Friday, October 5, 2012

It Doesn't Rain, But It Pours

For the last few weeks as I have been waiting for the issue of my Ugandan pilots license, I have mostly been doing various odds and ends around the office and doing my best to stay busy and help out.  There have been a couple of times when I have been able to ride along on other flights.  This is the story of one of those flights.

As the day dawned, I had no idea what was in store for me.  My plan was to get a little bit of work done in the office and then grab a ride out to Kajjansi airfield with the pilot who was doing the flight to Bunia, East Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), that afternoon.  I had a few things that I needed to look at out at the airfield relating to some of the projects that I was working on.  I readied myself and made sure that I was up at the office ready to go out with the afternoon flight.  As HJ, the pilot, made his way into the office, he saw me and smiled.  "Want to come along?"

This question left me two options.  One, I could stay behind and finish what I had planned for the day ON THE GROUND, or two, I could go with him and get back into the air.  Flying won.  I hustled on home and changed into my flight gear.  On a whim, I grabbed my Kindle and threw it into my flight bag.  You never know when you may need something to pass the time.  Cross border flights must originate at a port of entry, and the closest one to us is Entebbe International Airport.  This means that when we head out to Bunia we have to first stop in Entebbe to go through immigration.  Flights to and from Bunia are usually quite full.  This day was no different, but there was still room for me because we were taking the two Grand Caravans.  Two aircraft were headed out because there were so many passengers whom we needed to bring back, and although there were many passengers, there were still a few seats open because we were taking a second airplane.  Does that make sense?  Also, although there were a lot of passengers who were waiting for a ride back to Uganda, there were only five who were riding outbound to the DRC.

Because it takes a while in Entebbe to clear immigration, we put all of the outbound passengers into one plane, and HJ and I took the other plane with most of the cargo.  Loading the planes this way meant that the passenger plane could depart as soon as all of the passengers were ready to go.  They could then get a bit of a head start on our plane, because with no passengers to go through immigration, our time spent in Entebbe would be brief and theirs would be a little longer.  When all of our cargo was loaded, we prepared our plane and headed out to Entebbe.  I've mentioned our cargo a couple of times.  This is because there was some special cargo on board this particular flight.  His name was Amigo.  He was headed to Bunia to bring some new life and happiness to a MAF missionary kid who lived there.  On a scale of enjoyment, I enjoy the humans we fly the most, but this little guy comes in a close second.

As I mentioned, we had only cargo in our plane, so we ended up getting airborne out of Entebbe about 20 minutes before the second plane did.  As we headed westwards out of Entebbe, the already dark clouds above us began to become increasingly darker.  Ever so slowly, the clouds forced us downwards as we tried to find a way through the wall of ominous darkness in front of us.  Making use of the on-board weather radar, we found our way out over Lake Albert.  Up to this point the visibility out the front window was up and down, at times we could see up to 10 miles but at other times we had to strain to make out the ground 3 to 4 miles in front of us.

Now, being over a lake comes complete with it's own set of pro's and con's.  Some of the pro's are that the visibility over the lake is often better during the day than it is over the land.  Also, if you do get forced downwards to avoid cloud, there is no worry of towers, wires, hills, mountains, or any other obstruction that one might potentially crash into.  The con's, however, are numerous as well.  Chief amongst them is the requirement to remain within gliding distance of land so that if your engine fails you while out over the water, you can crash land somewhere where you can keep your feet dry.  Also, the terrain surrounding a lake is always higher than the lake itself (in this case thousands of feet higher), and high on our list of things to do is to not get stuck out over the lake.  As we picked our way through the increasingly poor weather over the lake, we found ourselves within 20 miles of Bunia, but although we were close, we realized that we were currently flying below the elevation of the runway in Bunia.  This was not a happy scenario when we considered that above us was a dark canopy of cloud which prevented us from climbing.  We called the MAF folks in Bunia, "What's the weather like there?"  "It's clear and bright here.  We can still see the ridge to the east (this is the ridge that was between us and them) and it looks quite good from here!"

Well, then.  At this point we were 25 miles north of our intended course.  We turned the aircraft south to point the weather radar that way, and found that we should be able to make our way under one last band of cloud and then find ourselves in the clear.  As we found our way along the western shore of the lake underneath the ominous line of death in front of us, we could see light poking through the clouds on the other side.  Scarcely but a minute passed and we found ourselves in the clear.  The ridge to the west was lower and the clouds here were significantly higher than what we had previously encountered.  We turned the pointy end westward and soon found ourselves on the ground in Bunia.   Now our attention turned to the other airplane 20 minutes behind us.  He was just approaching the weather himself, and we did our best to describe the path that we had taken through the weather.  He made his decision and also took the northern route, but after about 30 minutes of trying to find his way through the clouds he couldn't find a way.  The weather had closed in behind us.  He turned and headed back to Entebbe before fuel starvation became an issue for him.

Back on the ground in Bunia, the weather moved over us and we found ourselves in a torrential downpour, complete with lightning and thunder.  No decision to be made now.  It was made for us.  We stay on the ground until the weather has unleashed its full fury on us and burned itself out.  In the meantime, our live cargo was unloaded and a happy father headed off to make a special delivery.

Time passed.

On every flight manifest there is a "Last take off time" listed.  This is the last time that we can take off and still make it back home with sunlight remaining.  As our last take off time approached, we realized that we were not going to make it home tonight.  We were going to have to spend the night in Bunia.  My first night in the Congo!

Remember the other plane?  Remember why we had sent two planes into the DRC?  Now we were faced with telling 20 passengers that none of them would be making it to Entebbe that night, and only half of them had a seat the following day when we returned to Uganda.  Yikes.  How do you decide who goes and who stays?  The obvious thing was to find out how many passengers had connecting flights to other countries from Uganda.  After much talk, we discovered that almost every passenger on these flights was headed to Entebbe to make connections to other foreign lands.  Sigh.  Other options were discussed.  Not only was there a storm keeping us on the ground, but a perfect storm of situations was keeping us from finding a solution to the problem of how to get all of these people to Entebbe.  Our airplanes were needed in South Sudan the following day, The MAF US team in East DRC were not available to cover our extra flight the next day, and on and on and on...

Hours later, after much had been talked about and nothing decided, we headed to the Jacobson's home in Bunia for the night.  They are a MAF East DRC family, and had graciously agreed to host us for the night.  This was the same family that we had brought the dog for, and it was fun to see their son enjoying his new little puppy.  Shortly after we arrived at their home, we received word that the MAF US folk had graciously rearranged several things and were going to cover the extra flight the next morning.  To say that there was much relief at this news is a gross understatement.  Changing into the clothes that I had packed in my flight bag 5 months before was very nice, and we thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the evening at the Jacobson's home.  The next morning the day dawned bright and clear, and several hours later saw us descending through the clear skies into Entebbe.

Often at the end of these stories I thank you for your prayers for us.  This one is no different.  Flying here is very different than anything that I ever imagined.   I used to wonder how long these missionary pilots flew in order to get so many stories, and now after a few short months I look back on this site and see my own stories beginning to pile up.  Many flights involve encounters with weather or other pilot decisions that effect flight safety.  I can't begin to tell you all the difference that it makes to know that so many people are lifting us all up in prayer.  Thank you.  A big thanks also to the MAF East DRC team who were so gracious in going out of their way and rearranging their day to help us out with our problem.  Now that I have my own Ugandan license and will soon be back in the air myself, I look forward to finding out what is going to happen next!

1 comment:

  1. Great post Dallas. Having only experienced flying over water in Alberta for the most part, it is interesting to consider being over water with drastically rising terrain all around. The temptation to keep descending (because there's no fear of obstacles) in order to stay clear of cloud could easily get an unexperienced pilot into trouble. Glad you're flying again now. Flying feels very far away for me (both in the past and the future). But we're passing the halfway mark here in Quebec! Woo Hoo.