Saturday, March 26, 2011


The plane was loaded the night before, I have no passengers to my first destination.  Today is going to be a fun day.  I get to go to airstrips out in the jungle called Nebobongo and Epulu; I'm like a little kid who can't wait to play with his brand new toys the day after Christmas.  After doing my preflight and double-checking the cargo, I'm off to Isiro with 460 pounds of medicine for the hospital in Nebobongo.  Although Bunia's airport is clear, as soon as I takeoff I notice most of the surrounding area, including the entire jungle ahead of me, is covered in a thick blanket of white.  Somehow the weather folks never seem to mention this sort of thing when I ask them how things are looking. So usually, I have to make my own determinations and decisions and whether or not I should continue the flight.  As I climb out over the hills surrounding Bunia and enter the jungle proper, I start to notice patches of green broccoli amid a sea of white.  I check our operations manual to remind myself what it says about flying in conditions like this, and elect to continue.  I know I can safely make it to one of these "holes" and land if I had any problems.

As I continue my climb to 10,500 feet, I realize there is more than one layer of clouds beneath me.  There is the puffy white blanket a few hundred feet above the jungle canopy, and another layer a few thousand feet above that, which looks a lot like someone took a big paintbrush and stroked these wispy clouds right up in the air.  I level off at 10,500 feet, but soon find myself descending with a lowering overcast above me.  At 8,500 feet and much deeper into the jungle, I come across yet another layer of very thin clouds.  So, I descend a few hundred feet and skim the bases.

I'm pleasantly surprised with the wonderful visibility in between layers, even with some light rain showers.  I'm now flying over a scattered-overcast fog layer and a scattered layer.  While at the same time flying underneath a broken layer and a solid overcast with growing thunderstorms.  It kind of reminds me of my flying days in the Pacific Northwest, minus the huge mountains and deadly icing (ice cubes don't fly very well). 

Making my descent into Isiro requires dodging many clouds and finding holes in between layers, kinda fun actually!  In Isiro, I pick up two passengers with a Christian organization called MedAir, a few of their things, and takeoff for a 10 minute hop over to Nebobongo.  I stay beneath all the clouds and snake my way along 500-1000 feet above the trees, just in case I get there and can't find any holes in the clouds.  Circling overhead, I evaluate the airstrip and notice they've finally cut the grass down on the last 200 meters (that's 10 foot tall grass, mind you).

After landing, I begin to unload the 450 pounds of medicines when the Doctor shows up.  "What's all this?" he asks.  "I didn't want this yet, this was the last priority, I really needed the medicines, not all the bottles and solutions, oh no!"  But, as I continue unloading box after box, he starts to realize and exclaims, "Oh my goodness, thank the Lord, you brought EVERYTHING!"  "How is this possible?!?  I just ordered all these things two days ago and now they are here!  Oh my goodness, it's like Christmas!"

It's almost an hour to Epulu, my next stop, so after all the medicines are unloaded, my passengers and I hop back in, takeoff, and turn southeast.  I decide to climb above the thick layer of clouds, but as soon as I do, it's just white for as far as I can see.  One of my instructors from Moody, who also happens to be a MAF pilot and flew in these parts of Congo, always used to tell me, "Chris, flying is a whole lot more than just manipulating controls and watching engine gauges.  You should always be evaluating your surroundings, the wind, the weather, yourself, the airplane, etc."  It's so true, and I have never forgotten that.  And suffice it to say that some of my observations have most certainly saved my bacon on a few occasions.  It is those sorts of things...something just doesn't feel right about this takeoff...strange that the wind would be coming from this direction...I'm tired, the weather is terrible, and my passengers are being's only 5 extra kilos....

So many times I thank the Lord (and everyone who made it possible) for the exceptional training that I received.  It has undoubtedly served me well.

So, as I climb up above the layer of clouds, I automatically make a mental note of where the bases are...1000 feet above the ground, and I also make a note of where the tops are...about 1000 feet above that.  So the layer is 1000 feet thick and leaves me enough room underneath as an option in case I need it.  I end up flying from hole to hole, kind of like connect the dots, again evaluating the conditions underneath the clouds at every hole.  About 15 miles out of Epulu, I find a nice big hole on the back side of a ridge.  The visibility is good underneath, I can safely descend through the hole and have enough room to maneuver around and climb back up if I need to...Let's do it!

I set the airplane up in what we call 80/20 configuration for the third time since I've been here...80 knots, 20 degrees of flaps, and all the engine controls setup for full power if I need it.  This provides me many advantages:  much better visibility over the nose of the airplane, a slow airspeed that I can turn on a dime, and a climb power setting already dialed in.  The checklist is complete, it's time to go for it.  As I set up for a 500 foot per minute descent, I glance at my's completely asleep, the other is deep into a good book.  The "hole" I'm aiming for is a long, straight stretch on the back side of a ridge, so I make an approach, much like I would if I were landing.  I make notes of wind direction, headings, and altitudes.  Turning final, I notice that I'm quite high, but no problem, I just pull the power back a little bit and slow to 70 knots, check on my passengers, and remind myself that my escape route is full power, straight ahead just in case I need it.

Reaching the tops of the clouds, I can finally start to see underneath again, and it looks wonderful, no rain, no ground fog, and tons of visibility.  Keeping an eye on the ridge to my right, I make a tight 360 to lose more altitude...this is fun!  Oh wait, I have passengers...yep, one's still sleeping, and the other has taken to snapping a picture every 3 seconds.  The last 10 minutes of the flight is humid, hot, and bumpy, but my passengers don't seem to mind.  They've been very excited to get a chance at seeing some of the indigenous pygmy folks that usually show up at the airstrip.

See the puffy clouds and the wispy ones?

Epulu is quite long, but a little tricky with the landing.  It has undulations in the landing area and can be quite hard on the airplane if you don't do it right.  I make a soft field landing, keeping the nose wheel off the ground as we bounce down the runway.  I have one passenger here with quite possibly the biggest suitcase I've ever seen.  And unfortunately for me, it weighs a lot too!  I heave it into the airplane, and at the same time wonder what my back is going to be like in 10 years, and then it's off for home.

By now, the sun has burned away most of the cloud layers, and I can see blue sky all around.  Amazing what 30 minutes can do!  Some smoke on the ground clues me in to a pretty strong easterly wind, so I stay low and take advantage of this rare opportunity.  Some of those puffy white little clouds have now turned into towering thunderstorms, but it's fun picking my way around them.  It seems all the trees in the forest are blooming too; white flowers are everywhere, what a beautiful site.  It kind of reminds me of the fall colors back home.  Better yet, I land in Bunia before lunch time!  What a day!


Owen said...

Sigh...can't wait to get back!

Chris said...

Can't wait til you get back!