Approaching short final to the mountain airstrip, my concentration focuses on the basics of airmanship: airspeed, rate of descent and stabilized power. I crab into the wind, observing that the windsock is gusting to the max allowed crosswind for the strip. Now over the grass runway threshold I kick in right rudder and align the aircraft with the runway just before touch down. Raising the flaps from full down to the up position, I brake hard on the runway bringing the aircraft to a stop with plenty of margin from the end of the runway, which drops off dramatically to the valley below. I call Home Base on the HF Radio trying to use my Captain voice telling them that we have “landed safely,” but I detect a quiver in the words, revealing the adrenaline that is still coursing through my veins.
This is the first landing of a three-day trip and my passengers and I are glad to be safely at our first destination. I bid farewell to the German missionary who was returning to her mission station and again load the South Sudanese mother and daughter aboard the aircraft. They do not speak English or Swahili, but regardless, I try to explain in both languages that we will only be flying another 20 minutes to our next destination, near Lake Turkana, for fuel. They nod and smile in agreement, and I somehow hope they understand. I wish I could tell them how uncomfortable the takeoff from this mountain strip will feel to them, but I cannot.
Completing the takeoff checklist and giving the windsock one last look, I see the wind is within our Standard Operating Procedures limits. I add power and we begin to quickly roll down the runway. Intentionally keeping the aircraft on the ground, I hold the yoke down, refusing to grant its request to fly. At ¾ of the runway distance, I let the airplane come off the ground but to only within a few feet of the surface, allowing the aircraft to build speed. The more speed the better, because I know what will happen at the end of the runway. With plenty of speed built up, we climb away from departure end as the gorge drops below us in dramatic fashion. Now fully exposed to the turbulent air from the ridgeline, we are tossed back and forth. “Easy on the Rudder, don’t overcorrect” I say to myself, as the airplane continues to climb despite being thrown around like a rag tossing in the washing machine.
We are through the turbulence for the moment, and we are all relieved as the ‘washing machine’ relinquished our little plane for smooth air once again. Landing at the nearby lakefront gravel airstrip, I quickly fill the plane with the AVGAS our mission has stored in barrels in a nearby container. My passengers ask if we have made it to our destination, but I try to communicate that we have another hour and half to fly before we can stop for the night.
Receiving word that the airstrip is dry, my South Sudanese passengers and I board the airplane for our 3 hour and 20 minute flight in the early morning hour. Our flight path will take us to a small village located near the South Sudan and Sudan border, but there will be no alternate airstrips available between here and there, so we must carry enough round trip fuel. En-route the three of us stare at the endless landscape before us. For miles and miles, swampland lies below us, creating a beautiful green hue, which deceivingly looks like land.
Our clear weather changes to haze, then drizzle begins to form on the windscreen as the ground becomes more difficult to see from the air. We continue to press on, as I hope we will be through the stratus cloud mass soon. After a minute of flying into the solid cloud layer, I realize our situation is not improving and I set the heading bug on my compass card for 180 degrees opposite of my course and begin to turn. Half way through my turn, a flash of lighting confirms what I feared. An embedded thunderstorm was lurking in the stratus layer. God was exceedingly gracious to keep us from penetrating the innards of the hidden giant. Retracing my previous course, the weather improves. Now I parallel the original course for 15 minutes to find good weather. In clear skies once again, I proceed direct to our destination. The diversion takes a precious bite out of our fuel reserves though, which may be an issue later in the day.
My passengers soon begin to recognize their homeland as we descend into their village airstrip. They talk back and forth in excitement as I prepare for landing. The rainy season has brought lush green grass to their region. As I make a short approach to the runway, the little lazy river near the end of the airstrip comes into full view. It is an idyllic setting worthy of any postcard. The landing is smooth on the dry black cotton soil, but a few lingering goats are surprised by my arrival and quickly dart from the runway as the aircraft comes to a stop.
With my passengers and supplies offloaded, I bring aboard a mother and her two-year-old daughter who is ailing from cancer. I am amazed that the little clinic located in this remote area can diagnose such disease here in the bush, but then again, I am learning to be surprised by a lot of things here in Africa.
As we fly back, I continue to work my fuel planning numbers to ensure an adequate reserve at my destination. We have one more stop, or should I say drop, to make. I am carrying the monthly payroll for a mission station wrapped in aluminum foil. The mission station runway is no longer serviceable so I will be air dropping the money. After an hour and half of flying, the GPS takes me to the right coordinates as I see two white sheets placed on the ground indicating the air-drop zone. Maneuvering the aircraft into position I open the window and slowly fly overhead, dropping the cash onto the target. Out of the corner of my eye, I briefly see men running on the ground and I resist the temptation to look back and watch what is happening. Men and airplanes have been lost before when the pilot looks back trying to admire his handiwork while impacting the trees. Instead, I circle the airplane back over the field, and am relieved to find the men walking back slowly and not frantically searching for the payroll.
They wave to us and I rock the wings in recognition of their greeting. From the air, the surrounding area looks peaceful, but it would not be peaceful for my passenger. She is from another tribal region and she would be in fear to land anywhere around here. Tribalism runs deep in this country as the civil war drags on.
As we continue our way back, the radio waves remain saturated with airplanes continuing to give their position reports over the South Sudan skies. United Nations cargo planes and helicopters constantly circumnavigate the country, dropping food and supplies. I keep a vigilant lookout for planes as I set course for the safety of our base, knowing the potential for mid-air collisions is a real threat. Monitoring the winds and fuel flow, I keep a keen eye on my fuel reserves, as I get an update on the weather at home. The flight goes well and I am relieved to be back on the ground in familiar territory once again.
The Last Leg Home
Today is the last day of my three-day trip. The mother and her baby and I begin our day with another early morning departure. The little one is a cutie and seems to be enjoying the adventure of travel wrapped in blankets and held in her mother’s loving arms. I have the privilege of holding her each time her mother gets in and out of the airplane. Surprisingly, she just looks up at me and fusses only a little as this strange white man holds her. We are going back to the mountain airstrip again before heading to Nairobi. I brief the mother in English about the bumpy flight going into the airstrip. Understanding English, she simply responds, “We are in God’s hands.” I lead us in prayer thanking God for the airplane and asking Him to teach us something new today about His wonderful creation before starting the engine. We are soon on our way and by noon we arrive to the bustling city of Nairobi, glad to be on the ground once again.