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Missionary Pilot - Not so Routine

The Routine by Robert Rice

I woke up in the middle of the night, last night. The wind made a sound like that of an airplane engine being cut-back to idle from cruise. I felt my body decelerate a little and suddenly woke up, my hands still on the controls of my plane, the sweat dripping off my nose. Guatemala is a long way away. The village where we lived is longer yet, but the memories are really close.

Every call for help begins an exciting cascading process that frequently ends in the saving of a human life. No two are exactly alike, but there are many common threads. Usually the call is being made by a third party. The villages use community phones, cell phones connected to antennas on bamboo poles, powered by car batteries. The owner of the phone makes the phone on behalf of a less sophisticated campesino, who may not know how to use a phone. The caller describes the problem in excited, broken Spanish. Someone is injured or sick and needs help. Sometimes the problem has been building up for days or weeks and the patient has just reached the point of death, and the family knows it; A woman in breach for two days is beginning to fade, a boy with pneumonia can no longer talk and his eyes are rolling back in his head. Perhaps an injury that has just happened; “my wife was bitten by a snake”, “a tree fell on my brother”, “my son was kicked in the head by a horse”. Whatever the cause, each flight starts out with a reason. This time there is a woman who “can’t breathe” – the caller doesn’t know why. She is being carried by her family from the mountains to the village of La Gloria, where there is an airstrip. A runner has sprinted ahead to call for help. He can’t explain the details, doesn’t know why she can’t breath. I try to get the caller to describe the weather at their village and ask them to send someone to clear the horses off of the airstrip. I tell them I’ll be there in twenty minutes. He laughs and doesn’t believe me. The fact that it will only take twenty minutes does not compute. He is in a place that is at least 12 hours away from the nearest clinic. I repeat myself, “I will be there in twenty minutes. Send someone to clear the horses from the airstrip right now.” He grudgingly agrees to believe me. I hang up and pay the man who’s battery powered cell phone I just used.

Verbally, I go through my checklist: Keys, water bottle, flight-kit, radio, cell phone, wallet, map, clip board. My wife and daughter meet me at the end of our rough-cut wooden porch to hug and kiss me good-bye. We do not take the return trip for granted. As I walk the quarter mile on the gravel road to the airstrip that lies at the center of the village, the kids call out “Roberto”, “Piloto!”, and wave. The men in some of the open tiendas and the village clinic smile as I pass and raise a hand as they lean on an elbow in the shade of their stalls. Some point upward and make a circle with a finger as if to say “a flight?”. I smile back, making circles in the air with my finger back to them. Sì, un vuelo, a flight.

As I walk, I think about the fuel I have left in the wing tanks, how long will the flight take, how far is it to the village and how much farther from there to the regional hospital? What if the clouds have closed in around the mountain airstrip where the regional hospital is located, can I make it to Guatemala City with the remaining fuel? Can I make it home? What time is it? How much time do I have before dark. Can I make it home before dark? Will I need the stretcher? Will I need the Oxygen? How long is the airstrip where I am going? How much weight can I take-off with from that airstrip? I check the back of my clipboard and scan down the list of 30 or so airstrips to find the one I am destined for. My notes tell me that the maximum take-off weight for it is 1,200 lbs. At least, that is the most that I have carried out of there on a good day. Mentally, I do the math, assuming one patient and two family members, each weighing about 160 pounds and each carrying about ten pounds of clothes and food. I add my own 200 pounds (myself and my gear). How much margin is left for fuel? Is it enough to get to the next airstrip? Do I need to take some fuel off the plane for the flight? Will I need to leave one of the family members?

As I walk, I ask myself dozens of questions that need answers before I get into the airplane.

Some of the rocks that cover the road are as big as grapefruit and once or twice I accidentally kick on and stumble, lost in thought as I am. Stray dogs give me a wide berth, as they expect to be kicked by anyone within range. Turkeys strut alongside the edge of the road and give way to me only at the last moment. Sheep and goats drag their tethers as they skitter across the road. The sun is hot, a slight breeze is cooling my sweat soaked back and the clouds are building up tall and visibly over the mountains to the South. I can see rain falling several miles away to the East. The air is heavy. The sun is hot. My flight kit is slung over my shoulder and the bright yellow water bottle clipped to it with a carabiner is bouncing as I go, the water sloshing as I walk. Unclipping it, I stop and take a long drink and think about the weather. It’s 3:20. I won’t make it home tonight, but the woman might make it to the hospital today.

The barbed wire fence around the airstrip has a gap where it comes to the back of the community store, an unpainted assemblage of rough cut boards and corrugated roofing. I pass through and carefully watch my step in the tall, dry grass, looking for the snakes that I know are there. Behind the store stands the plane, lashed to the ground with two ½ inch nylon ropes, one from each strut. My preflight inspection is well rehearsed: Unclip my keys from the flight kit and unlock the cargo door with the hex key, reach across the cabin and unlatch the pilot’s door. Pull the fuel sampler and dipstick from the pouch on the back of the pilot’s seat, shut the cargo door and latch it, untie the right wing, walk around to the left side of the plane and untie the left wing, take the control lock off of the yoke and mount the GPS. Open the access cover on the cowling and check the oil level, sump the fuel drain, check the fuel level in each wing, making sure it agrees with what I recorded after my last flight. Following these preparations is a well rehearsed choreography of several dozen spot inspections, beginning with lowering the flaps and including such simple things as making sure all the bolts are in all the wheels to shaking the wings and horizontal stabilizer, looking for any sign of looseness or odd noises. I rarely ever rush these checks, regardless of how urgent the emergency. When the call is a flaming red three-alarm crisis, I slow down my inspections, enforcing a strange form of self deprivation born of caution, the result of well learned lessons that have been indelibly impressed on my mind by frightening experiences resulting from seemingly unimportant omissions. Haste makes waste, and kills pilots.

Having worked up a generally good sweat, I climb out of the hot sun into the unbelievably hot cabin where I pull out the map and clipboard from my flight kit. On the back are my pre-flight and in-flight checklists, containing items that I need to perform if I am to survive this flight; Fuel – on fullest tank, flaps - 20°, Pumps – off, magnetos – check, prop – high and so on. I know precisely where I am going and how long it will take to get there, so the map and GPS are only a formality. The checklist is my life-insurance.

In Spanish I shout “clear” (libre) out the window as loud as I can, and turn the key. The roar of the three-hundred horse-power engine igniting, combined with the smell of raw fuel works to increase my heart-rate. The sweat is now dripping down my face and arms and acts as coolant when the wind from the prop blasts through my open door and window. As I taxi through the grass, out into the middle of the airstrip I glance right and then left, forcing myself to look in case some other pilot happens to be landing on the same strip of grass. There isn’t anyone – nobody has landed here for over a year, but me. I check anyway. Upon reaching the far end of the fourteen-hundred foot strip, I pull the plane around to face the breeze coming from the South-East. Magnetos and prop are checked, fuel is on, pumps are off, instruments are OK. Standing on the brakes I apply full throttle, the plane bucks like a skiff on a hard chop in open water. The tachometer and manifold pressure gages quickly climb to full-power. I pull the elevator back to a neutral position, let loose the brakes and step hard on the right rudder as the aircraft lurches forward and left simultaneously. Nearly all the right rudder is required to keep the torque and slip-stream from swinging the plane violently off the left side of the airstrip. We quickly accelerate down the airstrip, passing the halfway point in seconds. This is my commit point, no matter what else happens, we are going to fly. Looking momentarily at the airspeed, 45, good, a slight tug on the elevator and it wallows into the air, perceptibly losing just a bit of energy in the process. The trees at the end of the airstrip are getting taller at an alarming rate. In a calculated move, strongly counter to instinct, I point the nose of the airplane down, almost to the base of the trees. The airspeed needs to be 80 and it is only 60. At 80 the plane will climb like a bat out of hell. At 60, we’ll hit the trees. The only way to accelerate to 80 is to point the nose down, way down, without touching the wheels on the ground. Regardless of the airspeed, there is a point just a couple hundred feet before the trees where I MUST pull back, come what may. Today the plane attains its 80 MPH well before the danger zone and climbs like a rocket. We clear the trees by at least one-hundred feet. Another moment or two and the flaps come up, the throttle gets pulled back and the prop is adjusted for cruise. I can feel the deceleration as my body moves slightly forward in my safety harness. Off in the distance, twenty miles to the South, brilliant green, tree covered mountains rise sharply up from the jungle at sea level to three-thousand feet. I can already see the cut in the mountains where a major river dumps out into the flat lands. My destination is a tiny village with a tricky little airstrip, about five miles up that river valley, two-thousand seven-hundred feet above sea level. I’ll be there in less than fifteen minutes. It’s the 29th of April, this is flight number 1,885 since my arrival in this village and my workday has begun.

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