Monday, 23 May 2011

The Artful dodgers

My good Friend Mr Charlie Bravo

In Flight school one of the exercises we're taught is called precautionary inspections. A technique to be used in case of bad weather and you have to put the plane down on a surface you're unsure of. Pretty much one of those things you do academically and hope that you won't get to do in real life. If you're operating in and out of well equipped airports with tarmac runways you needn't worry too much. The instrument facilities will help you get through the bad stuff. Now when you're flying in the bush it's a totally different matter and you have to do it free style.

Luckily for us this past Sunday the rain falling at the destination was light though it got heavy very close to touchdown. The cloud base was really low but the flat topography was a plus as there was no high ground to worry about. That was at Pochala right at the border of Ethiopia and the plane got a nice baptism in the mud you'd think it was one of the cars from the old fashioned Safari rally. That went pretty well.

Now the next leg to Boma was a little more interesting as Boma is at the base of some hills and what's more there were a couple of thunderstorms nearby. The clouds looked really dark and ominous, when you see a cumulonimbus ( or CB in short also known more affectionately as a Charlie Bravo) cloud en route it's a cause for concern, I've heard enough stories about them and one of the cardinal rules of flying is never to fly into a thunderstorm. Good thing is some geniuses created a device called weather radar which indicates areas of precipitation and helps to avoid those dreaded storms. After consulting it a bit we found that it was clear over the destination and manoeuvred around the rain. However that particular strip is really nasty when wet and we had to give it a look before committing to land. Getting in is easy but the mud would make departure difficult. So the plan was to fly over and assess the surface. First time spotted some water on it and me being a member of the cowards club said we give it a miss but the captain wanted a closer look so we came round again. His assessment was that it was do able and when we came in a third time it worked out fine and he was satisfied with the surface. When I got out I realised that gum boots are not such a bad idea for shoes, was crazy muddy! All that time passangers were very quiet and when we landed they told us about how they wondered about was happening.

Another captain had told me about his experience with that particular field. A couple of years back he was landing there and the brakes decided to go on holiday. What's more at the end of the runway there was a grass thatched hut one of those that's all too common over here. Oh and top that the hut was right next to the hot exhaust, so you can guess what happened next... Oh and did I mention that the fuel tanks are on the wing tips? Now that tight there was a recipe for disaster! Thanks to some quick evacuation from the crew fortunately there were no casualties though one of the pilots got burns. Part of one of the wings is still there as evidence of that sad event...
Boma with a nice hill in the background. Ethiopia lies beyond

For our stay there the weather always looked threatening. You have to pardon a pilot's obsession with the weather. So as expected on our way back we met a few more of our friend Charlie Bravo. However this time the weather radar decided to start misbehaving on us! So we had to rely on our eyes. Up ahead things were not looking too good but right behind us were sunny skies. An instrument rated pilot needn't be afraid of clouds but when you have a thunderstorm ahead with no idea what's inside you've got to make the decision to look for plan B. So once again the artful dodgers were at it again taking a round trip around the storm. After a little while we saw some sunshine- hallelujah! We were home free so we reoriented ourselves and were back in business! A little rain here and there but nothing we couldn't handle. So far so good until we were about 50 miles from our destination and we see some really heavy rain right on our track to Bor our intended destination, clearly our celebrations were premature. As we got closer we could feel the turbulence beginning to build up and we were already weighing our options. We could easily have decided to go to Juba our home base but the airport there closes at 4. Since we had enough fuel it we decided to go around the edge and see if it's good. Even considered giving a guy on the ground a call to find out what the weather was like.

As we got closer we saw the Nile – a good sign then the roofs of the town, Hallelujah once again- sweat wiped from brow! Fortunately for us the rain hadn't quite reached Bor, so we wasted no time in landing there and getting ourselves to the hotel for some rest and relaxation after an interesting day in the air- what flying is all about!

Riding Shotgun

Juba International 

The newest nation in the world, a land that has been ravaged by years of war and is trying to get to get back on it's own two feet. Yeah you guessed it, Southern Sudan, yet to know what they'll call themselves on their official day of independence coming up on July 9th 2011. Haven't been here very long but there's a few things that I've observed in my first week here.

First thing that hits you- literally when you touch down is the heat, was a nice 'cool' 29 degrees when I got here, I'm told I came at a good time during the rainy season when the temperatures are a bit mild otherwise I'd be toasting somewhere around the forties. Hmm perhaps this sun explains the dark complexion that is so prevalent here- by the way there are some who are light skinned and I'm not talking about foreigners, was actually surprised!

Another thing is that is the land is flat and not like the plains we have back home in Kenya. In Juba there are a number of hills around but in some places you look all around and there's not so much as a mound in sight. Probably why the White Nile meanders lazily around the countryside- another thing contrary to what I expected there's a lot of greenery, naturally around the river but even inland it's not a total desert.

The people I've met are pretty friendly though quite a number have war experience so you've got to be careful lest you get yourself in a brawl. Oh and many have been to Kenya to school so it's easy to find people to speak Kiswahili with. About the way experience there's this guy who was telling us how he learnt to use an AK- 47 as a child and how they would shoot each other jokingly not knowing the finality of the bullet. They thought the person shot would come back shock on them when he didn't. There's a lot of evidence of war in crashed aeroplanes near airstrips, wrecked vehicles etc but though it's peaceful right now there are some areas with some tension in the especially in the Northern parts near the border.

On my second night here got the privilege to spent some time in the wilderness at Kauda near the Nuba mountains, one of the places where there could be some tension. When I asked if there are any wild animals about the answer was no, all that bombardment during the way pretty much scared them away. The wilderness experience was pretty interesting particularly showering under the stars expressed to the elements. Also managed to scale a nearby hill with my captain to get a wider view and discovered not only a breathtaking view but how unfit I was! One of the local officials managed to get us some accommodation with Samaritan's purse a relief organisation in that area. Their camp was pretty nice with creature comforts like internet and electricity but unfortunately the net was down when we got there but hey not too bad to be unplugged from the matrix.
Sunset over the Nuba Mountains from atop the hill

Traditional huts in Kauda

Samaritan's Purse at Kauda our gracious hosts

A typical scene this one was at Yuai

When there I got to learn a little nugget, the origin of the phrase 'riding shotgun'. Back in the 'old west' in America the horse driven coaches would have somebody would sit at the front with the driver- if that's the correct term and you guessed it he'd have a shotgun to deal with any miscreants they'd meet on the way be it bandits or disgruntled locals. Well you learn something new every day! After my little adventure it was back to riding shotgun in the Cessna Caravan!

See you all in a few!