“Varsity Day”

Nate and Dan landing on a remote runway in Tanzania

Nate and Dan just after landing on a remote runway in Tanzania

Peering down over the windscreen, while trying to dodge the clouds that were pressing in on us, I examined the runway with trepidation.  A heavy Tanzanian rain shower was bearing hard from the sky at that moment, turning our little dirt and grass runway below into a swamp.  I thought to myself, “Are we really going to be able to land here?”  My aviation experience has been centered around 8,000 feet or more of runway, made out of concrete and asphalt, specifically designed to drain water.  But now, eight hundred feet below our Cessna 206, was grass and mud, and a missionary that needed to be medevac’d.  I looked over to the Chief Pilot, and said, “You kind of brought me out on a Varsity day today, Nate.”  Busily, Nate was surveying the situation and did not respond, but from the corner of my eye I saw him smile.

I anxiously awaited his assessment of the runway.  With years of experience under his belt, I would be trusting his judgment today on what our aircraft would be capable of within this challenging environment.

After a lap around the pattern, trying to avoid rain showers, Nate was matter of fact in his observations of the field conditions saying, “I think we can land safely, but I am not sure how much weight we will be able to take off with.”  With that, my Chief Pilot and I entered into a base turn for final and within two minutes we entered the flare.  As we descended onto the grass and dirt runway, the water and mud began spraying outward from our tires with such force that the underside of the wing became engulfed in water.  Not landing this leg of the flight, I had the benefit of seeing first-hand, the effect of our aircraft entering the muddy runway.  Nate maneuvered the aircraft to a stop and we both enjoyed a good sigh of relief.  I facetiously thought to myself, “Our landing resembled more of a floatplane landing on water than an aircraft landing on a runway.”

Safely on the ground we worked quickly to determine our options for our next big hurdle.  Would we be able to take off safely with the patient, his wife, and required baggage?  A wet and muddy runway requires extra field length.  We had some quick calculations to perform and needed to more thoroughly survey the runway, now that we were on the ground.  Nate jumped into another missionary’s awaiting vehicle and drove the length of the grass runway, measuring the exact distance with his handheld GPS, while closely examining the runway degradation resulting from the hard rain.  I loaded the aircraft with fuel we had brought in 20-liter cans and then weighed the missionaries’ baggage with a fish scale that hung from the wing strut.  Accurately accounting for every kilogram of weight would be vital for our safe takeoff.

Nate returned with good news.  The runway was actually longer than what we had previously been told and the slope of the runway was making the water run off quickly.  Our information about this runway before arriving had been sketchy.  Our aerial evaluation before landing had been effective, but now with the knowledge that we had several hundred more feet of runway available, our takeoff could be safely done with passengers and all baggage.

The missionaries were relieved to be leaving soon.  They had driven 7 hours to the nearby Tanzanian hospital, with his suspected appendicitis.  Surgery at the remote hospital was possible, but unadvisable due to post-surgery complications that could always arise when performed in areas of limited resources.  Driving two more days up to our AIM hospital in Kenya would be unthinkable with the current situation.  With the patient and his wife safely aboard, we were led in prayer by another missionary, who had been helping the couple and we headed for the sky once again.  Our takeoff went smoothly and we crossed the green Tanzanian landscape for the Kilimanjaro Airport.  The airport was not on our way to Nairobi, yet it was essential that we stop there for compliance with our country clearance.  Even though we were a medevac, we still needed to have our medevac passengers clear customs out of Tanzania and into Kenya correctly.  Thus we detoured to Kilimanjaro Airport for customs, receiving expedited treatment by helpful agents, allowing a quick departure for Nairobi.

Safely back in Nairobi, with our missionaries finishing their last leg to the hospital now by car, I began to reflect on what I had witnessed for the day.  Teamwork…teamwork…teamwork.  From the whole AIM Family there had been tremendous teamwork displayed to ensure that one of our missionaries was safely transported from his remote location in Tanzania to our AIM hospital in Kenya.  Teammates had driven them 7 hours to the hospital in Tanzania.   During that time and their subsequent arrival at the Tanzanian hospital, many medical personnel worked numerous hours in coordinating the required details of his care.  Those back at the AIM Air Hangar had worked country clearance issues and ensured the plane was ready for departure.  Another fellow servant graciously drove them the 64 kilometers from the airport to the hospital, while the AIM hospital staff prepared for their arrival.  And the many who could not be present physically, yet were faithfully praying back at home and providing financial resources so that we all could be here serving.  God used His servants, combining their gifts and skills together to care for a fellow missionary who was in need of His help.  Seeing such coordination and Teamwork reminds me of the great blessing to be working for our Lord in the Family of God!  Praise God for His provision and care for His children!!!

Your fellow servant,