How I stopped a plane on the runway

Oct 09, 2018, 06:09 IST | C Y Gopinath

The plane was about to leave without me. But it was Lusaka, where anything was possible, and I had to make it home to my family

How I stopped a plane on the runway
I walked to the middle of the runway and stood directly in the path of the oncoming plane. The aircraft came to a dead halt, barely fifteen yards away

C Y Gopinath On the evening of September 27 at Dublin airport, Mr Patrick Kehoe, 23, agitated that he had narrowly missed his Ryanair flight to Amsterdam, broke past the boarding gate and "just ran from the building towards the plane with his suitcase under his arm", according to a ground crew member. The Irishman was apparently "quite determined" to make his flight.

But, within minutes, the airport police were there and had pinned him down. He was charged with causing grievous damage to a door lock and arrested. He did, though, manage to turn his back to the gathered crowd, lower his trousers and flash his buttocks at them. Poor Mr Kehoe. He should have checked with me first.

In the history of civil aviation, only one passenger in the known universe has successfully made it to the runway, stuck his thumb out and actually stopped a plane about to take off — and that would be me. The year would be 2008, and the only airport on Earth I could have gotten away with it was Lusaka, Zambia.

Please don't think I'm a terrorist. I'm not like that. I follow the rules, I obey the law. I never carry guns or wear bulky jackets that could conceal you-know-what. I never lie about which hotel I'm staying in. And if they want to frisk me full body, I spread-eagle myself on the bonnet of the car and wait. But damn, I missed my wife and children in Bangkok.

My itinerary required me to do the 2-hour hop from Lusaka to Johannesburg, and after a 1.5-hour transit there, proceed to Bangkok. But when I reached Lusaka airport in the darkness before dawn, everyone, including Air Traffic Control, was in deep sleep. The snoring walrus at the security check turned out to be a guard. I asked when check-in was likely and he said, "Ah, who can tell, my friend?" In Lusaka, it is a common belief that nothing is knowable.

"I don't really want to miss my connecting flight from Jo'burg to Bangkok at 10.30," I said. "You can't always get what you want," he said, and went back to sleep. From the transit lounge after check-in, I noticed a 29-seater Jetstream 4100 Regional Turboprop Airliner with Airlink written large on its side. Lusaka probably allowed only one aircraft on the airfield at a time. This must be how they stayed peaceful and allowed their air traffic controllers to grab healthful naps between flights.

The janitor was addressing hard-to-reach areas under chairs. I took a pee twice. Once, I wondered about diabetes. After an hour, with ETD 20 minutes away, I started wondering why my flight had not been announced yet. A line of passengers was slowly boarding the only plane on the airfield.

"That is probably your flight," said the janitor helpfully. I ran helter-skelter down a white corridor that led to a super-narrow escalator to the ground floor, where another endless corridor stretched. Minutes later, I stood panting outside the building.

"Where's the shuttle bus?" I asked a uniformed man there. "To take me to the plane?" "I've worked here four years, bwana, but I have never seen this bus you speak of."
I began a mad dash across the airfield, shoulder bag, suitcase and computer case in tow. But as I drew close, the last of the passengers entered and the hatch closed. The plane began to move towards the runway. Without me in it.

They say that hell hath no fury like a man forcibly prevented from seeing his loved ones. If they don't, they jolly well should. The plane didn't seem to be moving that fast. Back in Mumbai, we used to catch double-deckers going faster than this. Behind me, Lusaka's air traffic controllers were on their power naps. Without a second thought, I began running after the plane as it reached the runway, slowly turned right and taxied towards the end. There it would do a U-turn, accelerate and take off.

Please understand, I really had no choice. I walked to the middle of the runway and stood directly in the path of the oncoming plane, holding up my boarding card. The plane's engines grew in volume as it approached me. I stood my ground. Jo'burg or bust. And then — miracle! The aircraft came to a dead halt, barely fifteen yards away. I could smell the aviation fuel. Two large, pink South African pilots were swearing in choice Afrikaans at me. Draadtrekker!

Doos! Fokof! But then the hatch came down. A pretty stewardess appeared, wearing the bright smile she was supposed to wear even in the most hellish of situations. "May I have your boarding pass, please, sir?" she said.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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