Escaping the Storm

Zig-zagging between the rain cells like a wide-eyed goose avoiding the farmer’s dog, the weather radar directed us back and forth as we made our way to the remote airfield in South Sudan. I gasped a sigh of relief to finally spot the little dirt airstrip below. While we could now see the runway, the weather radar kept broadcasting colors of red and yellow, warning me of continued trouble, with heavy rain threatening in all quadrants.

I began to circle the airfield looking for the standing water and muddy ruts that would silently warn me not to land. The airfield seemed agreeable, as there were no obviously visible water patches, but I have been deceived before by such tranquil appearing settings. As I circled the runway again, I could now see what my weather radar had warned me about: hard rain was falling both to the north and south of the airstrip and was moving in toward us very quickly.

I turned to the local team leader seated next to me on the plane and spoke in what I hoped was a kind, though it was probably not the gentlest, tone stating, “There won’t be a meeting in the village, we’ll have to meet right on the runway and then leave immediately.” He had wanted to enter the village to conduct his meeting while the supplies were being unloaded, but based on the radar, soon the dirt airstrip would be a muddy skating rink, preventing us from leaving for at least a night or two.

Being my 6th landing of the day, I knew fatigue was lurking in the background, trying to trip me up with some omission or performance-based mistake. I double…no…I triple checked my landing checklist, knowing my arch enemy, fatigue, was hoping something would be left undone. We landed uneventfully, and I braked the heavily loaded Caravan to a stop.

Throngs of people came excitedly to the airplane, welcoming us to their little piece of the world. I jumped out of my seat, thankful to be on the ground, but too preoccupied with the advancing rain to fully enjoy the moment. Unstrapping the cargo, it quickly began to disappear as box by box was soon bouncing from head top to head top toward the nearby village.

With eighty-fold around the plane, the celebratory scene quickly turned on an edge, as worry began to spread amongst the group of who would be getting on the airplane for my return trip to Juba. We only had a few extra seats available. One of the two shot-up men came carried on a stretcher, the other in the arms of his friends. But during the loading, multiple uninjured people jumped through the cargo door and onto the plane, hoping for a ride back to Juba.

Shouts from all corners enveloped my ears, “Pilot…Pilot, this one needs to go” … “Pilot…listen to me, these two need to go.” Everyone had a seemingly urgent need, but only a few could be met. I reminded the missionary team leader that if we didn’t take off soon, we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a few days as the rain would soon be setting in. Over the pandemonium, I yelled again and again, “Two need to get off the plane!”, but my demand was completely ignored.

With the plane overloaded and people refusing to get off, I calmly walked to the back of the aircraft, sat down, and let my red muddied boots dangle over the cargo door. I have been in this situation before and have learned over time that the harder I yell, the less things seem to improve. I looked at the black streaks of rain moving in on us and thought, “Well, this is where I’ll be spending the night.”

Time went by as I continued to explain that too many were on the plane and two must come off. No one dared move from their spots on the floor or the seats they were compressed into.  As I gazed out the door, words of, “Pilot, it’s OK…it’s OK…they will just sit on the floor,” were being echoed about. Soon, though, a soldier approached the plane and then another, as a discussion commenced in the local language. Then suddenly one soldier jumped on board and began hauling a distraught older woman and a twenty-something man from the aircraft. The distressed woman’s pleas resonated with impact for all who heard her anguish as she was dragged from the plane. She was, presumably, the mother of one of the injured men, and was, no doubt, supposed to go along to take care of him. I felt bad. But not as bad as we would all feel if I took off overweight and impacted the airplane into the trees at the end of the runway.

With faint drops beginning to fall, I started the engine and began my takeoff checks. Taxiing to the departure end and beginning to turn the aircraft, I entered a muddy section. I could sense impending trouble as I advanced the throttle and the tires began digging deep into the mud. Within seconds it became apparent that no amount of engine torque could get us through this mud patch. I shut down the engine and jumped to the muddied ground.

“I need everyone off the plane as we need to lighten the load, so we can push the aircraft out of the mud!” I announced to the passengers. Two passengers jumped down while the rest hunkered down even deeper into their seats. I wasn’t surprised, they had secured a rare seat and they weren’t about to risk losing it. Exasperated, I gave up on them and solicited the help of 35 men who had just watched us get stuck. Grabbing the red tow bar from the underneath storage in the aft of the aircraft, I hooked it up to the nosewheel. We would have to get the aircraft rolling backward in a turn and then proceed forward again to align with the runway.

With the tires digging into the thick mud, I wasn’t sure it would move an inch in either direction, but it was worth one last try before conceding our day to the approaching wall of water that was descending from the sky. I tried to direct where 70 hands should go on the aircraft for pushing, with only a 6-second ground movement briefing. I doubt all of the Navy ground handling procedures I have learned in years gone past were put into practice, but instead, there was just a lot of pointing, as I wasn’t sure my English would deliver the desired effect.

Pushing on the tires and aircraft struts, the wheels reticently began moving from their muddy resting place. To my great relief, the aircraft slowly and clumsily turned backward, aligning itself with the runway. My newly commissioned aircraft moving team rejoiced with laughter thinking the job was all finished. Through the help of some translation, I told them we now needed to push the plane 50 more meters down the runway to a dry spot for our departure. Moving it 10 meters backwards was a chore. Fifty meters ahead was going to be like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I started pulling on the tow bar getting the nose wheel pointed toward solid ground, but then quickly realized I needed to be out in front directing this band.

With great protest, the wheels reluctantly began rolling forward, oblivious to their round design, instead pretending to be fashioned as squares. Pushing and pushing, the men dug their heels into the mud, refusing to give up. Momentum slowly began building as my band directing role changed to cheerleading. “You got this…don’t stop…don’t stop…keep it going,” I cheered as if the Seahawks were on a break-away run during the last down to win the Super Bowl.

By God’s grace and the strength He gave 35 hard working men, the plane made it that 50 meters, out of the mud and onto a dry section along the runway’s edge…the Super Bowl had been won!!!

Many thanks were quickly passed to the team as I prepared the aircraft once again for takeoff.  Shortly thereafter, back inside the cockpit, I started the plane and we zoomed down the runway and into the air with plenty of dry ground still present. All onboard breathed another sigh of relief to have escaped the impending storm.