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!