I was enroute between Jakarta and the Banda Islands in Indonesia. The main island of Bandaneira was very small – from a circling aeroplane it looked the size of a medium roundabout and it was covered in thick vegetation. The airport was in a clearing and you could just make out the single runway, which seemed to stretch from one side of the island to the other. The plane landed on one end and had to stop before it fell off the other into the sea. We nearly managed it the first time, we bounced once on impact and lurched forward at violent speed, the brakes straining and shrieking. From where I sat, I could see the effort the pilot was putting into controlling the plane, the barked commands at the co-pilot, his straining back as he wrestled with his instruments. We weren’t going to stop in time. As the end of the runway drew nearer, the pilot changed tactics and threw himself suddenly back; the plane lurched and bounced, careening from one side to the other. One of the passengers shouted in alarm and we lurched up into the blue once more. The ocean below thankfully fell away from us and we flew in trembling fashion, in a wide circle.
The pilot swivelled round to give us a reassuring smile. I have never seen anything less convincing. ‘Soon, soon,’ he called and shut the door of the cabin. I turned to look around the plane, there were only about ten of us on board. We were all holding on to the seat in front of us in varying degrees of panic.
‘Why didn’t we land?’ I asked no one in particular.
‘He’s a bad pilot.’ The elderly Indonesian man two rows away from me answered, ‘bad pilot, stupid.’
People muttered in agreement. We turned to stare out of the window. The ocean seemed very close; I could see tiny waves whipped up. In my head I began to go over various safety instructions that I had watched with indifference over the years – Brace, brace! Did this plane even have descending oxygen masks? I pictured a news story plastered over the newspapers. ‘Unable to identify the bodies.’
We came down low again, bouncing a little on thermo-currents. Planes must land here; there must be some sort of procedure. We flew lower and lower, I could make out individual trees in the jungle – the sudden bright flash of tropical climbers. I was sure I could hear a high whine from inside the engine. A banging, maybe things were broken. People sweating around me and I put my head on to the cushioned seat in front and closed my eyes for a second.
I opened them again. Rough tarmac rushed up, I saw a palm tree in great detail just outside my window and then we were down bumping along, but this time the brakes did not shriek and the lurching was slower and less terrifying. Eventually we came to a stop. We were at a slight angle on the runway, but we were down and we could get off. The pilot opened his door and gave us a thumbs-up, smiling broadly. We stared back at him – someone gave a sardonic clap and then we were up and out, everyone jostling in the usual way to get their bags down first and then the doors were opened and the hot air came pouring in, beautiful tropical air, carrying with it the mixed smells of diesel, rotten vegetation, ozone and flowers. It was the sweet smell of the ground.