Sunday, June 26, 2011


In my 9 months here I've had some interesting experiences flying.  Interesting cargo, interesting passengers, interesting happenings.  Things like smelly fish, chickens (which always go in the cargo pod no matter how crammed they are), 12' electrical conduit (interesting to actually fit it in the airplane when the cabin is the same length), and "high profile" passengers.  Basically, if it fits through the door and I can somehow strap it down, it goes.

It's always interesting with national passengers who have obviously never flown before.  I'd like to ask them sometime what is going through their head.  I know right away who they are, they hop in, buckle their seatbelt, and relax until the engine comes to life.  I especially take a little extra time with those special passengers who occupy the co-pilot's seat.  I try not to seat someone there who looks stronger than me.  And I always take the time to explain to them the dire consequences of touching anything.  Most of the time it works fine, but every once in a while I get a surprise.

Like the guy I had sitting next to me on my way to Mambasa.  Not too terribly difficult, but I do need to land in a certain spot.  It was a bumpy afternoon and I could tell my passenger was uncomfortable with all the turbulence, and was very apprehensive about landing on a hill in the middle of the jungle.  I motioned for him to put his hands under his legs, that way I knew where they were.  Turning on final approach, I noticed he had quickly grabbed his knees and was squeezing them really hard.  Just when I started a beautiful flare, I saw him stiffen like a board and he grabbed my right arm, squeezed hard, and pulled my elbow into his chest.  Not a big deal except the other end of my arm was firmly attached to the throttle control with a considerable amount of power. We immediately sank towards the ground.  I instinctively heaved the control into my chest to protect the nose gear, and struggled to get my arm free.  Needless to say we hit "firmly" and bounced back in the air.  Lucky for me, an intuitive passenger behind me grabbed his arms and held them.  I shoved the throttle in, aborted the landing, and came around for another try, this time adding "make sure the copilot is secure" to my checklist.

It's also interesting what you can hear inside a very noisy cabin.  I admit that I've aborted several landings because, just before I'm about to touchdown, I hear the unmistakable "click" of a seatbelt being unfastened.

Ever carried empty 55 gallon drums in the cabin before?  I have, and it sure would have been nice if someone would have let me in on a little secret the first time I had them strapped behind me.  I took off from an airport near sea level and was climbing to 11,500 feet to take advantage of strong easterly winds.  Half way there, I heard two very loud "explosions" and immediately started looking for a place to land, as I scanned the engine instruments, checked controls, and looked outside for any obvious missile damage.  Everything checked out fine and the rest of the trip was uneventful.   I mentioned my experience to a seasoned missionary pilot, who seemed mildly amused at my mishap.  He asked one simple question, "Did you take the bungs out of the drums?"  That's when it dawned on me; I felt so stupid!  The pressure difference as I climbed got to be too much for the drums to handle, so they both decided to let off a little steam!

I also like flying IFR (instrument flight rules) because it's a great challenge in a light single engine airplane with no autopilot.  The Pacific Northwest is a great place gain some "actual" instrument time.  It's also a great place to experience hair raising encounters with icing.  That's not the stuff you put on a cake; it turns your airplane into an ice cube, and last time I checked, they don't fly very well.  FAA regulations are very clear that if you're flying an airplane that's not certified to fly into known icing conditions, you just don't do it. Fair enough, except it turns out to be a very difficult thing to predict.  I was flying along one fine spring morning on my way to northern Washington in solid IMC (instrument meteorological conditions).  No contact with the ground, no horizon, no visual reference whatsoever.  Just me and the clouds.  Icing conditions were not forecast, and the temperature at my cruising altitude was almost 40 degrees.  All of a sudden, I heard rain hitting the windshield, but this wasn't normal rain that rolled off the windshield.  It hit, started to roll, and then turned to ice.  It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening, but when I did, I immediately made a 180 degree turn and asked the controller for a heading to the nearest area of good weather.  I popped out of the clouds over the Sound, but the entire airplane was covered in a half inch of clear ice.  I needed full power to keep from losing altitude.  I reported that I was now in VFR conditions and requested a lower altitude where the air was warmer.  As I descended, chunks of ice began breaking off and eventually it all melted.  I was able to continue on my way, making sure to stay out of the clouds for the rest of the trip.

I also learned the hard way that it's not a good idea to fly with a head cold.  The resulting ear infections are extremely painful.

Most of all, I've learned when and how to say "no."  All over the world are burnt, twisted pieces of aluminum that serve as reminders of those who didn't.

Friday, June 10, 2011


The morning comes too soon; I still don't feel good, and I have another full day of flying.  My first stop is in Banda for Samaritan's Purse.  It takes 2 hours to get there in the "slow" plane, but I've got 30 minutes of margin in my day.  As long as I keep things moving, I should arrive back in Bunia before the airport closes.  After dropping off one Sam's Purse passenger and a few boxes, I'm off for Faradje with another Sam's Purse passenger.

This is the same route I did a few weeks ago when I saw elephants and water buffalo.  I descend as we enter the park and keep a look out, but nothing yet.  Then my passenger points to a herd of buffalo and I spot some antelope grazing on the grass.  We spot several elephants along the way too.  One of these days I'll remember to have my camera with me so I can take some photos for you!

Faradje goes quickly as well, and after 10 minutes I'm off for Todro.  I've been here two times before, and they were both interesting experiences.  The airstrip slopes up 1 degree to the south and has some side slope to the right in the landing area.  It then flattens out towards the middle and slopes to the left at the other end.  It's not too terribly short for landing, but there's almost always a tailwind on takeoff.

As I circle overhead, I notice they've cut the grass down that I barely missed last time on the extended centerline.  The rest of my cargo will stay here, and after I get everything out of the plane, a man approaches me and asks if I can stay for some lunch and visit with them for a while.  I decline.  Unfortunately, I just don't have the time.  He hands me a bag and asks if I can take it.  At first I don't want to, but he insists and says it's for me.  Inside is roasted chicken, a huge loaf of bread and a container of honey...I guess they had prepared a whole meal ahead of time, hoping I'd stay with them.  I want to, but I just can't.

The man tells me to keep the food for the rest of my journey and asks the Lord's blessing on my work and my family.  I thank him again, and I'm off for Dungu.  Being 1:30pm, I dig into the bread, and it is the best bread I have ever eaten.  They must add honey to the dough, and it is so good!

In Dungu, I refuel and load 4 passengers for Bunia.  Our caravan is there at the same time, loading, unloading, and re-fueling.  On the way home, I stay low, hoping for better winds in my favor, but no such luck.  I sit back, relax, and crack open some more bread. 

In Bunia, I give the chicken to our national staff.  I figure I should be a blessing to others, like the folks in Todro were to me.  In any case, I'm sure glad it's Friday, I need a break!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

It's Been Nice, Buta...But Part II

I'm glad to get back to the airport, something familiar at least.  It's hard to get my preflight done; all the army guys want to chat.  "What's this for?"  "What's that do?"  All good questions, but I just don't feel good, and I kinda miss my wife :)

I take off to the east, direct to Bunia as fast as this thing will take me.  15 minutes after I leave, I get a call on the radio asking me to divert to Dungu.  Seems there's a sick boy in Bangadi that needs a ride to the hospital in Dungu.  I need to stop in Dungu first to pick up a couple nurses to accompany him back to the hospital.

In Dungu, I learn that several young women had been raped and beaten by members of the LRA the night before just outside Bangadi.  The nurse team needs to spend 30 minutes or so on the ground to treat these women.  I tell them it's fine, even though I really feel terrible, and just want to get home.  I figure these women feel a whole lot worse than I do at the moment.

It's incredibly hot in Bangadi--I guess it would be at 1pm.  My medivac patient is a boy about 10 years old, with obvious head and face trauma.  Honestly, I don't have the stomach to ask what happened.  By the time I get the stretcher set up and secured, and everything loaded back up, the nurses return from treating the rape victims and we're off for Dungu again.

A flower

Sunset in the jungle
I have no passengers back to Bunia, so this turnaround goes quickly.  I climb to 11,500 feet to escape the heat and humidity, and save a little fuel.  I dodge growing thunderstorms, and am sure glad to see a familiar place.

Overnights, Escargots, and Medivacs...Part I

I've got a long day ahead of me, and it's nice to get an early start for once.  I have 7:30 minutes fuel on board as well as another 55 gallon drum to get me home.  I'm off for Kisangani, two and a half hours west into the jungle.  I like going here; it's a beautiful area nestled next to the mighty Congo River.  I don't like going here because it takes forever to get anything done.  It's an old military base and army guys are everywhere.  They are all too eager to help with anything they can, even if you don't want them to.  And, of course, they expect to get well-compensated for their efforts.  Today is no different.  I drop off the drum of avgas; I'll be returning for that later.  I'm supposed to pick up 4 passengers and a bunch of cargo for a town called Buta, but it turns out there's 6 passengers.  That kind of throws a wrench in the whole deal.

I make a few quick calculations and decide I'll have to pump all 55 gallons into the wings on my second trip so I can take the empty drum with me (can't carry avgas in the cabin with passengers).  After an hour of paying taxes, I quickly load most of their belongings and 4 of the 6 passengers, then it's off to Buta, a little over an hour north of Kisangani.  I've never been to Buta before, and along the way I'm kind of dreading another long stop arguing over taxes and fees.  Plus I'm not feeling too well now.

I'm very pleasantly surprised though.  After landing, I walk in to pay for the taxes, and all the paperwork is already filled out and waiting for me...and it's even correct!  She hands me the bill, I hand her the money, she asks for a free ride to Kisangani, I say no, and I'm off, just like that.  That's how it should be!

Back in Kisangani it's more of the same, it's takes almost an hour to complete all the paperwork and get my taxes paid, then it's off to load cargo and pump the fuel.  I don't need any extra fuel right now, but I can't leave the drum here, so I have no choice.  With the last two passengers, I have to be a little creative in how I load the rest of their cargo.  In the end, it all fits, barely, and I have to lean into the back door a little to get it closed.

By now it's late afternoon and I really don't feel good.  Thunderstorms tower over my little tin can of an airplane as I make my way back to Buta for a second time.  Also for the second time in my pilot career, I discreetly reach for the little blue bag, just in case.  I'll be spending the night here in Buta, although I don't know where.  After unloading and securing the airplane, I make a quick call and figure out that I'm staying at the Catholic mission, and I was supposed to hitch a ride into town with my passengers, but they're long gone.

Uh oh

I find a nice guy who gives me a ride on his motorcycle.  We're not supposed to take "taxis" here in Congo, but I figure it's not really a taxi, since I don't pay him anything, and it's a 125cc bike, so it doesn't go fast enough to really hurt if you fall off.  And I figure it's safer to take the bike than sleep in the airplane.  As we cruise down the road, I notice huge patches of bamboo, and everyone we pass yells and laughs at me.  15 minutes brings us to the Catholic mission...and it sure is Catholic in every sense of the word.  Cathedral ceilings and towering archways, pictures of a rosy-cheeked Jesus, rosary beads, the works.  And it's not just one building, but dozens...and they're massive.  The folks are nice and inviting, and after a few phone calls, we find out where I'm staying.

It's pitch black inside my room, but I can make out an office type room, and a bed on the other side of the wall.  I'm promptly greeted by a young man and a young woman, who bring me soap, a towel, and a bucket of water for taking a shower.  Boy am I ever grateful.  I have an hour until dinner, so I quickly hop into the dry bucket, then hop right back out again.  In the dark, I jumped right into a bunch of spider webs, and that's just creepy.  I grab my flashlight, brush all the webs away, and do a quick sweep for any spiders.  Nothing on the right wall, nothing on the back wall...AGHHH!!!

One of those big, palm-sized spiders jumped at me!  Lucky for me, he crawls right behind a loose brick, so I smash it into the wall...and smash it a few extra times just because he scared me.  A quick peek reveals only parts, good enough for me.  I hop back into my bucket with a smile on my face.  The water feels so refreshing.  I never knew the air could hold so much water.  I'm glad to get out of my soaking clothes, but I realize as soon as I pick up a fresh shirt out of my bag, it's already soaked.  Oh well, such is life.

Dinner is quite interesting.  All the priests stand up and say their prayers to Mary while I say my prayer to Jesus.  After that, it's antelope meat, rice, sombe, carrots, bananas, peanuts, and escargots.  They beg me to try the escargot, so I figure I should probably oblige.  Let's just say we'll leave those things for the birds.  The antelope, on the other hand, was quite good, along with everything else.  We talked about catholic theology...well, they did, I mostly listened.  My French isn't that good anymore.

Unfortunately, my stomach viciously said "no" to something I ate, and suffice it to say I was up half the night "making things right."  It's not like I could sleep anyway, the humidity made laying on anything unbearable, and the bugs were horrible.  I spend the rest of the night thanking the Lord I live in Bunia, not Buta.  Props to the Catholics, but next time I'll pass.

A boy with bamboo, reaching for some fruit

The building where mass is held

Just outside my door
The morning brings no relief from the heat and humidity, but at least my stomach is ok for now.  Breakfast is sliced bread with butter and coffee.  Then it's off to the airport for the flight home...or so I think.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Probably a good thing to have when you're a missionary.  My "flight" got canceled this morning, but since we have 2 206's now, the other pilot asked me to take his schedule for the day.  Since I was already dressed and ready to go, I accepted.  I took off for Dungu, 1:20 minutes northwest of Bunia.  The tower controller told me about an "aviation warning" concerning low clouds, poor visibility, and rain in the area.  I took off anyway; we routinely fly in weather like this, and as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather take off and see what things look like from the air instead of staring at a computer screen full of already old weather information.

Don't worry though, there are plenty of times when I turn around, or don't even take off because the weather is too bad.  One nice thing about flying in the pacific northwest is that you get lots of good weather experience.  And, having been here for 9 months now, I'm learning a few things (imagine that) about the weather.  Unfortunately, I don't ever get to take some decent photos of this stuff because I'm too busy flying the airplane.

When I took off, Bunia actually looked nice, but as I turned north, the weather quickly closed in.  One of the most valuable things I've ever learned in my training is to always have an escape route, always have a place I can turn to in case I run into trouble.  Never get trapped with no way out.  With the weather today, I'm updating my "out" every 15 or 20 seconds, as I fly around each cloud.  At least there's no rain.

Eventually I'm able to climb above the clouds and there's actually a very strong tailwind from the southwest.  That's kind of odd; normally the wind comes from the east or southeast, but today, it's blowing all that moist air from the jungle to where I want to go.  After a quick stop in Dungu, it's back to Bunia.  I decide to stay underneath the clouds as best I can; there are clouds from the surface all the way up to 15,000 feet, a little too high for a 206 to climb up and over.

I'm sandwiched between the ground and a very low layer of clouds 500-1000 feet above the ground.  Terrain that looks flat from up high proves to be very hilly, and the tops are covered in clouds.  And now there are torrential downpours thrown into the mix.  Eventually I make it back in to Bunia, just after a storm passed through.  Now to fuel and reload for the next 3 stops.

I have a Wycliffe missionary, an AIM missionary, and 3 nationals on board.  First stop is a place called Auzi, where Wycliffe is working very hard at what they do best.  If I thought the weather was bad before, it's really bad now.  I fly through rain most of the way to Auzi, and the whole way I'm thanking the Lord for GPS.  Every crackle on the HF radio alerts me to a lightning strike somewhere close; it takes every ounce of my concentration to dodge clouds as I fly through the rain.  I can only see a mile or two at best.  I put my sun visor down just in case lightning strikes close in front of us, and (believe it or not) I can actually see better with it down.  It provides a nice contrast between the clouds, the hills, and the rain.  We inch our way closer and closer to Auzi and finally, after what seems like forever, we make it within a mile of the airstrip, but I can't see anything.

Then all of a sudden I break out of a rain shower, look down, and wouldn't you know there it is!  With rain hitting the windshield, I make my approach and land, dodging clouds all the way down.  Crackles of thunder, light rain, and clouds are all around us.  I drop off my Wycliffe passenger and quickly take off for my next destination of Adi, to drop off the AIM missionary.  I've only been here once before, so I'm much more cautious.  It's only 10 minutes from Auzi, but it feels like an eternity, as I pray for safety and better visibility (is it ok to pray for that?)

The weather is actually a lot nicer in this direction, and I'm hoping we can get in to our next stop without any problems.  I land in Adi and get the airplane all muddy, but no worry, as soon as I takeoff, the rain will take care of that.  10 minutes later, I'm soaking wet and taking off for Aru, another 15 minutes south, but as soon as we're airborne, I realize it's not going to be an easy task.  I even go so far as to make a plan C; plan A went out the window a long time ago, and I'm implementing plan B right now!

What if I can't get in to Aru?  I don't have enough fuel to get back to Bunia.  I end up flying 20 miles into Uganda to get around the heavier showers until I can get back into Congo.  The GPS says I'm over Aru, but it's covered in clouds...and they're really low!  I descend and take a peek and there's just enough room for an airplane in between the clouds and the trees...not ideal in this business.  I zoom the GPS in as far as it goes, punch the OBS button, and tune in the runway heading.  The GPS paints a nice white line for me, and if I stay centered on this line, I'm aligned with the runway, even though I can't see it.  Did I mention these GPS machines are fabulous?

  Now I can make a "blind approach" into Aru.  I set the airplane up as usual and head straight for the airport, aligned with the runway, but I still can't see it.  On final approach, 1 mile from the airport, I catch a glimpse of the numbers 04 at the end of the runway, then they're gone, back in the clouds.  Just above the clouds, I catch another glimpse, but as soon as it appeared, it's gone, and I go around.  With more rain moving in from the East, I've only got one more chance to get it right.  I make the same approach, and pray the whole way down.  There it is, there it goes, there it is again, now it's gone.  Just as I'm about to go around again, a "big" hole appears and I just barely squeeze through.

Now comes the rain.  I'm taking as much fuel as I can with me back to Bunia.  All the fuel tanks in the wings are full, and I have 7 full jerry cans in the cargo pod.  If I wasn't soaked before, I certainly am now.  My passengers are a young woman and a 5 month old baby boy named Chris.  Nice name, if I do say so myself.  The route back to Bunia proves to be more of the same, but it gradually gets better the closer I get.  After landing, I breathe a sigh of relief and thank the Lord for the safety and the passengers I was able to carry today.  Tomorrow, I will do it all again!

The Day's Stats:

19 passengers
550 nautical miles flown
6 landings
5.3 hours flight time
440 pounds of cargo