Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Last Time...Part I

For some, anyway.  Today's flight takes me once again to Bukavu, and on to Kipaka, where I'll be spending the night.  Everything's supposed to be done already, so I can get an early departure, but when I get to the airport, I learn that the plane hasn't been fueled, the boxes of Bibles aren't prepared, and no one has a key for the MAF depot and office.  I quickly spring into action, giving people tasks while I complete my preflight.

Once I'm ready to go, I hop in and call the control tower, but they won't clear me to taxi because my flight plan hasn't been submitted.  "But it was there last night, how could it not be there now?" I replied.  Another 10 minutes and everything is squared away.  The engine checks out, oil temperature is climbing, and I check my watch against the clock in the airplane and on the GPS.  I mark down the time, and smoothly add full power.  Climbing out to the East, I gently bank to the right and look down to see Joy and Kaitlyn waving goodbye.

The weather seems good enough and I climb to 10,500 feet before cracking open my breakfast.  I can't make out the Rwenzori mountains, so I make sure to steer straight down the middle of the valley.  Then, I start to make out the unmistakable jagged peaks through the haze and clouds.  I snap a few photos...what a great opportunity to share with you one of the best reasons we don't fly in the clouds here.  Don't get me wrong, it can be done, and done safely and efficiently, but not in a 206, and not with 14,000' peaks looming around.  This is exactly why we treat clouds as if they were mountains, because more often than not, there are mountains hiding somewhere in there.  And while an airplane can fly just fine through a cloud, I don't think they've yet developed an airplane that's aerodynamic enough to fly through granite.

The weather actually improves all the way to my destination of Bukavu...I guess there's a first time for everything.  In Bukavu, I unload a 55 gallon drum and 5 jerry cans of avgas, along with 200 pounds of Bibles, and trade it all for almost 1,000 pounds of medicines and supplies for the hospital in Kipaka.  After an hour, I'm off, and the weather continues to improve, a little puzzling to me since I saw quite a bit of rain on the satellite picture earlier in the morning.  Oh well, take it while you can get it.

1:30 minutes later, I'm circling over Kipaka, checking the airstrip and setting up for my approach.  I'm just about to touch down when something on the right side catches my eye.  It's a make that 20.  I hesitate for a second to see which way they're gonna go, but as usual they run in terror directly down the airstrip.  I waste no time in aborting the landing, and come around for a second try.  On the ground, I unload the hospital freight, and load belongings for a missionary family that has been in Kipaka for more than 20 years.  They are "retiring" after starting from scratch and maintaining the hospital for so long.  Now it's their turn to hand over the job to a trained national.

Leaving a place...leaving home after more than 20 years would be hard on anyone.  And I can tell it's hard for these folks to say goodbye to their "family," but they get in the airplane with resolve, knowing the Lord has something else for them to do.  It's been my pleasure to fly many things down to them, everything from toilet paper to car parts.  They are truly cut off from the rest of the world.  The roads and bridges in every direction are all washed out and too dangerous to travel by car.  The airplane is the only lifeline, the only link for these people.

The hour and a half back to Bukavu is heart-wrenching for them, but with 50 miles to go, my attention is diverted to the task at hand.  Somehow the weather has turned horrible.  Low clouds, rain, fog, smoke, and mountains aren't a pleasant mix.  The mountains surrounding Bukavu is the only place in Congo that I've actually had to do real "ridge crossings."  We sometimes perform this maneuver to get from one valley to the next when there's a low layer of clouds.  These are to be done in a very certain way, at 100' minimum, so as to maintain the highest degree of safety...and I've been very close to that 100 feet before.

My original plan of going direct to Bukavu is quickly abandoned and I make my way over to the South pass.  I'm now 500 feet above the ground, working my way through rain showers, ever vigilant of that mountain goat hanging around in the clouds.  The South pass turns out to be so clogged with rain and clouds that I start to make my way even further south into my last option.  I'm pushing weather and my fuel reserves, so I am very cautious.

I see a break in the clouds and cross over one ridge and into a little bowl about 1/2 mile round.  My escape route is behind me, where I came from.  As I enter the "bowl" I realize it's just not going to work, so I add power and make a quick 180 degree turn.  But as I do, I realize my out is now gone, vanished, swallowed up by clouds.  I'm now stuck in this bowl, with the wind blowing the clouds, and me, closer and closer to a very large peak.  I say a quick prayer, and no sooner do I see a small hole open up in front of me.  I can see well enough on the other side to know that it's more open  and will provide more options than where I'm currently at.

So long bowl, nice knowing you.  I'm now in a small pass south of the South pass, and I pop out of the mountains over the town of Bukavu.  The familiar sights and less terra firma to hit ease my nerves a little.  As I head back north towards the airport, I look back up the South pass to see if it's even possible to get back to Kipaka today.  Nope, decision made, I'm staying in Bukavu, no way I'm doing that again.

No comments: