Seven thousand feet below me, lost in a greenish mist, is a canopy of tightly packed trees. It stretches before me for hundreds of miles, and creeps behind for hundreds more. I’m flying over the rain forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, and simply known to us as “the congo.” Smack down in the middle of the continent of Africa my flight takes me over not only dense forest but over an unforgiving land ripped by wars and sad, brutal histories. Over gorillas and guerrillas. Over a featureless green void where signs of civilization are separated by huge distances. Trained and prepared for an unexpected emergency in the airplane, I occasionally brief through my checklists, make all the regular position reports on the radio, and scan the ground below for suitable landing sites. There are none. There have been none for the past hour and a half. Out my window are only the pale green tops of hundred foot trees. No fields, no roads, no clearings. I come to the realization that “going down” out here would mean being swallowed up by the rain forest and very likely never being found. I scan the engine instruments again, comforted by the steady needles all pointing in the green.
A few feet in front of me is a single engine and propeller turning at twenty-four hundred revolutions per minute. It is several hundred moving parts, steel and aluminum and brass, reciprocating in near-perfect balance with crushing pressures at intense temperatures, manufacturing torque out of carbon fuels. 4,800 controlled explosions every minute. Only 432,000 more power strokes to my destination, each one carrying me a little further along the route. Below my feet is the plumbing to a simple fuel system made up of critical components intertwined with the pulleys and bellcranks and thin steel cables which connect my hands to the flight control surfaces. To my right and left are the wings—held on with two small bolts each and constructed with thousands of tiny rivets and wobbly, thin aluminum sheets. Below me are the oversized, over-abused tires and beefy spring steel legs of my landing gear, covered in mud and peppered with little thorns. High in my aerial cocoon, my mind now turns to these many parts which hold me here. It is times like these, flying over jungles and war zones, that the complexity of the airplane and the limits to which we push it become vividly clear. From them we require maximum performance, unwavering endurance, unquestioned reliability, and a fair bit of abuse.
At the AIM AIR hangar in Nairobi, crammed into the top floor of the building is the flight department. Upstairs you will find the pilots in their white starched shirts and gold striped shoulders pouring over the myriad of details surrounding their next flight. But the one detail so often taken for granted is the question of the airplane. Will it withstand the grueling flight ahead? Descend to the hangar floor for an answer. Atop a great slab of cool concrete, under the hefty girders and metal roof—doors wide open to a view of Mount Kilimanjaro, is the place where the entire fleet is maintained. This floor is also the place of ministry for AIM AIR’s maintenance specialists. Here you will find an airplane undergoing a complete re-build. In the midst of the jigged up structure and blueprints pinned to the wall is one of the guys, heading up the year-long project and tending to each detail, each rivet, with concentrated effort. Here you will see a major inspection happening on a million dollar aircraft. One of the guys is coordinating the work of five other mechanics—making the hard decisions and ensuring that nothing is overlooked. Here you will see the guys tweaking and testing, adjusting and re-adjusting, studying and plodding through heaps of paperwork. Here you will find guys who rarely see the ministries that their efforts make possible, but who nonetheless keep on giving their hands to the work, and their hearts as well.
Over the Congo, I see now that it is not just seven thousand feet of atmosphere between myself and the threatening jungle below. Between is a perfectly functioning airplane pushed to it’s limits on a daily basis. Between is safety wire and locking pins and clean filters. Between are all the extra hours on the hangar floor, the Saturday spent “making it right,” and the double and triple checks. Between are the guys who have assembled this aircraft piece by piece, and in their expertise have made it worthy of such forbidding flights and such precious cargo. Flying in Africa I am daily made wise by the seriousness of the task that I am undertaking, and yet I am put at ease by the knowledge of the guys who maintain these airplanes—the guys who make the hangar floor their mission field, and who make these airplanes capable tools in the bringing of hope and life to the most unforgiving lands.