It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane: Adventures in Flying Across Africa

I was recently sitting on a runway in West Africa, bound for Addis Ababa, when:

“We apologize for the delay, however our Bird Alarm on this runway is not working.”

I look up from my laminated What To Do In An Emergency card from the seat-back pocket and turn to the British woman next to me. I don’t know what a ‘bird alarm’ is – do you? She shakes her head. Her name is Annie.

The pilot’s voice returns with an explanation: because there are some birds at the end of the runway, they need this alarm to scare them away before the plane takes off. If the plane takes off and scares the birds, then the birds might fly, too. If one of these birds were to get caught in the engine, well, it wouldn’t be good. We really need the alarm to work.

“And these are some pretty big birds,” the pilot adds.

How nice. I wonder if that is what Captain Sully said to his passengers just before take-off.

my hand-written boarding pass. yes.

nothing says ‘we got this’ like a hand-written boarding pass. 


Annie and I are in the Exit Row, both staring at the red lever, deliberating. I look out the window and see a white crane-type bird flying low in the direction we are facing. He looks a little too eager to join his buddies at the end of our runway.

It crosses my mind that in the event of a bird strike, the nearest river isn’t the Hudson, it’s the Niger. So if the pilot can land on it then we would still have a crocodile situation to contend with, and probably mosquitos. Did I take my anti-malarial this morning? Shoot I can’t remember. Did I even pack it?

 “You survived a bird strike, an emergency landing, a crocodile attack and malaria,” Diane Sawyer says, wiping away a tear. “Can you tell us what was going through your mind?”

I’m trying to get a grip on my imagination when, without explanation, the plane moves backwards, does a few turns and heads in a new direction toward a different runway with a beautiful, functioning Bird Alarm.

Ten minutes later we are airborne.

And I’m still grabbing onto Annie’s arm.

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