Crossing the arid red and brown African landscape 7500 feet below me, this morning is especially beautiful as my early morning departure from a Northern Kenyan mission station offers a unique view of the countryside below. Having spent the night in the mission guesthouse, I had risen from a restless sleep well before the sun had decided to enter my world to pre-flight the airplane in the dark, making sure all was ready for my post dawn departure.
The night before my plans had been suddenly interrupted by a voice calling from the darkness of the night. I had been scheduled to return to Nairobi in the morning, but Eddie Andersen, my missionary host for the previous night, had reported that home base was trying to reach me.
Without cell phones in this location, communication is always challenging, but just prior heading to bed, the Andersens had received an email that a Medevac flight was needed for a sick man from Marsabit to Nairobi. Without airfield lighting in most parts of Africa, medevac flights have to wait until first light. So I had done some preflight planning with Eddie before calling it a night.
As I enjoyed the beauty of the African landscape waking up from its 12-hour equatorial slumber, I was surprised by how my Cessna 206 was being jostled about like a boy’s paper airplane being flown on a windy day. Usually the desert floor here heats up throughout the day and convective lifting makes considerable turbulence in the afternoon hours. Experiencing such turbulence so early in the morning was unusual, and quite unenjoyable.
Within 30 minutes I was approaching the mountains of Marsabit as the turbulence began to increase in intensity. The high winds rolling down the mountains began to move the plane more violently to and fro, prompting me to cinch my shoulder straps a little tighter. Only 5 miles now from the Marsabit runway, I had descended to 1000 feet above the ground, but clouds were precluding my approach any further. I began to circle, evaluating the situation to assess if there was another approach path clear of clouds that could get me into the little runway nestled in the mountains. I saw something tempting. Closer to the ground there was a break in the clouds that could potentially lead to the airfield. Potentially. “Potentially,” though, is a dangerous word in the aviation business and can lead to accidents. I prefer “knowns” to “potentials”, especially with the words of my missionary host still fresh in my mind from the previous night, as he had described to me how pilots had been killed in the Marsabit Mountains before.
I dialed up base on the HF radio and said, “Base, communicate with the Medevac personnel that I can’t make it to Marsabit because of the weather. Have them drive the patient to Segal. I’ll pick them up there.”
Our flight follower had the cell phone number of those needing the medevac and, thankfully, cell coverage was in abundance at the mountain airstrip. They were already in the car and would be down the road in 45 minutes to the desert strip that lay on the edge of the mountain.
Landing on the remote strip, I waited. It is always a little eerie landing alone on a remote strip without any other soul for miles around. As the engine winds down and the fuselage of the airplane gives one last shutter in response to the motor’s refusal to run without avgas, silence immediately begins to rule at these remote strips. There is no sound of machines whirling or people talking, just silence that brings the pleasant, but also strange feeling of immediate isolation from the world in which I normally live.
In the silence, I prepare the aircraft for my medevac patient. Before long, I see a car approaching in the distance, indicating the arrival of the friends and family who had dispatched me to assist their family member.
My patient arrives. A tall, well-dressed Muslim man, who looks ill, yet is able to walk to the airplane, albeit with the guarded steps of man whose health is poor. He speaks no English or Swahili, but another well-dressed man accompanying him speaks excellent English. I help our sick patient into the aircraft and then help him strap into the seat. I explain that the turbulence will be bad at first, but as we climb, it would get better. His friend translates for me and I make preparations to start the engine. After praying for our journey back to Nairobi, the engine cranks up in obedience to the avgas that now pours into its cylinders and we take off down the runway.
Our flight to Nairobi will take two hours and we will have little conversation in between the rugged terrain that lies below. Two hours later, now safely on the ground at Wilson Airport, the patient begins his next journey to the hospital while I taxi my little plane to the Hangar, thankful to be used by God on this new day in East Africa.