Saturday, January 24, 2015

Heavy heart

I received word here today, not that I am too surprised, but it's still really disappointing that due to the ongoing deterioration in security close to us and in the area that we will be suspending operations for the time being and that I will be put on the next flight home leaving here for safety reasons. 

It's become quite apparent over the last few days since the hijackings and kidnappings that these weren't isolated incidents but a seemingly growing campaign. 
It's been made clear to me from the start that Aviation sans Frontieres/ Aviation without Borders puts our safety at the top of the list. It's one of the reasons why I agreed to come over. 
These guys have been doing this kind of work for many many years so when they say it's time to move I just ask where to . 
I only found this news out about an hour  so still digesting it at the moment and looking around my hotel room and looking at all of my stuff and realising I will have to pack. 
I'm sure I will write a few bits over the coming days before I manage to get on a flight back and will try to get some pictures of the city here before I head back to winter.....

Thought for the day:
1. I can't believe I am going to leave before the xmas decorations are down
2. Refer to number 1.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A non flying day is never a good day but there are some smiling faces

Last night I received a heads up that today's flying has had to be cancelled due to uncertainties on the ground here at the moment. There are reports and rumors of issues along various routes out of the city. The various NGO's (Non governmental Organizations) including ours are working on a convoy arrangement with the UN to keep things flowing so hopefully we'll be back in the air tomorrow. 
Spending time just sitting on the ground here isn't too much fun. Most of the NGO's who operate here do so from compounds where there is a house and kitchen and things to do and people to see, a small community. Unfortunately we don't work like that and are based in a small hotel, so when we aren't flying there is only a hotel room keep one amused or a short walk to the cafe along the road, we can't venture too far.
 I've read 6 books in the 23 days that I've been here thus far. 
So today I won't be writing a post about flying to one of the outposts that usually do each day maybe I'll just write what I can see here.


I am sat here in the cafe enjoying a yoghurt and lemon tea, as I look around me there are half a dozen European soldiers lining up for a coffee and a coissant, armed to the teeth with automatic rifles and also a group of French Gendarmes (French Police), similarly suited in body armor with rifles strapped to their chests and side arms attached to their belts.
 At the same time there are locals going about their business having morning meetings over their coffee chatting over the coming working day. Next to me a Chinese man is busying himself with his computer. It's a calm and relaxed place yet when I think about it, utterly surreal. The serving waitresses here in their bright pink shirts serve each and every one of us in the relaxed African way. 
The thing that ties everyone together is everyone stops to watch the tv in the corner to see if there's any news of what's happening at the moment. The gendarmes have their breakfasts and leave really politely saying good morning to everyone and they mount their armoured personnel carrier mounted on the pavement being guarded by their colleagues. It must be seriously hot in there as its over 30 degrees already and heading for 39 today. 
As I'm looking out of the window the visibility with the fog isn't too great this morning and the dust is being thrown up from the passing of vehicles is just making it worse. The roads here are a kind of sandy red mud, pitted and potholed which limits the speed which you can move around. 
Maybe I'll have another tea.
The world of the cafe gets more surreal as a group of nuns now arrive for their morning coissant. 
The nuns are a classy bunch of girls though as they've gone for lemon tea like me. 
The irony of it all. 
A few people have written to me via facebook this week and asked why I'm doing this and don't I think it's too risky. 
My response is what we are doing here is vital for helping the Aid organizations keeping their operations moving. Without us they would have to drive usually for 12-15 hours to most of the places I can fly to in 2 hours. Plus their convoy probably wouldn't arrive as they drive through areas of severe turmoil. When I get to see the smile on the faces of the kids I saw yesterday the smile that shows relief, the smile of gratitude of their parents and the villagers that there are people there willing to help, the answer is Yes it is certainly worth it. 
Just because we can sit at home in Europe with the comfort blanket of security that we take for granted and we don't know who these people are or even where their country is, does that mean we should just leave them to it ? For me no. The risks are managed and monitored and I would never put myself in harms way.
I have a skill that can help out, it might only be a drop in the ocean as far as the help is concerned but that drop in the ocean has a ripple effect. 
Yes it might be hot and dusty . Yes there are Mosquitos and very little internet. 
Yes I miss my girlfriend and I miss my kids. 
But it's six weeks. In six weeks a lot can be done. 
In six weeks I get to see a lot of those smiling faces. 
That's the currency here. 

Two weeks today I will be on a flight home to my girlfriend and my family and when they ask me how it went. 


I will tell them I made people smile. 



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Turbulent time & one HUGE plane


Up before dawn this morning. 
It's seems the one and only dog I have seen in Bangui has decided to start barking outside my window at 5am. I'm determined not to go and see him or it will be the same each day.
So a slow wake up and time to take advantage of some hot water before heading for a stroll up the road for breakfast. 
A quick yoghurt and Freddie is there to take me off to the airport for today's flight to Carnot not too far from where I was yesterday, but certainly not going to be taking extra baggage !! 
Today's NGO is NRC and they work with children. I'm taking a new group of aid workers in to the village there. 
When I have filed my plan and got the weather I came out of the office to see the biggest plane I have ever seen in my life and it's parked in the middle of the apron and causing a nightmare for movement of all of the aircraft. 
 
I watched them loading some of the cargo onboard and it was incredible how much they can put in there. 
My passengers arrive on time and I pack them on it with their baggage and call for start up . 
I get the plane running and get told I'm number 5 for departure....
It's going to take a little while, time to open the windows and have a chat with the passengers .
I finally get called to taxi behind a LETT and he in turn is behind a 737.
Patiently I'm tapping my fingers on the dash and the call comes through the back track and line up on the runway. 
We taxi passed the kids playing football next to the runway, turn to line up on runway 35, push the throttle and wait for 65kts and away we head off in to the morning mist. I turn to head due West and climb up to 9000'. 
Up into the cruise and a nice cool drink and it's time to plan the arrival once again. 
There is runways 35/17 to choose from. I hear on the open frequency that my friend with the Dash8 that I seem to cross quite often Lin already there and he briefs me on the situation down there and we organize my arrival and his departure.
It's time to descend and start looking for the strip. The one thing here , the approach plates are very detailed and we've spent a lot of time programming the 2 gps's onboard and usually we can drop straight over the dusty strip if we follow the guide lines.
As per the plan, mr dash8 has taken off and I join over head for an inspection of the runway which seems clear, so it's flaps down power back and line up. 
I'm pleased to say the landing is better than yesterday's .

Upon taxiing to the clearing I can see lots people waiting , including dozens of children. What a greeting, it's like school fayre with Z list celebrity arriving. They've obviously been looking forward to my passengers arriving. Everyone is waving. Quite a sight. 
Also lovely relief from some of the stress that's built up over the passed few days with the security issues. 
It's nice to get to have a chat with the Aid workers and see what they are doing for 10 minutes and high 5 a few of the kids. I wonder what this must seem like to them. Here they live, in one of the most secluded areas of this country and here pops in an airplane in what can really be described as the dirt track infront of their village. 
The above photo is the runway.

As I keep an eye on the time I see it's time to board the 2 aid workers who need to head back to the big city. 
The wind is calm so I take the 17 runway to head off. The lighter plane springs Into the air with ease and it's time head east and back Bangui. 
I chose 7000' for the return as the winds were lower for the way back. As I reach the Bangui the area and in radio contact with Bangui tower I manage to request the arrival I want and after 1hour 20 in the cruise it's time to start the descent. 
No sooner had I put the nose forward and trimmed for 500' per minute descent and the plane was being bounced around all over the place. A little midday turbulence was rearing its head. No scrap that. A lot of midday turbulence was grabbing ahold of my plane and rattling it like a kids toy. 
It's the first time since I've been in Africa that I've really had any. I had allowed one of the passengers to sit next to me up front and was starting pray he wouldn't get stressed or throw up. Funnily enough I take a look over and he's loving it. Like he's on a fair ground ride, and then takes out his iPhone and starts to video himself. Whatever next ?
Fortunately I was able to descend straight down to 3000' and it's virtually cleared by then, but I realised my palms were sweating. 
I get called in number one to land and I follow the GPS approach into runway 17 at Bangui and with 4000metres visibility I see the runway a few miles out and we are down on the Tarmac. 
To my surprise the enormous Russian cargo plane is still there and it's engines are running. Once the aid workers and their bags are safely back in the terminal I ask Freddie to take a fun picture with me and the plane..... 
It's an early finsh here due to an early start so I thinking about some Humus for lunch and my favourite Lebanese restaurant.

Thoughts for the day:

1. Ok so they say pictures speak louder than words!!

2. I agree, pictures do........

3. It's just wrong.

4. I hope no one else is reading this and is going to tell me there is a special law in the Central African Republic regarding decorations. 



Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Healthy, flying & gun running

I deliberately didn't write a post yesterday. 

There was quite a bit going on security wise here in Bangui and I decided it would be far better to find out the reality of what's going on rather than seeing the news here and mentioning heresay and rumor. 
So 24 hours after the event yesterday morning a friend of mine and fellow pilot Leo who flies for the UN was traveling to the airport along the main airport road when there was an attempted hijacking & kidnapping by guys on motorbikes with AK47 assault rifles of him and his fellow pilots who were all traveling together In aUN marked 4x4.They had a good driver who managed to get them out of the situation swiftly and to a place of safety. A short while after a second kidnap attempt was made and on UN staff and this one was successful and as reported on the news a UN worker was kidnapped. This comes after 2 hostages were also taken the night before. My friend Leo informed me that there was a second attempt on flight crew in uniform in the same area later in the morning once again unsuccessful. Which lead to a theory that pilots were being targeted. 
The best part of the news is the kidnapped worker was freed late last night, although the ambiance here does seem have changed dramatically . The situation seems to have arrisen from one of the rebel leaders was arrested by the UN on Sunday night and the rebels have decided to take hostages to organize a swap. 

For once I feel happy that I was ill yesterday. And wasn't going to the airport at the same time as normal.
Today there have been a lot of French forces on the roads with helicopters in the sky, the route to the airport couldn't have been any safer if we were traveling with Barack Obama. 
So I'm happy to say my illness has passed and I was able to go and see the friendly chaps in the flight planning room and get the weather for a return trip to Bayanga in the far west of the country. Bayanga as I've said before is the home to a massive nature reserve and today's flight was for the WWF project based there. I had cargo and the head of mission to transport. 
Flight plan filed and luggage/cargo weighed stowed onboard it's time to fire up my 6 cylinders and get airborne.
Departure clearance received and I'm off racing down runway 17.
It wasn't long before we were up in the cruise and I was discussing with my passenger that he knows Devon where I'm from and also Dorset...... Such a small world sometimes. 
There wasn't great visibility at all today which is a shame when flying over a nature reserve I'd really like to be able to get some good aerial photos whilst I'm here. At 32 nm out I started my descent after a good look at the approach plate and planned my arrival from the East to fly over head and then proceed for runway 02 landing over the river. 
As I joined overhead I saw a lot of people on the ground but not the security cars that I was looking for. 
I decided to orbit over head as per our standard operating procedures as we can't land unless the strip is secured. As I completed my second orbit I saw the tell tale dust spewing up from behind 2 4x4s enroute to the strip so I made one more orbit until all was good and set up the approach from 1000` above. 
As I lined up the final approach things got a little bumpy with a bit or thermals and sinkers off of the river.
If I'm totally honest it wasn't my best landing I've made since I've been here but my passenger seemed happy enough. 
I taxied over to the waiting crowd and the fun began........
I disembarked my passenger and all of his cargo with the help of his colleagues then met the two aid workers that I was to take back to Bangui with me. I was happy to see they only had light hand luggage with them. As I was chatting to them I noticed a local guy trying to open the cargo door of my plane trying to put a suitcase in there, he didn't realise that the cargo door opens from the inside. I presumed he was loading the suitcase for my passenger so I checked with each passenger and they said they didn't have anything so I went with the head of mission there to ask what he was doing. 

He told me he had some Fish that needs to go to Bangui. I said to him I would need to look inside any bag before its allowed on the plane if it's traveling for the charity without someone accompanying it, so I pick the suitcase up. Ummmmm I said to him, this isn't fish as fish doesn't sound like bits of metal jingling around when you pick it up. I dont work for WWF the man said, he then made a rushed and panicstriken phone call, virtually unable to pick up his metal/fish filled suitcase. It looked like a scene from Mr Bean. It seemed quite obvious that this was a crude attempt at moving some guns and ammunition . After what had happened to my friend Leo yesterday the hairs went up on the back of my neck and I politely asked the gentleman to use another aircraft. The look of anger on his face was intense and one of the other WWF workers came to inform me that someone had been caught attempting gun running in recent weeks with another plane that flies in too. The reason I write about this is not to glorify gun running or make it sound adventurous out here, I mention it in the hope that any other pilots working in this environment might take note. As it's very easy to get distracted as a single pilot operating here and for people to slip things onto the plane. I for one will be more aware at each site now. 
I loaded my 2 aid workers onboard and taxied back down the track, and when I say track I really mean track instead of runway. I really like this one as you set full power, then release the brakes it kind of launches you off and you are airborne and 300ft over a huge river in no time at all. Very picturesque. 
We climb out to the east with a direct track for Bangui and my passengers seem really excited. Two French guys taking dozens of pictures. They apparently work with the Local elephants and track them and from the air they tell me they can see the tracks. Proper French crocodile dundees I think to myself .
We head up again into the murky stuff. Unfortunately it's not an easy arrival back to Bangui today with a lot of traffic around coming in from everywhere and Mr Controller is a bit frought. I finally get called out of my hold and slot in behind the Dash8 I seem to encounter quite a lot  and approach over the city of Bangui for runway 35.

Touch down and taxi in. 
I then realise that my non gun running adventure isn't quite over.  
As soon as I park the plane and my 2 French crocodile dundees are off to the terminal a chap approaches in a fluorescent jacket asking me for the suitcase from Bayanga. "Hmmmm" I say.
"I don't have any suitcases from Bayanga just two guys who know a lot about elephants. "
Oh he says and looks very unhappy indeed as he looks around the outside of the plane. 
He shakes his head and heads off.
My ever helpful Freddie turns up to help me close up the plane and refuel and as I am checking the fuel levels a heavy set Police Woman marches along the apron and demands to know where the suitcase from Bayanga is. With a face like thunder.
I explain that someone asked me to take a suitcase on the plane without showing me the contents and not being from an NGO or on my flight manifest so it would not be allowed on the aircraft and so the suitcase full of metal fish is still with the gentleman there. 
The way she looked at me was as though I had just accused her of being Welsh. Non too amused. She muttered something rude , shaking her head and marched off to where she had come from. Freddie and I shared a smile packed the last of the plane off in the 36 degrees and headed for home. 
I feel an ice cold can of coke waiting for me. 

Thoughts for the day:
1. I've been away from home for 3 weeks. It's gone incredibly fast 

2. The hotel still has its xmas decorations up and it bothers me

3. I can see their point, they are getting 2 months use out of their decorations but it still bothers me

4. A guy tried to stash a suitcase of guns in my plane today. That doesn't happen too often in ones flying career

5. Two weeks tomorrow and I will be heading back home 


Monday, January 19, 2015

Not too well and staying on the ground


I was woken in the night with some pretty nasty cramps and pains in my stomach last night, and braced myself for the inevitable bug but it didn't happen and I went back off to sleep. The alarm went at 5:45 things seemed to be ok so went off for some small breakfast with the engineer who here, and then was picked up by the driver as we had to go to the office before the airport. 
By the time I got to the office I was feeling pretty rotten and starting vomiting a lot and feeling really not too good. 
So back to the hotel for me for the day and no flying. I'm pretty sure it's the side effects of the anti-malaria medication I have to take here as they are really quite strong. Just have to sit and drink water and wait for it to subside, the same thing happened during the first week and I was back on my feet and flying in 24 hours so fingers crossed. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Up before the birds



Another early one today. 
Off to my most familiar of strips at Berbérati. I ask the driver to collect me from the cafè at 6.30 so I can grab some breakfast before I head off. Today I have a new plane to fly. Similar to the previous but it's time for the other one to head into maintenance as its hit its hours. 

So the new plane is called SPU and if I'm honest is better equipped than the predecessor. All looks pretty similar inside. This mornings passengers are Aid workers for internews, 3 of them and their cargo so the plane is at maximum weight for departure. The misty cloud is back again so the visibility is limited to an SVFR departure. 

As I was loading the plane up an ENORMOUS US military plane came into land and as it taxied created its own sandstorm and blew the covers off o the helicopters nearby which sent crews chasing. 
Without much delay we were heading off into the dusty murky sky. I tried to get permission for as high as possible but never managed to get much blue sky .
I leveled off and got my enroute paperwork out of the way and sat a ck to relax whilst the aid workers onboard caught some ZZzzz's.
28nm away it was time to descend into  Berbérati the blood red strip off to the West near a huge wild life reserve. I Certainly wouldn't want to get stuck in there for the night without crocodile Dundee with me. 

The strip came into view and toy was a pretty straight forward arrival, too my surprise the passengers started applauding. Probably just relief to be in terra firma . 
I managed to get the plane emptied and the cargo and pax on their way and I pulled out my pain au chocolate which I brought at the cafe tis morning for. Cheeky little snack whilst sat on the wheel for 5 mins. 
Pilot refueled and it was time to get my vocal chords ready for the solo flight back to Bangui for 1hr40 mins. 
Chris Rea's 'road to hell' is the song of choice for this leg. And to be honest I appall myself at my inability to sing. 
I also decide to pay my own homage to the fallen journalists in Paris last week.

I programme the GPS approach for Bangui into the Garmin 430 and its soon time to get focused and fly on in. It's quite busy ahead so the singing becomes but a mere hum as I have to build up a picture of what's going on. 

Time to follow the magenta line as we pilots say and within 15 minutes I am on the ground and taxiing to the stand. 
20 minutes of paperwork to complete, it would normally be 5 but mental arithmetic isn't my strong point.

 The fueling chaps arrive so the plane is ready to go in the morning, I've filed the flight plan aswell so we can get away swiftly in tomorrow's early start. 
For now it's time for a bit of Sunday afternoon rest and a monster salad.

Thoughts for the day:

1. Will the hotel ever take down the xmas decorations, it's becoming a thing now ? 

2. I've still not seen any wild life, are all of the posters just lying about lions, tigers, hippos and elephants ? 

3. By wildlife did they mean goats as I've seen loads of goats. 

4. Over 1200 people have read my blog since I arrived here which I find astonishing, people from as far afield as Russia, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, USA & Brazil. Whoever these people are, if you want a demo tape of my cockpit greatest hits just let me know.

Up and away again..... heading North, a long day and then home.....

At Starbucks in Beirut, thinking about where I'd like us to go away holiday this year The phone rings..... "Can we leave to...