Archive for September, 2008


September 22, 2008

On Saturday I head to the airport for a lunchtime departure to Bukavu and Shabunda.  I hadn’t flown in a few days, so I was looking forward to it.  When I get to the airport, the plane that I am to be flying isn’t there yet.  It’s been delayed on the way back from the morning flight.  Edmund is going to fly with me to help load and unload the cargo that is listed on the manifest (four 55 gallon drums of fuel going from Bukavu to Shabunda).  Just after takeoff, I get a call on the HF from our radio operator saying that the weather was too bad in Shabunda (odd, I think it was reported as good by the same person five minutes before takeoff…).  I return to Goma after five minutes in the air.  The flight will wait until the morning. 

I go back to the airport in the morning and get the plane ready to go.  Edmund gets back into same copilot’s seat that he was sitting in twelve hours before.  He’s excited to go flying.  Edmund knows about Bukavu and the crash.  I decide to try to fly over the crash site, but I either can’t find it or it’s obscured by clouds.  While heading back into Bukavu the plane becomes nervous about the proximity of the terrain and starts to complain in its female voice, “Caution, terrain!! Caution, terrain!!”  Since the visibility was very good and I could see the mountains, I knew it wasn’t a problem.  Edmund sat there quietly looking concerned as we continued the descent towards Bukavu.  Edmund had been thinking about the crash and asks me, “Please tell me Patrick, why did they not listen to her?”

“That’s a very good question.  I don’t know why.”  The 1900’s have a different system that wouldn’t warn quite in the same way or under the same conditions.  I could see that he was trying to make sense of the crash just like the rest of us.


There really isn’t much interesting about the Bukavu airport, but the surroundings are very beautiful.  I admire the peaks to the west of the airport the same way someone might admire the beauty in a graveyard.  When I can see them, they are the headstones of two friends and the fifteen others that died there with them eight miles or so from the airport. 

I like flying to Shabunda.  I think it’s a lot like the picture of an airport that I had in my head when I headed to Africa.  The airport and village is in the bend of a river, the runway going from river bank to river bank with huts and trees and such all around.  After we land, Edmund rolls the fuel drums out of the plane, letting them land on a tire that was placed below the door and then rolling away from the plane, then throwing the bags of cement out.  A small choir is at the tree-line singing a farewell to the four passengers that will be leaving with me.

On the way back to Bukavu, I can’t get a hold of our HF radio operator in Goma.  I finally get him when I was on approach to Bukavu.  I was able to talk to him the whole way from Bukavu to Shabunda and since I was flying the same route back, I figured he was just taking a nap or something.  I started to get a bit annoyed.  When he finally answers the radio, he wants a lot more information than I am interested in giving when I am about to land. 

After landing, I go into the airport office to pay landing fees, already a little mad about the radio thing.  The people in that office are particularly trying of the patience of all of the Air Serv pilots.  The landing fees add up to 25.6 dollars and the “lady” tries to round it up to 26.  I put lady in quotation marks because none of us are really sure if that person is in fact female.  Anyway, I give 25 dollars and make up the .6 in Congolese money.  I argue for a lot longer than it was worth arguing about over 40 cents, but I guess it was just the principle that I was thinking of at that point. 

Now she tells me that the $20 bill that I gave her was not good.  Here’s a little lesson on spending dollars in Congo:  They love dollars, but they won’t take a bill if it has the tiniest tear anywhere, or of there is writing on it, or if Andrew Jackson has a pimple.

This particular bill had a microscopic tear at the point where it had been folded in half.  I argue for a few minutes about the validity of the bill, which went nowhere.  I took the bill back and tore it in half.  I heard a few gasps and whimpers in the room after I did that.  They try to get the cleanest bills possible and then give back the dirtiest bills they can find in change.  They could still use the twenty that I had given.  At worst, they might not have been able to get a full $20 worth out of the bill, but I’ve managed to spend bills worse than that one all over the country. 

They gladly accepted the next bill I pulled out of my pocket. 

I grabbed the receipt from the desk and walked out toward the plane.  They threatened that the tower wouldn’t let me take off since I hadn’t paid the 40 cents extra that they wanted.  Well, that didn’t happen and I was off to Goma.



September 12, 2008

Would this do
To make it all right
While sleep has taken you
Where I’m out of sight

I’ll make my getaway
Time on my own
Search for a better way
To find my way home to your smile

Wasting days and days
On this fight
Always down and up
Half the night

Hopeless to reminisce
Through the dark hours
We’ll only sacrifice
What time will allow us
You’re sighing… sighing

All alone
Though you’re right here
Now it’s time to go
From your sad stare

Make my getaway
Time on my own
Leaving’s a better way
To find my way home
To your smile
Your smile…

–David Gilmour

They Gave Their Lives in the Service of Peace

September 4, 2008

They “gave their lives in the service of peace”.  That is what some UN spokesperson had to say today.  That sure sounds noble, doesn’t it?  I hope that gives at least a little solace to the families of those who died on Monday evening.  The one thing that is for sure is that none of the 17 people on the flight that day intended to give their lives in the service of peace, at least not the rest of their lives. 

On Monday evening I my phone rang when I got in to the lodge here just outside of Johannesburg.  It was Dawson calling.  I figured that he was calling to see how the validation process was going.  I was happy to tell him that it was successful and that I would just have to pick up the paperwork in the morning.  He told me that the 1900 was overdue and that they couldn’t reach them via radio or cell phone or any other way.  There was no contact from them after their initial call to Bukavu tower.  I knew the area around there and knew that this wasn’t good. 

In my mind, I was back in the hotel room in Seattle a couple years ago when I got the call that they couldn’t find Carl.  My mouth is dry and I have the distinct taste of vomit in my throat.  I hoped it was some big mistake.  The guys were slacking on their HF calls and were on approach to Goma.  They were going to get a talking to for not following procedure and then sit down to dinner with the rest of the bunch at the house. 

Sitting here in South Africa, I watch the sun set without hearing a word from anyone in Goma.  The sick feeling that I’ve had in the pit of my stomach has grown.  I need to throw up.  I turn on the TV just to fill the silence.  CNN has floods in India or something; the Republican national convention… the nausea builds.  National Geographic channel… Seconds from Disaster.  I go throw up. 

Tuesday morning I get out of bed after not sleeping.  I have to drive to the CAA to pick up my paperwork.  While on the road, my phone buzzes with a text message:  “They found it all over the ridge”.  I pull the car to the side of the road and dry-heave my intestines out.  I manage to make it to the CAA and sit in the lobby numb head to toe.  The paperwork comes through and I head out.  I get in the car and can’t get the keys in the ignition.  It takes a few moments for me to wonder where the steering wheel is before I realize that I got in the wrong side of the car. 

Every time I lose a friend to this business, flying gives me less joy.  Now I have to add Rudi and Ronny to the list of names of the fallen. 

“The larger the threat, the more profound the doubts, the deeper you have to dig to find faith and conquer your fears.”
Kenneth Cain

Entebbe, Nairobi and Johannesburg

September 1, 2008

Now that my Caravan training is done, it’s time to renew my South African validation.  The current validation was only for six months since that’s how long I could exercise the privileges of the ATP with the medical that I had.  Since then, the rules in the US have apparently changed making the first class medical valid for a whole year for pilots under the age of 40.  Hopefully that means that the exercise in paperwork and the fees paid today will satisfy the South African CAA for another six months.  I guess I’ll find out in the morning when I go to pick up the new certificate. 

Last week two of us took two Caravans from Goma to Entebbe for maintenance at the Air Serv hangar there.  Here’s the volcano on the way out of Goma.

These trips are usually a good diversion from every day schedules in Goma or elsewhere in the DRC.  I was hoping that this would let me go to Jinja and do a little white water rafting (which is supposed to be legendary), but I was explicitly banned from doing this, not because it would be unsafe or anything, but that they wanted myself and the other pilot sitting around waiting for the planes to be ready even though we were promised by the mechanics that they wouldn’t be ready until Sunday.  That irked me a bit, but oh well.  I guess we’ll just have to make the most of the time in Entebbe. 

We were expecting a new pilot named Josh to be arriving in Entebbe on the day we arrived.  We waited to eat dinner in case he was hungry when he got there.  When he got there he’d been up for longer than anyone should, but still wanted to go out to eat with us.  I think we gave him a decent warm up for Africa. 

The next day we went for a walk around the neighborhood in Entebbe and came across a bunch of kids that were out playing whatever games they play.  When they saw us, they all took turns saying, “Mzungu, how are you?” and then proceeded to play “touch the Mzungu”.  This game involves running up to a Mzungu, grabbing an arm or a hand and then running away screaming and laughing.  It was as entertaining for us as it was for the kids. 

On Friday we decided to head in to Kampala.  I had never been there and heard it should be fun.  Samson, (one of the Air Serv mechanics from Kenya) was going too.  We went down to the bus stop (just a place the bus happens to stop rather than a bench or something) and got on one of the mini-busses.  We got a lot of funny looks from the Ugandans along the road as we drove by.  I guess they don’t see too many Mzungus using public transportation. 

When we made it to the end of the line in Kampala, we found out that we were beyond walking distance from where we wanted to go and went to find transportation.  One Boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) driver said that he could take both of us where we needed to go.  I was skeptical that the three of us, Josh, myself, and the driver (Samson had gone to meet some friends of his) could all fit on one bike, but the driver insisted that it would work.  I thought we got funny looks when we were on the bus.  Now people all over the city were pointing and laughing at the two Mzungus on one Boda-boda.  I am glad we could amuse people as we tried our best to keep our kneecaps from becoming hood ornaments on passing cars. 

On Sunday it’s time to head on to Nairobi and then to Johannesburg.  The Caravan that I am flying is going to be flying back to the States so it had two large ferry tanks in the back.  It made the plane smell just a little bit.  It was ok though because it was an otherwise perfect day for flying.  I think I could see a million miles in all directions and Kenya was absolutely beautiful.  From the shores of Lake Victoria to the farms and hills on the way to Nairobi, the scenery was amazing.  Everything was hassle free once on the ground at Nairobi-Wilson airport.  Some sort of customs agent came out to greet us when we landed, but didn’t seem too interested in the plane.  Samson spoke with him in Swahili and we were on the way to the hangar with the plane in no time.  The only snag happened when I was going through passport control on the way to get on the airliner to South Africa.  He asked how I got in the country without an entry stamp in my passport and when I explained he said, “Ok, goodbye” and I was on my way.

Now, hopefully all I have to do is to go back to the South African CAA in the morning and pick up my paperwork.  Then it’s just sitting around waiting for a 1900 motor to arrive.