My alarm goes off at 6am; I hit the snooze button and roll over as the first rays of sunlight come through the window. After 10 minutes, I decide it's time to get up and get dressed. Just before I hear a honk at the gate, I double check that I have everything--flight bag, lunch, survival kit, water, multi-tool, flashlight, cell phone, watch, ID, pen, and calculator.
The ride to the airport takes 5 minutes and we are greeted by the national staff, and I start my pre-flight, file flights plans, and oversee the loading process. We are taxiing for departure an hour later with 2 passengers (a nun and a doctor) and several hundred pounds of cargo. As we takeoff and turn right, heading North for the one hour flight to Aru, I climb through a scattered layer of puffy white clouds and can't help but smile...I have the greatest job in the world. The airplane practically flies itself in the crisp morning air. Today I am flying with Jon, the chief pilot; he's been flying longer than I have been alive, so I try and soak in everything he says. We talk about landing areas and airstrips along our route, and before I know it, we are descending for landing. As we touch down on the runway, one of the passengers in the second row begins yelling and clapping his hands...out of excitement. I immediately thought that he must be a skiddish flyer and was so relieved to be on terra firma again, but quickly realized he actually thought MAF was the coolest ministry ever, and swore over and over again that he will only fly on MAF airplanes from now on.
We taxied to our parking spot, shut down, and were greeted as we exited the airplane. A young man hands me an ice cold Coke...one of the perks of flying into Aru. He then brings around 5 passengers all of whom are "scheduled" to get a ride back to Bunia. That presents a little bit of a problem when you have 7 people who all want to go flying in a 6 passenger airplane. We told (as kindly as possible) one gentleman he would have to stay behind, and began loading the rest of the luggage and freight as the workers fueled the airplane. After just three passengers were on board, I was already thinking to myself that something was amiss, and sure enough, as the fourth passenger climbed in, the airplane gently settled back onto its tail, with the nose up in the air. It's commonly known that you can easily check the 206's center of gravity by pushing the tail to the ground--if it comes back up, you are within the limits of the airplane, if it doesn't, you have to either put more weight in the front of the airplane, or take extra weight out of the back.
We ended up having to take several large suitcases out of the back of the airplane and leave them so we could accommodate all the passengers. An hour and a half later (and already an hour behind schedule) we were headed back to Bunia to drop off the passengers and pick up 2 more passengers and a few hundred pounds of cargo. The stop in Bunia goes much quicker, and 30 minutes later, we are taking off and heading West into the Ituri rainforest. We're now headed for a city called Isiro with a passenger from an organization called MedAir, and lots of boxes for them and for Doctors Without Borders. It is an hour and a half flight over what looks strikingly like a huge field of broccoli. This stop also goes quickly as we unload and pick up 2 passengers for a short hop over to a mission station called Nebobongo. We circle overhead to make sure the airstrip is clear and suitable for landing before starting our approach. The airstrip is plenty long, but with 100-200 foot trees on all sides, the approach and landing require careful attention. We land and taxi uphill to the end of the airstrip where it seems like the whole village is awaiting our arrival.
I make a mental note that this takeoff will definitely require a "short field" technique. As we start up and run through our pre-takeoff checks, the whole village is waving frantically and all the kids run behind the airplane to try and defy the hurricane-force winds of the propeller at full power. All checks are complete, things look good, so I squeeze the brakes and add full power...one more check to make sure the engine is operating normally before releasing the brakes and starting the takeoff run. Everything's good, let's go. I instinctively add right rudder as the airplane's tendency is to go left. Speed check is good, and before I know it, the airplane tells me it's ready to fly and leaps off the ground. As the end of the airstrip is fast approaching, I have a moment of doubt as the 200 foot trees begin looking ominously huge through the windscreen, and every muscle in my body screams at me to pull the nose up...but then the training takes over and I wait for 65 knots, and then I pitch up to hold that airspeed. We "balloon" up and over the trees with plenty of margin. I smile again and silently thank my parents for providing the means to get the right training for this kind of environment.
It's mid-afternoon now and the scattered layer of clouds has turned into a broken layer, so I climb up right underneath them and wait patiently for a hole to climb up through and into the cooler, smoother air. Several minutes later, I find what I'm looking for, add full power, and climb up and around the clouds. 10 minutes of climbing get us up to 9,500 feet; I sit back, relax, and let the plane do all the work. Jon and I talk about the vast jungle beneath us as I gently bank the airplane around clouds. After an hour of cruising along, I begin to see massive thunderstorms ahead, and make my descent early. Back down into the bumpy humid air we go. As we get closer to Bunia, several thunderstorms and rain showers block our path home, so we deviate to the south and try and out run the storms. As we make our way just outside the rain, a hole opens up and promises a straight path right into Bunia. We land without a problem, 15 minutes before the rain starts. I smile again, thanking God this time for yet another safe return. I wonder what Monday's flight schedule might hold?