Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kipaka Again!

Yep, that's right, and today I want to invite you to come along and "see what I see, do what I do, and experience what I experience!"

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."

Boga airstrip and mission station, one of those "land here" and add power to the top kind of places

I was wondering how they got across Lake Kivu

10 miles out of Kipaka, see the cell tower?

My little window of opportunity
This thing is so bad I start to make a plan B, because I really don't think it's going to be possible to make the landing in Bunia.  Trust me, if I had an oar, I would have shoved it out the window and paddled for all I was worth.  I decide to make an approach with the option of landing, but I fully intend to divert to Nyankunde.  To my surprise, the approach is completely smooth, and I land without a hitch 10 minutes before the rain starts.  Now there's a day for you!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter 2011

After the easter egg hunt, we had a kid photo.  Guess what a whole bunch of pilot's kids do when a plane flies over?

Hazardous Attitudes

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University has identified and described 5 different hazardous attitudes that a pilot may possess.  These negative attitudes get in the way of good decision making and cloud a pilot's judgment.  They are:

1.  Resignation--this pilot gives up easily when problems arise and things don't go as planned.

2.  Anti-Authority--this pilot tends to not heed advice and constructive criticism from other pilots.

3.  Impulsivity--this pilot makes decisions and acts on them without thinking them through properly.

4.  Invulnerability--this pilot is invincible, nothing bad will ever happen to him.

5.  Macho--this pilot knows it all and can handle anything, and isn't afraid of showing it off to everyone else.

Or, to summarize in the words of my private pilot instructor, "Bad things don't happen, and if they do, they'll never happen to me, but if for some strange reason it does happen to me, it surely couldn't be as bad as they make it out to be, and if it is as bad as they say, then there's nothing I can do about it anyway."

I'll leave it to those who know me to figure out which ones I struggle with.  Suffice it to say that I have a real "winning" combo.  And I do struggle with these on a daily basis, that's why there are rules and regulations we follow to keep us safe.

Classic resignation

Prospects aren't looking too good

Mouth open, fighting back!
Today, I found Lucy torturing a poor little baby lizard.  At first, the lizard was fighting back and even trying to chase Lucy off, but it soon became very apparent what hazardous attitude this little guy possessed.  Yep, that's right, resignation.  As soon as things didn't go as he had planned, he just rolled over and gave up.  Unfortunately, it didn't end too well for him.  I would have hated to be in his airplane.  If only he had thought of the resignation antidote:  "I'm not helpless, I can make a difference!"

Saturday, April 23, 2011


One of my hidden passions is teaching/mentoring.  It's one of those things, as you go through life, you stumble upon something and realize, hey, I really enjoy doing this.  Maintenance, in general, is another thing.  Growing up, I always knew I was going to fly airplanes.  I knew that, there was never any question in my mind.  But if you would have told me I'd also enjoy working on airplanes, teaching, and living in Africa, I would have stared at you in disbelief.

Thankfully, Kaitlyn is at an age where she is learning several new words a day, and is extremely quick at picking things up.  She sees it done once, and then insists on doing it herself.  Like eating with utensils and putting DVDs in the computer.  She knows exactly where the button is, exactly how to put the disk in, and how to close it again.  She brushes her own teeth, tells the dog "No!" and tries to lock the house with the keys.  She knows how to honk the horn and turn the steering wheel in the direction she wants to go (not that I've ever let her drive :)

Concentrate on the line
All done, way to go!
So, I figured today I'd teach her how to measure and cut wood, because I really need some help out in the "garage" to get some of these screens up.  First things first though, safety is paramount.  I show her how to wear her ear protection and eye protection, and how to hold the saw so that if it kicks back, it won't injury her.  She did an excellent job, cutting right on the line, and wasn't scared at all.  Next weekend it will be on to sanding, prepping, and staining.

What are some of your hidden passions?

Friday, April 15, 2011


Getting an unexpected day off here doesn't mean you can sit back, relax, and drink coffee all day.  It only means you get to work on the growing "to do" list.  The real challenge here is that nothing is simple and things always take way longer than you think they will.  Flying is one of the simpler things is get to do here.  Or maybe it's because flying is familiar to me.  Either way, Joy and I have finally come to terms with the fact that things will never be what we're used to.  After spending 6 months trying to transform our house into the American "home" we've always wanted, we just found ourselves tired, exhausted, and missing home.

We are learning to adapt to our surroundings, use a whole new set of resources we're not used to.  For example, in the US, if you want to remodel your house, you get in the car and drive to Home Depot or Lowes for hardware and supplies.  Here, you go into a shop, ask around, and dig through piles of stuff.  If you find something close to what you're looking for, you enlist the help of a few guys to go and find what you're really looking for and bring it back to you.  Then you bring it home, modify, alter, or completely change what you bought to make it work in your particular situation.

It doesn't sound like a big deal, but just imagine working with wood here.  First, you go to the market, find some decent wood, buy it, bring it home, and let it sit for 6 months so it can dry out.  Then you take it to the wood planing shop or plane it yourself by hand.  After that, you cut it (with a handsaw), sand it (by hand), and begin the staining/painting process.  Each step takes at least a day, some up to a week.  So you can see why I don't have window screens up yet :)

Throw in a bunch of other problems, like electricity, plumbing, broken car...and it takes FOREVER to get anything done.  After a while, you just realize that family is more important than keeping the flies out.  Spending time with my daughter is more important than digging a fire pit.  Talking with my wife is more important than tinkering with the generator.  So what if we have to use the wind up lantern and a few candles to see at night time.  What's the big deal?  There's not much else to do anyway.

Don't get me wrong, there are certain things that are pretty essential to life, like water and barricading the house from rats.  But everything else is a luxury.

Saying bye bye to daddy before he leaves for Kampala!
It's a difficult thing to explain.  I see people every day who live in one room huts, who own a cooking pan and a small bag of coal for fire.  They're just fine without window screens, TV, doors that open the way you want them to, and electricity.  How do they do it?  We are very privileged to have what we have, but as they say, "With privilege comes great responsibility."  I think I finally understand what that means.

Joy sewing fabric for our couch cushions!
This is not to say that things can't be improved around here, oh no!  It merely means we should keep things in perspective and remember why we are here in the first place.  It means we need to accept the fact that life in Africa is not life in America, no matter how hard we try to make these four walls our little slice of familiarity.  Relaxing doesn't mean sitting on a beach chair with your feet up, listening to the ocean waves.  It means finding your rest in Him, trusting Him in many new ways you never even thought of before.  It means that "God is not so much interested in my comfort, as much as my spiritual development."  It means waking up every morning and instead of knowing what lies ahead, taking a few minutes and asking the Lord to give you the grace, patience, and flexibility to overcome the challenges this day brings.  Maybe that's the best way I can describe it:  total dependence on Him.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


That's a place, not a person, thing, or idea.  I had never been there before today so I was a little excited about going to a "new" place.  It's a class III airstrip, which simply means if you don't know what you're doing you could seriously hurt yourself.  I brought my camera to take all kinds of photos for you, but alas, I forgot my SD card in the computer at home, so I guess I'll have to describe it for you.

It's 600 meters long (about half of most of our airstrips around here), but it still sits up around 4,200' elevation.  It's made of grass and large gravel, and slopes up 1 degree to the middle, where it levels off, and then goes back down 1 degree for the second half.  I circle overhead and study the airstrip a little before I make my approach.  It has white markers on either side every 100 meters, so I count 1...2...3...4.  If I haven't touched down and started braking by that one, I'll go around and give it another try.  I'm also looking for things like obstructions on either end, any indications of surface wind, and general condition of the strip.  It looks good to me, so I decide to make an approach with the option of going around so I can gather more information.  If things look good, I can land.

As I get lower, I also notice that the strip is fenced, a nice touch to keep animals and children off the runway.  Turning final, I automatically go into check mode.  Airstrip clear, checklist done, airspeed 55 knots, 500 feet per minute descent, and glidepath looks right.  I'm aiming for the first 100 meters of airstrip, so I can actually touch down around the 200 meter mark and get stopped in the remaining 400 meters.

I notice I have a 3 knot tailwind as I "ride" the bumps all the way down to my spot.  Add power, reduce power, lower nose, idle, raise nose and add power again, all the way to touch down.  For a short field landing, my touch down is actually quite soft and as soon as I feel the wheels hit the ground, I squeeze on the brakes...harder...harder, until I am leaning forward in my seatbelt and we have come to a crawl.  I'm just coming up over the crest in the airstrip, so I figured I used about half of the total distance available.  Not bad!

MAF has three different classifications for the airstrip it uses:  I, II, and III.  Class I airstrips are nice and long, and if you hold a commercial pilot's certificate, you should have no problem operating in and out of these strips.  Class II airstrips require some additional training and are a little more technical.  They may have a non-standard approach or some slope to them.  Class III airstrips are the most difficult and technical airstrips we operate in and out of.  They require individual checkouts, usually are really short, have a lot of slope, and may have an airborne abort point.

On the ground, I take a little time to look at the airstrip, measure slopes and distances, and talk with some of the people.  I decide it's probably a good idea to do one takeoff here with no passengers, just so I can see what it looks like, and it would give me a better idea of how much weight I can take.

There's a hill right at the end of the airstrip with a bunch of grass huts on top and I want to pay particular attention to this.  As I liftoff and accelerate, I pitch the nose up and clear the hill by about 50 feet, and I'm empty!  There is room to make a right hand turn after liftoff and go around the hill.  Back on the ground, I go a little conservative and tell them I can only take 400 kilos total.  I'm light on fuel, but they have 454 kilos they want to take.  They decide to leave one passenger behind, so that puts me a little under 400; I'm happy about that.  This time, I add full power while holding the brakes, check all my instruments, and then start my roll.

I get my speed check right where I expected, and lift off a little before I thought I would, but there's not much in the way of climbing power, and I realize real quick that, indeed, I will have to go around the hill.  I gently bank a little to the right and everything is good.  30 minutes back to Bunia and I'm home before lunch!  I love days like today!

P.S.  Dear mom, there's a little brown jumpy spider somewhere in the cockpit, he like to hang around the airspeed indicator.

Monday, April 11, 2011

That Was Fun

I wake up to brilliant sunshine and crystal clear blue skies.  The sun is already really strong; it's going to be a hot one.  Today, for once, I'm not in a hurry, so I take my time and enjoy breakfast before I head out to the airport.  Once there, I print out a bunch of forms I've been meaning to for a while now, and I take a little time to organize the cockpit of the "new" airplane I'm flying.  Our regular 206 is in Kampala for a big maintenance check, and will be there for another month or so, getting some much needed TLC.

In order to continue with our operations here in Congo, we're borrowing an older 206 from another program.  It used to be a float plane, so there are a few differences, and it also has a smaller, less powerful engine in it.  But, the biggest difference by far is that its cruise speed is 15 knots less than ours.  That means, in general, I can add about 10 minutes to each of my legs, and an hour to my day.

Today I have one passenger in Epulu (where the okapis are), and one passenger in Mambasa.  Both need to catch the flight to Entebbe on MAF-Uganda.  And that doesn't normally arrive until 1:30pm.  I take my time pre-flighting the airplane, getting my things ready, and talking with some people.  I always love spending time with the people and trying to build some relationships.  It's good for my French, it's good for them, and hopefully I will have opportunity to share Christ with them.

After chatting for a while, I look at my watch and it says 8:15am.  What!  I get here early every day, run around all morning, barking orders and working hard, and I still don't even leave until now.  And today, here I am, taking my time, chatting, getting things done, and I still have the same results.  Maybe I need to slow down a little and just relax more often!

I decide it's about time to take off, and by 9am, I'm off for Epulu.  I'm picking up someone of importance, some chief of something or other.  I can tell, because when he arrives, all the soldiers and park keepers stand at attention, and all the kids stop giggling and laughing.  He has one small suitcase and a laptop bag...my kind of guy.  With a few formalities, a bunch of handshakes, and greeting the kids with the only Swahili I know, it's off to Mambasa, 30 miles back towards Bunia.

It only takes 15 minutes until I'm overhead, evaluating the airstrip condition and making it amply clear I'm about to land.  Turning on final approach, I make sure my checklist is complete, the airstrip is clear, and I'm on glidepath and holding the speed I want to.  Everything looks good and I elect to continue.  This kind of airstrip, even though I do have to land in a very certain spot, is what we call a "stop critical" airstrip.  For every airstrip we land, we have a pre-chosen abort point where we can abort the landing, safely go around, and give it another try for any reason the pilot deems necessary.  There are only two airstrips that I can think of around here that we call "go-critical."  That means the pre-chosen abort point is not located somewhere on the airstrip, it's actually in the air.  Any time before this point we can safely abort the landing, but after this point, we are "committed" to the landing, no matter what happens.  If a truck drives out on the runway, it would be better to land and hit the truck slowing down than try to out climb the terrain surrounding the airstrip and hit a mountain going 90 knots.

Mambasa is flat for the first 200 meters, slopes up for 100 meters, and then levels off again for the rest of the length.  I have to land on this 100 meter slope.  I cannot make it down fast enough to land before it because of really big trees at the end.  And, if I haven't touched down and started braking by the crest in the hill, I go around and try again.  So, turning on final approach, I take a quick look to make sure my checklist is done, my airspeed is good, and the airstrip is clear.  As I get closer to the sloped part, I gently pull the power back and raise the nose to meet the slope, leaving a little extra power in to help with the landing.

Just before touchdown, I barely see two little heads just above the cowling dart out 100 meters in front of me.  They stop, frozen with fear right in the middle of the airstrip.  Instantly, I shove the throttle all the way in, reach over and move the flap lever from 40 degrees to 20, and level off 20 feet above the ground.  As soon as I hit 65 knots, I raise the nose and climb as fast as this thing will let me.  Even at full power with only one passenger, the trees are whizzing by me.

After coming around and landing, I find the airstrip agent and make sure he knows what will happen to me and, more importantly, to one of these kids if they get hit by the airplane.  My passenger here is the Dutch fellow I flew out there last week; we are both glad the weather is much better today.  After loading his suitcases, we all head back to Bunia.

It's only 11:30am, so I have a few hours to chat some more, eat my lunch, and work on a few other projects around the office.  I help load our Caravan full of sewing machines, mattresses, bicycles, and generators, for their next stop.  And I also help unload AIM Air's Caravan, before the MAF-Uganda flight arrives.  My last two passengers have taken this flight from Entebbe, where they came from somewhere in Europe.

One wants to go to Epulu, the other to Mambasa, so I get to fly the same route all over again, just in the afternoon!  The weather is still wonderful, and my passengers both really enjoy flying, what a day!  So, it's off to Epulu and Mambasa for the second time today.  Luckily, things are uneventful, and I make it back to Bunia with 15 minutes to spare.  What a day!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How to Take A Hit

11 years of playing hockey will teach you that.  Let me back up a little bit....

Sundays after church have become a hobby/work on projects/fix the house kind of days.  I don't really like to, I never have.  But I've learned that right now, if I want anything to get done around here, it's got to be on Sunday afternoons.  So today I decided to work on fixing up the guest bedrooms for our moms coming out in a few weeks.  We are really excited they are coming, but there's so much left to do, it almost feels overwhelming.  After working inside for a while, I decide to continue the house screening project.  Unfortunately I can't do much of anything without making it amazing and perfect (at least in my eyes).  So I've spent the afternoon cutting, sanding, and staining the wood for all the screens and shelves in the house.  I have a little "work shop " out back so I'm constantly going in and out and running around the house, measuring the window sills, running back, cutting, and then going back to verify.  And of course, it's an absolute mess right now...but I know exactly where everything is.  Guess I take after my dad!

Well, I guess one time I was "running" out the door, I misjudged and rammed my forehead smack into a metal elbow.  Again, the involuntary reactions take over and immediately my hand goes up to the cut and presses hard against my forehead as I fall to the ground.  I'm sure, at the same time, I'm pushing all kinds of saw dust, paint thinner, and mahogany varnish into the wound, but like I said, 11 years of playing hockey will do that to you.  You realize real quick that whenever you get hit in the head, especially the forehead, there's always a lot of blood.

Now, on the ground for a minute or two, I regain my bearings, pick up the wood and my measuring tape, and continue working, all the while putting as much pressure on the cut as I can, but it hurts, bad.  I'm actually a little impressed, nothing is dripping down my arm, and I don't even think anything is on my hand.  I figure I should go inside and check the damage.  Oh good, only a 1/4" cut with minor swelling and just a little bleeding.  Can't see any bone, no stitches needed.  Nothing a little windex can't heal, right Adam?  Next time I'm in a hurry, I guess I should wear my flight helmet.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rain and Other Challenges

I roll over and look at my alarm clock.  It's still dark and a steady rain falls on the tin roof--4:25am.  I hear the Muslim call to prayer through the din of the rain and fall asleep again.  My alarm goes off at 6am.  It's still raining, and darker than usual.  As I go through my morning routine, the rain continues on, and as I eat my breakfast I pull out the computer to check the satellite and radar overlayed on google earth.  Doesn't look like it's going to stop anytime soon, but I head out to the airport anyway.  The rain gets harder as I pull up to the office at the airport.  I can't see any of the hills surrounding Bunia and guesstimate less than 2 miles visibility.  Nothing to do but wait.  30 minutes later the rain is still steady, but I can start to make out the hills to the South and East.  I want to go West, but I figure I will get the airplane ready and just maybe I could make it around the storm--but which way to go?

It seems to be moving straight towards my destination of Mambasa, 30 minutes away.  I can't wait too long because I want to get there and get out before the weather closes in, but I want to wait long enough for the visibility to improve a little.  I end up waiting for an hour, but things are improving, and if I wait any longer, I won't be able to land in Mambasa.  Time to go! 

My passenger is from Holland, so naturally I have to tell him all about my gorgeous wife and how she's 100% Dutch, and how she grew up on a dairy in Chino, California.  We play a little dutch bingo and I ask him if he knows of the game sjoelbak, kind of a dutch version of shuffleboard.  I tell him that I am planning on making my own board and playing with friends and family.  He gets a big kick out of that.

It's still raining, but just like a car can drive through rain, an airplane can fly through it.  I take off to the east and as I bank the airplane to the right, I look out the window and spot our house, where just a few seconds ago, Joy was probably sleeping soundly--not anymore!

The weather still looks better further south, so I steer a little south of course, picking my way around the heavier showers and keeping an eye on the clouds.  The further west I go, the worse it seems to get, and I turn around several times to keep from going "IMC" (in the clouds where mountains could be hiding).  It feels claustrophobic with the rain and the clouds all around me.  This weather reminds me a lot of the weather I dealt with in Portland ALL the time.  Sometimes I made it to my destination, sometimes I diverted to another airport or turned back for home, but I ALWAYS left myself a way out of danger.

I'm still relatively new to the area and I don't want to push the boundaries too far, but eventually I find a bit of relief from the rain and spot the bright red clay of the road that cuts through the jungle to Mambasa.  I fly parallel to it, keeping it just outside my left hand window.  If I can see that and follow it, it will take me right into Mambasa.  I fly through a heavier shower, keeping the road in my sights and suddenly I break out of the rain into the best visibility I've ever seen.  The air was crystal clear, but my mouth literally drops open at what lies before me.

I'm staring face to face with the ugliest looking gust front I've ever seen.  There's no way I would ever think about trying to fly through that.  I'd end up like the thousands of other unlucky pilots who's airplanes literally came out the bottom of the cloud in pieces.  Not a comforting thought!  It's incredibly smooth where I am at 6,500 feet, but I need to descend a few thousand feet in order to see what's on the other side.  So I slow the plane down a little and circle, evaluating everything I possibly can.

There's no wind or turbulence, great visibility, I can go back the way I came if I need to, but wait.  There are a few little puffy clouds just above the canopy, and boy are they hauling west bound!  I turn around and motion to my passenger to put his camera down (apparently it's the most incredible thing he's ever seen too) and snug up his seatbelt; it could get a little bumpy.

Approaching the base of the front, I can see, of all things, blue sky and abundant sunshine.  I can't really tell you exactly what goes on in a pilot's mind when he sees that.  If you just flew through half an hour of rain, clouds, and terrible visibility, and saw the most beautiful weather 5 miles ahead of you, you'd want to go for it.  I like to call them suckers.  They sometimes give you a false sense of security and can severely cloud your judgment.

I decide then and there that if things don't go exactly like I want them to, I'm turning around and flying straight back to Bunia, even if that means another half an hour through really crummy weather.

I fully expect moderate turbulence at the least when I descend down into the surface winds that are still really blowing.  But with one ripple and a few seconds of acceleration, I'm through the layer.  I still need to circle and descend lower to clear the clouds, but now it's incredibly difficult.  I glance and the GPS as I turn facing east and my groundspeed reads 40 knots!  Wow, that means the wind is blowing almost 60 knots to the west.  And as I bring the airplane around and start heading west again, I quickly accelerate to 160 knots.  My senses are heightened and I am alert as I ever have been.  There's enough room between rain showers for me to approach the front at a 45 degree angle, much like we do when we cross ridges.  This allows me to turn away quickly if things get ugly or I don't like what I see on the other side.

So far so good, not even a ripple of turbulence, things still look good on the other side, and all of a sudden, my ground speed drops away and I break out in front of the storm, 15 miles from Mambasa.  I breathe a sigh of relief to be done with that...for now.

The problem now is getting in and out of Mambasa before this thing hits.  The prospects of another overnight aren't too appealing right now.  But again, I make a decision ahead of time while I'm still thinking clearly about it.  I decide that if there's any wind at all when I'm about to takeoff, I will sit on the ground and wait it out.  Better to stay on the ground and wait it out, than never fly again.

Things in Mambasa look wonderful as I fly over and make my approach.  On final I check my ground speed compared to my airspeed indicator--they agree.  I'm aiming for a spot on the airstrip 200 meters from the end where it slopes up for 100 meters and then levels off again.  If I haven't landed and started braking on this hill I will go around and give it another try.

I'm still getting used to this airplane; it feels quite a bit different at slow airspeeds.  I keep a little extra speed in to help me meet the slope I'll be landing on and plunk down right where I want to.  I glance at the wheel out the window and check if it's wet, but it actually looks pretty nice.  I shut down and turn around, trying to read my passenger and how he's feeling.  He turns to me with a big smile on his face and says, "I haven't had that much fun in years!  So when do we get to do that again?!?"  I love these dutch folks!