The sandy airstrip is a 900 meter line drawn down the Kurungu valley, like a hyphen in the middle of a long sentence. From the air it looks inviting – an open expanse of yellow in a sea of green acacia trees. Once on the ground, however, the illusion disappears. The Kurungu airstrip comes to a crown in the middle – either end invisible from the other. And at both ends, the trees tower in a beautiful and menacing way. Kurungu is a weight-limited airstrip for our operations. And today I have the Cessna 210 parked at its northern extremity. It’s now time to depart for Nairobi, for perhaps my last leg out of the bush before we head home to America for a time, and the takeoff promises to be tight.
After we’re loaded up with our measured baggage, and my usual preflight check is finished, I eye a spot toward the centerline of the strip, just fifty feet or so away from the airplane, and move toward it. The bustle of people around the plane fades as my boots crunch along. Head low and eyes squinting shut, I watch my footsteps and think about how many times I’ve done this. Like a dog that paces in a circle before setting down to sleep, my little ritual is partly for my own comfort, and partly something to laugh at if you’re not the dog. I find my spot and stand still. And then I close my eyes and listen to the wind.
The wind speaks to a pilot – sometimes in a friendly voice, and other times not. Facing the gentle gale, eyes shut and chin up (smiling slightly,) I turn my body until the airflow breaks over my right ear creating a sound like the rumble of a microphone caught in a breeze without its fuzzy cover. At that very spot, I kick my boot fore and aft in the dirt, drawing a line. Turning to the left I repeat the motions at the cue of my other ear, and opening my eyes I look down to see an arrow drawn on the earth. The little scar is as fleeting as the wind itself, but it will serve its purpose. It tells me which direction the gusty breeze is averaging to. That, with the motion of the trees, tells me what to expect on takeoff – if I should be especially cautious, or if the sky is giving me a little gift today: A stiff headwind and more altitude over the trees at the end of the runway.
Of all the challenges I’ve encountered flying in Africa, some of the scariest things I’ve done have been tailwind takeoffs. (Sometimes there’s just no other option.) Because an airplane, once its wheels leave the kiss of the earth, becomes one with the wind, and moves accordingly. The trees, on the other hand, stay right where they are.
Wind on the tail means a shallow climb. On the nose, a steep climb. A crosswind combines one of those with the added excitement of drifting toward the foliage just a wingspan from centerline. Today I will have a quartering headwind if I throttle up to the south. I’ll take any headwind I can get here at Kurungu, so south it is.
I am amazed at how our “normal” flying in Africa still quickens my pulse. I’ve not lost that healthy fear of flying so essential to a bush pilot. A fear of overloaded airplanes. Of mud and mountains. Of the wind which, well, can change like the wind. Ten years of experience, and I still double check my numbers. Still stroll down the runway and kick an arrow in the sand.
At the northern side now, nose pointed south, half the runway out of sight as it drops down below the crown, I am disheartened at how short the whole airstrip looks. I’ve been here before. Disheartened at this very picture. The calculations say it will be fine. My heart says, “whoa!” You can only account for so much with a cardboard slide-rule from the bottom of your flight bag. The variables are complex. How soft is soft? How shifty are the whims of the wind? And so I pick a point at which to abort––some bush or noticeable discoloration in the dirt. If the airplane can’t accelerate to expectations by the mark, I’ll yank the throttle and shutter to a stop, and figure out later what to do next.
Now the airplane and I sit idle – the engine sipping fuel and sounding like a Harley. The throttle ready in my right hand. The abort point fixed in my sights. It’s mid-morning here at Kurungu, but it feels like ‘high noon’ as I stare steely-eyed at the trees nine hundred meters opposite. A goat ambles across the airstrip, like a wisp of tumbleweed, oblivious to the tension around it. I glance at the abort point again, and mash the throttle forward swiftly. We roar, shutter, roll, and eventually fly – clearing the trees just as my cardboard calculator said we would.
The rest of the day would be easy and adrenaline-free. A high altitude cruise back home, above the bumps and the clouds. Cool air and a friend in the seat next to me. Ted and I came out to Kurungu to shoot video for a ministry project. It was the sort of flight we dreamed about years ago when together we brainstormed the idea of a media team for AIM based on the field. So with cameras in tow, and a bunch of our kids in the back seat, we headed up to this green valley in Northern Kenya for a few days “on assignment.” It was a great mix of flying and filming. But it was really all about serving. It’s always about that, which is one of the best things about our jobs.
I remember some years ago when the Army came up with a clever ad campaign (later adopted by the Peace Corps) “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” They dropped it some time later for a less clever campaign, but the old slogan pops into my head pretty often out here… At those moments when I’m the most tired, the most scared, or the most blessed – to serve alongside a good friend, and to be a servant to some really good people. Three days in Kurungu helped me to see it again.