Saturday, 26 November 2011

What no raisins! Yesterday in the Congo!

... an Edenic forest stretches out into the curtain of Congolese haze. Stretched before me is mile upon mile, tree after tree multiply by 10, 100, 10, 000, the number of trees is truly mind boggling, a hundred shades of brown a thousand shades of green, no visible habitation, no roads, no clearings, just forest, just life in all it's fulness. an arboriculturists heaven.
Whilst there is clearing in this photo taken later in the day get the drift!
The days work started in the rain, just as the previous evenings had finished in it. The Pajero seemed very reluctant to wake but after 5 minutes of cajoling it limped out of the Guest House, the start of a two Day MSF Congo charter. First to the office to pick up the trips paperwork, then onto our airfield at Kajjansi, refuel and get the aircraft ready, took on full fuel, 2,200lbs of Jet A-1 (aka paraffin) worth over 7hrs of  flying. Another cold flood of rain drains off the wing root, cascading down my back, you'd think I had learn't where not to stand by now, as it did the same y'day when I was Sudan bound. Freight 300kg of it had been loaded by Richard and Jackson, hard to believe that it took all my effort to shift a small pile of cable, two feet sideways in the back of the aircraft, on reflection it had taken two of them to lift it in! A 12 mile flight to Entebbe to clear paperwork and pick up a satellite dish from Customs, 'just 4 pieces of plastic', easier said than done! Always be warned if the 'just' word is used in Africa it's just down the road - means it's either a 5 minute walk or a 3 hr 4x4 car journey, it's just a small suitcase - means my 6ft tall 20 year something lumberjack son managed to lift it with only a slight hernia,  just a plastic satellite dish - actually it's huge really.

In Bunia (161nm due West of Entebbe) swapped the freight for more passengers and medicines, that the charterers logistic officer had ready for me, amazingly it is not raining and the visibility is reasonable, is this the DRC I ask myself? Soon climbing out past the UN helicopters  and I head out under the cloud layer it soon brightens then all of a sudden one breaks out from under the cloud blanket sun and it is beautiful, as I head just over the hour up to Dungu (NW 157nm).  The trees are truly impressive, herds of snow white unicorns seemingly gallop across the tree tops, cumulus be their names. There are so many trees... After a time they thin out, the forest takes on a strange patchwork quilt like appearance, a maze of what one could almost imagine being grassy 'stagnant ponds'.  It reminds me of a scene at the start of C S Lewis book where the children jump between worlds in the 'Magicians Nephew.'

Once in Dungu a grass strip south of the river, not to be confused with the large UN strip a few miles away north of the river, we get some more freight and passengers are traded, strapped in and we are off. The day is getting warm and raisins make for a great snack, the secret for making these delectable morsels last, is how long can you suck a wrinkled 'grape' before it bursts!

Next stop in Dingila another 150 nm due west. The sun is now very hot through the cockpit window, the roar of the vents is loud, even over the engine noise, as streams of cooling air pour in. Ones eyes strain looking for the tell tale line that marks the airstrip.
Joining over-head the 900m long airfield, this is my first visit, I can see it looks in in excellent shape. There is very little wind and the wheels kick up a small red dust cloud, as they bounce along the 'murram path'. More MSF passengers and freight await but this time I have to unload some of the seats that are strapped together and re-install them on the metal tracks provided. They are designed to be quickly unlocked and removed & equally quickly re-installed, perhaps they were 21years ago when 'Bravo India Lima' was built, but now they are absolute rat bags to get back in quickly - think very uncharitable thoughts towards the designer of what was once a good idea, as I wiggle, shake, push, prod and kick them into place. Perspiration drips down my brow, time is slipping by now as I still have to fly 150nm back to Dungu before heading south to Bunia - it shuts at 1700 hrs local and no one will be allowed to land at 1701 (last daylight landing time is 1711 - NB an hour time zone difference to Uganda). Phew job done...
By the time I bounce gently onto Dungu's murram I have 10 minutes to load & unload the passengers and be off. All 8 pax enter into the reasoning behind my haste and we are rumbling down the runway 9 mins later, sadly had to leave 90kg of freight behind as it would have taken just  to long to tie it down. The days work was always going to be a race against time unless everything went smoothly!

A beautiful late afternoon sun slowly sinks, changing the forests colours from the noon day harshness brightness to a gentler pastle shades of later in the day. The ETA is 10 mins before the airfield shuts, and their are several alternates I could go to if the enroute weather is not as expected, would be interesting arriving at a bush strip with a stack of unexpected passengers but am not expecting a problem - but MAF, has as do the scouts, the motto 'be prepared'. Reach down in my flight bag for another sugar boost, 'What no raisins!' A truly great disapointment but the view sort of makes up for it as we roll along at 2.5nm a minute and supper is perhaps not so long off, certainly breakfast was an age ago.
Climbing out over the river the 208 makes a great shadow
The airfield has a tower and is giving 8km in haze but I spot it 10 miles out!  The wheels gently squeak as we land back on Bunia's tarmac rwy. Over 6hrs of flying today and the day is done. Arrange to meet my pax for a 0900 local departure next morning and we go our seperate ways, now first a shower, then supper and a good nights rest at the Lincoln's.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Dodging raindrops a great Ugandan sport!

The weather seems very wet this November, unseasonally so, a number of the pilots have had long flights and the odd unexpected overnight dodging raindrops. This is an account of such a day that I wrote not so long ago. What a day, flew about 8hrs including an extra 250nm avoiding awful weather – just about everywhere. It did not seem that bad getting out of Kajjansi but hit a wall of heavy rain after 40 miles and low cloud, west looked dark & foreboding, decided to go east along with another aircraft in the area.
This is part of a black cotton soil strip after recent rain best described as not great!
 Eventually got around the weather, somewhat off course and headed up to Arua for refueling, customs and Immigration. Arua had had very heavy rain overnight but the strip is well drained and although made of compacted murram is in tip top condition, as it is used by small airliners. Took on two barrels of fuel - 400litres - and headed NW out over the Congo to Yambio in SW Sudan another 1.5 hrs away. Visibility was good but gradually the ceiling got lower and lower and I was being forced more and more east and I wanted to go west and eventually the clouds touched the ground and as we did not plan on going any further by road, I had to divert to my bolt hole at Yei – always have an out in bad weather, actually once Yei bound all very pleasant. Munch a tasty flapjack – pleasant sugar boost. Waited half an hour on the ground, the wx is definately moving west, cannot wait too long if I am to complete the flight today. Soon climbing out and heading to Yambio again. Spoke with a UN aircraft that had sneaked out of Yambio, and he advised me it was not that good there, our Op’s Manager in Kampala had checked the satellite photo’s and he thought wx was moving off. Decided to route over Maridi, another good bolt hole, I could always leave the freight there and at least bring back most of my passengers to Entebbe, as I had been going there after Yambio anyway. Passing overhead Maridi, which has some low cloud, 

I look down and I can see the air-strip below the whispy clouds, so I carry on west. A wall of black weather stands proud and defiant on the horizon but I reckon it is just beyond Yambio town now and so of little consequence. Great, got in as the strip, though a tad damp is clear, 600kg medicines for Nzara Hoz & Tambora Diosc & 2 pax, already bright and sunny! Soon my  shirt  is soaked from sweat unloading and loading the freight, as really warm and quite muggy after the rain. Doors are shut, pax strapped in, the turbine is going full tilt and we are heading down the airstrip, bank left into a 180 and abt 30mins to Maridi, then a pleasant jaunt down to Arua , as I 

decide to clear the paper work there as well as  take on extra fuel.  Parked up we  hear the deep rumblings from a huge approaching storm, a large wall of darkness  steaming into Arua. Head out East where it is very clear but  difficult to find a way through tot he south, so after half an hour I am further from home than when I took off, my current escape route will take me for coffee at a mission station in Nimule back in Sudan! At last a clear gap ..... I gradually weave my way down country, pass Gulu – at least that is in Uganda, after that Masindi, then Jinja. All the time I press on and I have to calculate can I get to my diversion strip before last landing time and also feed in a few what if’s into the equation. Look at pax all happy reading their books or asleep, as despite the weather it has been pretty smooth. Samuel is ahead of me by 40 minutes but when I get to the clear airspace he was in, more bad weather. Fox-Fox tells me it is nice in Kampala, Entebbe weather is good but…… was just thinking it might be an overnight now in Jinja and I then I am through, beautiful & sunny, 'what weather' I say!!! I can still make Entebbe before last landing time by a few minutes, beautiful touch down, am sure passengers do not realise we are on the ground, they disembark quickly remarking , 'what a nice flight it was!' No paper work needed, so I can 'leg it' to Kajjansi, only 12 miles away, I am allowed another 15 minutes of 'daylight'. 

Traffic driving home is really heavy and takes forever, this is definitely the dangerous part of the day. Arrive back at the office almost 13hrs after I left it, tired with all the passengers and freight in the right place, twas’ a good day.