I had an interesting day today, flying some people from Danish Refugee Council up to Faradge to look over the security there as they work close to an LRA active area. It was lovely weather when we left Bunia but as we went past the mountains that are the Western boundary of Lake Albert storm clouds intensified and I found myself diverting west to skirt around the weather. The Irish man in the front seat had already told me of his dislike of small planes in Africa and his oath to himself never to fly in them again, but here he was with his white knuckles wrapped around my stabilizer bar, testifying to the fact that he was indeed not happy to be there. This is not unusual for me and I try to put such people in the front seat where I can give them a running dialog of what is going on and how things work and what I am thinking to keep the flight safely on track. He seemed to calm as he saw me give thunderstorms a wide birth and descend so that we could see the situation underneath where forward visibility is usually much better.
As we went over Doko airstrip, which was not at all on our planned course, we were finally able to turn back northeasterly and aim toward our destination. As we did, the wind picked up quite radically. Our constant airspeed of about 120 nautical miles per hour lied about our progress across the ground as indicated by the GPS, which showed a very slow 83 mph ground speed. That meant there was almost a 40-knot headwind. We could see that there was light rain ahead, but dissipating at our destination. Still it was very rough and when I gave the thumbs up signal to the girl in back her eyes and the way she clutched the seat in front of her said that she was not happy. It took us longer at that speed but we finally got overhead the airstrip and I told Fred, our flight follower in Uganda, over the HF that I would look over the strip before landing.
It didn’t look great. There was standing water on about 100 meters of strip past the middle. Quickly taking into account the fuel situation, weather on the way back, reluctant passengers, time in the day, and the very strong wind that blew right down the runway which had made my upwind speed very slow over the ground, I decided to make the approach to land. I would have the option of going around, but I felt that I could stop the plane well before reaching the water past the middle. Even if braking was poor I could abort the landing. All went well. The surface was very solid, braking was fine and I was completely stopped long before the water. I taxied slowly through it and saw that it was quite deep and a very good job we were able to stop before reaching it. As we circled at the end to park the DRC vehicle rolled up and a lovely Italian man approached, making expressive gestures that could only mean that he was utterly amazed that we were there. He said they had just had the hardest rain anyone had seen in years. The Irish man clapped me on the back and I cringed as he said “That is the most wonderful piece of flying I have ever seen.”
There is an old pilot saying that: “The superior pilot is one who uses his superior knowledge to keep himself out of situations that require the use of his superior skills.” I thanked him but inside took the compliment as chastisement. We were kindly invited to the base for a surprisingly wonderful lunch considering where in the world we were, with delightful company, and by the time we were done several hours later, the sun was out and burning up whatever water had not drained off the strip and we were able to make an uneventful, although scenically beautiful, return to Bunia.