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.