By Femi Adeshina
When a pilot dies, the colleagues say he or she has gone to the hangar in the sky. Hangar is a place where aircraft are housed, but it was way, way too early for Nigeria’s first female helicopter fighter pilot, Tolulope Arotile, to go there. Not a time for parking yet. Not at 23, not when her life and career were just starting.
Tolulope died on Tuesday, curiously not in terra incognita, which the sky is. But rather on terra firma, solid ground. She was involved in an auto crash at the Nigerian Air Force Base, Kaduna, suffered head injuries, from which she never recovered.
What a grief, what a tragedy. I saw Tolulope in February, when the Nigerian Air Force was presenting its newly acquired hardware to President Muhammadu Buhari at the Eagle Square, Abuja. So young, so tender, almost too innocent to be a fighter pilot. Deftly, she explained the features of the new attack helicopter to President Buhari, and that was just about five months after she was winged as the first helicopter fighter pilot in the history of the Air Force.
Too early to house your chopper in the hangar, Tolulope. Why was Heaven so much in a hurry to have you? You were serving nation and humanity, flying several combat missions for Operation GAMA AIKI in the North Central area of the country, particularly Niger State, infested with bandits from the pit of hell. You did your bit in enforcing peace in that area, giving those fiends a black eye. Now, no more. No more thrills, no more rush of adrenaline, as you soar into the azure sky in your nimble machine, a wonder of technology in warfare.
Tolulope lived and died for the sky. Primary education at Air Force school. Secondary, too. Then, enlistment into the Air Force, commissioned an officer, and further training abroad to hone her skills. She was decorated in October last year, with Women Affairs Minister, Dame Pauline Tallen assisting the Chief of Air Staff. It made a lot of Nigerians proud, particularly her parents, Engineer Akin and Mrs Arotile, from Iffe, in Ijumu Local Government Area of Kogi State.
After the decoration exercise, a delighted Mrs Arotile (which parent won’t be over the moon, despite the risky nature of the career) took to her Facebook wall, and posted: “On behalf of my entire family, Engr. Akin and Mrs Arotile, I will like to sincerely appreciate everyone for honoring the invitation to celebrate with Pilot Officer T. Arotile. I am indeed grateful and pray that God will reward you all exceedingly and abundantly above all you would think or ask of Him. Once again, thank you and God bless.”
Most parents would be proud to produce a pilot. I can tell, because I have one. That day, in 2017, when my pilot son flew me in a Boeing 737 from Lagos to Abuja, with me sitting with him in the cockpit, is one one my happiest. Forget the knot of fear and anxiety in the bottom of my belly, as he manipulated the winged bird through the sky, pointing out landmarks to me, and touching down gingerly at our destination about 50 minutes later. It was the experience of a lifetime.
My son first indicated his desire to be a pilot at just four years old. I thought he would outgrow it. But the older he got, the more resolute he became. He went to flying school, got his private pilot’s license, then the commercial license, and then type rated on Boeing 737.
Tolulope must have known no other world, except flying. Like the parents of every pilot, the Arotiles must have had their times of anxiety, but also trusted firmly in God. What can we do without faith in God? Nothing. I say again; nothing.
God, what then happened? How did an auto crash at NAF Base claim such a tender soul, turning her family, the Air Force, the nation, into mourning. President Buhari recalled the young lady that took him round, explaining the features of the fighter helicopters at the Air Show held in Eagle Square. He mourned her deeply, condoling with her family, the Air Force, and the nation at large. God, we should not question you, but what really happened? As mere mortals, we don’t know. But we will surely understand it better by and by.
I recall a story told us in church long ago by my then pastor, Rev Felix Meduoye (now retired General Overseer of the Foursquare Gospel Church in Nigeria). He said his young daughter used to pray: God don’t let us die in our sleep. Don’t let us die when we are awake. Don’t let us die when we are on the road. Don’t let us die when we are flying in a plane. Don’t let us die when we are in our car. Don’t let us die…
My pastor laughed, and said we at least have to die somehow. True. But not like Tolulope did. Too sad.
“There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays its icy hands on kings;
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.”
So wrote James Shirley in his poem, The Glories of Our Blood and State. And death has no shame. It takes the young and the old. The firm and the infirm. The poor and the rich. But I am glad that death itself shall die one day.
John Donne, in his poem titled Death Be Not Proud, declared:
“Death, Be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
Yes, death shall die. The Holy Bible reinforces it for me. Revelation 20, verses 13 and 14.
“And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works.
“And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, even the lake of fire.”
Death has denied the nation a potential wife, mother, grandmother, accomplished fighter pilot. Her body will soon be interred, and like John Brown’s body, it will “lie a-mouldering in the grave.” But her soul will go marching on.
For now, we mourn with the Arotiles. We weep, we sorrow, but not like those without hope. Our hope is that one day, Tolulope will rise to life eternal. And Death, the enemy of man, shall die.
Death, thou shalt die. It’s not a curse. It’s just your inevitable end.
*Adesina is Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and Publicity