Saturday, December 10, 2011

Three Pilots

The white shirt sports blotches of brown and a black line along the back of my neck. Despite washing it in the sink last night on the UN compound, it lacks the brilliance of the other pilots on the gravel ramp. I watch as four pilots open the pod doors of two caravans, and a line of seven UN and Red Cross land cruisers slowly advance to retrieve the supplies. I sit down on my main wheel tire, next to the “baby airplane” the 206. A full load sits behind my pilot seat, ready to be flown, then carried on four-wheelers to our drop zone. Sacks of grain, beans, and lentils, a box of supplies for expectant mothers, a nutritionists supply set, bottled water and boxes of soap all wait with me for the “OK” to depart.

As the caravans unload, I realize this ramp is the end of the line for them, but for me it’s the beginning.

Thirty five nautical miles away thousands shelter under trees, wanting to escape the violence their own country inflicted on them. Last week our airplanes brought the four-wheelers as close as possible to the refugees. A team from our partners, Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international relief organization, hit the ground and rode in to meet and begin caring for the war weary people. Many were tired, drinking brackish water, and boiling leaves and grass for sustenance. They grouped together under the trees living on the little they brought. The relief effort initially consisted of survival. Our partners drank the same water and lived on crackers until additional food could be arranged.

In two days they cleared a drop zone. Meanwhile, several of our team DC3 began practicing air drops with the DC3 near our main base at Nairobi. After good results, they rushed to the drop zone. Over the next four days they dropped over 40 tons of food, shelter material, and cook ware.

I met up with them on their second to last day. Our partner organization wanted to slash out a new airstrip near the refugees. I guessed this was to deliver various supplies (water bottles don’t survive air drops well), and provide better evacuation options. Once I landed, I would jump on a four wheeler with them and explore the options.

I asked questions about the airstrip idea, and it seemed daunting, to say the least, and the reason for the airstrip was not clearly defined. They wanted me to rotate out a couple staff members, and bring one in.

I left my bags in the small metal box of a room on the UN compound that I was sharing with the SP guy there. Several staff members with the UNHCR wanted to talk to the Samaritan’s Purse guy. They had discussed amongst themselves how many refugees had arrived, and also debated how much food SP had dropped. We smiled at the thought of these guys sitting in meetings debating the work SP had down. Most of the HCR staff was eager to get in, but were waiting on travel arrangements and permissions.

One of the staffers looked at me and told me “We looked at flying with you guys, but after talking to Juba, they said we aren’t allowed to.” I shrugged. No need to tell him we serve only the mission and church community. I thought it was interesting the UN also prevented it from being an option.

“You know, there was heavy bombing in the area today.” One of them said.

“How far away from the drop zone?” I asked

“About 25 kilometers. In the world of aerial bombardment, that’s not very far.”

I had heard this earlier today, but was not sure how accurate it was. I began pressing for details. Finally, I decided to send a text message to our operations in Nairobi. It started a chain reaction, and several international calls were made back and forth to determine our next step. I went to sleep under the AC unit in our box, and wondered how the next days would unfold.

I was told early the next morning that none of our airplanes were cleared to fly and wait for further advice.

We loaded the three tons of bags into the DC3 so it was ready for its first run that day, and then readied the 206 for its flight. And we waited, talked on the phone, and waited. At one point the local army said the bombing was insignificant and was not a problem for us. It’s been going on for weeks. It looked like we would be able to go soon. Then, another phone call changed that. Another army division commander said we needed to stay on the ground RIGHT NOW. So we went back to waiting.

While sitting inside the DC3 fuselage, we talked about the Russian made bombers who had wreaked devastation on the darker citizens of this country for decades. One of our pilots said he had seen some of their pilots: all were from eastern Europe doing the bombing runs as a job. I thought of the Russian crews that fly for the UN, in Russian made hardware, and wondered if they knew these bomber pilots. Even worse, if they had done both jobs.

The next phone call told us we should unload the DC3. I needed to take the 206 up near the drop zone and rotate the staff members, so one of the guys up there could fly out on the DC3. I received a long text message spelling out the conditions that must be met before I could fly. The trickiest was communications with the other airstrip. They relied on Sat phones, and our cell phone coverage fluctuated constantly. I finally got through, got an update on their airstrip, weather, and situation on the ground, then explained the signal I needed for “It’s safe to land.”

I went with the staff member in the 206, and scanned the skies constantly for other aircraft. When we arrived over the airstrip, I established communications with the guy on the ground. My instructions included: “You cannot get stuck!” I thought of Pieri a few weeks ago, and the frustration of being able to get airborne because of the patches of mud on the runway. I landed softly, let all three wheels roll for about 50 meters. The 206 barely decelerated. I powered up and went around. After the next landing, I shut down, unloaded, swapped out passengers, and ten minutes later headed skyward and back to the waiting DC3.

After landing, I turned into the parking area. As I shut down, the DC3 right engine began to start. I let my passenger out so he could make the run over to the waiting airplane. As I secured my plane, I watched as the massive tailwheel airplane began rolling out of the parking area. I realized suddenly I was alone, doing something I barely knew any details about, in a new place, and my colleagues were strapped in together, in the mighty beast rolling down the runway.

The rest of the afternoon I stayed with the 206 at the airstrip, waiting for word to do the next flight. While waiting, I have seen a lot of different caravans come and go. Most are flown by very cautious pilots, abusing their aircraft and making good money while wearing spotless shirts. Some of the older aircraft are flown by less than sober crew, also making good money. I watch as they talk on their cell phones as dozens of people unload food, medicine, and sanitation supplies from their airplane. Their hearts don’t seem to be in it. I guess we are all here for different reasons.

 Then I think of the screaming marauder a few dozen miles north of us, dropping incendiaries on unarmed and starving people. I imagine those pilots are also well paid, and have some how justified their job to the remnants of their conscience.

After explaining that we should not worry about what we wear or what food we eat, Jesus made a pretty conclusive statement: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I get up off the 206 tire and try to tuck in my muddy brown shirt, while stretching my legs. A brilliant shirt seems petty in light of the large group barely surviving 40 miles away. I’m not sure what treasure may be waiting in heaven, but I do hope I can meet some of the refugees there one day. That’s the best pay anyone could ever fly for.

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