Saturday, January 17, 2015

Oh my it's 0500...

Early start for me today. 
I'm off to fly with my colleague Raphael to discover 2 new bush strips, deliver some cargo and collect 2 passengers. First stop is Bozoum (FEGZ) to the North West of the country.
We need to get some extra fuel on board so I look after pre flighting the plane and Raph looks after the paper work. Before long we are climbing up through 6000' in the gorgeous dawn light. 

We have some good visibility and Raph points out the huge sprawling lake that provides electricity here. It's enormous .  
Oh for some water skis and a boat.....I think I am starting to have visions I the Vietnam war film where they all surf with the charge of the light brigade music.... Can't remember the name of the movie though. 
You know what I need to stop getting up at 5am, I get delusional.
Back to the flying.
We are heading the north east of the country and the ground starts rising up to meet us and I can see the hills and ridges shaping the landscape. It's quite beautiful today and nice to see a bit too. 
It's time to look at the approach plate for the arrival and all seems relatively straight forward. Well as straight forward as it can when you are going to land a 1.5 ton plane on a dusty track.

Preparations complete and we can both are the trucks of the NGO waiting for us so we know all is good below and we land on the dark red sandy strip. 
Within 2 minutes of shutting down the chaos form the NGO have unloaded the cargo and it's time to start up again. 
We are heading down the runway and onto the second hop to collect some NGO personnel from Bocoranga.
It's a short hop of 40 mins and it's a new one to us both so I do an overhead inspection and the strip looks in excellent shape, I almost feel spoilt.
I circle overhead and then set up for final and can see that the military are spaced out every 50metres at the side of the strip to safe guard it. I land and then taxi over to the waiting 4x4's.
As I shut down I realise the entire village has come to greet us. 
I lovely colourful sight with about 50 smiling faces. 

We had our 2 aid workers on board and it was time to head back to Bangui which was going to take about 2hours. With the passengers and their bags the climb up to our planned altitude of 9500' was a bit labored but we got there in the end. Into the cruise and I noticed everyone around me was once again asleep. 
Cruise checks complete and it's time to look outside a bit. 
There's not much other traffic out in the skies today, either that or they are not taking on the radio. 
I give my usual estimated timings to the area radio controller and relax into my seat as it hear some gentle snorring. 
I really am magnetic company in these flights. 

After an hour and 30 mins it's time to set up the approach, I've requested to come in on the 17runway at Bangui as the wind is low. I set up the GPS approach in the garmin and get the appropriate clearance to descend and eventually line up for final on 17 and see the runway coming nicely into view. Full flaps, power back and we are backin time for tea and medals......
Well it is Saturday so it might be a cheeky little lemon cake for me.... 

Thoughts for the day:

1. Is it inappropriate when your co-pilot is having a nap to gently waggle the wings of the plane  so that he looks like a nodding dog ?

2. How close have I been to some serious wildlife since I've been here and been totally unaware 

3. Is it inappropriate to whisper subliminal messages whilst your co-pilot is napping ?

4. I miss Naomi

5. #JeSuisCharlie

Friday, January 16, 2015

Such a perfect day

I've been waiting for today to come around for a week now. Like a kid at xmas.
 It's been in my mind since a meeting a week ago but like with most things in aviation I didn't expect it to happen until it actually did. 

I was asked a week ago if I would be prepared to go with the Head of Mission for one of the NGO's we fly frequently to Bossangoa where there main mission is based and spend some time with him there to see what they are doing and then fly him and another colleague back in the afternoon. 

Brilliant, I thought. Not just dropping off at an airstrip let the people out and then heading back to base. 
I've been waiting each day to see if it would be cancelled for of a million reasons, but no. 

We packed the aircraft with supplies for his mission there, he sat up front next to me and off we went at 8am after the usual pre flight preparations. 
Climbed above 8000' to a nice surprise of a 25 knot tail wind so the 1hr40 flight was going to reduce quite a bit. 

Top of descent came and went and we were descending through clear skies . Today was the first time I had people actually on the runway when I did my low pass to make sure everything was safe so I did a second pass to doubly make sure they had got the message. And they had.
I landed on the 30 runway and taxied in to see my smiling UN soldier friends from earlier in the week. 

It had been arranged that they would guard my plane whilst I went off for a few hours visiting the area. 

I was taken by car with the boss to the field HQ. The roads were really rural and the housing too. Everyone was waving and saying hello as we drove by with our windows down. 

Everyone seems quite at ease. It was hard to think there had been some gruesome fighting here not long ago.

 I was taken to see some of the other projects and one of the on site aid workers took me a stroll through the local market and then through the town. It was great to meet some amazing people, happy people and we managed to pass one of the local schools just as school was finishing. I'm not quite sure what they made of me but there were lots of high 5's going around. 
We went to visit with some of the local supplyers of materials for the mission as well. Who supply bricks etc.

After a lovely walk through the town it was time to try some of the local food over lunch. I will post a picture of the kitchen. I was warned before we went that it was rural.........
This is the restaurant kitchen above. 
The food was lovely chicken and mixed sauces and rice.

It all seemed to go by in a flash as I looked at the time and with the flight plan filed we had to start wrapping up and heading back to the plane. 
Along the way I got to take lots of pictures which I will post aswell. 

I have to say a huge Thankyou tot he NGO INSO who made such a perfect and also get to see that the early morning starts, the heat and the dust are all worth it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Resources and resourceful

I've had a bit of a learning curve here since my arrival 2 weeks ago.
I've got a non flying day today so I'm getting have a bit of a relax and also reflect on life here 1500km from the nearest ocean.
As I walked through the street this morning I saw a taxi totally overloaded to the point where the exhaust was scraping along the ground with the trunk open and some sacks of some kind of gravel stones loaded in the back. It wasn't the straining car that made me look twice it was the exhaust pipe. It was made out of recycled metal bottles. That's proper resourcefulness I thought to myself. As I start to open my eyes to the things around me here I realise that not much gets thrown away for not working, instead it gets repaired, if it can't be repaired it becomes something else and helps that to be repaired.

A couple of days ago when I had a day off I sat In the reception of the hotel for the internet and the shoe shining man, who is there each day and always wears a smile came to me to ask if he do my shoes. He's a very proud man, impeccably dressed and always says hello. I politely refused as with the dust here they'll be dirty again in 10 mins covered in red dust I thought. 
I sat for a further  few minutes and it dawned on me that my shoes really did look awful, and I think he sensed this so he came back for a chat. He said to me he thinks that the other shoes I wear need the most attention. I looked quizzingly at him, he said"  the ones you wear with your pilot uniform" . He obviously notices everything that goes on here in reception area as we pass through. 
I went off to my room to look at my 'work' shoes and he was right.
 I have brought with me some really old shoes for flying in as I knew that in the bush they would end up ruined so I'd probably throw them away at the end of the trip. 
I picked up the shoes and also with my trainers I took them back to reception. We negotiated a price for cleaning to 2 pairs and I went back to writing emails and working . 
It doesn't escape my attention how hard he went to work and how meticulous he was. But what surprised me was when he got out his needle and thread. He saw my surprise so he came over. He almost scolded me for the state of them and said he won't let me leave the building again with shoes looking like this and he will repair them and make them look correct for a pilot at no extra charge. 
I tried to tell him it's ok and not to bother, he shook his head at me and went back to his industrial needle and thread. 
An hour or so later he brought my work shoes back to me and they were like new, if not better. I was honestly stunned. I was happily prepared to consign these shoes to bin and just buy some new ones upon my return. Now they were stitched, shined and polished. 
Resourcefulness. I would have wasted money on buying new ones.
I suppose it's a state of mind these days that if something doesn't work anymore we just replace it. The tv, mobile phone, even the clothes we wear. 
We've lost the idea of putting in the hard work to repair things and make them new again and last longer.
Along the side of the main road here  I notice there are stacks of car tires with men repairing them and selling them there usually seems to be a burning blue flame nearby and I guess the men are remoulding out any holes or damage. These days if someone in a garage tell us we need new tyres, we pay them and job done.
Resourcefulness .

Life here is certainly making me look at some things differently, and I'm going to be sure to show my kids that when things don't quite work properly that's the time to make them work again and not just go to the shop and replace them.

A windsock & my first Solo

It was a little bit different here today. Just a little bit.
As of yesterday my official conversion on the aircraft and as a certified or maybe 'certifiable' Bush pilot is completed and I can now legally and officially fly all over this place with passengers without restriction. Which means my safety pilot Gilbert who has been with me so far for the first 15 hours has now gone home to Belgium and I'm flying without a safety net and today is the first flight. The flight is scheduled for Berbérati about an hour and 40 mins away with 4 passengers and their worldly belongings. Berbérati is a bush strip but a long one and even has a windsock !!!!

I arrive at the airport as per usual but today there is a long queue for flight plan filing so there we are 5 pilots in line from countries such as Israel, South Africa, USA and me representing Europe, and of course we are pilots so what else to talk about planes...... Boys and our toys.
Flight plan finally accepted and the computer says yes so time to pre-flight and get everyone and everything on the my trusty Cessna 206.
I've really grown an affection for this plane, usually I describe myself as a Cessna snob as I don't really like flying then but this one feels like a flying tank and I love it . She's a bit naughty
Now and then if she's in a funny mood but we seem to be able to straighten things out in the end. 

My passengers arrive and I weigh them all and get the luggage on. The largest of passengers I ask him to come up front and sit next to me for balancing the plane out as we don't want too much weight at the back . We are strapped in and ready to go west. 
I feel a little bit more vigilant and a litte extra cautious on this flight and just take my time. Keep Calm and Carry on. I receive my departure clearance, note then down and read back and then cleared for take off. 
I have now noticed that the refugees have set up a soccer pitch on the side of the runway, I'm too busy at this point to get a photo but I will try over the coming days . 
I do a 180 turn on the end of the runway, Final checks complete time to roll. 
Yet another departure under SVFR and I'm nearly out of sight of the ground and the sky at the same time so flying with some help from my instruments as we depart the city area. We are on our way in the climb so I reduce to climb power and get my flight log out to start calculating my estimated times of arrival at various check in points along the route. We don't have any radar here at all like in the UK or France so once airborne I have to work out to the minute when I anticipate arriving at each one and at which altitude so that the controller can write it on his bit of paper. Whether he does anything other than that I really have no idea but the idea is so that he can use the bigger picture to avoid possible traffic problems, but it keeps me busy for the first minutes of the flight. When I've worked them out I call him over the radio, he repeats them and it's job done. 
I level out for the cruise and can't really see very much worth photographing today unfortunately with the misty stuff around, it looks like looking through a net curtain outside. I look around the plane and everyone is asleep already. Even the chap sitting next to me in the cockpit. It's going to be a quiet trip today.
I go through my fuel log and make sure everything is right and then revise the landing chart for the airstrip to brief myself on the arrival. 

I have the picture in my mind and it's the time has arrived at my calculated time to start the descent in to the strip. 
I grab the checklist , carry out the jobs and announce on the open frequency that I am leaving my flight level.
As soon as I pass through 4000' the visibility opens up a bit so finding the airstrip is really quite easy today. I pass over the river and do a inspection pass to make sure all looks well on the ground and I see the cars from the NGO parked up and waiting for us  just near to the windsock telling me runway 32 will be best today. 
Time to slow the plane down and set it up for the approach, announce over the radio that I'm landing and get us on to the ground. The wind was playing around a bit but it was nice and stable and without further ado I was shutting the engine down and helping the passengers from the plane. 
Today I've brought some food along with me, well nothing exciting, a yoghurt  drink and a pain Au chocolate. So I decide to take 5 minutes when everyone has gone to sit and have a snack before flying back  to the city. Everything around is really quiet and calm, I can even hear the birds. The things about Bangui is its a husseling busseling city with horns going all the time and people selling things. This little 5 minutes sitting on the tyre of the plane under the wing hearing the nature all around was pure and utter bliss. 
Pain Au chocolate eaten, it's time to head back to the city. 
I hop on board and fire the engine up and realise this is the first time I have flown totally alone for quite some time and certainly the first time in this plane. It brings a smile to my face as it reminds me of all I the students I have sent for their first ever solo flight. 

The plane is so light as I take off we are off like a rocket and before I know it we are back looking through the net curtain again up above 8000'. 
An hour and 45 mins alone flying feels like a very long time, but I stay vigilant and carry out all of the jobs I have to do along the way and am happy to see that my fuel calculations were spot on for the trip. 
I am lined up with some United Nations traffic coming in from the south so I slow myself down a bit earlier than usual and route out towards the river and the city of Bangui where I get a good look at the sprawling place that it is. 

I see the traffic pass Infront, I slip in behind and before long I am given clearance to land. 
Each time I see the sprawling mass of the tarporline city next to the runway it jolts me back to reality that people here really do need help and that's why I am here. To see thousands and thousands of children living in this way due to civil war litterally breaks my heart. 
Within 5 minutes of landing I see the smiling face of Freddie ready to welcome me back from the bush and it's time to put the plane to bed for the night and a hot mint tea at the Lebanese café.

Thoughts for the day:
1. Playing eyespy on your own on long solo flights just doesn't work 

2. Singing on long solo flights alone is great fun providing you know more than just the chorus to 'Living on a Prayer'

3. I wonder if the hotel will have finally taken down the Christmas decorations when I get back today 
4. Listening to someone singing the chorus to 'Living on a Prayer' over and over for an hour is simply torture 

Please note the was no electricity or internet yesterday when I wanted to post this so I am doing it today

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Barmy Bassangoa with a sore thumb

A later start today, time for a coffee with the Chef De Mission and see what's coming up of the coming weeks which seems to involve flying everyday.
Then time to head into the AirPort for a 9am departure. As I walk to the aircraft after seeing the weather chaps and filing my flight plan I see rather a lot of cargo around the aircraft. Rather too much to get in and airborne I'm thinking to myself.  It's time to weigh it all and get the weight and balance sheets out and I'm right almost double the allowable weigh to take along with the 2 passengers aswell. When the passengers arrive I explain the situation and they prioritise what needs to go and what can wait until the next flight on Friday when I will fly up there again with the boss of the NGO.

I calculate the maximum possible and pack it all in and I hop onboard and it's time to fire up the engine and head out to the north west .
As I'm climbing on up to FL085 I hear a plane taking off behind me and heading in the same direction to the same destination of Bassangoa. The plane is a Dash8 so far faster than I am, his flight time is estimated at about 40 mins mine is 1hour 30. Kind of the tortoise and the hare. 

The good thing about this though is I am able chat with the pilot over the common frequency, a nice South African crew with a good sense of humor.
I've not been to this airstrip before and I always like discovering the new ones so whilst in the cruise I get out the guide for the strip and brief my arrival to myself so I have all of the details of the headings, the local town, river etc in my mind. 

The cruise has gone fast and it's time do the descent checks, push the nose forward, watch the speed increase and the the numbers roll off the altimeter. I brief the passengers it's nearly time to land. As I'm descending I am chatting to the pilot of the Dash8 and we organiZe that I will do an over head join and whilst visual he will start his take off roll for his departure. Nothing worse that 2 airplanes heading at each other at a combined speed of 300 knots, best to coordinate together. I spot the strip from 5miles and see the Dash8 back tracking along the red gravel before he's going to turn at the end and line up and I make the final descent into the circuit so as I'm at 1000' above the middle of strip. We let each other knew we are visual and he puts the hammer down and masses of red dust cloud the runway as he accelerates. I hadn't been counting on that . 

I decide to make a wider arc to let the dust settle and bring the plane over the village to line up for the 30 end of the strip. Mr Dash8 is long gone and I'm lowering full flaps and crossing the threshold at 65knots and manage the best landing I've done yet in this plane. I'm starting to get used to it. 

I taxi to a 'parking' area and shut the Engine down I time to see a few Blue Helmeted UN soldiers coming to greet the plane. I was pleased to see they had huge smiles on their faces. One even opened the door for me like a consiege at a 5 star hotel, I could get used to this. 
With the passengers and their load of cargo unloaded one of the soldiers comes over to say hello and ask for a picture with me, I say of course as long as I can have one with him. He tells me he's from Camaroon and as it's the start of the African Cup of Nations football shortly I start to have a bit of fun with him about their chances and of winning it or rather lack. Infact as I write that I realise how dumb I can really be, honestly, here's me making fun out of a soldier's national football team when he's stuck in the bush under 40 degrees and he has a glock 9mm pistol strapped to his waist and holding an AK47..(note to self that not the cleverest thing to do!!')
Anyway no international incident occurres and we were all smiles. With lots of hand shaking and a few salutes they secure the strip for me from a few wondering citizens and it's time to point the nose back in the direction of Bangui.

There Seems to be something going on with time today as the 1h30 flight goes very quickly to the point where I was doubting my GPS but I was in contact with Bagui tower and was chuffed to bits to hear that I'm the only traffic and I was called number one to land from 15 miles out, one of the bonuses of landing at lunchtime is all of the military chaps are eating somewhere so no traffic around. Well they are French.

As I was passing the airport to line up to land I took some photos of the refugee camp on the side of the runways which holds thousand and thousands of displaced people living under plastic sheeting. As I turn final I feel my stomach rumbling and start to wonder what's for lunch today........

Maybe grilled chicken........

Thoughts for the day:
1. Thankyou to everyone who left messages on the blog it's really kind
2. I miss Naomi
3. I am hoping my mum isn't too stressed that I'm here doing this
4. I feel lucky to have amazing friends and family who've emailed me and Facebooked me with support
5. This is a life changing experience 
6. Today I realised how much work my thumb does as I squashed it yesterday

Monday, January 12, 2015

Off to the East

Photobomb in flight

 I was awake before the dawn this morning, the world outside seemed to wake up early today and we're pretty loud about it Hooting and hollering .
As it was early so there was hot water so I took advantage for a decent hot shower but I guess the military General who lives next door but one won't have been too

0700 arrived an it was time to meet Freddie (in the photo) the driver and head on in to the airport well rested after a Sunday off spent with a good book and even getting to see some premier league football which was a bit random.
Today's destination is Alindao for the charity Save The Children due East about 170nm in the Muslim part of the country but initially we have to fly over a section of The Congo to get there.
Add caption

As usual it was a quick visit to the weather men and file the flight plan aswell and before long it the passengers were ready to load up. 4 Passengers including one small child. She was about 2 years old and couldn't stop smiling.
Before long we were cleared for take off and making out slow climb out to the east over the hills up to FL095 to try to escape the morning head winds.
Into the cruise and it was easy to see the clear skies of Saturday were gone and we were in misty stuff with no horizon which makes for harder flying without an Autopilot. 

The further Easy I go the less radio traffic there is until after about 45 minutes I am totally alone out there 9500ft above The Congo.
The cloud below thins about a bit and I can get a few pictures which keeps me occupied until it's time to start the descent 34miles out. 
Some of the terrain below came into view and it really felt like the wilderness, I think for the first time since I have been I felt I was right out in the back country.
The airfield at Alindao has only been open to us for about 3 weeks as my predecessor John was our first pilot in there and today was my first shot at it. It's the smallest field we go into and shortest too.

It's on quite a slope whichx means we can only land safely in one direction even if we have a tail wind. In saying that , there's no one giving me wind information or strength so I have to look at the trees moving or any smoke fr any fires and make a judgement that way. It's all a little different to arriving into Limoges !!
I did an inspection at 500ft above the ground and saw the cars belonging to the people from Save the Children I the correct place which is the indicator that the runway has been made safe, even though I can see a few people walking along side the landing site. I'm getting more and more used to this now, landing with an audience.

Without doubt one of my trickiest landings yet but we were in and I was relatively happy with it. I taxied over to the cars and I don't think I have ever seen people so happy. There must have been 25 people there and they were all applauding. It really shows how important a link our aircraft is to these guys and it certainly makes all the effort worthwhile. 
I helped disembark my passengers and paying special attention to the youngest one she seemed really happy to be home and her dad came forward to get her. 

Every single member of the greeting party came to shake my hand and all asked me where John is. I had to give them the news he's back in Europe now so I had to Teach them how to say my name which was hilarious, we ended up with a compromise of "Stu" as it was easier. 
One of the military guys asked if he could have a picture with me which was fun but I said only if I can have one with him too. So many smiles so many happy people.
I could happily have stayed all afternoon chatting and learning about life here. 
I had 3 passengers to return back to base at Bangui with lots of bags so we got on with weighing it all and loading on up, it was with a little regret when I started the engine up to taxi back along the strip that I don't get more time to spend when I land to go and visit these places but it's lovely to get to meet so many lovely people who appreciate what we do here. 

I climb on out of the bush pointing west up to FL085, my passengers are soon sleeping and we are in the cruise. 
Reflecting away as I do in the cruise I realise what a real lifeline the NGO's are who work so hard to help people in places such as here. Saturday we were flying to help the Christian part of the country with water purification and then today it's to the East and the young Muslim children. It just makes me realize that the people who carry out the atrocities like in Paris this week are just extremist lovers of violence using religion as an excuse, any religion. 

I get jolted back to reality as I can suddenly hear people on the radio frequency and I feel like I am back to the real world. Time to brief the approach and get ourselves on the ground, "Back home for tea and medals" as the RAF fighter pilots used to say.

I get called to follow the river visually to maintain separation and then line up for final runway 35 and report established. 
I did as I was asked and before I knew it I was on the ground. It goes to say something that upon landing I see fires on grass on the left of the runway and people lined up on the right and I just carry on as normal, something like that would be front page news back home....
I taxi over to our stand and start thinking about tea and medals, well in my case a nice cuppa and a slice of lemon cake at my favorite cafe.........

As I my computer has stopped working here I don't have much idea if anyone actually reads the blog so please feel free to leave a message and say hi or even ask any questions.
Regards from Bangui. 

A pretty big week of flying with some centreline hopscotch.....

Hours flown this month(FEB): 33 Landings: 8 Countries visited: 5  Continents visited: 3  Quick iron of the shirt and in th...