Archive for May, 2008

Panic Over the Broccoli

May 24, 2008

A three hour flight doesn’t seem too long to me except for when about one hour into the flight panic hits.  This is the sort of thing that I’ve had nightmares about for a long time and it finally happened again.  Small beads of sweat begin to form on my brow as the rumble in my tummy becomes more powerful.  The GPS said 1:55 to go to Kisangani.  That was no good.  I looked out the windows and saw nothing but “broccoli” (jungle) and there was no airport that could take a 1900 nearby. 

About a thousand scenarios ran through my head and light speed.  The sweat continued to build up and then I remembered something that could possibly save me: a small bottle with Kirkland brand anti-diarrhea pills in it.  I told my copilot that I wasn’t feeling well and that I was going to get something from the back.  She could see the desperation in my eyes and assured me that she would be ok without me for a while. 

I unbuckled my seat belt and carefully slid my seat all the way back and climbed out.  It’s never a good thing to see the pilot walking back through the plane while it’s in the air, especially when he looks concerned about something as I clearly was.  Several of them asked me if there was anything wrong.  I tried to assure them that everything was OK and that I just needed to get something from the back.  I am not sure if they believed me when I said it, but I didn’t really have time to do a lot of explaining. 

One passenger was sleeping across the bench seat in the back of the plane so I had to wake him up.  I folded the seat down, climbed into the luggage area, which was thankfully not completely full.  My bag was all the way back as far as you could go and still be in the plane.  Climbing over everyone’s luggage with an angry stomach was not good times.  I cursed the previous night’s pizza and pili-pili that I suspected as the culprit with every bag that I climbed over.  I managed to find my bag and the glorious pills that were inside.

As I made my way back to the front, I had to reassure all of the passengers that everything was fine and that there was not a problem.  I just needed to get something from my bag.  I grabbed the water bottle that I keep next to my seat swallowed two pills and prayed that they would act quickly as the conditions behind my bellybutton were deteriorating. 

They worked faster than I expected them to, but not as fast as I wanted them to.  Luckily disaster was averted again and operations aboard “Air Serv 09” returned to normal.  I felt relieved and tired like I had just completed some sort of major Olympic event.  I think my beloved Kirkland pills will reside a lot closer to me in future flights. 

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Kisangani

May 10, 2008

Friday was the standard cross-Congo shuttle with the stop in Kisangani.  I’ve become used to the hassles of that place but it was especially bad that day.  After landing we got the passengers that were staying there off and to their transportation and then turned to pay fees and get some more fuel, which had become the standard drill by this point.  We sent the through passengers inside where it wasn’t as hot to wait.

The ramp agent returned to the plane sooner than I expected and said that there was a problem with the fuel.  The problem was that there wasn’t any.  I (correctly) figured that this couldn’t be the case and had to go try to sort things out.  Apparently, the fuel supply was getting low and when MONUC (UN mission for Congo) found out, they bought up all of the rest of the fuel so they could keep their planes flying.  Since the problem seemed to be with the UN, I figured that I’d go there to try to get things resolved.  The UN soldiers didn’t want to let me into the operations area, but I managed to weasel my way in.  It would prove to be a waste of time as they wouldn’t give any fuel to anyone but UN planes.  “No Air Serv, no WFP, no MSF, no one but MONUC,” he said with a thick Ukrainian accent.  UNfriendly…

Almost all fuel at the airports in the DRC is pumped by a government owned company, but is sold by a plethora of distributors.  It really is a silly system.  We normally paid in cash through one of the distributors, but they didn’t have any more fuel.  Then it was time to try another distributor, but they didn’t have any more fuel on account either.  The last distributor in Kisangani wouldn’t take cash, which is a really strange thing for anywhere in this country.  Almost everything here will work on a cash basis, but they would only do it on a prepaid account and the place where the accounting took place was in Kinshasa (no help to me in Kisangani). 

They had to drive to the main airport in Kinshasa to pay, which took a lot longer than it should have.  By the time the fuel truck came back out to our plane and started fueling, it was too late to leave for Goma in time to make it there before the airport closed, so it meant it was time for a night-stop in Kisangani.  Great…  I had to hire two guards to sit under the plane to keep anyone from stealing anything.  The next morning, they got five dollars and a pineapple for their night’s work and were very happy to get it.

The MSF car took us along with our now stranded passengers first to the MSF house to drop them off and then to the hotel.  I was a bit doubtful about the quality of the hotel, but it actually turned out to be not too bad.  I was able to get a clean bed, hot shower and even a good dinner.  It could have been worse.

The next morning, the MSF Land Cruiser picked us up at 6:30am to get to the airport by seven.  Luckily we already had the fuel, so there wouldn’t be any more major delays.  We got there, opened the plane, made sure everything was there and then paid the guards.  Then it was just time to pay fees, file a flight plan and we were on our way.

Some days in the Congo are just more fun than others.

 

How to Overload a DC-8

May 10, 2008

So you might be wondering how someone might be able to load a DC-8 ten tons overweight (as I was after talking to this plane’s Co-Pilot in Kisangani a few days ago) and here’s how:

How to overload a DC-8

All it took was the truck making a 19 point turn with the help of a bunch of loaders lifting the back.  Do this several more times (with more trucks) and then pack in the rest of the space with pineapples, bananas, parrots and monkeys and there you go.

“I can speak Swahili”

May 4, 2008

On Friday on the flight from Kisangani to Goma we flew the Mosier family (American missionaries) that survived the Hewa Bora crash in Goma a little while ago.  I had spoken to the father of the family earlier in the week about the flight.  Their three year old adopted son had his pelvis broken in the crash and was in a cast that covered half his body.  He wanted to know if we would be able to get him in the plane and strapped in somehow.  I figured we could lay him down across the back row of seats as it’s basically a bench three seats across.  I didn’t know his exact size, but I figured someone could also sit back there with him.

When we got to Kisangani I got the fuel order in (fuel can often take a bit of time there) and sent my poor FO off to deal with the RVA (Congolese equivalent of Flight Service/airport authority) and file the flight plan to Goma while I went in to meet the family. 

When I was on the way in to meet the family, I talked to the first officer of a Congolese DC-8 (four engine jet) on the ramp.  He was asking about working with Air Serv saying that he was fed up with his current job.  He told me that they had to take off ten tons (!?!?) overweight on the last trip and that he needed to find another job.  While we were waiting for fuel, I watched as they drove trucks onto the plane along with about every sort of animal and plant you could find around there. 

They were pretty easy to spot in the passenger area, a bunch of white people that looked like preachers.  I made a bee line towards them.  I introduced myself and told them that we would be ready to leave in about a half an hour when we got fueled.  The mother of the family said, “I don’t know if you know, but we were on the flight that crashed in Goma a couple of weeks ago.”  I told them that I knew who they were and that they were practically celebrities. 

Our manifest listed six of them including the three year old and I counted seven of them.  I figured that one of them drove them to the airport, but the father told me that he was told that they were all headed for Goma but that they were told that there was only room for six and that their oldest son was going to fly on Hewa Bora. 

I am sure that my jaw dropped to the floor when I heard that.  Why in the world would they dare to fly on that airline again when they barely survived the last flight?  To me that crosses the line between a strong faith and testing God.  I said that we would have room and that I would not allow any of them to ride on that airline again.  I made a phone call to the Air Serv manager to let him know that we would have another passenger.  They were all very happy that all of them would be on a safe flight and that they were able to get a refund for their ticket on the other flight. 

Once fueling was done, I went back in to help the family to the plane.  One of them carried their injured son under his arm in a horizontal position.  It looked really funny in sad sort of way.  The boy seemed really happy and cheerful.  As we passed him up the stairs into the plane he said to me in English, “I can speak Swahili.” 

I couldn’t help but laugh a bit when I heard that.  He was just so happy and cheerful as he was being carried like a bundle of wood under the arm of his brother.  They were all really happy.  I guess I was expecting them to be a bit more somber for some reason. 

They were the last ones off the plane when we got to Goma since they were sitting in the very back of the plane.  We laid the boy down on top of a bunch of luggage in the shade under the wing.  Papy (Congolese Air Serv ramp worker in Goma) was talking to the boy and was astonished that he spoke English.  He asked, “Why does the black boy speak English so well?”

They told him that he was their son.  Papy didn’t believe them.  They told him that he was adopted and that he had lived with them since he was nine days old.  He still had a strange look of disbelief. 

Tomorrow, we fly back across the DRC to Goma again with a stop in Kisangani.  I think the plane knows the way by now.