That's what today was like. We've all been so busy here that last night, we realized there was a new family arriving from the States this afternoon, which meant we needed to re-wire their house, set up appliances, clean...the whole nine yards. So the program manager and I went over this morning to try and tackle the electricity while others cleaned. We were just getting into it after an hour when we got a call from MSF (Doctors Without Borders) for a medivac flight up North. They needed a patient, nurse, and friend transported to their hospital base 25 miles South. I think Ngilima is the only airstrip we fly to that is limited to the 206 (the small airplane), and even then we can't take a full load. That meant it fell to me to do the flight (which I was more than happy to take). Ngilima is 1 1/2 hours North of Bunia so I had a long time to think and wonder about what was waiting for me when I landed. Was it some kind of accident? A fight? Did someone fall out of a tree?
Well, it was clear upon landing what had happened. I was in high gear the whole time; Ngilima isn't a terribly technical airstrip, but there are very tall trees at the end, making for an approach that's not quite in line with the runway. There also seems to be a lot of animals running around as well. So I'm attentive and alert as I circle around for landing. I come in from the right at an angle to dodge a REALLY big tree right on centerline, giving up several hundred meters of airstrip in the process. But I land where I want to and squeeze the brakes as the airplane takes a beating from the hard, packed, and uneven dirt. I taxi to the end, swing around and shut down.
As I hop out, I hear horrible screams of pain as folks from the village carry a man out to the plane on a stretcher. I can't help but notice someone has forgotten about the IV bag, and it's just dragging on the ground behind the stretcher. I run out to the road and quickly grab the bag, hold it up above the man, and walk the rest of the way to the airplane alongside the strecher. We set him on the ground as I take some seats out to fit the man inside. Now it seems the entire village is 2 inches from my airplane. It's hard to do anything, but I keep working. Once everything is set, I hop in from the pilot's side to receive the patient as they load him in. I can hardly look. He has deep deep lacerations to his head, shoulders, arms and legs. Flesh is open and hanging. They are somewhat bandaged, but it leaves nothing to the imagination. There is also a deep gash from one side of his throat, to the other. This must be from recent LRA attacks in the area. Although he looks terrible, he seems to be doing better now that the IV bag is in the air.
Then he suddenly bursts out laughing and singing and waving his hands around. It takes me a minute to figure out what's going on, but it dawns on me that they had cranked up the IV drip to it's maximum because they thought it wasn't working (as it was hanging on the ground). But, when I hung it, he actually started to receive the medication...a lot of it. So I quickly grab the line and turn it down to adjust the flow and strap the stretcher down with cargo ties. I am also looking for something to hang the IV bag on, as it doesn't really work any other way. I quickly grab a carrabiner from the back and think of the fish scale we use to weigh baggage. I grab it, secure it to the ceiling and slip the IV bag over the hook...perfect! I instruct the nurse to watch the patient carefully and hang on to the IV bag as the takeoff is usually very rough from here.
Everything looks good so I hop in, start up, and go through the checks. I apply full power, hold the brakes and check the engine instruments at a standstill, before we start rolling, so once we do I can divert my full attention to the task at hand. Brakes are released and we are pushed back in the seats. Speed check is good, acceleration is normal and we shoot by the takeoff abort point, but still not airborne. I elect to continue the takeoff and soon after we are off. Ngilima is always a tough airstrip meantally come takeoff time because of the colossal trees at the end. Once the airplane is airborne, every fiber of your being screams at you to pull back on the stick immediately so you can clear the trees. But that would be suicide. I need to let the airplane accelerate, so I push the nose over for several seconds and wait for the proper speed. Then, and only then, I pitch up and hold that speed, clearing the trees by 50 feet.
Once the takeoff is over and all the obstacles are cleared, I turn around and check on the patient...he seems content right where I left him. The nurse on the other hand looks terrified. I reassure him with a smile and a nod and yell to him that it will only be 10 minutes until we are on the ground again. And before I know it, we are on the ground at the hospital station, unloading the patient...and two terrified individuals. I say a quick prayer for him, bid the staff farewell and I'm off for home. The flight back is empty as well, so I take this rare opportunity and climb up to 11,500 feet to get above all the smoke, haze, and bumpy air, and save a jerry can of gas. It's calm, quiet, and cool up here; what a contrast to down there where it's hot and crazy. I wonder what tomorrow will be like?