Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Flights

The first flight that I'd like to share about happened one week ago.  Most of my flights are shuttle flights.  This means that the people who I fly are only charged for the seat that they are sitting in, not the whole airplane.  This flight was different.  I'm not 100% sure, but I think that it may have even been my first charter.  On a charter, the whole airplane is "chartered" for the entire flight so that the people can haul a whole plane load of goods, or fill it full of people and the flight is only to the destination that they need to go to, not various locations all over the place.  On this particular Tuesday morning nothing ended up going as planned, but it ended up being one of my most favorite flights that I have done up to this point.

The first glitch of the morning came as I was waiting for my passengers at Entebbe International Airport.  It is a 9 minute flight from our home base at Kajjansi, and I had made the short flight over that morning.  The plan was for me to pick up my passengers and cargo, and depart from Entebbe to a small town in South Sudan where they would be dropped off.  As I sat in my airplane waiting for them to arrive, my phone jangled in my pocket.  After a short conversation, I fired up my engine and headed back to Kajjansi where my passengers were waiting for me.  This already created a problem, as in order to get to South Sudan and back, I needed a substantial amount of fuel.  International flights are required to depart the country from an airport that has immigration.  This meant that I needed to take my full plane back to Entebbe before leaving for South Sudan, and this meant that with my fuel load I would be above my maximum landing weight at Entebbe.  After discussing various scenarios, I decided that a slightly different routing would serve us best.  With the high weight, I could depart Kajjansi for Arua, a town in northern Uganda.  There I would have burned enough fuel to land safely, and I could also take on more fuel upon landing.  Arua is the only place "up country" where we have a supply of aviation fuel.  This routing did make the flight longer, but it was also the only routing that let me make the flight with all of the cargo that my passengers were hoping to bring with them.  In Arua we would be able to clear immigration and be able to head into South Sudan to our final destination. 

My passengers that morning were two ladies and an infant.  One of the ladies was the missionary who worked in the village that we were headed to.  She and her husband had been on home assignment for the last 6 months.  During that time they had  been blessed with the arrival of their first child, a baby girl.  The second lady was a friend who had come over to be a helping hand for the first little while as this new family adjusted to life with a child.  I wasn't able to take a picture of my little plane after it was loaded up, but I smiled as I looked at it.  It reminded me of many of the pictures of missionary planes I have seen over the years; loaded from front to rear, floor to ceiling.  There remained only enough room for my most precious cargo, these two ladies and one child heading to their home in South Sudan. 

The reason that the husband was not flying along with us on this flight was that the previous day he and one of his missionary friends had started the long drive north in the "new" vehicle that they had just purchased.  The plan was that they would arrive at about the same time that our flight would land.  At this time the husband's missionary friend would board an MAF flight to his village, located a short flight away.   The other slightly weird thing about this was that I could not take the missionary friend to his home because the airstrip at his village was one which requires a certain amount of experience as well as a check flight there, neither of which I had.  This meant that another MAF plane was going to arrive at about the same time that I was.  I would drop off my passengers and cargo, my passenger would meet up with her husband, and the missionary friend would hop on the other plane for the trip to his village.  All of this needing to come together in two countries which are located on a continent known for it's laid back approach to time keeping.  Nothing too complex, right? 

The flight went very well.  The infant behaved better than I would have even hoped for.  The stop in Arua went very well.  The only hiccup there was that the two guys who were fueling my plane accidentally put in 15 extra litres.  This may not sound like much, but again it came down to my maximum landing weight.  Further figuring told me that a mere 6 minutes of circling once we arrived would burn off the required fuel and I would be able to land within the weight restrictions.  The flight there went fairly well, nothing out of the usual.  It was the talk on the radio on my way there that made the flight interesting.  The second MAF plane which needed to be there to pick up the missionary friend landed about 30 minutes in front of me.  The maintenance on this particular airstrip is not known to be spectacular, and upon landing there my co-worker said, "This is not a good runway!"  Since he was flying a Cessna Caravan, which is substantially larger and has much "beefier" landing gear than the gear on my Cessna 206, this caught my attention.  As I would be landing there in 30 minutes, I asked my colleague if he would be kind enough to "walk the strip" for me and let me know what he saw upon closer inspection.  He did so, and upon receiving the information that he provided I made a decision.  The decision was that I would do a low pass upon arrival, taking a close look for myself at the condition of the runway.  This would allow me to make a decision about landing there, and it also gave me something constructive to do with the additional six minutes that I needed to fly to burn fuel before landing. 

My low pass confirmed that the information which my colleague had passed to me was indeed accurate, and I would be able to land.  Because of the nasty condition of the first 250 meters of the runway, I decided to land 250 meters into the strip.  As my wheels touched down within inches of my "spot", I smiled as I thought of my former flight students and the many ways which I used to try to convey the importance of being able to land exactly where they wanted to.  If they saw this runway they would understand.  After coming to a stop and shutting down my engine, I climbed out of the plane and turned to take the baby girl from her mother.  After she had climbed out, I returned the child to her mother so that she could introduce her baby to what appeared to be the entire village which had gathered upon our arrival. 

This flight is a highlite for me for two reasons; 1) Being able to see years of training coming to fruition in a practical way in front of my eyes.  2) Seeing the way that the people of the village gathered around to meet this little girl.  It was clear to me that this family was loved and respected, and that they had built many close relationships with the people there.  Seeing the reception that this mother and daughter received reminded me of why I am here doing this.  The work that is being done by the people that we fly is of an eternal value, and it is a privilege to have even a small part in it.

The second flight that I'd like to share about happened just yesterday.  Yesterday I flew up to a town called Soroti, in central Uganda.  I was up there to pick up two men from California whom I had dropped off about 10 days before.  Sure enough, they were there waiting for me as I landed.  As I loaded up their luggage and made sure that everything was ready for flight I took the time to chat with them a little.  What they shared with me made me smile again.  The church that they are a part of in California has started a training institute in Soroti where they are training Ugandan pastors and teachers who can then go out and minister in their own villages.  These men had been there to teach a Church History course.  Near the end of their time there, they had gone out with some of the students and pastors to take part in some open air meetings that were going on at the time.  They shared with me that during the nights that they were there, they witnessed over 200 people respond to the news of the gospel and trust in Jesus!  I have to say that this news made the uneventful flight back to Kajjansi a great one. 

Thanks again to all of you who pray for and support the ministry of MAF all around the world.  Stories like these wouldn't happen without each of you doing what God has called you to do and serving Him where He has placed us all each and every day!

Oh yeah, the missionary friend up in South Sudan...

It's kind of a funny conclusion to that story.  My co-worker filled me in about what had happened later on.  They had been driving for about a day and a half to try and be there when we landed.  The missionary friend, you'll remember, needed an MAF flight to his nearby village, as due to the rain the roads were impassable.  The husband and missionary friend were just approaching the airfield in their vehicle as I taxied back to the start of the runway in preparation for taking off.  Since there was no reason that they knew of for TWO airplanes to be there at the same time, they wrongly assumed that he was missing his flight.  The window of the vehicle was rolled down and the friend climbed as far out of the vehicle as he could without falling out, waving his arms and yelling in an effort to catch my attention so that he could board his flight.  The husband decided that a straight line would be the most efficient way to get there and abandoned the road in an effort to get his friend there before I took off, whipping his friend by the bushes and soaking him with splashing water as they charged through the brush towards me.  Of course, I had no idea that this was going on behind me and reached the end of the runway, turned around, and took off.  The missionary friend lost all enthusiasm at that moment, and stood there looking up at my departing aircraft with his shoulders slumped in a look of total despondency.  All of that effort, only to miss the flight by 1 minute.  My colleague told me that he just stood there beside his airplane, grinning as he waited to be noticed.  The missionary friend made his flight and made it home to his wife and kids that afternoon.  It's good to be a pilot!

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