Friday, February 4, 2011

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.

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