Friday, December 23, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Sweet Girl

Definitely a Character!
My lack of posts is more due to no photos than nothing going on!  Our good camera broke in Congo and we haven't had the money to get it fixed yet, and our "point and shoot" camera didn't have a battery charger...until yesterday.  I found it out in the garage, underneath a mountain of boxes.  So, it's better than nothing.  I don't know a soul out there who would rather read a bunch of words than look at fun pictures!


Grandma and Joy at dinner
My date
Yesterday we went to the Mission Inn in Riverside to see the beautiful Christmas lights (a California thing since there's no snow).  We had a great time, and it was wonderful weather!  They had concession stands, an ice rink, and even some reindeer.  Kaitlyn was fascinated with the antlers, and when I asked her if she thought it was a boy or a girl, she replied, "No silly, it's a deer!"  I guess she got me there!

Then Grandma took us all out for a Christmas dinner.  I sat next to Kaitlyn; we were on a date!














1 inch screw in the rear tire

This morning I tackled a few things on the car.  I noticed a clicking noise on the freeway about a week ago, and me being a perfectionist, I just had to fix it.  A quick inspection revealed quite a large screw in the rear tire.  Me and Kaitlyn jumped right into action, jacking, removing, repairing, and re-installing the tire.  She was a big help, holding lug nuts, turning on the compressor, and holding onto the tire so I could get the screw out.



After a quick road test, Kaitlyn came in, washed her hands, and jumped right into helping mommy with Christmas cookies!  I couldn't be prouder of my little girl, she's such a big help with everything! And soon, I'm sure she will be all too eager to change baby brother's diapers, give him bottles, and hold him close when he's crying.

Baking cookies, yeah!
Other than Christmas things, I've been keeping busy finishing paperwork (there always seems to be an excess of it), getting our car registered in California, insurance, switching over all of our licenses, and going through our shipment, trying to organize things in a sensible fashion.  After Christmas, it will be a mad dash to the baby boy finish line, starting work for me, and our anniversary on the 28th!

What are you up to?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Congolese Francs

This photo was taken in Kipaka.  There are some folks from the village along with myself and a few "officials" with 9Q-CMY in the background.  There's a story that goes along with the picture and it goes a little something like this....

     Flight days to Kipaka are long, no matter which way you split it.  Even in the caravan it would take the better part of your day, and with "Uniform India" leaving at 8am from Bunia will usually get you back right around 5pm.  With "Mike Yankee" that window is even tighter.  Even so, it's important to spend time on the ground with the people, especially the officials, that way there are no hassles next time.

     Well, it just so happened that the last time I was in town, they wanted to snap this photo with the pilot to make it all official.  I agreed--it was a nice break after I had just unloaded 1000 pounds, and put 600 more back in for the return trip.  I had some issues with the officials about paperwork that I was "supposed" to have with me, like passports and visas and all that.  They let me go, but said that next time, I'd have to have it with me or it would be a big fine.

     So, I obliged, and made a nice photocopy of my passport's info page and the visa I was issued.  When asked, I produced the documents, only to find that these were not good enough, they wanted the originals.  After a long and sometimes heated discussion ranging from taxes and fees of a Christian humanitarian organization to my residency in Congo, we finally came to an agreement.  See, I don't like to just hand out money and pay for bribes or illegitimate taxes, I like to get something out of it too.  To make a long story short, they didn't want to let me leave without paying some kind of fine, and I didn't want to pay it, so we met somewhere in the middle.  They get a fifty cent "fine" and I got a copy of a really cool picture!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Next Step

I've flown Congolese nationals, sick and injured, hundred pound sacks of money, chickens, geese, fish...but never flies.  But now it looks like I'll be adding them to my ever-growing list of passengers as well.  I've accepted a position with a company called Dynamic Aviation, flying the King Air in the L.A. basin.  Dynamic Aviation operates a fleet of King Air 90's, using the sterilized male fly in an effort to control the fruit fly population here in southern California.  These flies devastate fruits and crops, so it's important to control them.  I'll be flying as well as working on the airplanes, so I can keep both skills sharp.

The King Air 90
Other than that, we were able to take a quick trip out to Ohio to visit my family and Joy's brother and his family.  Our shipment finally arrived from Africa after way too many phone calls, customs forms, and emails.  We've got one week left until Christmas, and then hopefully things will slow down for a week or two before baby boy arrives!

     Merry Christmas!  and Happy New Year!!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Changing...An Attitude

I'm reminded of a story in the Old Testament where a young man with 11 brothers couldn't have imagined the outcome of his life even if he had tried.  The story goes like this:

     "So there's this young guy with 11 brothers, 10 of which are older than him, so for all intents and purposes he's really a "youngest child."  Apparently, as the story goes, his father really liked him...even more than his other sons.  One day he comes in to his father with a bad report about them.  After that, his father makes a beautiful coat for his "favorite" son and Joseph's brothers had finally had enough of this favoritism.  They plot to kill him, but through a series of events, end up selling him to a traveling group of slave traders on their way to Egypt.

     As the story begins to unfold, Joseph is sold for 30 pieces of silver and finds himself at the mercy of the slave traders.  Eventually, he's sold to Potiphar's house and works there as a servant of the captain of the guard.  The story says that Potiphar noticed that the Lord blessed everything Joseph did so he made him his personal servant and put him in charge of everything he owned.  After a while, Potiphar's wife noticed how handsome Joseph is and asks to sleep with him, but on several accounts, Joseph says no.

     All it takes is a lie, and Joseph finds himself imprisoned, charged with "taking Potiphar's wife for himself."  At this point in the story, I'm thinking man, this guy's been mistreated his whole life.  First he's sold out by his family, then is accused of something he didn't do.  Now he's sitting in an Egyptian prison, through absolutely no fault of his own.  I know what I would be thinking...probably cursing God...and my brothers...and Potiphar...and the prison.  You get the hint.

     But again, Joseph comes to be responsible for everything that goes on in the jail, so that the real guy in charge didn't have to do anything at all.  Then, through more twists and turns, he interprets a few dreams and ends up coming before the Pharaoh to interpret a dream of his.  After a favorable interpretation, Joseph is put in charge of all of Egypt.  The Bible says, "only with respect to the throne will you be greater than the Pharaoh."

     Now comes the part that I really enjoy.  Joseph predicts 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of horrible famine.  During the famine, Joseph's brothers come to him for food and provisions, not once, but twice.  The second time they come Joseph reveals himself and says, "God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance....So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God."


     By now, many of you know of our decision to part ways with MAF at this point in our lives.  There are no hard feelings from either us or the folks at MAF, we just felt DRC was not the right fit for our family, and before jumping right into another assignment, we felt it was prudent to take a little time off.  I love what I did in eastern Congo and I'm so thankful for that wonderful opportunity, but I also need to be sensitive to the needs of our family.  Right now I feel like Joseph must have in the back of a caravan, having just been sold out by his family.  I can only imagine he was thinking how this could happen to him, why God would allow such a thing, what He had in store for the future.  I'm sure many other things were rolling through his mind, but the Bible doesn't give us many clues and we're left to wonder.


     Maybe I will write a few blogs about how we got to this point and give a little more history behind our decision, but suffice for now to say that after a lot of prayer, counsel, and thinking, we've decided to take a little time off from MAF to get our bearings, re-adjust our focus, and see what the Lord has for the future.  I don't understand why I would spend 10 years preparing for service with MAF, only to serve one.  That's where I sense some parallels with Joseph's story and what he must have been feeling on the road to Egypt, and again when he found himself in prison.


     We thank the Lord for giving us such wonderful experiences, some that not many people get to experience.  We thank the Lord for the many, many folks that have stood with us in preparing, sending, and keeping us in Africa.  I may never know the impact of our presence in Bunia; that's not my place, but I do know that we have been blessed beyond belief, we've been sharpened by our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we have come to a deeper understanding of our Savior.


     So...what's next?!?  I'll leave that for next time!
Well, first of all, it's been quite a while.  I apologize for the silence and lack of posting.  Interestingly enough, I left off the last post saying we were pretty sure the new baby was a girl.  Well...I think you know what's coming.  We had decided to have the baby back in the States and our first visit to the doctor included an ultrasound.  Things in Africa are (do I really have to say this?)...a little different than things in America.  Not necessarily bad, just different.  When we had our ultrasound in Africa, it was done in a small room with a single lightbulb and no windows.  It was hard to see the screen, let alone what was on it.  The doctor had said he was pretty confident it was a girl, so we promptly searched the baby girl names and found a few good ones.  Then, we went for our ultrasound in the US, and as soon as the machine turned on and the doppler hit Joy's tummy, the nurse exclaims, "Oh...oh, it's DEFINITELY a boy!"  I looked at Joy, and she looked at me, and we both had the same expression on our faces.  Needless to say, we were surprised and it's back to the drawing board on the baby boy names.  So now I suppose we'll have one of each!

Also, stay tuned for photos and an update on our ministry as I'm sure many of you by now have received our most recent newsletter.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

New Experiences

It's not every day a missionary pilot gets to physically see the difference he's making in people lives.  Sure, there are the medivacs where it's obvious that if we did not come, the sick would die.  I'm talking more about the back breaking box after box after box of medical supplies that I load into the airplane, fly to a mobile clinic out in the jungle, and unload in the blazing hot sun...box after box after box.  Sometimes it's vaccines, other times it's pain pills, but it always seems to be heavy and arduous work.

Today I visited the clinic where Joy volunteers, and I saw some of those same familiar boxes.  No, I'm not sick, and I'm definitely not having a baby, but Joy is.  And today we went together to take a peek at our new little one.  Actually we went yesterday, but the doctor wasn't in.  So we went this morning.  The doctor was in, but the ultrasound machine wasn't.  So we went a third time this afternoon, in hopes that we, the machine, and the doctor could all be in the same place at the same time.

I can't help but notice some of the same people are still waiting to be seen.  Joy walks right in, confirms that the doctor and the machine are present and stands on the outside of the door.  We wait for maybe 15 minutes as the doctor finishes with another patient.  I can't help but overhear some of the conversations outside about how we white missionaries can just skip the all day waiting and hop in the front of the line, while they all have to wait even longer.  I do feel bad, but I guess it's a perk of volunteering, kinda like I can go wherever I want in the Entebbe airport and travel to different countries without having to pay for visas, or even have my passport with me.

As we wait, I'm trying to brush up on my French anatomy...fingers, toes, heart, legs, boy, girl.  I don't get to use those words a whole lot around here!  Before I know it, we're in the ultrasound room, and I'm trying my hardest to decipher the white and black lines; the doctor pushes a button on the machine, and suddenly I can see clear as day as he shows me the "grand tour" ...."here's all the fingers, heart, toes, legs, head."  Joy is right on target.  I'm amazed at the equipment they have, and even more amazed that someone is actually properly trained to use it.  He checks length, sizes, heartbeat, all the major stuff.

Then we ask him to see if it's a boy or a girl.  He checks for maybe another 5 minutes before coming to an "undecided" conclusion.  I have my own conclusions from what I saw...or didn't see, as the case may be, but you'll just have to wait and find out!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Bright Side

An essential element to survival here is keeping a positive attitude about...well, everything.  A few examples you ask?  Sure, I'd be happy to oblige:

*Like when you get a flat tire in the pouring rain.  Think of it not as an inconvenience and getting thoroughly soaked, but as an opportunity for the Congolese people to show their true colors.  Since the car jack won't work in the mud, 30 bustling men gather around and lift the car while you make the swap.  Probably not good for the car, but neither is driving on a flat.

*Different airstrip conditions (even when I land 2 or more times at the same place, on the same day) keep my skills sharp, and guard against complacency.  Goats are my favorite.  They come out of the tall grass right in front of the airplane, and instead of running back into the bushes, they hear the airplane and tear off down the airstrip, trying to outrun the airplane.  It never fails.

*Think...for every hour the city power is on, it saves me a dollar, instead of...the electricity is rarely on, I should just disconnect it all for good.

*I don't like geckos or palm-sized spiders in my house, but they need a home too, and they eat the mosquitoes (a nice bonus, since most of the windows still don't have screens).  And when they're not eating the mosquitoes, they're having turf wars, so at least it's entertaining.

*One more stomach bug reminds me that I can get antibiotics...a lot of them...for $2...without a prescription.

*A long line of thunderstorms in my flight path is a great opportunity to practice my airplane handling skills.

*A dishonest official is a reminder for me to practice honesty and integrity in everything I do, and a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate His grace.

*The blaring mosque at 4:30am every morning is a chance for me to pray for Muslims.

*An unexpected night away from home is a window into the life of missionaries who have it much, much harder than I do.

*When there's no water, it's humbling to see missionaries sacrifice even more and share what little they do have.

*Every change in the schedule is an unplanned chance to bring glory to our God and be a blessing to those around us.

*Many things are much more expensive here, but the avocados fall off the trees in the back yard every couple months.

*When something breaks around the house, I get to learn new vocabulary in French and Swahili.


I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Every day is a reminder that I have a choice to make.  Every situation is an opportunity.  Will I choose to reflect the image that's been restored in me, or try to make it in my own strength?  Will I climb out of the boat?  Will I deny my Lord?  What's your choice?  Yes, or no, my friends.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Girls

They're so amazing.  I'm so blessed to have them in my life, even if they don't speak my "language."  They are fun, beautiful, intriguing, delicate, passionate.  They are unique, smart, photogenic, dedicated, understanding.

Some of you may not know, but Spokane, Washington, was probably the last place on my list of cities to live (no offense).  But boy am I glad I made that choice.  I remember once saying, in my foolish youth, that I would never step foot in California, and I certainly would never marry a Californian.  Oh how that changed in a heartbeat.  I also never believed in "love at first sight."  But the moment I saw her, I knew I would spend the rest of my life with her.  My pick up line: "hey, if you ever need the oil changed in your Honda, I have a Chiltons Manual."  That was almost seven years ago, and what an incredible journey it's been so far.

Then, it happened...I had an affair.  In fact, I still am.  I still remember when Joy told me she was pregnant.  We were in southern California at the time and Joy insisted on taking me out after a very long day of packing our shipment for Africa.  I really didn't want to go, didn't want to spend the money, take the time, etc.  We went to Mimi's, and asked for a really yummy ice cream, chocolate syrup, whipped cream, brownie thing with a cherry on top.  Let's just say the cherry was really the only edible part, the rest was hard as a rock.  Yes, even the ice cream.  But I didn't care; there's no expression for the feeling a man gets when you tell him he's going to be a father.

9 months later, the same "love at first sight" occurred with Kaitlyn Renee, my little sweet girl.  We were in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and had traveled to Newport, Vermont, just over the US border for a doctor visit.  Joy was having contractions and they were getting stronger, so we decided to stick around for a while, just in case.  Again, we had a bad experience with food and ate at a Chinese joint in "downtown" Newport.  Next time we'll know to skip that place.

Joy labored all through the night and the next morning before Kaitlyn finally arrived.  I remember feeling so tired, excited, and not knowing what I was supposed to do.  I remember almost passing out.  I don't mind the blood and all that, but people in pain and screaming just doesn't sit well with me.  I was a big fan of the epidural.  Joy, at the time, was indifferent.  When Kaitlyn was born, we saw her for thirty seconds before she was quickly whisked away and diagnosed with a pneumothorax.  She had a partially collapsed lung with a tiny hole in it.

It's fun to see her now, and how she has different personality traits of both of us (good and bad).  At 10 months, she wanted to jump in and swim down Niagara Falls.  She has to do everything herself, loves to joke, and would eat a whole tub of butter if she could.  She has a great compassion for people, and absolutely loves airplanes.

And just when I didn't think my heart could get any bigger, we have another one coming in January.  Will it be another girl, or our first boy?  Time will tell, I suppose.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

What The...

I was on my way once again to Kipaka with 900 pounds of medical supplies for the hospital, cruising along at 10,500 feet when all of a sudden I heard a strange humming noise.  Hmmm....all the engine instruments are normal, but the sound seems to be getting louder and louder.  I go so far as to even take my helmet off, and then I see it, not 50 feet above me.  I'm dumbstruck with utter disbelief as the ugliest twin engine airplane I've ever seen flies directly overhead.  After a moment of gaining my composure, my next thought is to get a few incriminating photos, but it's too late for that.  I guess even deep in the jungle you have to watch out for other airplanes.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Pictures

#1

#2

#3

#4

#5

#6

#7

#8
We always have interesting happenings here, so I've been trying to document some of the experiences we have, so you can share in our life here.  I've numbered the pictures and will briefly explain what each one is belows:

#1--A photo I took in Epulu.  This little cluster was right on the edge of the jungle and I thought it very interesting.  It stood out like a sore thumb against all the shades of green.  It's no bigger than a nickel--God's attention to detail amazes me.

#2--Also in Epulu, I just happened to be standing on a bridge when I heard a familiar "mzungu" call from down below.  I turned and snapped a photo as the boy rowed by in his "canoe."

#3--belongs with #5.  You may wonder what a cylinder head is doing detached from the cylinder.  Well, it just so happens that when you think you give clear directions like, "I just drained the oil out of the generator, can you fill it with 1 liter of oil from this jug?" you'd think the message was received clearly.  Not so, my friends.  Oil did not make it's way into the oil pan, but instead was added from a small hole in the cylinder head that consequently flooded and hydraulic locked the cylinder, before spilling out the air intake.  The offending party now knows exactly where the oil is supposed to go.  And I have learned my lesson, after pondering how to be a better communicator for the better part of my Saturday.

#4--Yet another intriguing flower from the forests of Epulu.  You may wonder what all the recent photos are from Epulu.  Well, I had the privilege of taking 5 very hard working missionary ladies on a quick retreat to the Okapi Reserve for a day of well deserved R & R.  Most of them have worked in DRC longer than I've been alive, and have never gotten to see the okapis.  I got the lucky straw and only had to fly 2 hours.  The rest of the day was spent making new friends, improving my French, and visiting the Okapis once again.

#5--Is a nice dry cylinder that is again able to compress air.  Try though it did, it seems that the laws of the universe prevailed yet again, and vehemently reminded the poor generator that liquids are not compressible.

#6--Would be the cutest little girl ever, eating a mouthful of goldfish after "helping" daddy repair the generator by grabbing a push rod in each hand and using them as drum sticks on the concrete.

#7--Ah, the Okapi.  What more can I say?  Part horse, part giraffe, part zebra.  It lives to 40 years old, is almost never seen in the wild, and is an extremely picky eater.  It can reach just about every part of its body with a 12 inch tongue.  Its natural habitat, now only found in a very small part of DRC, is being illegally forested, and the animal suffers from poaching.

#8--Last, but certainly not least.  Epulu is a wonderful place to relax.  If you look hard enough, it is full of surprises and truly exotic sights.  I found this guy casually webbing 2 inches from my chest as I leaned in to take a photo of an Okapi.  I'm over the "scream like a girl" stage, but I have to admit, this one caught me off guard.  This is another one of those "fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand" spiders.  And when the pygmies say, "Back up, you don't want to touch that one,"  you listen.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Night in Bukavu...Part II

After unloading and securing the airplane in the rain, I realize that in Kipaka I had left my overnight bag, because the only room left to put it was on my lap.  I had packed things all the way to the ceiling, and the cargo pod was packed full.  Oh well, I have my survival kit I guess, that's better than nothing.

We take a "taxi" from the airport into town, almost an hour away.  The entire road is paved and it feels a little scary going so fast.  The weather is still terrible; it's even hard to see out the windshield...I can't believe I was flying in this stuff.  Our driver is Congolese, our vehicle...an old Toyota Corolla type with balled tires, a broken windshield, and very strange noises coming from the engine, tranny, and suspension.  I'm pretty sure the brake pads on at least one wheel are worn to just metal on metal.  It's a stick shift and there's not really a clutch to speak of; the driver just jams it in gear until it submits.

He is driving really fast, the road is wet, and we can hardly see.  On more than one occasion I yell, "ATTENTION!!" in French so we don't ram into the back of another vehicle.  I thought maybe it was just the car, but all along the way are people standing on the side of the road, shaking their heads, and pointing to smashed taxis.

Bukavu is pretty surprising to me.  There are real hotels with bell boys, Mobil service stations, electricity, street lights, and very nice looking restaurants.  It sort of reminds me a little of Chicago.  I'll be staying with the missionary family I brought from Kipaka.  When we reach the house, I can see a really nice yard, a kid's play house, and even a garage.  We aren't here for long before heading out to dinner.

The family invited me to go with them to a friend's house, and I accepted.  We are heading to Bernard's house; he's been the purchaser for the hospital for many years.  They have a close relationship.  His house is just a small living room with 2 couches and a bedroom/kitchen.  The roof leaks a little, and candles are the only light we have.  Dinner is rice, chicken, carrots and peas, and a killer sauce.  Most of the talk is in Swahili, but I can tell from the tone of their voices and their expressions that they are saying goodbye, and it's not easy.  They remember old times, thank each other, and talk a little business.  I take a few photos of their families together and then it's back home.  I help them pack and prepare their things for tomorrow before heading to bed.

It's actually cold here and I'm thankful for the extra thick blankets on the bed.  At first I didn't think I'd use them, but boy did I ever.  In the morning, I could see my breath outside.  I got a later start than I wanted to, but oh well.  The drive back to the airport is even better this time, mostly because I can see now.  The drive reminds me of Hawaii.  The road meanders along the edge of a crystal clear lake, beautiful tropical flowers line the road.  Sunflowers, beautiful plants, strawberries growing in fields, it's a wonderful sight.  Towards the end of the drive, we move more into high plateaus with different pines and open fields of wild flowers.

I get a later start than I want to, but at 9:30am I take off again for Kipaka with almost 1000 more pounds of supplies for the hospital.  The weather is much, much better today.  On the ground in Kipaka I unload the cargo and move straight into loading things for Bukavu.  I'm hoping to go fast here, but there's no such thing as fast.  The government officials want to see my original passport, and my visa...neither of which I have with me.  I have photocopies, but that's not good enough, and I can't leave until I produce them.

So I go into discussions and conversations about why I don't have the originals, why I need my passport here, when all the other major cities in Congo accept my copies.  Why I can travel to Uganda without a passport, but deep in the Congo jungle, I need to have everything.  Finally, after everything is loaded and my passengers are in their seats, I pull the officials to the side and ask, "Are you congolese citizens?"  They both reply yes, of course.  "If you took a trip to a major city in Congo, would you need a passport?"  No, they both say.  In fact, I don't even have a passport.  "Well, guess what?  I'm a Congolese resident too.  So if you don't need one, then I don't need one.  My copies are good enough."  That seems to resonate a little better with them.  And with that, I hop in and shut the door.  Some people like to argue and yell about things, and maybe that's just the way they do it here.  But I like to help them understand just what it is they're asking of me, and why it's sometimes absurd.  That takes time, but I think the final result is better.  Plus, I get to know the person, not just the demanding official.

The flight back to Bukavu is uneventful.  On the ground, I expect to have maybe 100 kilos of baggage and a 55 gallon drum.  What I find are bags and bags for Bunia...for "free."  No one mentioned all these things when I left, and I fit almost everything, again packing things to the ceiling.  I have to leave the drum behind and a few small bags.  By this time, I'm getting pretty tired and missing my family.  The plane just can't go fast enough to get me back.


On the way, I descend to 500 feet above the ground and point out a gorgeous waterfall.  When you think of a tropical paradise, you would include waterfalls, but not "badlands."  But right here in Congo, you can find those too, right next to the waterfall, actually.  20 more minutes and we're landing in Bunia.  I can't wait to get home!

The Last Time...Part I

For some, anyway.  Today's flight takes me once again to Bukavu, and on to Kipaka, where I'll be spending the night.  Everything's supposed to be done already, so I can get an early departure, but when I get to the airport, I learn that the plane hasn't been fueled, the boxes of Bibles aren't prepared, and no one has a key for the MAF depot and office.  I quickly spring into action, giving people tasks while I complete my preflight.

Once I'm ready to go, I hop in and call the control tower, but they won't clear me to taxi because my flight plan hasn't been submitted.  "But it was there last night, how could it not be there now?" I replied.  Another 10 minutes and everything is squared away.  The engine checks out, oil temperature is climbing, and I check my watch against the clock in the airplane and on the GPS.  I mark down the time, and smoothly add full power.  Climbing out to the East, I gently bank to the right and look down to see Joy and Kaitlyn waving goodbye.

The weather seems good enough and I climb to 10,500 feet before cracking open my breakfast.  I can't make out the Rwenzori mountains, so I make sure to steer straight down the middle of the valley.  Then, I start to make out the unmistakable jagged peaks through the haze and clouds.  I snap a few photos...what a great opportunity to share with you one of the best reasons we don't fly in the clouds here.  Don't get me wrong, it can be done, and done safely and efficiently, but not in a 206, and not with 14,000' peaks looming around.  This is exactly why we treat clouds as if they were mountains, because more often than not, there are mountains hiding somewhere in there.  And while an airplane can fly just fine through a cloud, I don't think they've yet developed an airplane that's aerodynamic enough to fly through granite.


The weather actually improves all the way to my destination of Bukavu...I guess there's a first time for everything.  In Bukavu, I unload a 55 gallon drum and 5 jerry cans of avgas, along with 200 pounds of Bibles, and trade it all for almost 1,000 pounds of medicines and supplies for the hospital in Kipaka.  After an hour, I'm off, and the weather continues to improve, a little puzzling to me since I saw quite a bit of rain on the satellite picture earlier in the morning.  Oh well, take it while you can get it.

1:30 minutes later, I'm circling over Kipaka, checking the airstrip and setting up for my approach.  I'm just about to touch down when something on the right side catches my eye.  It's a goat...no make that 20.  I hesitate for a second to see which way they're gonna go, but as usual they run in terror directly down the airstrip.  I waste no time in aborting the landing, and come around for a second try.  On the ground, I unload the hospital freight, and load belongings for a missionary family that has been in Kipaka for more than 20 years.  They are "retiring" after starting from scratch and maintaining the hospital for so long.  Now it's their turn to hand over the job to a trained national.

Leaving a place...leaving home after more than 20 years would be hard on anyone.  And I can tell it's hard for these folks to say goodbye to their "family," but they get in the airplane with resolve, knowing the Lord has something else for them to do.  It's been my pleasure to fly many things down to them, everything from toilet paper to car parts.  They are truly cut off from the rest of the world.  The roads and bridges in every direction are all washed out and too dangerous to travel by car.  The airplane is the only lifeline, the only link for these people.

The hour and a half back to Bukavu is heart-wrenching for them, but with 50 miles to go, my attention is diverted to the task at hand.  Somehow the weather has turned horrible.  Low clouds, rain, fog, smoke, and mountains aren't a pleasant mix.  The mountains surrounding Bukavu is the only place in Congo that I've actually had to do real "ridge crossings."  We sometimes perform this maneuver to get from one valley to the next when there's a low layer of clouds.  These are to be done in a very certain way, at 100' minimum, so as to maintain the highest degree of safety...and I've been very close to that 100 feet before.

My original plan of going direct to Bukavu is quickly abandoned and I make my way over to the South pass.  I'm now 500 feet above the ground, working my way through rain showers, ever vigilant of that mountain goat hanging around in the clouds.  The South pass turns out to be so clogged with rain and clouds that I start to make my way even further south into my last option.  I'm pushing weather and my fuel reserves, so I am very cautious.

I see a break in the clouds and cross over one ridge and into a little bowl about 1/2 mile round.  My escape route is behind me, where I came from.  As I enter the "bowl" I realize it's just not going to work, so I add power and make a quick 180 degree turn.  But as I do, I realize my out is now gone, vanished, swallowed up by clouds.  I'm now stuck in this bowl, with the wind blowing the clouds, and me, closer and closer to a very large peak.  I say a quick prayer, and no sooner do I see a small hole open up in front of me.  I can see well enough on the other side to know that it's more open  and will provide more options than where I'm currently at.

So long bowl, nice knowing you.  I'm now in a small pass south of the South pass, and I pop out of the mountains over the town of Bukavu.  The familiar sights and less terra firma to hit ease my nerves a little.  As I head back north towards the airport, I look back up the South pass to see if it's even possible to get back to Kipaka today.  Nope, decision made, I'm staying in Bukavu, no way I'm doing that again.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Strange

In my 9 months here I've had some interesting experiences flying.  Interesting cargo, interesting passengers, interesting happenings.  Things like smelly fish, chickens (which always go in the cargo pod no matter how crammed they are), 12' electrical conduit (interesting to actually fit it in the airplane when the cabin is the same length), and "high profile" passengers.  Basically, if it fits through the door and I can somehow strap it down, it goes.

It's always interesting with national passengers who have obviously never flown before.  I'd like to ask them sometime what is going through their head.  I know right away who they are, they hop in, buckle their seatbelt, and relax until the engine comes to life.  I especially take a little extra time with those special passengers who occupy the co-pilot's seat.  I try not to seat someone there who looks stronger than me.  And I always take the time to explain to them the dire consequences of touching anything.  Most of the time it works fine, but every once in a while I get a surprise.

Like the guy I had sitting next to me on my way to Mambasa.  Not too terribly difficult, but I do need to land in a certain spot.  It was a bumpy afternoon and I could tell my passenger was uncomfortable with all the turbulence, and was very apprehensive about landing on a hill in the middle of the jungle.  I motioned for him to put his hands under his legs, that way I knew where they were.  Turning on final approach, I noticed he had quickly grabbed his knees and was squeezing them really hard.  Just when I started a beautiful flare, I saw him stiffen like a board and he grabbed my right arm, squeezed hard, and pulled my elbow into his chest.  Not a big deal except the other end of my arm was firmly attached to the throttle control with a considerable amount of power. We immediately sank towards the ground.  I instinctively heaved the control into my chest to protect the nose gear, and struggled to get my arm free.  Needless to say we hit "firmly" and bounced back in the air.  Lucky for me, an intuitive passenger behind me grabbed his arms and held them.  I shoved the throttle in, aborted the landing, and came around for another try, this time adding "make sure the copilot is secure" to my checklist.

It's also interesting what you can hear inside a very noisy cabin.  I admit that I've aborted several landings because, just before I'm about to touchdown, I hear the unmistakable "click" of a seatbelt being unfastened.

Ever carried empty 55 gallon drums in the cabin before?  I have, and it sure would have been nice if someone would have let me in on a little secret the first time I had them strapped behind me.  I took off from an airport near sea level and was climbing to 11,500 feet to take advantage of strong easterly winds.  Half way there, I heard two very loud "explosions" and immediately started looking for a place to land, as I scanned the engine instruments, checked controls, and looked outside for any obvious missile damage.  Everything checked out fine and the rest of the trip was uneventful.   I mentioned my experience to a seasoned missionary pilot, who seemed mildly amused at my mishap.  He asked one simple question, "Did you take the bungs out of the drums?"  That's when it dawned on me; I felt so stupid!  The pressure difference as I climbed got to be too much for the drums to handle, so they both decided to let off a little steam!

I also like flying IFR (instrument flight rules) because it's a great challenge in a light single engine airplane with no autopilot.  The Pacific Northwest is a great place gain some "actual" instrument time.  It's also a great place to experience hair raising encounters with icing.  That's not the stuff you put on a cake; it turns your airplane into an ice cube, and last time I checked, they don't fly very well.  FAA regulations are very clear that if you're flying an airplane that's not certified to fly into known icing conditions, you just don't do it. Fair enough, except it turns out to be a very difficult thing to predict.  I was flying along one fine spring morning on my way to northern Washington in solid IMC (instrument meteorological conditions).  No contact with the ground, no horizon, no visual reference whatsoever.  Just me and the clouds.  Icing conditions were not forecast, and the temperature at my cruising altitude was almost 40 degrees.  All of a sudden, I heard rain hitting the windshield, but this wasn't normal rain that rolled off the windshield.  It hit, started to roll, and then turned to ice.  It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening, but when I did, I immediately made a 180 degree turn and asked the controller for a heading to the nearest area of good weather.  I popped out of the clouds over the Sound, but the entire airplane was covered in a half inch of clear ice.  I needed full power to keep from losing altitude.  I reported that I was now in VFR conditions and requested a lower altitude where the air was warmer.  As I descended, chunks of ice began breaking off and eventually it all melted.  I was able to continue on my way, making sure to stay out of the clouds for the rest of the trip.

I also learned the hard way that it's not a good idea to fly with a head cold.  The resulting ear infections are extremely painful.

Most of all, I've learned when and how to say "no."  All over the world are burnt, twisted pieces of aluminum that serve as reminders of those who didn't.

Friday, June 10, 2011

TGIF

The morning comes too soon; I still don't feel good, and I have another full day of flying.  My first stop is in Banda for Samaritan's Purse.  It takes 2 hours to get there in the "slow" plane, but I've got 30 minutes of margin in my day.  As long as I keep things moving, I should arrive back in Bunia before the airport closes.  After dropping off one Sam's Purse passenger and a few boxes, I'm off for Faradje with another Sam's Purse passenger.

This is the same route I did a few weeks ago when I saw elephants and water buffalo.  I descend as we enter the park and keep a look out, but nothing yet.  Then my passenger points to a herd of buffalo and I spot some antelope grazing on the grass.  We spot several elephants along the way too.  One of these days I'll remember to have my camera with me so I can take some photos for you!

Faradje goes quickly as well, and after 10 minutes I'm off for Todro.  I've been here two times before, and they were both interesting experiences.  The airstrip slopes up 1 degree to the south and has some side slope to the right in the landing area.  It then flattens out towards the middle and slopes to the left at the other end.  It's not too terribly short for landing, but there's almost always a tailwind on takeoff.

As I circle overhead, I notice they've cut the grass down that I barely missed last time on the extended centerline.  The rest of my cargo will stay here, and after I get everything out of the plane, a man approaches me and asks if I can stay for some lunch and visit with them for a while.  I decline.  Unfortunately, I just don't have the time.  He hands me a bag and asks if I can take it.  At first I don't want to, but he insists and says it's for me.  Inside is roasted chicken, a huge loaf of bread and a container of honey...I guess they had prepared a whole meal ahead of time, hoping I'd stay with them.  I want to, but I just can't.

The man tells me to keep the food for the rest of my journey and asks the Lord's blessing on my work and my family.  I thank him again, and I'm off for Dungu.  Being 1:30pm, I dig into the bread, and it is the best bread I have ever eaten.  They must add honey to the dough, and it is so good!

In Dungu, I refuel and load 4 passengers for Bunia.  Our caravan is there at the same time, loading, unloading, and re-fueling.  On the way home, I stay low, hoping for better winds in my favor, but no such luck.  I sit back, relax, and crack open some more bread. 

In Bunia, I give the chicken to our national staff.  I figure I should be a blessing to others, like the folks in Todro were to me.  In any case, I'm sure glad it's Friday, I need a break!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

It's Been Nice, Buta...But Part II

I'm glad to get back to the airport, something familiar at least.  It's hard to get my preflight done; all the army guys want to chat.  "What's this for?"  "What's that do?"  All good questions, but I just don't feel good, and I kinda miss my wife :)

I take off to the east, direct to Bunia as fast as this thing will take me.  15 minutes after I leave, I get a call on the radio asking me to divert to Dungu.  Seems there's a sick boy in Bangadi that needs a ride to the hospital in Dungu.  I need to stop in Dungu first to pick up a couple nurses to accompany him back to the hospital.

In Dungu, I learn that several young women had been raped and beaten by members of the LRA the night before just outside Bangadi.  The nurse team needs to spend 30 minutes or so on the ground to treat these women.  I tell them it's fine, even though I really feel terrible, and just want to get home.  I figure these women feel a whole lot worse than I do at the moment.

It's incredibly hot in Bangadi--I guess it would be at 1pm.  My medivac patient is a boy about 10 years old, with obvious head and face trauma.  Honestly, I don't have the stomach to ask what happened.  By the time I get the stretcher set up and secured, and everything loaded back up, the nurses return from treating the rape victims and we're off for Dungu again.

A flower

Sunset in the jungle
I have no passengers back to Bunia, so this turnaround goes quickly.  I climb to 11,500 feet to escape the heat and humidity, and save a little fuel.  I dodge growing thunderstorms, and am sure glad to see a familiar place.

Overnights, Escargots, and Medivacs...Part I

I've got a long day ahead of me, and it's nice to get an early start for once.  I have 7:30 minutes fuel on board as well as another 55 gallon drum to get me home.  I'm off for Kisangani, two and a half hours west into the jungle.  I like going here; it's a beautiful area nestled next to the mighty Congo River.  I don't like going here because it takes forever to get anything done.  It's an old military base and army guys are everywhere.  They are all too eager to help with anything they can, even if you don't want them to.  And, of course, they expect to get well-compensated for their efforts.  Today is no different.  I drop off the drum of avgas; I'll be returning for that later.  I'm supposed to pick up 4 passengers and a bunch of cargo for a town called Buta, but it turns out there's 6 passengers.  That kind of throws a wrench in the whole deal.

I make a few quick calculations and decide I'll have to pump all 55 gallons into the wings on my second trip so I can take the empty drum with me (can't carry avgas in the cabin with passengers).  After an hour of paying taxes, I quickly load most of their belongings and 4 of the 6 passengers, then it's off to Buta, a little over an hour north of Kisangani.  I've never been to Buta before, and along the way I'm kind of dreading another long stop arguing over taxes and fees.  Plus I'm not feeling too well now.

I'm very pleasantly surprised though.  After landing, I walk in to pay for the taxes, and all the paperwork is already filled out and waiting for me...and it's even correct!  She hands me the bill, I hand her the money, she asks for a free ride to Kisangani, I say no, and I'm off, just like that.  That's how it should be!

Back in Kisangani it's more of the same, it's takes almost an hour to complete all the paperwork and get my taxes paid, then it's off to load cargo and pump the fuel.  I don't need any extra fuel right now, but I can't leave the drum here, so I have no choice.  With the last two passengers, I have to be a little creative in how I load the rest of their cargo.  In the end, it all fits, barely, and I have to lean into the back door a little to get it closed.

By now it's late afternoon and I really don't feel good.  Thunderstorms tower over my little tin can of an airplane as I make my way back to Buta for a second time.  Also for the second time in my pilot career, I discreetly reach for the little blue bag, just in case.  I'll be spending the night here in Buta, although I don't know where.  After unloading and securing the airplane, I make a quick call and figure out that I'm staying at the Catholic mission, and I was supposed to hitch a ride into town with my passengers, but they're long gone.

Uh oh

I find a nice guy who gives me a ride on his motorcycle.  We're not supposed to take "taxis" here in Congo, but I figure it's not really a taxi, since I don't pay him anything, and it's a 125cc bike, so it doesn't go fast enough to really hurt if you fall off.  And I figure it's safer to take the bike than sleep in the airplane.  As we cruise down the road, I notice huge patches of bamboo, and everyone we pass yells and laughs at me.  15 minutes brings us to the Catholic mission...and it sure is Catholic in every sense of the word.  Cathedral ceilings and towering archways, pictures of a rosy-cheeked Jesus, rosary beads, the works.  And it's not just one building, but dozens...and they're massive.  The folks are nice and inviting, and after a few phone calls, we find out where I'm staying.

It's pitch black inside my room, but I can make out an office type room, and a bed on the other side of the wall.  I'm promptly greeted by a young man and a young woman, who bring me soap, a towel, and a bucket of water for taking a shower.  Boy am I ever grateful.  I have an hour until dinner, so I quickly hop into the dry bucket, then hop right back out again.  In the dark, I jumped right into a bunch of spider webs, and that's just creepy.  I grab my flashlight, brush all the webs away, and do a quick sweep for any spiders.  Nothing on the right wall, nothing on the back wall...AGHHH!!!

One of those big, palm-sized spiders jumped at me!  Lucky for me, he crawls right behind a loose brick, so I smash it into the wall...and smash it a few extra times just because he scared me.  A quick peek reveals only parts, good enough for me.  I hop back into my bucket with a smile on my face.  The water feels so refreshing.  I never knew the air could hold so much water.  I'm glad to get out of my soaking clothes, but I realize as soon as I pick up a fresh shirt out of my bag, it's already soaked.  Oh well, such is life.

Dinner is quite interesting.  All the priests stand up and say their prayers to Mary while I say my prayer to Jesus.  After that, it's antelope meat, rice, sombe, carrots, bananas, peanuts, and escargots.  They beg me to try the escargot, so I figure I should probably oblige.  Let's just say we'll leave those things for the birds.  The antelope, on the other hand, was quite good, along with everything else.  We talked about catholic theology...well, they did, I mostly listened.  My French isn't that good anymore.

Unfortunately, my stomach viciously said "no" to something I ate, and suffice it to say I was up half the night "making things right."  It's not like I could sleep anyway, the humidity made laying on anything unbearable, and the bugs were horrible.  I spend the rest of the night thanking the Lord I live in Bunia, not Buta.  Props to the Catholics, but next time I'll pass.

A boy with bamboo, reaching for some fruit

The building where mass is held

Just outside my door
The morning brings no relief from the heat and humidity, but at least my stomach is ok for now.  Breakfast is sliced bread with butter and coffee.  Then it's off to the airport for the flight home...or so I think.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Flexibility

Probably a good thing to have when you're a missionary.  My "flight" got canceled this morning, but since we have 2 206's now, the other pilot asked me to take his schedule for the day.  Since I was already dressed and ready to go, I accepted.  I took off for Dungu, 1:20 minutes northwest of Bunia.  The tower controller told me about an "aviation warning" concerning low clouds, poor visibility, and rain in the area.  I took off anyway; we routinely fly in weather like this, and as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather take off and see what things look like from the air instead of staring at a computer screen full of already old weather information.

Don't worry though, there are plenty of times when I turn around, or don't even take off because the weather is too bad.  One nice thing about flying in the pacific northwest is that you get lots of good weather experience.  And, having been here for 9 months now, I'm learning a few things (imagine that) about the weather.  Unfortunately, I don't ever get to take some decent photos of this stuff because I'm too busy flying the airplane.

When I took off, Bunia actually looked nice, but as I turned north, the weather quickly closed in.  One of the most valuable things I've ever learned in my training is to always have an escape route, always have a place I can turn to in case I run into trouble.  Never get trapped with no way out.  With the weather today, I'm updating my "out" every 15 or 20 seconds, as I fly around each cloud.  At least there's no rain.

Eventually I'm able to climb above the clouds and there's actually a very strong tailwind from the southwest.  That's kind of odd; normally the wind comes from the east or southeast, but today, it's blowing all that moist air from the jungle to where I want to go.  After a quick stop in Dungu, it's back to Bunia.  I decide to stay underneath the clouds as best I can; there are clouds from the surface all the way up to 15,000 feet, a little too high for a 206 to climb up and over.

I'm sandwiched between the ground and a very low layer of clouds 500-1000 feet above the ground.  Terrain that looks flat from up high proves to be very hilly, and the tops are covered in clouds.  And now there are torrential downpours thrown into the mix.  Eventually I make it back in to Bunia, just after a storm passed through.  Now to fuel and reload for the next 3 stops.

I have a Wycliffe missionary, an AIM missionary, and 3 nationals on board.  First stop is a place called Auzi, where Wycliffe is working very hard at what they do best.  If I thought the weather was bad before, it's really bad now.  I fly through rain most of the way to Auzi, and the whole way I'm thanking the Lord for GPS.  Every crackle on the HF radio alerts me to a lightning strike somewhere close; it takes every ounce of my concentration to dodge clouds as I fly through the rain.  I can only see a mile or two at best.  I put my sun visor down just in case lightning strikes close in front of us, and (believe it or not) I can actually see better with it down.  It provides a nice contrast between the clouds, the hills, and the rain.  We inch our way closer and closer to Auzi and finally, after what seems like forever, we make it within a mile of the airstrip, but I can't see anything.

Then all of a sudden I break out of a rain shower, look down, and wouldn't you know there it is!  With rain hitting the windshield, I make my approach and land, dodging clouds all the way down.  Crackles of thunder, light rain, and clouds are all around us.  I drop off my Wycliffe passenger and quickly take off for my next destination of Adi, to drop off the AIM missionary.  I've only been here once before, so I'm much more cautious.  It's only 10 minutes from Auzi, but it feels like an eternity, as I pray for safety and better visibility (is it ok to pray for that?)

The weather is actually a lot nicer in this direction, and I'm hoping we can get in to our next stop without any problems.  I land in Adi and get the airplane all muddy, but no worry, as soon as I takeoff, the rain will take care of that.  10 minutes later, I'm soaking wet and taking off for Aru, another 15 minutes south, but as soon as we're airborne, I realize it's not going to be an easy task.  I even go so far as to make a plan C; plan A went out the window a long time ago, and I'm implementing plan B right now!

What if I can't get in to Aru?  I don't have enough fuel to get back to Bunia.  I end up flying 20 miles into Uganda to get around the heavier showers until I can get back into Congo.  The GPS says I'm over Aru, but it's covered in clouds...and they're really low!  I descend and take a peek and there's just enough room for an airplane in between the clouds and the trees...not ideal in this business.  I zoom the GPS in as far as it goes, punch the OBS button, and tune in the runway heading.  The GPS paints a nice white line for me, and if I stay centered on this line, I'm aligned with the runway, even though I can't see it.  Did I mention these GPS machines are fabulous?

  Now I can make a "blind approach" into Aru.  I set the airplane up as usual and head straight for the airport, aligned with the runway, but I still can't see it.  On final approach, 1 mile from the airport, I catch a glimpse of the numbers 04 at the end of the runway, then they're gone, back in the clouds.  Just above the clouds, I catch another glimpse, but as soon as it appeared, it's gone, and I go around.  With more rain moving in from the East, I've only got one more chance to get it right.  I make the same approach, and pray the whole way down.  There it is, there it goes, there it is again, now it's gone.  Just as I'm about to go around again, a "big" hole appears and I just barely squeeze through.

Now comes the rain.  I'm taking as much fuel as I can with me back to Bunia.  All the fuel tanks in the wings are full, and I have 7 full jerry cans in the cargo pod.  If I wasn't soaked before, I certainly am now.  My passengers are a young woman and a 5 month old baby boy named Chris.  Nice name, if I do say so myself.  The route back to Bunia proves to be more of the same, but it gradually gets better the closer I get.  After landing, I breathe a sigh of relief and thank the Lord for the safety and the passengers I was able to carry today.  Tomorrow, I will do it all again!

The Day's Stats:

19 passengers
550 nautical miles flown
6 landings
5.3 hours flight time
440 pounds of cargo

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Time On The Ground

That's not something I normally have the luxury of doing.  But today it was planned.  I'm flying for Samaritan's Purse folks; seems lightning struck their internet system way out in the bush and I am taking a team to repair it.  Banda is way out there for the 206.  It's in the northeast corner of Congo, up near Sudan.  But before we head there, I stop in Faradje to bring the folks there some things.  It's very cloudy today with a thick cloud layer only 1000 feet above the ground.  Near Faradje, I find a hole and descend underneath the clouds for the rest of the trip.  From Faradje, it's off to Banda, and straight through Garamba National Park to get there.  Because of the clouds, I stay low, 500-1000 feet above the ground, and mention to my passenger up front that if he's lucky, he might see a few animals.

He quickly spots a herd of water buffalo on his side, then I spot some on my side.  Seems they are everywhere.  I circle around one of the larger herds so we can take a closer look.  After a few photos, we continue on track to Banda and a few holes begin forming as the sun starts to burn off the low layer of clouds.  I add full power and pitch the nose up when movement on the ground catches my eye.  I look down and spot what, at first glance, I pass off as more water buffalo, but then I take a second glance and realize these are much...much larger than water buffalo.  Hey, they're elephants, 20 or 30 of them!  They're huge and as we circle around again, I notice the grass surrounding them covers their lower halves.  That's some tall grass!

I've been to Banda once before, in the dry season, and the airstrip was not very nice to the airplane.  And when I say "airstrip," I mean the main road that passes through town.  The dirt was extremely hard and rough, and the edges were just wide enough for the wheels of the airplane.  The parking area was so overgrown that I didn't want to taxi through it, so I shut down and pushed the airplane back by hand.

As I circle overhead today, it looks very nice.  The edges look trimmed, the dirt portion is wider, and the parking area looks cut.  Landing confirms my observations and I let my passengers loose.  They will be gone for almost 3 hours, so I have lots of time on my hands.  Two guys in particular stick around the entire time I'm waiting.  I chat with them about their town, their families, the LRA, and what life is like for them.  One of them tells me he rides his bike 350 kilometers to the next biggest town for supplies and food they can't get in town.  If the road is dry, it takes him 3 or 4 days.  If it's wet, it can take more than a week.  Each family member takes turns walking 4 kilometers just to have 5 gallons of water.  And because the LRA is hiding in the forest, they are unable to hunt for meat; they live off rice and any vegetables they are able to grow.  If nothing grows, they don't eat.

It's a little sobering as I eat my PB&J and corn nuts from the US.  I try my hardest to imagine what a day-to-day life would be like for these people, but it's just so hard.  They are eager to hear about life in America.  How we always have water coming out of the faucet, and we can even drink it without worrying about getting typhoid or having to boil it.  How we always have food in the fridge and it never runs out, but if it does, there's restaurants and fast food to back us up.  How we always have a fresh pair of clothes to wear every day.  And the fact that there are no people hiding in the bushes, ready to take everything we have and then hack us to death with a machete.  How the electricity is always on, and if it goes off for more than 10 minutes in a 5 year time span, we complain and want our money back because it's not fair.  How everything is instant.

Fact is, I like it here.  It's different living without consistent electricity, drinkable water, and everything takes forever.  I like not having a TV or a cell phone.  I spend time with people, talk with people, get to know them, laugh with them.  I like thinking up solutions to problems.  I like the freedom.  And I've learned that if you stop trying to make your house  it's own little slice of America, you can be quite happy.  So what if the electricity is erratic and sometimes melts expensive equipment, or the water needs to go through a filter before I can drink it.  So what if everything takes forever and I sometimes have to wear the same pair of socks 2 days in a row.  So what if I kill rats with a spear.

The little things have now become blessings.  Like a nice hot shower, a well-cooked fish and an ice cold Coke.  An equatorial downpour when you couldn't take any more of the dust and heat.  5 minutes of air conditioning in the car.  An 80 year old missionary lady who tells you amazing and true stories that make you laugh so hard you start crying.  A nice local who wants to help you load 900 pounds of cargo without receiving any "compensation."  The cool, fresh air at 10000 feet after spending hours in the jungle.

Friends in Banda

Is it a road or an airstrip?
What are your little blessings?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Next Stage

video
It's not easy keeping up with an almost 2 year old.  It requires patience, innovation, quick thinking, and above all, a great sense of humor.  We've been waiting for this day!

Watch Out!

Believe it or not, it's sometimes very difficult to see other airplanes when you're flying around.  I saw this guy as I was cruising along at 10,500 feet.  After a few evasive maneuvers, I quickly grabbed my camera and snapped a few photos so I would have some proof that this was a really close call!  You have to watch out for those MAF pilots!

Ok Ok...so this whole thing was planned.  It just so happened that our Caravan and 206 were going to the same place at the same time.  I took several photos as Joey zoomed by.  I was actually descending, so I was going as fast as I could, but I still only had seconds to make the most of this opportunity.  This photo was actually taken about 8:30am in the morning; I added the "sun" and the warm colors :)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Missionary Longevity

GOLDEN RULE of missionary survival as quoted from a veteran on the field when I found this in my meal:

"Brand new missionary on the field for less than 6 months:  so grossed out you immediately stop eating."

"Missionary with 6 months--1 year field experience:  remove bug and continue eating."

"Missionary with more than 1 year field experience:  bug is a protein bonus and...naturally...comes with the meal."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Welcome Home

Today starts early for me.  I'm up at 5:30am, getting ready for the 30 minute drive to Kajjansi Airfield.  Kajjansi is half way in between Kampala and Entebbe.  I've been here all week, working on our 206's.  The air is crisp, the morning is cool, and a mist hangs low over the ground (and over my head until the coffee kicks in).  First I'll be flying to Entebbe to drop someone off and fill the wings with ever so precious avgas.  I've got 2 55 gallon drums strapped behind me already, but we need it desperately in Bunia.  After a quick prayer, we're off.

[ It comes from refineries in the US, on a boat to Africa.  From there, it get's trucked to Uganda, where we pick it up and bring it in to Congo on our airplanes.  By the time it reaches our depot, it costs $10 a gallon, on a good day. ]

The dividing line between Entebbe (Uganda) and Bunia (DRC) is a big lake called Lake Albert.  I've flown this route many times now, but this time is a little different.  As I begin to see familiar sights on the ground, I start thinking about our life in Congo, flying, living, spending time with people...and I get, of all things, excited.  I breathe a sigh of relief as I cross over into Congolese airspace, much like you do after a long trip, and you finally step into the front door and collapse on your bed or your favorite couch.  You just let go, relax, let your guard down.

That's what I'm feeling.  I can finally "let my guard down."  I have a full day of flying ahead of me, and on final approach into Bunia, I peek out the window and spot our house...I'm home.  The familiar landscape, the familiar voices on the radio, the people on the ground...everyone's happy to see me, and I find myself happy to see them.  I only have minutes though, as I need to be heading to my next destination.

Somewhere in between graduating from college and finally getting here, I think we lost our sense of "home."

Before I know it, I'm taking off for Isiro, 1:30 minutes into the jungle.  I'm picking up 3 Dutch folks from Canada that I brought in a few weeks ago.  They actually flew all the way out to Congo to visit family--what an experience! (right mom?!?)  Come to find out, you can't get away from Dutch folks anywhere, even in the middle of an African rain forest.  A quick discussion leads to the fact that my wife is Dutch (and I am not), and grew up in southern California.  They happen to know people down in the same area that Joy's family knows, and in the Dutch world, that makes you family.  All I can do is shake my head in disbelief.

I take them back to Bunia so they can catch the MAF-Uganda flight back to Entebbe, and then on to Europe and finally home to Ontario, Canada.  But my day's certainly not over.  I have a local Bible translation expert that needs to go 1 hour North to a place called Auzi.  I always like going here, the people are friendly, the airstrip is nice, and I usually can get in and out in 10 minutes or less.  After that, it's a quick hop over to Aru to drop off 4 more passengers and pick up 2 55 gallon drums of avgas and fill the wings again.

By now, there are rain showers everywhere, and it's a bit of a challenge to make it where I want to go, but hey, nobody ever said it was easy.  As I land, I notice a storm approaching, so I'm rushing and rushing to get things done.  In typical African gesture, everybody is standing around.  I take charge and start giving people tasks to do, but there aren't enough people to help me lift the drums into the airplane.  So it's just me vs. the 360 lbs drum.  I make short work of the first one, but I struggle with the second one.  I guess this sort of thing is what makes you old.

After those are strapped down, and they are almost finished with fueling the wings, big fat rain drops start coming down, one by one.  The storm is only 10 miles away, with big booms of thunder crackling overhead.  I don't mind them fueling in light rain, but lightning and avgas just don't sit well with me, even though I know the likelihood of anything remotely close to that happening are next to nil.

On the way back to Bunia, it's more of the same.  Watching out for lightning and flying my way through a maze of rain showers.  Back in Bunia, I leave the heavy unloading to the national workers.  My arms are like jello.  I smile on the way home--all the familiar sounds and sights and people.  It's good to be home.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kipaka Again!

Yep, that's right, and today I want to invite you to come along and "see what I see, do what I do, and experience what I experience!"

It's a long day today, so let's get out to the airport a little early.  I'll do the preflight and get things ready while you chat with the people.  As I go through my checks, I enlist the help of all 3 national staff workers.  One is working on fueling (we'll need all 4 tanks topped off, and 4 full jerry cans in the cargo pod), one is loading 175 pounds of Bibles and the passenger's suitcases, and the other is filing flight plans, washing the windshield and picking up our passenger from the terminal.

By 8am, it's time to go.  On paper, the weather looks perfect, but we soon realize that the entire valley all the way down to Bukavu some 240 miles south is all clogged up with clouds very near the surface all the way up to 12,000 feet.  My original cruising altitude of 8,500 feet just isn't working and we have to turn around several times.  All I can do now is circle up up up, until I reach 12,500 feet and just barely scrape the wheels over the clouds.  As we climb, I have you count the different cloud layers, 1...2...3...4.  At least at 12,500 feet we have a bit of a tailwind, but we are already 25 minutes late, and this is a long day.

Nearing Goma, we have to go around several towering cumulonimbus clouds that will soon turn into thunderstorms.  I have to descend a little early to get in under the clouds so we can make our approach into Bukavu.  They're reporting light rain, a low ceiling of clouds and poor visibility--not what I heard on the phone earlier.  I sigh; looks like I have my work cut out for me on this one.  Finding the airport is no problem and landing is a piece of cake; I land half way up the runway because it's so long.

Looking southwest, I am mildly disappointed with what I see.  Looks like a lot of clouds, rain and more poor visibility.  I put on my rain jacket before getting out and quickly unload the Bibles and the jerry cans, and begin loading 900 pounds of cargo for a missionary family in Kipaka.  I think of them as it begins to pour and we load box after box, tires, vegetables, canned goods, and toilet paper.  My shoes are soaked.

The whole process takes 45 minutes...and that's 45 minutes I don't really have.  I need to get back to Bunia before the airport closes.  I'm praying for a good tailwind as we takeoff.  It doesn't take long before we reach the bases of the clouds and I am forced to snake my way through the south pass, looking all the time for an opening into nicer weather.  20 miles south of Bukavu, I find what I'm looking for and climb up to 8,500 feet, still having to dodge growing thunder clouds...it's gonna be fun on the way back!

This leg seems to drag on forever, maybe it's because I'm the only plane flying today and the radios are silent.  I eat an early lunch and snap some photos along the way, the visibility here is wonderful.  I spot Kipaka about 20 miles out and we come in for a landing.  I'm really starting to get to know this airplane now and put it down about 50 feet from where I wanted to.

Here, I unload the freight as quickly as I can, heaving boxes to the first guy in the assembly line every second or so.  Here in the jungle, at noon, I can feel the sun scorching my skin and the sweat pours off my body.  After the plane is emptied, I quickly add a seat and re-arrange the cargo net and straps for the freight going back to Bukavu.  700 pounds of plastic bins and suitcases.  Once everything is tied down, I load the passengers, and we're off.

Even though it's hot and humid, I decide to level off at 5,500 feet, hoping for better winds.  My hopes are granted, but now, in the early afternoon, the bigger problem is thunderstorms...they're everywhere.  Torrential downpours, stomach jolting turbulence, and bright flashes of lightning seem to be surrounding me on all sides.  The lightning is so bright that I pull my shaded visor down, even though it's plenty dark.  I keep turning around in my seat and checking my "out" behind me, making sure I can still go back the way I came if things get ugly.  So far so good.

The closer I get to Bukavu, the worse it gets, and now I have mountains thrown into the mix.  I'm glad I have some experience in this area, it makes things a whole lot easier and a lot less nerve wracking.  I decide to take the south pass again and get into Bukavu 10 minutes before the heavens let loose.  I've got no time to lose though, 15 minutes is all I can spare.  Luckily, it's just one passenger and 50 pounds of his suitcases.  I shove his stuff into the cargo pod, add the 4 jerry cans of fuel, and put his seat belt on.  He's a pastor, and even though we are in a rush, I ask him to take a minute and pray for our flight and our respective ministries.

Now it's off for home.  The rain has moved on, and I'm pedaling as fast as my little legs can go.  It's not long before we hit the rain again, and I'm peering into the mist, watching out for things that look like trees and volcanoes.  I snake my way through the valley, 500 feet above old lava beds...I can't help but wonder how much that would hurt.  Around the bend is Lake Edward--Congo on the left, Uganda on the right.  For the moment, the weather has improved, but up ahead, things are not looking good.

Part of my training involved several classes on decision making and when to say enough is enough.  I remember them telling me there are 3 main things we as MAF pilots deal with on a regular basis:  time, weather, and terrain.  Time...there never seems to be enough of it, weather is always a factor, and the nature of our flying puts us down in the terrain more often than not.  They said pushing the boundaries of one isn't really a big deal.  But, you need to be extra cautious when pushing two, and never push all three at once.

Well, time--yeah, I don't have any, and I don't need to explain anything more to you about the weather.  Luckily, we aren't dealing with terrain.  Nevertheless, I'm extra cautious as I approach the valley.  It seems like one thunderstorm after another, and I'm really having to work my way up this valley.  I turn around and ask my passenger to tighten his seat belt, and he's got a camera out, snapping photos...what is it with these people?!?  I have a storm scope installed in this airplane; basically it shows little orange dots on a screen when it senses convective activity, and let me tell you, it's lit up like the 4th of July...every little pixel is bright orange.

Finally, I get a little break about 50 miles out of Bunia.  And then I see the two biggest, baddest looking thunderstorms I think I've ever seen in my existence...with a tiny little hole right smack in the middle of them.  The clouds are so high, I can't even see above them, and it's raining so hard on the ground that it looks like the cloud just continues straight to the ground.  I weigh my options.  Can't go left, can't go right, can't go up.  I can go through this hole, or go back the way I came.  It takes me 15 minutes to get to the point of making a decision, and all the while I'm observing these storms.

Is the hole getting bigger, smaller?  Is the lightning confined to the storms?  How's the visibility in this little pocket I want to go through?  Which way are the storms moving?  Where's my out?

After pondering these things, I decide to "thread the needle."  One storm is moving off to the west, while the other is heading straight for Bunia.  The hole is getting bigger, visibility is good and there are no signs of a bumpy ride.  Lightning seems to be only in the clouds, and I can still go back the way I came.  As I sandwich in between these two storms, I start to get really nervous.  I can see Bunia clear as day, but this thing is ugly, I mean bad!  I laugh when Bunia tower tells me to "watch out for a big thunderstorm around your area."

Boga airstrip and mission station, one of those "land here" and add power to the top kind of places

I was wondering how they got across Lake Kivu

10 miles out of Kipaka, see the cell tower?

My little window of opportunity
This thing is so bad I start to make a plan B, because I really don't think it's going to be possible to make the landing in Bunia.  Trust me, if I had an oar, I would have shoved it out the window and paddled for all I was worth.  I decide to make an approach with the option of landing, but I fully intend to divert to Nyankunde.  To my surprise, the approach is completely smooth, and I land without a hitch 10 minutes before the rain starts.  Now there's a day for you!