Over the years I have had the pleasure of training many of our guys in the Cessna Caravan, checking them out for operations into Sudan and other hard places, and then later watching them venture off much the way I did years ago as one of the newer guys. I’m still doing this, and lately the training flights have become a sort of highlight. I am learning see AIM’s ministry with a longer view than I have before. And as I train guys to fly AIM AIR’s mission into the future I see a bigger picture and it makes me glad. It’s a view I’ve always had access to but perhaps missed because I was one of the guys rocketing off into Sudan for the week, focused more on the task at hand than the task for the next few decades. Being a manager and an administrator now, I don’t much get to the front lines of the present battle anymore. But I can still see where we are going, and more importantly, why.
The following essay came from a fleeting moment with my face pressed to the plexiglass out the copilot’s window one afternoon.
The View From the Right Seat
Looking down while the earth rolls past in the mesmerizing arc of a level steep turn, I grip the bottom of my seat, lean into the five-point harness, and grin. I catch a glimpse of our shadow on the earth below. It’s moving fast across a field and a dirt road, that unmistakable silhouette of an aircraft, a dark symmetry of wing and fuselage, making a tight circle to the right after making one to the left. To see an airplane consume so much noise and motion and go nowhere must seem quite purposeless from the ground. But our maneuvers are intentional. From the steep turns to the stalls, and the many takeoffs and landings we pound out on a thin strip of dirt outside of Kajiado town, just south of our base in Nairobi, our activities are all part of a plan. A plan called out from the right seat—from a guy with a clipboard and a watchful eye beneath a pair of teardrop sunglasses. The one-hour flight will qualify as one of the many proficiency checks we require of each pilot at AIM AIR, and I’m the check pilot on this ride. In the left seat—the pilot’s seat—is one of my colleagues from among our team of missionary aviators. He’s an above-average airman, like most of the guys I fly with. He’s a professional and a servant. And he’s probably having a lot less fun than I am right now.
Don’t get me wrong, my rides are fair. But it’s a well accepted fact that left seat is the “hot seat” when it comes to checkrides. And for the resilient souls who embrace a life of aviation, the checkrides never end. There will always be another. Another day is soon approaching when a pilot will be called upon to perform—to demonstrate his mastery over this fantastic machine—and do it well. What hangs in the balance as he hangs there in the sky is often over-inflated in the mind of the poor guy who’s being checked. His pride, the respect and admiration of his peers, his career, his worth. For such a disciplined bunch, pilots can be oddly irrational at times. Especially when the guy with the clipboard jots a surreptitious note in the margin of your evaluation form. Or when the simulated instrument flight is wed to a simulated instrument failure and, impossibly, the engine suddenly “fails” at the wicked hand of a grinning check pilot. When you jump from one checklist to another wondering what you missed while a very real million-dollar airplane sighs heavily and starts a downward trek to the very real earth below. These machines can humble the best of pilots, and we need to be reminded of it. We need to constantly sharpen our response, refine our procedure, and perfect our technique. My rides are fair, but they tend to cause perspiration. They need to.
Sudan entered its long rainy season this month. Great swaths of the murky Sudanese sky will go grey and menacing. A wall of thunderstorms will stretch for eighty miles and block the flightpath. The airstrips will go sticky like a deep pan of brownies. There is still not a single reliable navigational aid or useful weather reporting station in the entire country. In the Congo, the Ituri is still a forbidding expanse of rain forest canopy. There are fewer alternate airports than there were last year. There are precious few options for fuel. Last month, the Lord’s Resistance Army invaded nearby our post at Zemio. Last week we blew an engine oil seal on the Caravan mid flight. At night, the stars are the brightest lights a pilot will see past the instrument panel. On a thousand mile journey across Ethiopia, the faint and infrequent voice of Nairobi Flight Following is the only voice he will hear—if he hears any at all. Landing at the destination he will find the airstrip jammed with people and animals. When he loads for departure he will discover the passengers have too much cargo. Opening a drum, he will discover the fuel has water in it. The government officials will harass and distract him while he performs critical preflight checks. He will be torn between taking off downhill with a tailwind or uphill with a headwind. The pilot will stare at his abort point through sweat pouring off his face as he rockets down a rock-strewn runway. A door will pop open when he rotates. And it will all seem normal, natural—but not entirely comfortable. For the many checkrides and training flights we give and take make it so.
Here at Kajiado, as we make another circle for landing, I pop the flap-system circuit breaker with practiced slight of hand. I watch as the pilot completes his checklist and slowly becomes uneasy with how the airplane is flying. I know the flaps never actually extended, but this is something he will need to discover for himself before we get precariously slow on the approach. From the right seat I see the uncertainty build, and I see the moment of truth where training and experience reveal the anomaly, and correct it. I see quite a bit from the right seat actually: the slightest deviation from a directed altitude or airspeed, a missed radio call, or a hesitation in an emergency procedure. But sometimes, when the pilot flies sharp and smooth, I look down out the window. And here I see our shadow dip and rise with the contours of an African landscape. I am reminded of the harsh and unforgiving environment in which we fly, and I am reminded of why we train so hard; why we fly at all. I see the silhouette of an airplane making haste; speeding the gospel; reaching the lost. And this is why I grin.