It's a long day today, so let's get out to the airport a little early. I'll do the preflight and get things ready while you chat with the people. As I go through my checks, I enlist the help of all 3 national staff workers. One is working on fueling (we'll need all 4 tanks topped off, and 4 full jerry cans in the cargo pod), one is loading 175 pounds of Bibles and the passenger's suitcases, and the other is filing flight plans, washing the windshield and picking up our passenger from the terminal.
By 8am, it's time to go. On paper, the weather looks perfect, but we soon realize that the entire valley all the way down to Bukavu some 240 miles south is all clogged up with clouds very near the surface all the way up to 12,000 feet. My original cruising altitude of 8,500 feet just isn't working and we have to turn around several times. All I can do now is circle up up up, until I reach 12,500 feet and just barely scrape the wheels over the clouds. As we climb, I have you count the different cloud layers, 1...2...3...4. At least at 12,500 feet we have a bit of a tailwind, but we are already 25 minutes late, and this is a long day.
Nearing Goma, we have to go around several towering cumulonimbus clouds that will soon turn into thunderstorms. I have to descend a little early to get in under the clouds so we can make our approach into Bukavu. They're reporting light rain, a low ceiling of clouds and poor visibility--not what I heard on the phone earlier. I sigh; looks like I have my work cut out for me on this one. Finding the airport is no problem and landing is a piece of cake; I land half way up the runway because it's so long.
Looking southwest, I am mildly disappointed with what I see. Looks like a lot of clouds, rain and more poor visibility. I put on my rain jacket before getting out and quickly unload the Bibles and the jerry cans, and begin loading 900 pounds of cargo for a missionary family in Kipaka. I think of them as it begins to pour and we load box after box, tires, vegetables, canned goods, and toilet paper. My shoes are soaked.
The whole process takes 45 minutes...and that's 45 minutes I don't really have. I need to get back to Bunia before the airport closes. I'm praying for a good tailwind as we takeoff. It doesn't take long before we reach the bases of the clouds and I am forced to snake my way through the south pass, looking all the time for an opening into nicer weather. 20 miles south of Bukavu, I find what I'm looking for and climb up to 8,500 feet, still having to dodge growing thunder clouds...it's gonna be fun on the way back!
This leg seems to drag on forever, maybe it's because I'm the only plane flying today and the radios are silent. I eat an early lunch and snap some photos along the way, the visibility here is wonderful. I spot Kipaka about 20 miles out and we come in for a landing. I'm really starting to get to know this airplane now and put it down about 50 feet from where I wanted to.
Here, I unload the freight as quickly as I can, heaving boxes to the first guy in the assembly line every second or so. Here in the jungle, at noon, I can feel the sun scorching my skin and the sweat pours off my body. After the plane is emptied, I quickly add a seat and re-arrange the cargo net and straps for the freight going back to Bukavu. 700 pounds of plastic bins and suitcases. Once everything is tied down, I load the passengers, and we're off.
Even though it's hot and humid, I decide to level off at 5,500 feet, hoping for better winds. My hopes are granted, but now, in the early afternoon, the bigger problem is thunderstorms...they're everywhere. Torrential downpours, stomach jolting turbulence, and bright flashes of lightning seem to be surrounding me on all sides. The lightning is so bright that I pull my shaded visor down, even though it's plenty dark. I keep turning around in my seat and checking my "out" behind me, making sure I can still go back the way I came if things get ugly. So far so good.
The closer I get to Bukavu, the worse it gets, and now I have mountains thrown into the mix. I'm glad I have some experience in this area, it makes things a whole lot easier and a lot less nerve wracking. I decide to take the south pass again and get into Bukavu 10 minutes before the heavens let loose. I've got no time to lose though, 15 minutes is all I can spare. Luckily, it's just one passenger and 50 pounds of his suitcases. I shove his stuff into the cargo pod, add the 4 jerry cans of fuel, and put his seat belt on. He's a pastor, and even though we are in a rush, I ask him to take a minute and pray for our flight and our respective ministries.
Now it's off for home. The rain has moved on, and I'm pedaling as fast as my little legs can go. It's not long before we hit the rain again, and I'm peering into the mist, watching out for things that look like trees and volcanoes. I snake my way through the valley, 500 feet above old lava beds...I can't help but wonder how much that would hurt. Around the bend is Lake Edward--Congo on the left, Uganda on the right. For the moment, the weather has improved, but up ahead, things are not looking good.
Part of my training involved several classes on decision making and when to say enough is enough. I remember them telling me there are 3 main things we as MAF pilots deal with on a regular basis: time, weather, and terrain. Time...there never seems to be enough of it, weather is always a factor, and the nature of our flying puts us down in the terrain more often than not. They said pushing the boundaries of one isn't really a big deal. But, you need to be extra cautious when pushing two, and never push all three at once.
Well, time--yeah, I don't have any, and I don't need to explain anything more to you about the weather. Luckily, we aren't dealing with terrain. Nevertheless, I'm extra cautious as I approach the valley. It seems like one thunderstorm after another, and I'm really having to work my way up this valley. I turn around and ask my passenger to tighten his seat belt, and he's got a camera out, snapping photos...what is it with these people?!? I have a storm scope installed in this airplane; basically it shows little orange dots on a screen when it senses convective activity, and let me tell you, it's lit up like the 4th of July...every little pixel is bright orange.
Finally, I get a little break about 50 miles out of Bunia. And then I see the two biggest, baddest looking thunderstorms I think I've ever seen in my existence...with a tiny little hole right smack in the middle of them. The clouds are so high, I can't even see above them, and it's raining so hard on the ground that it looks like the cloud just continues straight to the ground. I weigh my options. Can't go left, can't go right, can't go up. I can go through this hole, or go back the way I came. It takes me 15 minutes to get to the point of making a decision, and all the while I'm observing these storms.
Is the hole getting bigger, smaller? Is the lightning confined to the storms? How's the visibility in this little pocket I want to go through? Which way are the storms moving? Where's my out?
After pondering these things, I decide to "thread the needle." One storm is moving off to the west, while the other is heading straight for Bunia. The hole is getting bigger, visibility is good and there are no signs of a bumpy ride. Lightning seems to be only in the clouds, and I can still go back the way I came. As I sandwich in between these two storms, I start to get really nervous. I can see Bunia clear as day, but this thing is ugly, I mean bad! I laugh when Bunia tower tells me to "watch out for a big thunderstorm around your area."
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