Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A flight day with Mom

I had the privilege of spending a day out with Nick on a work day while we visited them this spring. “ Just a short day Mom….we will be home by noon or shortly after”.The original plan is to fly to Akwom, ( 60 minutes flight over rough terrain up into the mountains) drop off cargo; hop over to Nuku (30 Minutes to another mountain strip) to pick up 2 patients who need to go out to the hospital at Tadji; stop at Yili (in the mountains) to pick up a missionary who was teaching out bush; out to the coastal village of Tadji ( 15 Minutes) to drop off the patients from Nuku and pick up 2 patients returning back to their mountain village of Sibilenga, also drop off the missionary here, then back home to Wewak. As Nick does his preflight checks, he decides to add just a bit more fuel, because we had some extra space and it’s nice to have a little extra in case plans change through the day. The day starts as planned, leaving Wewak we head up on top of the clouds over the mountains. As we approach close to Akwom Nick drops down through a hole in the clouds into the Sepik plains to be able to see the airstrip. At this strip as all the others, the nationals gather quickly when they hear the plane come. They are all curious who this “white-mari” is with their pilot. Nick drops the cargo, there is a lay national church worker here, Mike, who wants to come back to Wewak today. Back in the air, Nick finds the weather at Nuku, our next planned stop is not good right now, so as Yili is on our way we may as well land there and wait for the missionary to walk into the strip, he is out bush about 3 hours walk, and we are about 1 hour ahead of schedule, however better to sit here on the ground and wait rather than circle at Nuku waiting for the weather to clear. The nationals at Yili all greet us with big smiles, they are willing to share the shade of their house-wind while we wait. Nick decides to walk the strip and check it all out while we wait, he has some instructions to the locals about where and how the strip needs some grooming. The missionary arrives, drenched in sweat from his 3 hour trek through the jungle, and back in the air we go. About 2 minutes into the air we fly over Anguganak, the village where the missionary has just walked in from. Nick is interested to see how the rework of the airstrip here is coming, MAF can soon land in here again to save the missionaries and bible school students, and patients from the hospital the three hour walk that this missionary just endured. Once we are back in the air, Nick gets a call from Wewak on the radio that he now has a deceased patient coming from Tadji, he is unable to clarify if this is a third person now coming from Tadji or if he is one of the 2 original passengers. The preferred plan would be to have no one else on the plane with a body charter, but that doesn’t appear to be possible today. We stop at Nuku to pick up the 2 patients heading out, then Nick makes the decision to stop at Sibilenga now and drop off the missionary to make more room, he also asks Mike if he will wait here till we return, but he declines, he wants to see the country. Sibilenga is a little mountain top strip,(2300 feet elevation) it is clear now but there are rain clouds all around, he prays the weather will hold till we return. Off we fly, out of the mountains onto the coast, to Tadji, the extreme heat here hits us like a wall as we land. We drop off the 2 patients and find that one of the original patients returning to Sibilenga died early this a.m. Nick removes seats and straps them into the cargo area to make room for the body, which is wrapped in black plastic, lying on a strip of linoleum. There is no coffin, as that is supplied by the village from which the national comes from and they don’t even know yet that he has died. The second passenger here is his family member who has been here as a caregiver at the hospital. There are another couple of family members who would like to come along to be at the village for the funeral, but they don’t have the money to fly so they will have to spend the next week walking or two days on a public motor vehicle to cover the same distance to their home that we fly in the next 15 minutes. We arrive back at Sibilenga to find the mountain top is socked in with clouds and rain. Nick throttles back and prepares to circle for a bit, a quick calculation tells him he has enough fuel on board to be able to circle for 20 – 25 minutes, before we must head out to have enough fuel to drop these people somewhere else and make it home. Nick alerts the family member that he may have to decide to go to Nuku, from which there is a road of sorts to get to Sibilenga, or go back to Tadji. He just gives Nick a sad headshake, he really just wants to go home. As we circle, slowly the top end of the strip clears, but landing from that direction is impossible, we must land uphill from the bottom. After about 20 minutes of circling the bottom of the strip comes into view too, Nick prepares quickly to land in this window of opportunity as there are other rain clouds that may soon obscure the strip again. The strip is slippery from all the rain that just fell, but we land safely. The villagers quietly accept their deceased and his caregiver, they quickly carry the body off to the edge of the strip and gather round. Few wave or acknowledge us as we quickly depart before the next clouds gather around this mountain top .Back into the air we head for the coast as there are lots of storm cells hovering over the mountains. The coast is clear and sunny all the way back home. Back at the Wewak base, Nick spends about half an hour doing up the mandatory paperwork before we drive back to their home, a couple of hours later than original plan. It has been an interesting day for me, a quick overview of just a few of the many strips Nick serves from the Wewak base, and a glimpse of how his day can be totally different than the original plan. A reminder to us as we return home to constantly hold these pilots and families in prayer as their day can change minute to minute.