Friday, February 25, 2011

Teaching & Learning

We are teaching Kaitlyn how to color with crayons.  She's teaching us how to eat them.  Notice the hand she's using :)

Picture Perfect

That's the way the day started, and that's the way the day ended.  Flew in the morning, worked on the house in the afternoon, the good Lord decided to bless us with city power today, we got a package from a dear friend back home, and we are all three healthy!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Photo of the Day

That's right, you can find Starbucks Coffee here in Bunia.  It comes on the MAF-Uganda flight from Kampala, in a strangely familiar box, which came from Istanbul, Addis Ababa, or Amsterdam.  Before that it came across the pond from somewhere like Washington D.C., New York, Atlanta.  And before that...from the caring hands of folks we know and love all over the U.S.

Sometimes they are damaged from water or being dropped.  Other times, they look brand new, but they all have stamps, tape, and stickers from various customs stations all over the world.

There are other things besides coffee too, of course.  Our favorite candy, chocolate, spices and cooking sauces we can't find here, toys and clothes for Kaitlyn, movies, surprises, pictures, books....  You get the idea.

Fact is, it's like Christmas for us every time we receive a box.  And it's not just Kaitlyn who goes crazy with delight and anticipation when we sit down to open them.  It's a reminder of home, of family and friends; it's an encouragement.

Sometimes we have to open them by lantern or candlelight because there is no electricity.  Sometimes we open them during a thunderstorm, and it's raining so hard on the tin roof, the sound muffles our yells of happiness.  Other times, they arrive at just the right time, after a long hard day.

So, to all those who have taken the time (and continue to do so) to go shopping for us, to all those who've spent $55 for a very small box and crammed it unbelievably full of goodies, for all those of you who've thought of us in this way...THANK YOU!!!

Maybe someday we could send a box to each of you, with goodies and other fun things that you can only find in Bunia.  Wouldn't that be fun!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

That Went Well!

For once, things worked in my favor today.  I have to admit, I was a little skeptical about getting everything done on time and getting back to Bunia before 5pm.  I gave it a try anyway.

I make my way to the airport at the usual time, go through all the checks, loading, and paperwork necessary before I can leave.  And again, I manage to get a 5 minute head start and take off at 7:55am.  My destination is Dungu; half the day will be flying for MSF (Doctors Without Borders), the other half will be other missions/NGO's and nationals.  I have 2 passengers and 130 pounds of cargo for the MSF station in Dungu.  I also have 7 jerry cans of fuel in the cargo pod that I will need to get back to Bunia.  In order to maximize my payload from Nglima, I bring extra fuel in jerry cans and ferry people back and forth, adding a jerry can here and there throughout the day.

I land in Dungu, practicing my soft field landing technique in anticipation for the upcoming rainy season.  I'm greeted by the staff as I unload the airplane.  Now it's off to Nglima, the really rough, short airstrip with huge trees at the end.  I am thinking ahead already to my next stop, figuring how much weight I can take from Nglima.  I figure I can take 2 passengers and 100 kilos of freight, and still have enough payload left to pick up three more passengers in Niangara before heading back to Dungu to drop them all off.  I land and tell them I can take two passengers and ask how much baggage they have.  A man tells me only 96 kilos, so already I'm thinking, great!  That's better than expected.  So I load all of their belongings in the cargo pod and takeoff for a 20 minute hop over to Niangara for 3 passengers that work with Mercy Corps.  The scheduler told me they said they didn't have any baggage, just a few small backpacks.  In the back of my mind I'm thinking it's a good thing MSF didn't have as much baggage as I thought they would; people always have more bags than they think.

Sure enough, I land in Niangara.  I find my 3 passengers who are all carrying a backpack, a laptop case, one is carrying a large duffel bag, and the other 2 are carrying small suitcases.  Thankfully, again, most of the passengers are on the lighter side, so I decide to try it and see if it works.  The 206 is a wonderful airplane and, for its size, can carry a lot of weight.  The bigger problem is usually balancing everything just right.  If there is too much weight in the back of the airplane, I could takeoff and not have enough elevator control to keep the nose from rising too high.  Suffice it to say that the outcome wouldn't be pretty.  Flying the 206 for over 4 years now has its advantages.  After I load the airplane, I can take a few steps back and look at how far the tail is off the ground.  When I notice it's really close, I use the "push the tail to the ground" method.  I walk back to the tail and push it gently to the ground.  If it comes back up by itself, everything is good, if not, there is too much weight too far back and I need to rearrange or leave stuff behind.

After literally shoving their baggage in the back of the airplane, I load up all the passengers, take a quick look at the tail...oh yeah...still 4 or 5 inches to go before it gets close.  Time to go!  Off to Dungu with 5 passengers and 220 pounds of cargo.  It's mid morning now, and it's starting to get bumpy and hot, so I enjoy this last quick hop, not sweating and trying to drink lemonade out of my nalgene, instead of wearing it all over my handsome uniform.

After landing back in Dungu, adding two jerry cans of fuel, and hopping in, I'm almost ready to start the engine when I hear yelling.  So I hop out again to see what's going on.  "Chris, Chris, this is so urgent, can you take something to Nglima for us?"  "Sure," I relpy.  "The airplane is empty on this leg, what is it you need me to take?"  "Oh, it's just a bicycle for one of the MSF staff members there."  Not a big deal, but I do have to take two seats out and rearrange a few things to fit it in.  Then it's off to Nglima for a second time today.  I notice that the winds have shifted quite a bit, and actually favor landing towards the trees, but I still elect to land toward the town so I don't have to taxi all the way back to the other end of the airstrip.  After landing and unloading the bike, I am approached by a doctor, asking if it's possible for me to take an extra passenger back to Dungu.  I do a quick calculation and tell him it is possible, and up comes a mother with a young child.  No worries though, I guestimate she and the baby together weigh less than any of my other passengers.  She can't be more than 15 or so, and she doesn't speak English...strike 1.  She doesn't speak French...strike 2.  She doesn't speak what little Swahili I know either...strike 3.  So I climb into the second row next to her, show her how the seatbelt works, how to hold her baby, and how the cargo door works.  That's the best I can do.

We take off and the 10 minute flight goes quickly.  It's hot now, and really bumpy.  I give up drinking out of my water bottle; it's best to just wait until I'm on the ground.  At Dungu, I unload, add the rest of the jerry cans I brought, and notice I'm a little ahead of schedule, so I take a little more time than usual and joke with the guys helping me fuel.  One of them asks me how much a flight would be from Dungu to Bunia.  Then he asks if he found people to fill the plane (as I'm usually empty going back to Bunia), we could split the profit 50/50, since the flight is already paid for by MSF.  I laugh and tell him 70/30, because I do most of the work.  Then he says he will accept if he can get free flights whenever he wants.  So I tell him to become a pilot, that's the best way I know to get free flights.

After the fueling, I'm off to Doko, a mining town about 20 minutes southeast of Dungu.  I am supposed to have 2 passengers here, but I need to be careful on my weight.  Then next stop is into a short airstrip, and I will be heavy.  But come to find out, there's only one passenger with a small suitcase...lucky me!  After paying my $10 landing fee...and making sure my passenger doesn't pay any $10 fees, it's off for my last stop today.  Todro is an interesting place.  The airstrip is shorter than most around here, and it's not flat.  There's a little bit of side slope in the landing area, then towards the middle it flattens out, and then towards the end it slopes the other way.  It also slopes up 1degree, and is usually very windy and turbulent in the afternoon.  This is only the second time I've been in here, but the folks are always nice, and I like the challenge.  Can't get lazy!

I land and fully expect to be here on the ground for 30 minutes or more, loading over 400 pounds of cargo.  But, another surprise awaits me.  There is one passenger here, as planned, but he only has about 100 pounds...score!  Looks like I'll make it back to Bunia an hour ahead of schedule.  Even though it has been a busy day, I feel like I've been able to spend a little time with the passengers and the people on the ground, something I always like to do.  Lately, I've felt like I have been so busy and rushed just trying to get things done, that I have been kind of lacking in the niceness department.  Hopefully tomorrow will hold more of the same!

Today I:

--Carried 17 passengers
--Loaded/Transported/Unloaded 1,180 pounds of cargo
--Traveled 510 nautical miles
--Made 9 landings
--Flew 4.7 hours

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How To Fix The Car

Congo style!

Step 1: stop covering up the loud clanking noise with the radio and admit there is a problem.

Step 2:  check and verify the problem...hmmm, this shock absorber is missing pieces that the other shock absorber seems to have.  I'm quite puzzled at this, since many of the pieces missing are supposed to be bolted onto a shaft with no way off.  Bolt and nut are still there, but nothing in between

Step 3:  Scratch your head and laugh about it with the day guard.

Step 4:  Take inventory of anything you already have that might be useful in repairing said problem.

Step 5:  Go to local market and find David, my middle man.  Explain the problem with lots of hand gestures and pointing until he gets the idea.  Follow David through a maze of people and shops to a table full of spare hardware.  Procure the exact pieces for the exact make, model, and year of my car.  Can't help but wonder if these ARE the pieces that fell off.

Step 6:  Take "new" hardware home and wait until the morning to fix the car.

Step 7:  Take big hammer, wrenches, other useful persuasion tools and guard to the vehicle and begin assessments.  Disassemble broken parts and install "new" hardware by any means possible.

Step 8:  Use a piece of spare tire with a hole drilled in the middle (by electricity) for a rubber grommet.  Re-assemble and test drive.

Step 9:  Sit on porch with feet on the balcony, sipping pink lemonade for a job well done.  Shake your head and laugh because it took one week to replace 2 washers and a rubber grommet, in what would/should have taken 15 minutes.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Sounds like a light day of flying...come to find out, Mulita is 300 nautical miles Southwest of Bunia, in the heart of the rainforest.  That translates to about 5 hours of flying, and a whole lot of sitting.  Nonetheless, I'm excited.  I've never been to Mulita before, and it sounds like fun...a lovely old missionary lady, a beautiful flight, final approach over a river.  Sign me up!

I go through the usual routine in the morning, and for once, I leave about 5 minutes early.  Taking off to the East, I gently bank the airplane and turn to the West.  I decide to climb high for this leg, as the winds are usually blowing from the East.  My suspicions are confirmed as I level off at 10,500 feet and accelerate to a ground speed of 145 knots...not too shabby for a 206.  Since it's an unusually long leg, I also take advantage of the winds and pull the throttle back a little more than I normally do.  Instead of guzzling 50 liters an hour, I get it down to 40 an hour, saving a jerry can along the way.  The only bad thing about a great tailwind is that it is always a headwind on the way back.

Along the way, I look out the window, pull out the navigation charts and follow along, and listen to a little BBC on the HF radio.  I take a picture as I cross the Equator into the Southern hemisphere.  Then I get to, I sure could go for a Barbacoa Burrito from Chipotle right about now!  So I pull out a few heart-shaped Valentines cookies that Joy made for me, and I munch on those.  I think about the Chipotle close to my parent's house and how my mom takes me there on special occasions.  I think about how much I miss my sister and brother-in-law and wrestling...inside...with nephews, even though they don't like me to :)  I think about how much I miss playing video games with my brother until the wee hours of the morning.  I miss laughing with my dad and sister-in-law.  I miss spending time visiting and playing games with Joy's family.

I could take the easy route and just shrug it off.  This is what God has called me to.  I could remind myself of the verses in Matthew that tell me to forsake my family and follow after Christ.  And honestly, that sounds a whole lot easier than navigating through all this emotional stuff.  That's what girls do, not guys, right?  But I just can't seem to get it off my mind.  I'm missing home.

I miss the people, the English, the family.  I miss the familiarity, Walmart...just fitting in.  Here we are always in the spotlight.  I can't go anywhere without being called mzungu 500 times, people laughing and pointing, or folks pinching my child.  I miss driving on roads that don't knock all your teeth out and turn your brain to jello.  I miss ice cream, gas stations that don't run out of gas, electricity I can actually use, and brushing my teeth with tap water.  I miss getting pulled over on the highway because I actually did something wrong, not because someone wants a payoff.

Then for some reason, I start to think about when we leave Congo, what will I miss?  I think I will miss the simplicity, the weather, my friends.  I will miss the incredible beauty, the people I know, the relationships.  I will miss the adventure, improvising solutions...because there is no other way.  I will miss my guards and the national workers, especially the one who's sole purpose is to teach me one measly sentence in Swahili.  I will miss listening to incredible stories from an unbelievably resilient people, the hospitality (if you can call it that) of the people here.  It's not really hospitality when you literally give all you own to your guest...maybe sacrifice is a better word.

All of a sudden, I hear, "Uniform India, Alpha Uniform," and it snaps me back to reality.  I'm almost to my destination, so I'm preoccupied with getting the airplane ready for landing.  I find the airstrip, circle over head and study it for a few minutes before making my approach.  As I turn on final approach, the airstrip looks very narrow and short, but as I get closer, I realize it's just because it's surrounded on all sides by 200' tall trees.  After touching down, I taxi to the end where the entire village is awaiting our arrival.  My passenger is returning home after having surgery in Bunia, and I am returning to Bunia with an eye doctor, who I soon learn did more than 80 consults/surgeries in less than a week.  And I thought I was working a lot!

As I am unloading, a sprite, elderly missionary lady practically runs up to me and shakes my hand with an unexpected enthusiasm.  I am also greeted by the local official, who asks for my passport, visa, and pilot's license.  No problem...or so I think.  I quickly find my license, but the passport and visa copies are nowhere to be found.  Great.  I try not to make a big deal about it, but immediately, he scolds me and tells me it will cost me a $200 fine for not being able to verify my identity.  So we get into why I don't have it, where it could possibly be, why he shouldn't charge me a fine, etc.  The sprite old missionary lady catches wind of my dilemma and tells me to continue with my pilot duties, "I will take care of this guy, I've known him since he was in diapers."  So I take her advice and continue with the loading, verifying fuel, and getting things ready for the return trip as she rips into this guy.  I'm a little surprised at her ability to be such an age as hers.  I can hear bits and pieces of the conversation.  "I know your mother, I know where you live, how could you treat our guest like this!"  "Yes, but I'm just doing my job, it's necessary to have all the paperwork, you know this."  "You're doing your job if it involves stealing from the Lord (as she shakes her finger in his face)."  Then she turns to me, smiles, and says with a wink, "Don't worry Chris, I've got him right where I want him."  Several minutes later, this guy calls me over to a meeting with him and his buddies.  He says, "Look Chris, I know we are friends, but that doesn't mean you can take advantage of me.  You don't have your papers in order and I could fine you but I won't, because you are like my brother.  As a man of rank close to mine, I respect you, and I would expect that the next time you come, you will show me the same respect and bring the right papers."  I promise him that I will, that it was just a mistake, and the next time I come, I will bring him a Coke and a Bible as a gift for my screwing up.

After saying goodbye, we're ready to head back to Bunia.  But, not before I get someone to chase the goats off the airstrip.  We're off with a right turn over the river, heading Northeast into some building clouds.  For the moment, I climb up above the layer of growing cumulus clouds to 7,500 feet.  I'm surprised to find that the strong tailwind I had has died down and I should make it back sooner than expected.  Soon, I am dodging the building thunderstorms, and eventually, I end up descending below them while I still can.  The weather can be very volatile around the Equator, and today is no exception.  Looks like I have my work cut out for me the rest of the way.  I dodge a few rain showers and try to do some paperwork, but it's just too bumpy for anything.

Thankfully, this leg seems to go a little faster than the last one, and I make it back to Bunia in the early afternoon.  Just in time too, my butt has completely fallen asleep!  Nothing ever seems to work out like I think it will here; interesting how God works even through seemingly bad circumstances to make His name known.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Urgent Request

It's 1:30pm on Saturday afternoon and I'm just settling in to some home projects when I get the call from our chief pilot.  "We have a flight request for Epulu, can you do the flight?  You need to leave right away."  He goes on to explain that he was scheduled to do the flight early that morning, but both passengers were not feeling well, so they postponed until the afternoon.  But, now he's not feeling well, and wants me to cover for him.  The flight is an overnight for Solo and Owen, some visiting MAF-IT personnel working in the area installing VSAT systems for local internet clients.  This trip is a little much deserved and much needed R&R.  Epulu is a small town on the Epulu River about 45 minutes West of Bunia.  It is home to the Wildlife Okapi Reserve; it's quiet; it's a great place to relax and soak in some Congo history, culture, wildlife. 

Needless to say, I accept the flight one heartbeat later.  I fly to Epulu often, and the only time I've actually stayed for more than 20 minutes has been due to terrible weather.  So I jump at the opportunity to spend the night, and even bring Joy and Kaitlyn along for the experience.  We pack, organize, and are ready to drive out to the airport in 30 minutes.  After driving through a roadblock to pick up our passengers, we get to the airport and I begin directing the loading, while I complete my preflight checks and file a flight plan.  Today there are no national workers, so I do all the paperwork myself.  I personally hand in my flight plan to the lady in the control tower.  It's always nice to have a face to go with the voice I talk to every day.  Then I make my way to the tax people...yes, here in Congo there are many.  I hand in my flight plan, fill out paperwork, and argue about the prices for MAF personnel.  Almost an hour later, we are finally taxiing for departure.  It's windier than usual; the airplane shifts a little in the changing gusts, and as I turn around into the wind at the end of the runway, my airspeed indicator is already "off the peg."  We receive our takeoff clearance and I add full power.  We liftoff and climb out to the East, right over Bunia.  We want to go West so I gently bank the plane to the right and 30 seconds later our ground speed has jumped from a meager 60 knots to 110 knots.  Looks like we're going to reach our destination in a hurry today.

Owen is up front with me, Joy and Solo are in the second row, and Kaitlyn sits in first class all by herself.  After things settle down a little and the business end of flying is taken care of, I change hats and become tour guide, pointing out rivers, airstrips, interesting things in the jungle, etc.  I like Owen up front, he seems like a curious guy and is always asking what this does, or what that's for.  I like that.  After 30 minutes of cruising at 8,500 feet, I descend for a closer look at the forest below for the last 15 minutes.  We fly over rivers, around hills, and above endless trees that, as Owen puts it, "It makes me want to pour ranch dressing over the whole jungle and eat it like broccoli."

We circle overhead Epulu a few times so the folks there know we're landing, then I make my approach.  I come in from the right side and gently bank the airplane through the right set of trees, aiming for one specific tree until I can see the airstrip.  Then, it's a speed check at 60 knots and altitude of 3,000 feet.  Everything looks good, and we touchdown on the grass.  One thing is for sure, it's humid here, and it's hot.  We unload, secure the airplane, and make our way through the village to the building we will stay in.  It's 4pm and we take advantage of the remaining 2 hours of daylight to do some fishing, swimming, and relaxing.  We use a local mix of manioc and palm oil for fish bait, and Kaitlyn for croc bait.  I get a few good nibbles, but by the time it's dark, no fish and the crocs aren't hungry.  We retire to our home and are served a traditional Congolese meal of white rice, sombe*, cooked vegetables with palm oil, and green beans.

After Kaitlyn is down, we have a nice evening of coffee, tea, and conversation by kerosene lamp.  After talking for several hours, we all head to bed. 

In the morning we are treated with a breakfast of mandazis (the Congo version of a doughnut hole), red bananas, pineapple, bread and eggs.  After that, we organize a trek into the jungle to see the "bat tree" and a pygmie camp.  It's already hot and oppressively humid, but the first step into the jungle and we instantly start dripping sweat.  You would think it would be peaceful and quiet, but the jungle is full of life.  Monkeys howl in the trees above, birds chirp all around us, crickets hum in the bushes.  100 meters into the jungle, our pygmie guide turns around and points something out to me on the ground.  I don't speak Swahili, but what he points to, I immediately recognize as a thick line of Africa army ants right across the trail.  I bend down to take a quick photo, but already some are starting to crawl up my pant leg  and the guide urges me to continue.  I take his advice, recounting the Discovery Channel episodes of grown men dying from army ant attacks.

The jungle is thick, but the trail is well-maintained, more so than I would think.  I soon find evidence why.  These are the same trails that forest elephants use.  As we hike along, the guide points out chimp nests in the trees, and certain flowers and plants commonly used by the local people.  I am also making my own mental notes of my surroundings, what trees look good for building shelters, where to find bamboo, tinder and other fire materials.  And I take the opportunity to sharpen some other survival skills as well, like keeping track of our direction, estimating distances, and observing the topography.  These are all skills I like to keep up, just in case I ever find myself in a situation where I need to use them.  Seeing the jungle from the ground up is invaluable for a pilot who always sees it from the air.

We finally make it to the "bat tree," which is aptly named.  It is a colossal tree, maybe 100 meters tall.  It's center is hollow and it "stands" on its roots, towering over the already very tall canopy.  A gentle hum can be heard, until our guide grabs a long tree branch and shoves it up the hole.  The hum turns into a dull roar and bats start flying out one by one.  Soon the surrounding forest is littered with bats.  We rest for 10 minutes, filling up on water and taking some photos before continuing on towards the pygmie camp.  We joke along the way that Joy is earning her "jungle mom" merit badge.  Most of us have a light backpack and a camera; she has 25 pounds on her back and she's doing exceptionally well.

I'm struck by the beauty of the little things in the forest...the vivid butterflies floating along, tiny flowers, patches of bright pink foliage.  I am reminded that all these things are here for me to enjoy and wonder how much more beautiful is the God who created them.  Then, I feel a sharp stinging sensation around my waist.  I stop and pull my shirt up to find an army ant who's pretty angry about something.  He stings me with his abdomen, which feels a lot like a bee sting, and draws blood with his jaws at the same time.  I pick him off quickly and think about thousands of those things all at the same time...ouch!

We come into the pygmie camp 30 minutes later.  I greet everyone in Swahili and can tell they see "mzungu" quite often here.  They quickly pull out trinkets, bows and arrows, spears, and necklaces they've made for us to buy.  They show us how to use them and even do a traditional dance for us.  Then, one man pulls out the biggest peace pipe I've ever seen.  They hollowed out an entire 6 foot palm frond, interesting considering not one of them is over 3 feet tall.  They begin smoking through this huge pipe and I recognize the smell as marijuana.

After many photos, dances, and purchasing many things from the "gift shop," we continue on our way back to Epulu station.  I am always struck by the vastness, beauty, and wildness of the jungle.  There is always something new to learn, experience, and see.  And the best way to learn, experience, and see things is with the local people.  Before I know it, we are back on the original trail and pop out of the jungle onto the main road.  Just in time for lunch!

We are treated again to white rice, and beef and vegetables in palm oil.  If you think vegetable oil is bad for you, try palm oil!  After lunch we visit the Okapis with Rosie.  The Okapi is quite a strange looking animal.  It has the head, tongue and neck of a giraffe, the body of a horse, and the rear end of a zebra.  Again, as Owen puts it, "It's kind of like these three animals ran into each other in the middle of the jungle."  This part of DRC is the only place in the world the Okapi is found in the wild; that makes it quite a unique place.  Rosie tells us all about them and the restoration work that goes on here as we walk and take pictures.  The Okapi is illegally hunted and sold here; there are not many left.  They take to Kaitlyn right away, and are curious about this little one.  Kaitlyn is just as curious and sticks her hands through the fence, trying to pet them.  They come within inches of her, but she doesn't even flinch.

Just a little time left for some fishing before we head out, so Solo and I grab some poles and head for the water.  Still no luck!  After packing and saying goodbye, we head back through town to the airstrip, waving at kids as we go by.  Owen is up front again, and I remind him that even though he's sitting in the "co-pilot" seat, the controls are mine.  We take off to the West and make a 180 degree turn back for Bunia.  I climb to 9,500 feet to escape the humidity and bumpy air and give Owen his first official lesson.  I explain the different navigation instruments...the altimeter, compass, directional gyro, and GPS.  I can tell he's struggling a little bit to keep the airplane on course, and is straining to see the instruments from his side, so I show him the horizon outside, and teach him to fly the airplane by looking outside instead of "chasing needles" inside.  After that, he keeps the airplane well within private pilot standards and I am impressed at how quickly he catches on.  As we make our approach to Bunia, I talk him through the landing checklists, the relationship between pitch and power and how to visualize our approach path.  Over the threshold, I talk him through the landing, slowly pull the power back and raise the nose at the same rate...hold it off, hold it off...don't wake the baby!  Ah, a nice smooth touchdown!  We taxi in, shut down and I smile because Kaitlyn is still asleep in the back.  I'd like to think it's because of the smooth touchdown on landing, but it's more likely that she's just exhausted from the wild weekend.  Can't wait to do that again!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Why Are You Here?

That's what I found myself asking one of my passengers today.  My first flight today was 190 miles Northwest of Bunia, to a town called Niangara.  This was a charter flight, which means someone pays for the whole airplane to come and pick them up, not just for a seat like you usually pay on the airlines.  I've never been to Niangara before, so I'm kind of excited to see a new place.  The airstrip looks wonderful, but after I land, I have a small problem.  The passenger who chartered the flight is ready to go, but there is also an emergency evacuation of 2 people who want to go to Isiro.  So I ask the chartered passenger how many passengers he had and how much stuff.  He replied that it was just him and his 10 pound duffel bag.  So I said great, I can take everyone.  Except that he didn't want to hear anything of it.  He told me that it was his charter and he got to say who went and who didn't, since he was paying for the flight.  So I pulled him aside and tried the nice approach, explaining to him that there was ample room on MY airplane to help these people out.  He still didn't budge, so I talked with him for a little bit.  After 10 minutes, I finally changed over to the not so nice approach.  I told him again, firmer,  that it was MY airplane and I am the pilot, so I get to decide who goes, who stays, who pays, and how much they get to bring with them.  I AM NOT leaving these people here to die so you can have some extra leg room and a seat all to your duffel bag's self.  I was a little surprised by his attitude, since he's been working in Congo for years, supposedly helping people and working with a very reputable humanitarian organization.  So I finally asked him, why are you even here?  Aren't you here to help people?  Just because they're not on an operating table doesn't mean you can't help them out.  Seeing things from that perspective sobered him up a little bit and he changed his attitude.  It even reminded me how easy it is for me to lose perspective and forget why I'm here.  But I find that the Lord always has ways of reminding us why we're "here" and what we're supposed to do with the time given to us.

From the February Logbook

Well, yesterday was so much fun I just have to tell you about that before I tell you about today!  Yesterday was flying exclusively for MSF (Doctors Without Borders).  I always like flying for them because usually things are straightforward and I feel like I'm making a tangible difference in the unbelievable physical suffering that goes on here.  So I take off from Bunia and head for a town called Dungu...just me and some toilet paper for the folks in the bush (and a few other things).  No passengers means I don't have to be sensitive to their needs, and instead of climbing out at 500 feet per minute, I raise the nose and climb at more than 1,000 feet per minute, so I can take better advantage of the strong morning tailwinds.  I reach my cruising altitude and quickly accelerate to 145 knots, shaving 15 minutes off my normal time.  I also take the opportunity to do things I don't normally do when I have a plane full of passengers.  I pull out emergency checklists and run through many different scenarios from memory as if there was a real emergency...with hands flying everywhere, pushing buttons, touching knobs, running through mock communications.  I try not to do that sort of thing when other people are on board, because if the passengers start seeing the pilot's hands zooming around the cockpit with a sense of urgency, they tend to get a little worried.  I also take some time to update our airstrip directory and do some other paperwork along the way.  I land in Dungu and wouldn't you know it, the patient I brought out last week who was attacked by the LRA is standing there, waiting for a ride home.  I'm glad he's doing better, and I'm happy to bring him back to his family. 

In a way, I like flying to Nglima because it's a challenge, but on the other hand, I don't like flying to Nglima because it's a challenge.  Flying incorporates so many different variables that change all the time, so the same airstrip presents a new challenge every time you fly in or out.  This time, I elect to land over the tall trees at the end and come to a stop towards the town.  I have been flying a few hundred hours now, and I'm beginning to pick up where I left off; the flying is coming more naturally.  I instantly make corrections where needed without having to think about it or see it on the instruments.  I can feel the airplane being pushed from a tailwind on final approach.  I notice that right at the treeline, the wind changes directions, and I make a mental note of it.  So, in reality, I am landing into the wind until I descend below the trees, then it turns into a tailwind.  As we touch down, I raise the flaps and squeeze the brakes, and taxi to the end.  As I unload my passengers, I can tell the passengers I am picking up are a little confused about how things are going to work.  There are 8 people and 250 pounds of baggage that need to get back to Dungu about 10 minutes away, so I tell them I will make two trips.  I can only take 700 pounds each time, it doesn't matter to me who or what goes each time, as long as the loading is correct.  I also remind them (in no uncertain terms) to be exact on their weights; the trees at the end are very tall.  So I finish unloading and preparing the plane as they figure out a plan.  I end up taking four light passengers and 200 pounds of freight, and then remember what I had found out about the wind on landing.  Even though right now the wind favors taking off towards the trees, once I get to tree level, the wind will change and I will actually have a tailwind.  So I elect to taxi down to the end with the huge trees and take off towards the town.  This decision serves me well; as soon as I liftoff and begin my climbout, I can feel the wind shift with a few bumps and we abruptly stop climbing...I can't help but think that I would never have cleared those trees had I taken off the other direction.  After I drop off my passengers, I head back to Nglima for the other four passenger and 100 pounds of cargo.  Only this time, there's a problem.  As I circle overhead, I see 2 hummers and a huge UN helicopter parked right in the middle of the airstrip.  I call on the radio and ask how long they're going to be using up the whole runway, and they say for at least 1 hour.  So I quickly do a few calculations and kindly ask them to remove their hummers from the runway so I can land.  They sound a little hesitant, but I assure them that even though there's only 600 meters of usable runway, I can land and safely stop well before their helicopter.  As I touchdown and squeeze the brakes hard, I notice that 10 or 15 UN troops are standing 200 meters in front of their helicopter, cameras blazing, video cameras recording this exciting event.  As I get closer, the middle two guys bail, and the rest are having second thoughts as I am quickly approaching.  Then, everyone scatters, most running back up the runway towards they helicopter.  But, as I promised, I am stopped with a healthy margin of safety and shutdown.  I'm greeted with handshakes and broken English, as the entire UN regiment wants to shake the American's hand.  Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, people from all over.  I find the helicopter pilots and ask them if it's possible to move the giant thing, so I can takeoff, but they shake their heads in disbelief and say it's not possible.  I assure them that it is, and tell them I don't want to spend the night here, so they call in help from the local population in what turns out to be a rather futile attempt at moving the second largest helicopter in the world.  After much more debating, I manage to get the helicopter moved so that I am only losing 100 meters.  I do more calculations, make some decisions, and round up the passengers.  Now comes the hard decision--I can either take all the passengers, some passengers and some stuff, or all the stuff.  I leave it up to my passengers, and they all agree they want out.  So we load up and I explain to my "co-pilot" not to touch anything...this takeoff is going to be close.  I hop in, start up and taxi as close as I can to the helicopter.  One last thumbs up for the passengers...they don't share my enthusiasm, or confidence, but this is what I trained for.  We takeoff and soon after, I give another thumbs up to the passengers, but no matter.  2 of them have their eyes covered, and the other 2 are praying for their lives.  I shake my head and smile.  Always an interesting day at the office.