Today I flew in an African sky that was sometimes rough and rain-swept, sometimes velvet blue and crisp and smooth. I watched the little white clouds tick by below my wings, and below them, the muted green hue of scrub brush and new grass interspersed with Kenya’s Mars-red soil. In my left hand I held the yoke of an old friend, and with a light touch, steered the Caravan on a homeward course.
This, my first flight back, was a two-day trip far north into Ethiopia, and then beyond to an un-namable place. I traveled with two other AIM AIR pilots which made for cheerful company both in the air and on the ground. It felt good to be back in the left seat, belted in snugly like a part of the airplane. My jet-fuel stained flight uniform and squeaky leather boots. My mini pilot-clipboard strapped around a knee, sunglasses and an aviation headset framing my face. The comforting sounds of the radios and friends in my ear. At home at twelve thousand feet – at peace above a restless continent.
We flew up on Wednesday, and back home on Thursday. Our overnight was in an unfamiliar place in a precarious little corner of Africa. We stayed at “Rob’s Hotel,” which stood out as an overdeveloped cluster of buildings made of tile and arches set in a pebbly, arid, and insecure town. We were delivered by our armed escort from the airstrip into the care of the armed guards at the fortified gates of the hotel. Inside was a comfortable setting and good food. Posted near the door in our rooms was a welcoming message to the hotel’s “honorable guests” with best wishes for a pleasant stay. It boasted of amenities such as laundry service and wireless internet, as well as a matter-of-fact reminder that alcohol was forbidden on the premises and, in case it wasn’t already a given, “weapons and explosive devices are also strictly forbidden.” Yep, back in Africa.
I slept solidly after the long day’s flight, and to bed early enough to be wide awake for the 5 am “call to prayer” resonating from a mosque somewhere outside the compound walls. It was a good reminder to pray myself, which when I did came out mostly as thanksgiving. Thanks for the health and strength and opportunity to fly and serve again here in Africa. Thanks for God’s guiding hand in our lives. And there in that place I cannot name, thanks for the light of the gospel which lights my way.
We took off fairly early on Thursday from a rocky airstrip in the hills, just a few passengers and we three crew – myself and Jim, trying to build some flying time and re-familiarize ourselves with the airplane, and Andy there to oversee. At times we had more pilots than passengers, which left plenty of available energy to quiz one another on the flight manuals, and laugh at each-other’s lame attempts to schmooz out an answer to something we clearly hadn’t studied. Andy, in the meanwhile, wove a web of wires connecting our three headsets over a voice activated intercom, and then wired in an iPod and a Grisham “book on tape”. We soared around puffy fair-weather cumulus, and occasionally around a small thunderhead and a blast of rain. If the seatbelt didn’t hold me through the turbulence, I thought surely the tangle of cords would.
At times, Jim would lose interest and retreat to the back of the plane to chat with the passengers. Each time he moved, I would have to re-trim the pitch controls as the poor airplane’s center of gravity shifted with Jim’s whimsy of seat selections. It’s difficult to characterize “Captain Jim”. After something like 27 years of service flying in Africa, he is, for good or ill, a legend. On a long flight, he is pure entertainment. There are the unbelievable stories, the exploits, the international incidents. But there’s also the endearing way Jim can pour his limitless energy into something seemingly mundane. Like the way he scored thirty-two free Burger King Whoppers this last furlough. I heard the amazing details of the scheme twice on our leg home. Once when he explained it to me. And the second time as he relayed it, like an insider’s stock tip, to the passengers in the back of the plane. Even over the roar of the engine and through the noise-canceling circuitry of my headsets, I could glean Jim’s pearls from the conversation in the aft seating area. I smiled and steered on, making slight corrections in altitude and course.
For some brief moments, while air traffic control had nothing to say, while Andy was engrossed in his audio book, and Jim was swapping stories in the back, I had the airplane and the sky seemingly all to myself. It was noisy, but quiet. All fury and motion yet still. Flying the plane was, unexpectedly, like “riding a bike” – natural and easy and fun. And it was like I had never left.
Renee and the kids and I have settled back in quite well after two weeks. In reconnecting with friends and coworkers, in the familiarity of our home and hometown, in the the warm sun on our faces… we feel like we are once again where we belong. And in the view from the sky these past two days, I can see that we are.