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How Uganda Cranes survived a plane crash

By Michael Nsubuga

Added 22nd June 2020 06:30 PM

The whole world vividly remembers the tragic air crash that claimed the entire Zambian team en-route to an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Ivory Coast in 1993.

How Uganda Cranes survived a plane crash

Courtesy photo

The whole world vividly remembers the tragic air crash that claimed the entire Zambian team en-route to an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Ivory Coast in 1993.

This is what could have befallen the Ugandan team after their participation in the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations held in Ghana, where they came second.

Prior to the final which they lost 2-0 to the hosts, the Cranes had endured a lot of off-field frustrations when they were made to travel by bus for 11 hours to the finals' venue, instead of by plane that could have taken 45 minutes from Kumasi to Accra.

The plane that was available was instead given to Nigeria who was to contest for third place with Tunisia. On reaching Accra, almost every necessity was denied to the Cranes, and worse of all, their dressing room was sprayed with a strange-smelling perfume that made their breathing very difficult.

According to Paul Ssali who was Cranes goalkeeper at all this was done to kill the morale of the Ugandans who had surprised many including Morocco (3-0) and Nigeria (2-1) in the preliminaries.

"We played our semi-finals match on Tuesday and we were supposed to fly to Accra on Wednesday but the plane was instead given to the Nigerians who were going to play for third place, so we waited for the plane to pick us in vain until Friday when a bus was offered to take us 202km away. Accra located at the coast was very hot compared to Kumasi where we played the group games. In Accra were treated badly; the cooling system in the hotel was switched off; the water in our dressing room was also turned off. We were also given bad food with a lot of red pepper, which caused running stomachs for the entire team, so by the time we entered the pitch, we had lost a lot of energy.

Paul Ssali was on the plane. PHOTO: Michael Nsubuga

On return from the championship, the Ethiopian Airways plane on which they traveled almost crashed at Entebbe due to bad weather.

From Ghana to Cameroon, the sailing was smooth, the whole episode started moments after the captain announced that ‘soon we shall be landing at Entebbe International Airport. It has been a pleasure flying with the deputy champions of Africa'"

As the plane descended it began to behave strangely; it suddenly dropped several meters and quickly gained height again. This would happen about six times, moving left and right that sent passengers in panicky mode, screaming and praying. Several passengers vomited due to the turbulence. When the plane gained stability, the pilot abandoned landing at Entebbe and instead headed to J.K International Airport in Kenya where the Cranes learned how they had survived crashing.

"We were close to landing and had actually unfastened our seat belts; and we could actually see the Airport buildings but all of a sudden the plane took an almost 90-degree ascendency to the sky," Ssali recalls.

"We cycled around the Airport for about ten minutes before we were told that we could not land due to bad weather, so we headed for Nairobi where we landed and spent two hours before we returned to Entebbe.

"We were all shaken and feared for our lives, the plane having changed direction all of a sudden," Ssali recalls.

It was after landing at J.K International Airport that the Cranes learnt how they had escaped a crash due to bad weather (fog) and sudden black out at Entebbe Airport. The pilot could not distinguish the lake from the runway after the blackout.

In Nairobi, most of the Cranes wanted to travel back by road but the manager refused it. The trip from Nairobi was tension-packed but this time the landing was more comfortable and there was some jubilation from the Cranes with others shedding tears of joy. They had anticipated the same experience.

Ssali who was a serving soldier (Lieutenant) at the time says they did not get any reward for their second-place finish because on return the liberation war against Tanzanian forces had intensified. Ssali was part of the artillery regiment in Masindi from where he rose in the ranks as he also played football.

Ssali, who was an expert in saving spot-kicks was nicknamed ‘Commando' during his playing time with KCC FC.

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