Sunrise Over Dakar
This is the sunrise over Dakar, Senegal, from my window seat in 2009. This was my second time passing through this coastal city on my way to Zambia, still two airports away. The horizon’s red glow and lilting clouds mimicked the plane and its hot left engine almost as if the sky itself had sprouted wings in a nod to my private celebration. This journey was off to a much more smooth start than my first trip to this continent only a couple of years earlier. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, however, that I realized just how lucky I had been on that previous flight in December of 2007.
One evening, mid-week into my stay in Zambia, I was relaxing in my hotel room when I picked up the newspaper that had been left for me that morning. There, on the front of a Zambian newspaper was a picture of a jetliner, only it was floating in the water, and its wings were covered by people. I skimmed over the story several times, and then turned the television to CNN, which was replaying a demonstration of the ill-fated flight that landed on the Hudson River. I sat on the edge of the bed listening to the reporters give account after account of the flight, how it encountered a flock of birds, how the skill of an unsuspecting pilot had become a lifeline for each of those very lucky passengers who stood in shock on the wings of a floating plane.
I thought, for the first time, of how my fate in Senegal could have been very different. You see, the first time I visited Senegal, it wasn’t on purpose. I was on a flight that had a scheduled refueling stop in Dakar. When our flight left that airport several hours behind schedule because of a plane malfunction that required a repair in Atlanta, we hit a bird with the left engine. Luckily there was no flock of birds, and the damage to the engine, although severe enough to ground the plane, was not enough to cause us to crash. We simply flew in circles over the azure coastline, expelling excess fuel until the plane was light enough to land, and then spent twelve hours at a beachside resort until we could be ferried back to the airport and sorted onto other flights that had also stopped to refuel.
In that hotel room two years later, watching the US news from Africa, I realized how things could have turned out very differently for me. When I took this snapshot, Captain Sully wasn’t to make his remarkable mark on aviation history for another couple of days. When I saw the news story, I remembered taking this picture, and how I had a private celebration in my head as the plane climbed higher into daybreak. How appropriate my celebration had been.