Fly Air Zimbabwe

This is a true story published in the Chicago Tribune "Travel" section for Sunday, June 6, 1999 in a story entitled "Choppy Skies - A white-knuckle flight on Air Zimbabwe" by Gaby Plattner.

It seems that Plattner was traveling with a backpacking group through Africa as they found themselves waiting in Kariba airport for a flight to Hwange ...

"Our flight was delayed, so we settled down to wait. And wait. Three hours later, we were finally told the plane was ready to board. Air Zimbabwe bought many of its planes second-hand from other airlines, and the one we got into was no exception. Dirty and ancient, the mid-size jetliner was clearly one that no one else had wanted.

Inside, we settled into the seats with 80 or 90 other passengers and waited. And waited some more. Finally, the pilot's voice came over he loudspeaker. 'We're all ready to go ladies and gentlemen. However, we've been waiting for the copilot, and he still hasn't arrived. Since we've already waited so long, we're just going to be flying without a copilot today.'

There was a nervous buzz through the cabin. He continued, 'If any of you feel uncomfortable with this, feel free to disembark now and Air Zimbabwe will put you on the next available flight to Hwange.' Here he paused. 'Unfortunately, we are not sure when that will be. But rest assured, I have flown this route hundreds of times, we have clear blue skies, and there are no foreseeable problems.'

No one in Plattner's group, doubtful as they might have been, wanted to wait any longer at Kariba for a plane that may or may not materialise, so they stayed on-board for the one-hour flight. Once the aircraft reached cruising altitude, the pilot came on the loudspeaker again 'Ladies and gentlemen. I am going to use the bathroom. I have put the plane on auto-pilot and everything will be fine. I just don't want you to worry.' That said, he came out of the cockpit, fastened the door open with a rubber band to a hook on the wall. Then he went to the bathroom.

Plattner continues: Suddenly, we hit a patch of turbulence. Nothing much - the cabin just shook a little for a moment. But the rubber band snapped off with a loud 'fff-twang!' and went sailing down the aisle. The door promptly swung shut.

A moment later, the pilot came out of the bathroom. When he saw the closed door, he stopped cold. I watched him from the back and wondered what was wrong. The stewardess came running up, and together they both tried to open the door. But it wouldn't budge.

It slowly dawned on me that our pilot was locked out of the cockpit. Cockpit doors lock automatically from the inside to prevent terrorists from entering. Without a copilot, there was no one to open the door from the inside. By now, the rest of the passengers had become aware of the problem, and we watched the pilot, horrified. What would he do?

After a moment of contemplation, the pilot hurried to the back of the plane. He returned holding a big axe. Without ceremony, he proceeded to chop down the cockpit door. We were rooted to our seats as we watched him. 

Once he managed to chop a hole in the door, he reached inside, unlocked the door, and let himself back in. Then he came on the loudspeaker, his voice a little shakier this time than before. 'Ah, ladies and gentlemen, we just had a little problem there, but everything is fine now. We have plans to cover every eventuality - even pilots getting locked out of their cockpits. So relax and enjoy the rest of the flight!'


Last updated: 16 February, 2003 20:03