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

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