The Dark Continent

It was dark already, when we got to the airport in Johannesburg and for the next two flights, we would not see much of the sun. The aircraft had arrived a bit late, but our ground staff at OR Tambo International Airport was once again able to turn around the aircraft quickly and we went off block 10 minutes ahead of time. The wind was coming from an easterly direction with 15 knots and runway 21 was in use. That meant that the wind was coming from behind, but aircraft usually take-off and land facing the wind. It is not so much of an issue with very calm winds, but 15 knots (28 km/h) already puts some aircraft at the edge of their operating limits. The limit of the maximum tailwind component is usually 10 knots and 5 knots on wet/contaminated runways and in our case the tailwind component was already at around 3 knots.

ATC decided to change the direction of landing to runway 03 and the last aircraft to depart from runway 21R, was a certain Lufthansa Cargo flight to Nairobi… We had to be “quick quick” (as they say in Africa), as airliners eager to land where already lining up on the approach of 03. Once in the air we immediately made a tight turn to the north, heading for the border to Zimbabwe. However on the way we suddenly faced a huge squall line, a line of huge thunderstorms that blocked our way! There was no way around it and we could go below or above either, so we had to find those few tiny holes between the flashing clouds – it felt like being in a disco! Flashes all around where you looked and the weather radar display showing a huge green area (still okay), but also some very dangerous spots indicated by red and purple! We definitely had to stay away from those. By checking the weather radar and looking outside we managed to get through this, but I don’t want to imagine the effects this thunderstorm must have had on the ground.

During colonial times, Africa was often referred to as “The Dark Continent”, as it was a huge unknown piece of land to only few people dared to explore. However, the term is still true today! Flying over Africa in a cloudless night you will notice that there is nearly no light at all. Of course, the big cities like Harare, Lilongwe or Dodoma stick out, but surrounding those there are only a small number of lights. Often the only thing you will see are big line of bush fires, shining with a red light and stretching for many kilometers through the land.

The same goes for the airports. Only a minimum of lights have been installed in Nairobi, so all you can see during approach are the runway edge lights and those at the beginning of the runway. During the day you can see the touchdown zone indicating where to aim for, but during the night this clue is gone. As the ILS was off the air, we had to do an RNAV approach (using GPS coordinates), which soon turned into a visual approach, as the signal was leading me a few hundred meters off track. Landing feels like diving in a big dark hole and you only see the ground seconds before you hit it! Without a radio altimeter you are in trouble, especially flying a big aircraft like the MD-11. But once again we somehow made it and touched down right on the spot.

After all the usual formalities over the radio (ATC asking for registration, departure airport and people on board – like they didn’t have a flight plan) we taxied to the parking bay. And as usual they had thought about a new problem for us… Construction work was going on and according to our NOTAM (messages informing you of any changes to standard procedures at airport) some stands were using a procedure were you shut down the engines on the taxiway and then get towed in to the bay. However this was not relevant for, but the locals wanted to apply it anyway. Starting the APU is quite costly and we had ground power at the stand, so we didn’t start it. But if we switched off the engines, we would not have had power! So it was either switching on the APU or waiting for the airport staff to send a marshaller and get their equipment out of the way. We went for the second option and waited with two engines shut down for everything to be organized – and it was a mess. Vehicles going for- and backward, people running around headlessly and still no marshaller insight. Once he got to our parking stand, he slowly moved out of his car, looked around, strolled to where he was supposed to stand and then finally signaled us in for parking. There was definitely no rushing on his side…

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