Caravan Training

Last Monday I packed up everything I had in Kinshasa and boarded our 1900 as a passenger to make my move to Goma.  It felt really strange being in the back of the plane away from the controls even though I had a reasonable amount of trust in the two up front.  It was a long day getting out east.  We had stops at Kisangani, Kindu, and Bukavu before finally reaching Goma.  Lucky for me I managed to sleep most of the way.  Caravan training was to start the next day.

The week of training has been broken up a bit.  I rode along with Luke the first day, though I fly the last half of the trip.  I had managed to get a few flights in the ‘van already, though they didn’t count for anything other than just seeing a bit of what the thing could do.  It helped keep me from seeming totally clueless (hopefully) on my first day in the plane. 

I rode along with a few different pilots the rest of the week.  Flying with the other Patrick (aka. Paddy, P2) was a lot of fun.  He flew freight for a FedEx feeder in Puerto Rico and it turns out that we know a lot of the same people.  Paddy definitely has the mentality that it takes to survive and stay sane in the Caribbean or Africa or most of the third world for that matter.  If you worry too much about the things that really don’t matter (like timing for example), life will be very difficult.  I flew with Luke again on Thursday.  We flew to Shabunda where our “Jungle Jepp” warns to watch out for goats grazing.  I didn’t want to have to buy a goat, so we did a good fly-over before landing to make sure things were clear. 

Training with Luke resumed again on Saturday with a trip to Kasongo and Kama.  I had been to Kasongo a few different times in the Caravan even when I was still flying the 1900 full time.  Kama was a lot of fun for me.  The landing area is in the middle of a village that is carved out of the jungle.  The surface is a mix of gravel, grass and dirt with huts and surprisingly tall trees lining the perimeter.  It seemed like every gap in the trees or huts was filled with the face of some kid curiously peering in my direction that would probably be in school most other places.  The most shocking feature of Kama was the tall cell phone tower quite close to the one end.  I guess that’s Congo for you.  You can be in a village in the middle of nowhere and there will be cell phone service… and the tower will be as close as possible to the “airport”. 

On Tuesday it was a double trip to Walikale.  This place is infamous in Air Serv lore.  In a lot of ways it’s the epitome of a Congo landing strip.  It’s road being misused as an airport to bleed the country of its resources.  Most of the traffic in and out of there is related to the mining industry.  The ore mined there is flown out by Russian and Congolese pilots to Goma where much of it is loaded into trucks and smuggled into Rwanda and Uganda.  Today we brought in 650 kilos of beans and supplies for ACF (French acronym for action against hunger) and flew out a bunch of MSF people.  The moral dilemma there seems to me that it can seem like in performing a humanitarian mission; we are only sustaining the mining industry that is raping the country of its resources and enslaving its people.  Sometimes it seems like humanitarian aid is little more than life support for a patient in a coma. 

The airstrip itself is pure Congo mayhem.  I loved it.  From the air the landing area is differentiated from the rest of the road by the crashed Russian planes shoved to the side at the beginning of the landing area.  The road/runway has a pretty good bend about half way down.  It’s important to land early enough so that the plane will be slowed down enough to make the turn along with the road.  Luke says to pull the power to idle and ease the nose down once past the tree line.  I guess I do a little more than ease it down and end up with a healthy bounce.  Oh well.  I let the plane settle a little softer a hundred feet or so down the runway.  The first straight part of the road turned out to be a lot longer than it appeared to me and I had the plane slowed down with plenty of space to spare before the bend.  It looked a lot shorter from the air. 

The mine-related planes are doing their thing, whatever it takes to get in and out.  Being only a road, there isn’t any place to park or turn around other than the road itself (which is only a few feet wider than the landing gear of the Caravan on each side).  When we landed there were two Let-410’s (mine planes) already at the top of the runway unloading fuel and other supplies and loading up on ore.  We landed and in doing so, blocked them in.  By the time we get unloaded, reloaded, and turned around (done by a three point turn by hand) two more Let-410’s have blocked us in.  We get to sit and wait while they load up on 50kg bags of ore.  I can’t help but wonder how much they are overloaded. 

A quarter of an hour or so passes and the plane in front begins to takeoff.  It gets more than a little bit windy where we are.  After they go, the plane directly in front of us starts it’s engines and we do the same.  They aren’t very far in front of us at all, so we really get buffeted as they start.  The buffeting increases so I look up to see vapor spiraling off of their prop tips.  The jerks have applied full power right in front of us and it seems like we are almost flying the plane while on the ground. 

Once they get moving, I let us roll downhill towards the bend.  Approaching the bend I roll in full power.  Wisps of vapor twirl from the propeller tips as the plane claws at the thick jungle air.  I push the plane around the turn at about 30 or 40 knots and not long after ease the plane into the air.  I breathe a silent sigh of relief as we pass over the two derelict Russian planes now a couple hundred feet below.  That was the first bit of flying that has raised my pulse above idle in a long time.  I want more. 

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3 Responses to “Caravan Training”

  1. MOM Says:

    This is you mother,,,,,,You have had enough! Come home!!
    Enjoy and be CAREFUL!!

  2. Auntie Says:

    You are on a wild, amazing adventure. Life in South Pasadena will seem boring after this! Have fun, but hurry home!

  3. janhasbro Says:

    Wow! I was holding my breath while I read your post. It would have been exciting to see pictures, but I wouldn’t want you to try to take them!!!

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