Airstrip Focus – Silimo

I fly to Silimo at least once at week and sometime almost daily. It’s a short 15-18 minute flight from Wamena as long as the weather is good. Its short but not very steep. The hardest part about the runway is that the abort point is over half a mile away from the touchdown point. That means that once you’ve passed that point you have to land or accept an accident.

I’ve had my fair share of fun in Silimo, and even a few scary moments. Generally though I thoroughly enjoy flying there. The folks on the ground are friendly and there’s a deep missional history there. That history wasn’t always so friendly though. In fact, it started with an ambush.

Years ago a missionary who was looking for a certain village was attacked by the local tribe. He had hiked into the valley and the men were waiting there for him. When he realized what was happening, he did the last thing his attackers expected.

He laid down. Lying there on the rocks and mud he told them he wouldn’t stop them from killing him because he loved them. The spears and arrows never flew.

Now, that man’s son visits Silimo regularly continuing on the work his father started. Creating an alphabet for the tribe, teaching them to read, giving them a school, bringing access to medical care, establishing a church, and giving them the Bible in their own language.

Like many villages in Papua, Silimo’s history of connection to the modern world starts with a western missionary appearing in their village. The history continued with the construction of the airstrip. And now, I’m helping write that story as I fly to those villages. Reflecting on this makes me hope I can write a chapter for these villages in the example of that first missionary, one of love and care.

 

Delayed Again

A few weeks ago I bent over to grab my backpack. I was about to put the last few things into it that I needed for my flight day. The sun was streaming in the window promising a good day for my PPC/ICC (pilot proficiency check/instrument competency check).

It wasn’t to happen however. As I reached for my backpack, something gave way in my back. I’d had back pain in the past, and usually it went away in a couple minutes, or even a few hours. This pain didn’t just go away.

After sitting on the couch a bit, I texted my chief pilot with whom I was to fly. I explained what was happening as my back grew more and more painful. He told me to take it easy and rest. We could do the check flights on Monday. Since it was Friday, we wouldn’t lose much time and I’d have the weekend to recover.

That was four weeks ago. Since then I’ve learned that I’d not just pulled a muscle, but I had a herniated disc in my back. Much of the time since then I’ve been laying on my back in bed waiting. Now, after several weeks of recovery time doing gentle exercises at the direction of a physical therapist, I’m able to move about on my own somewhat. I still can’t bend over however, and sitting or standing for more than a few minutes rapidly becomes uncomfortable and even painful.

I’m not sure what’s next. Hopefully in a couple more weeks I’ll be able to return to work to a limited degree, and maybe even start flying a bit here and there. It could also be that I’ll end up needing to travel for more extensive medical care. Right now, all I can do is wait.

Regardless of what’s to happen though, I’ve been feeling generally quite positive. I’ve had more time to read, catch up on some thank-you notes, play some games, read to my kids, and even write some blog entries. It’s been a good, if somewhat boring few weeks.

What are some things that you would suggest to fill my time? Perhaps you have a book to recommend or an activity you’ve used to pass the time while bed-ridden?

1000 Hours

A couple weeks ago I received an email congratulating me on 1000 hours flying with Mission Aviation Fellowship accident free. I received this commendation with mixed feelings. While I’ve worked hard over the last several years to fly safely, I’ve often felt that accomplishing that goal was a crazy mix of skill, caution, luck, Divine intervention, and excellent training. I’m honored to have reached this goal, but I look forward to the next flight and worry.

I’m not worried that I’ll decide not to be safe. I worry that I’ll let my guard down. I worry that I’ll start being just a little bit lazy. I worry that I’ll start to forget the lessons I’ve learned over the last 1000 hours.

So as an exercise of reminding myself, and as a way to share some hard earned lessons as a bush pilot, here is a list guidelines to remember.

  1. Take more fuel. You’ll never regret leaving behind that one bag to have another 20 minutes of fuel on board.
  2. Have about 3x more outs than you think you need.
  3. You can push fuel reserves, daylight, or weather, but never more one.
  4. Terrain is always closer than you think it is, unless you’re looking at it, then it’s farther away.
  5. If you can’t see due to low visibility, don’t go.
  6. If you think you can see in low visibility, you actually can’t, so don’t go.
  7. If can see, try it.
  8. Marginal weather in the mountains is really IFR weather.
  9. You can never check your airplane for damage too much.
  10. If something isn’t right, but you don’t know what, turn around and go home. Better to figure out what it was safe on the ground than on an accident report.
  11. Fridays are for mistakes. If it’s Friday you’re probably tired. Quit as soon as you catch yourself screwing up little things.
  12. Always fly a stable approach. This will be the hardest at your home base.
  13. Practice your emergency procedures, but do it safely. Touch drills are best.
  14. Passengers don’t know half of the danger they are in. Educate them if they can handle it, assure them if they can’t.
  15. Take-off performance isn’t a joke. Know your aircraft performance numbers for your altitude and add lots of margin.

What are some rules of thumb that you use?

Unexpected

My weather flying is so much less scientific than in other countries. In the modern world pilots look at high and low pressure charts, consider winds aloft, check temperature and dew point spreads, and even understand what to expect as the barometer rises and falls. Me? I look outside and decide if I can see that hill. If I can, then it’s worth taking off.

Often tropical weather changes rapidly with isolated storms. Thankfully, those isolated storms are rarely embedded here in Papua. If there’s a bad storm, one to avoid, usually it’s clear for miles and miles around it.

One day I departed on a longer flight leg than normal. I was headed all the way to Sentani, an hour north and east of my home airport in Wamena. Enroute to Sentani there were several isolated storms, and I worked my way around them quite easily.

After dropping my passengers off and getting loaded back up for our return flight, I started up, got cleared for departure and left Sentani behind. I wanted to get home before things got much worse.

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This map spans nearly 3000 miles and is the best source of weather we have.

Once I was airborne, I found the weather had moved. I’d expected that, and confirmation was comforting. To get around the storms I initially headed almost due west. 40 miles later I rounded the end of the worse of the storms and found myself 12,000′ above the jungle with about a hundred miles visibility. There were a couple more smaller storms building on my route but they looked pretty insignificant compared to the huge one I’d just circumnavigated with tops only at  an estimated 18,000′ to 20,000′ or so.

I had a couple options for how to deal with the smaller storms in my path. I opted for shooting straight between them over some lower clouds connecting them. I set my course, switched on the auto-pilot and took those few minutes to do some monthly instrument checks.

A few moments later I’d finished my task and re-evaluated my situation. I was on course to slide between the two building clouds, but I realized that I’d be passing through the very tops of the clouds between them. This didn’t concern me at all. In hindsight, it really should have.

I hadn’t even entered the first cloud when the updraft began. As soon as I felt that, I knew I might be in for a ride. I killed the auto-pilot and reduced power. Seconds later it hit. As the misty swirls engulfed my plane, what felt like a huge ocean swell washed over my place rocking it’s nose up and dropping one wing. I flew on instinct. Power back. Maintain pitch attitude. Accept altitude deviations. The hits kept coming. My vision tunneled in on the instruments as the grey clouds around the plane tossed me about in my seat.

It lasted about 20-30 seconds. But even that felt too long. Out the other side of the clouds I popped, and again I had a beautiful few. Miles and miles of jungle stretched out ahead with blue sky and a few puffy white clouds along the way between me and the mountains nearly a hundred miles away.

As the plane droned on as if nothing had happened, I pondered how I could have missed the possibility of that turbulence. All the signs were there. A rapidly building cloud at 12,000′ between two known storms. Isolated storms building and moving through the area. I just hadn’t been thinking about it clearly. Perhaps I was tired. Perhaps the altitude was affecting my thinking process. Whatever it was, it was a cheap lesson for me. Don’t mess with storms. When they say in training to stay 20 miles away from a known storm, they mean it. Keep clear and arrive alive.

Have you been surprised by the weather? What events can you think of that contributed to you being surprised like that?