In the Belly of the Whale

My first memory of the airport was a dim one. My mum was clutching my hand tightly while holding a serious package with her left hand. I suspect the “package” to be my brother but the memory is too dim to recast now. It was dark (my memory? Or the night? Not sure). I think the tightness with which my mum held me was because she was afraid I’d run off towards the plane then approaching us slowly and steadily. I was conscious that it was very windy. This memory doesn’t have any record of me entering the plane, just the runway.

The next time I got on a flight I was nine. My grandfather’s 70th birthday was in two days and the road trip was cut short when the car developed a serious fault on the outskirts of Kano as we had begun our journey to Delta state. My mum had the birthday cake so abandoning the journey was not an option, neither was waiting for the car to be repaired. So my dad took the flash decision to use all our money from the recent sale of the second family car to put us all on a flight to Benin. We kids were excited at the prospect of a plane trip and jumped up and down when the announcement was made. Sadly, all I remember from the trip was the way my stomach rose and fell as the plane took off and landed, just like the elevator at the  hotel we had gone to visit our uncle at the year before.

So when at age twenty-eight, I was to enter a plane for the second time with my conscious mind, I was brimming with excitement. I didn’t show it though, but I paid attention to every engineering detail as if I were going to report to the president.

The plane was a modest Airbus 737, the largest I’ve entered since. The legroom was anything but large in the economy cabin anyway, and my knees pressed against the seat of the person in front of me. I fiddled with the in-flight entertainment but found it unresponsive until the flight took off. I think they wanted everyone to listen to the air hostesses demonstrate safety procedures. I eagerly buckled my safety belt and observed my nearest exit and waited calmly for takeoff.

The plane taxied like a silent, sleek whale to the end of the runway. Through the window I could see the other planes ahead of us take the stage and execute their takeoff like graceful swans with stationary wings, lights blinking at the edges and tips of those wings, with a long row of yellow lights lining the side of each plane just as I’d seen it in the movies. My excitement was silently mounting.

Finally it was our turn. The cabin was deathly silent as everyone listened to the sound of the engines rev for takeoff. The plane inched forward, slowly for about three seconds, before exploding in a sudden burst of forward speed. My engineering mind could hardly contain it. I read later that jet engines burn about fifteen thousand litres of fuel every hour. I wasn’t surprised. My back was pinned to my seat in the way I’d desperately sought to accomplish with my dad’s Mercedes on the expressway without success. The engines became a windy roar as the buildings of the airport silently moved past, observing us and oblivious to my excitement like jaded spectators who had seen it all a thousand times over.

The smooth runway did not seem so smooth after all. It suddenly was a bumpy, gripping ride as the plane roared towards the edge of the runway. I saw the flaps of the wings of the plane dip downwards as the plane suddenly ascended from the ground. All the bumps ceased immediately as I felt the sinking feeling in my stomach again from many years back. Before I could recover, the plane banked suddenly to the left and I saw the lights of Lagos rise to the view of the windows on the other side of the plane. I saw the long line of car headlights in  traffic jams in several parts of the city. I noticed there were no highrise buildings anywhere on the horizon, unlike what I’d seen in movies.

I didn’t allow that slight disappointment in the view subtract from my excitement anyway. The plane stabilized and we all settled in our seats, fiddling with the small touchscreens for movies in front of us. I was in for a six-hour journey and I was already seeing more movies than I could finish before the end of the trip. The flight was at night but sleep was for the weak. I intended to watch all the recent movies I’d seen in trailer ads but been unable to watch because I’d never lived in a city with a cinema theatre. The air hostesses came by with their strange refreshments (I think I saw mushrooms for the first time then) and I accepted out of courtesy, hoping to selectively filter them according to my bushman African taste. The rule was simply not to try anything new.

What was this?! The person in front of me suddenly reclined his chair, cutting my already choked personal space to sardine box-like proportions. I didn’t know how to protest. He’d totally disrupted my movie view. He was settling to sleep for the night flight and was assuming I would do the same. I looked left and right for help. There was none coming. I noticed sharp men and women occupy full rows of seats and stretch out to sleep. Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier? Well, I intended to watch my movies anyway so I adjusted the screen and reclined my own seat to restore my previous space boundaries. Who cared about the man behind me? I was only doing unto others as they had done unto me. I felt a little sorry for the man at the end of the line though. If he had no space to recline his seat, that would be sadly hilarious.

The flight statistics intrigued me. Flight speed 800km/hour, flight altitude 5 kilometres, flight time remaining 3 hours and 18 minutes. I compared them to other situations I’d been in and marvelled. How did one fall five kilometres from the sky? How did the plane feel so calm while blazing through the atmosphere at almost the speed of sound? I shrugged and continued observing the clouds sail past while we zipped through the clear nighttime sky.

All too soon it was time to land. Funny enough I had noticed the gradual descent before the pilot announced it. Small drops in altitude that caused my stomach to feel weightless. I loved the feeling. I focused on the window as we approached the airport. There was hardly anything to see but tall buildings with few lights still on. We were landing in London early in the morning and the city was too dark to observe anything. So I settled down and we went through the reversal of all my experiences at the flight takeoff. I felt the wheels or landing gear come out of the belly of the plane as we passed through the clouds and approached the earth’s surface. I wondered how strong the suspension of the wheels was to take our impact with the ground but immediately dismissed my thoughts.

When the plane hit the rough runway, the brakes came on and the engines reversed thrust to assist. The flaps of the wings went up this time as we were thrown forward slightly, held back by our trusty seatbelts. So this was what it felt like to fly! I would definitely enjoy doing this again.


I love to learn. I love to teach. For me the two are the same.


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