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:
550 nautical miles flown
5.3 hours flight time
440 pounds of cargo