never fly on two and was sinking towards the sea on three. Van Der Merwe began singing hymns in Afrikaans. I prayed quietly, convinced it was all over. Outside, the moon on the water came closer as we nearly skimmed the ocean.

Fortunately, the French had built Libreville airport close to the shore. The dangling wheels almost clipped the sand dunes, then we were over concrete. At that moment the coughing, spluttering engine gave up the ghost and the crippled aircraft dropped on to the tarmac. The Afrikaner stopped singing and began to thank the Almighty. It would have been churlish not to follow suit.

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