This was a full week, even though I flew only 4 days of it. I slept soundly last night, spent.
Nine hours in the air on Sunday started it off. Up to Kenya’s northern border with another pilot and then solo into Sudan flying for a small mission agency. I took five or six men back home, to one of the furthest points we fly to. It was good to fly in a straight line again. The rains have left Sudan. It’s dry, and hot again. Soon the dust will churn up in layers of belligerent winds to obscure the sky. But we can still fly straight through it, even if we can’t see a thing. The autopilot helped me a lot this day. I would miss it tomorrow.
Monday was a harder day. I was in one of our little planes, a Cessna 206, the one controllers at Lokichoggio affectionately call the “mosquito.” It’s slow, and the vast spaces of Sudan just seem too big for such a crawl. 99 knots when loaded and pointed into a light breeze. But it is economical to fly, and lots of missionaries like to use it. I went as far on Monday as I did on Sunday, but it took a lot longer. The place to which were going was a new airstrip for me. I knew nothing but a few coordinates which I hoped were right. They weren’t. When we arrived overhead, there wasn’t even a clearing in the scraggly trees to call a runway. A few miles to my left, however, looked promising, and so I wandered over that way. I figured this was it, but the runway still eluded my discerning eye. There was a village, and all kinds of clearings. I have a standard procedure for such questionable landing areas. I line up to land in one of the clearings, and if the passengers start yelling and making a fuss… then it’s probably not the runway. I picked right on the first try and rolled out on a rough, whitened plain of dusty soil and stopped where the huts were. The guys were elated to be home and thanked me several times. I managed a smile even though my rear-end was aching from the four hour journey. So I took a walk around the plane a few times before strapping back in for the four hour trip home. It was a rough trip back, one of those times when flying looses some of its allure.
Tuesday started early with an impossible load to fit in such a small plane. It was for missionaries going “home” to their post, and I didn’t want to deny them any little thing I could possibly squeeze in. So I took near an hour to pack, jam, unload and reload, rearrange and tie it all down. We were clearly underweight… but the bulk of it threatened to pop the doors open in mid-air. I wiggled in with the three passengers and blasted off for a glorious half-hour flight. Arriving at the mountain-top airstrip, I was delighted with the light winds, which would otherwise threaten my ability to take off down the valley with them on my tail. This place is possibly the roughest we go into. No matter how smoothly I roll the wheels onto the grass, it still rattles my brains, and ejects the contents of the glove compartment all over the cockpit.
These wonderful folks were happy to be “home.” A middle-aged missionary couple, with their son back from boarding school, here to spend Christmas on the mountain. Some of that stuff I so laboriously packed in the plane was their Christmas stuff. They thanked me. They asked me to thank my wife… for supporting me as a pilot. Because without the pilot, they would have no ministry here. I made a note to encourage Renee with that, and actually did some time after I got home.
But I wasn’t home yet, and even the taxi to the top of the airstrip before my takeoff roll proved to be a challenge. As I maneuvered around mounds of dirt and spots of soil that looked soft enough to sink into, I hit a little rise with the right wheel and spun around to the left, burying my right wing in the shrubbery. Stuck on a dry airstrip. The guys are going to get a laugh out of this one, I thought. I shut down the engine and got a little help pushing the plane into the clear. I hopped back in and blasted off, leaving the contents of the glove compartment, once again, all over the cabin. As I raised the flaps and gently curled the airplane around a ridge, I tuned the HF radio just in time to get a call from Nairobi.
“There’s a medivac at Lokotok. They need you there immediately.” And so I continued the turn, right past the heading I set for home, and direct to my new destination. “Standby for an ETA,” I blared back into the radio, and leveled off. It was all downhill from here, Lokotok being a little dirt strip at the foot of another mountain nearby.
Here is a mission station where a team of young and old missionaries are starting a new work, and training in ministry at the same time. One of the young women, betrayed by her mountain bike, was there at the airstrip in a shoddily tied sling and a bit of road rash across her face. I re-tied the sling for her broken shoulder, thanks to years of boy scout training, for what Nairobi Hospital would later call a “first-rate” job.
For all the reasons missionaries look forward to the sound of an approaching airplane, injury and illness are high on the list of good ones. I got to fly the little “mosquito” all the way back to Nairobi for my battered passenger, going up high and zig-zagging around clouds to keep the flight as smooth as possible. I did a reasonably good job at it, but was most thankful for the steady tailwind that graced our trip home – 127 knots… not too shabby for the 206.
I guess I didn’t get enough rest on Wednesday and Thursday because when I got up at 4:30 in the morning on Friday, I secretly wished I was a banker and not a pilot. What a silly thought. What banker gets to pierce an overcast sky at sunrise to be embraced by the warm, sunny blue expanse which is reserved for men who fly? I pointed the Caravan east. To Somalia. Americans don’t go there these days, so we only fly this way for local mission agencies with Kenyan staff. Two and a half hours in, a quick drop-off, and two and a half out. At the destination, a good straight length of grass in the eastern third of the country, we are met by a man named Mohammed, naturally, and a contingent of soldiers. They are all very friendly. It’s just that the country as a whole is not, and so I cannot waste any time on the ground. I make greetings and hand out a few newspapers. The folks I just dropped off are careful to remind me to pick them up again in a week. I smile a confident grin… of course we’ll pick you up. It is a pretty flight home, just me and the fair-weather cumulous clouds. I have time to listen to a sermon on my iPod and feel at home there above the world for a while. Among all the things I’m thankful for at that moment, it being Friday is certainly one of them.
Yeah, I was spent last night… but in the best kind of way.