The airstrip was still in the process of being rebuilt by the UN and as I landed and rolled to a stop in front of the UN camp I was surrounded by the soldiers there as well as the local population. Emmanuel said I must surely be the first person to land here in about 20 years. They are rebuilding the whole place with a renovated hangar for the Cessna 182 that I was fortunate enough to help ferry across from Kenya for them.
Only a portion of the runway was usable and I am continually glad for all the great training MAF has given me in the special flying techniques we require to stay alive and not wreck airplanes in the unusual environments we work in. Just being able to evaluate a landing surface is something most pilots don’t have to deal with on a daily basis. But with fast growing grass and the heavy rains and the lack of maintenance and going to new airstrips continually we have a serious need to evaluate what is on the ground before we touch down virtually every day.
I know you are all dying to know what we do so…I am going to tell you.
If you come to a new or suspicious looking airstrip we always go through a “Wind-LASSO” checklist. You start everything with knowing where the wind is coming from. You won’t have a windsock as is normal in most airstrips, so you look for smoke in the area, or clothes on a line or leaves blowing in the breeze. Water is a very good indicator, if there is any around. The edge that shows a smooth bit along the shoreline is where the wind is coming from, as it can not quite make it right down to the water surface as it passes over the ground. We will usually make three passes before landing at a new airstrip if we do not know anything about it to answer specific questions. These are the questions we need answers for:
L– Length- How long is the landing surface and is it enough for safe operations?
A-Altitude –How high is the strip?
S -Surface – What problems will I have to deal with; holes, long grass, trees, is it safe?
S -Slope- Is there a major slope that will affect the landing? It can even be sideways.
O-Obstacles – Am I going to hit anything on the way to the strip? Wires (there is a story here), trees, mountains. You must ALWAYS earn the right to go lower.
On the First- High level pass we get the big picture from about 500-1000 feet. I like the lower limit as you can see more but you still have to earn that right to go low. The three main questions you are asking yourself here are; “Where is the wind? What is the slope? and What are the Obstacles?”. You need to know your escape route. You want to be able to miss all the obstacles on approach and departure and you want to fly the strip downhill when you get lower.
The Second- Medium level pass is from 50-100 feet and you want to find out the length and altitude of the strip as well as obstacles. If you fly at 80 knots ground speed and count seconds as you go it is 40 meters, or 133ft., per second. With a bit of math you can see if it is long enough for the landing and even more important…the takeoff.
We also look at our altimeter in the area we are thinking of touching down at. Sounds easy, but it is very busy at the time and you must still find out all the information even if you need to make more passes.
The Third-Low level pass is at 5 feet, always moving downhill. The plane should be at 80 knots and 20 degrees of flaps. We want to really see the surface on this pass. We look for holes, termite mounds so common in Africa, a soft and muddy surface or length of the grass that may hide logs or other obstacles and that could slow our takeoff roll. We are also looking again, more closely, to slope. We fly following the surface from the top to the bottom, marking the altitude at each place you can determine the % of slope. This may be too much math for some, so if you really want to know ask later.
At the end of these passes you have a pretty good idea of what the strip is like and if you can use it safely. Now you know a few of the secrets that keep us alive as we work in.
On the ground, I had a great time with Emmanuel and Innocent, the warden of the southern side of the park. They took me up to their headquarters in Rumangabo. They gave me a great tour of the facility including the new area that has just been built up for orphaned gorillas. We watched two young gorillas there really giving the handler a workout, climbing all over him from head to foot. How would you handle a couple of 30 to 40 kg rugged animals jumping on your head and shoulders? It is not an easy job. He gets issued twice as many uniforms as the other parks staff!
I was very impressed at the work that is being done there. Everything is improving in leaps and bounds. It is always good to see things going in the right direction and that is the feeling you get everywhere you look there. We had a nice lunch and Emmanuel gave us a signed copy of his book “Virunga- the Survival of Africa’s First National Park”, which we cherish. It was a beautiful flight back to Bunia over the length of the park. There are some truly amazing things to see there and I can’t wait to be back. Thanks Emmanuel.