It was a great day. Emmanuel and Antony showed up in the Parks Cessna 182 at 7:15, which meant they had left at first light. I jumped aboard and we flew off to the new Virunga airstrip at Chiondo, on the south shore of Lake Edward where weeks before the Parks Cessna 206 had a prop strike which grounded the plane there. This area is unlike the rainforest which we are usually flying over here and is more savannah with elephant, buffalo and hippo. It reminds me of Zimbabwe and I love coming here. But this wasn’t just a sentimental journey. After the prop strike occurred the Mai Mai militia had attacked the position in heavy numbers and the base had been overrun. Three Rangers were captured and summarily executed. It was a terrible time. The army and Parks Rangers retook the position, but the militia was never far away. Leaving the 206 sitting there was an invitation to another attack, so a new prop was acquired and I was asked to help install it. Our goal was just getting the plane out of the area so that it would not be destroyed. It was amazing that the plane had only sustained minor damage. As it was, the militia had broken out windows, forced open doors and ripped off parts of the cowling, as well as stealing all the headsets and some other things in the plane. We originally thought there was some sabotage as the oil cap had been left off after they removed and then replaced the cowling. After inspecting closely, there was no sign of gravel or other sign of anything put in.
We got the old prop off quickly and the army guys helped bring out the new prop crate and we readied the new prop for installation. I had brought a gauge to check the run-out on the crankshaft after the strike and you are allowed .005 out of perfect. We had .001. This was good news. The strip was very soft, the engine had been running a idle when the prop hit and it had not stopped too suddenly so all of this indicated it was good for the 15minute ferry flight to Rumangabo. We went to start up and the battery, although running a few instruments, was not strong enough to even engage the fuel pump, let alone the starter. I then tried hand propping the plane for quite a while with no success.
Emmanuel and I flew off to Rumangabo to get the spare 12volt battery and another 12volt jump-start cart thing to see if that would help. After dropping the Section Warden off at Rwindi we were soon back at Chiondo and ready to go again. We had some good jumper cables so when we got back we got everything ready to jump-start. But we could not even get fuel pressure to pump up to normal, let alone turn the engine over. We figured there must be some over-voltage protection in the start cart, so got the battery out of the C182 for the jump. Because we were trying to make 24 volts out of two 12volt batteries, we had to jump between the positive and negative posts of the batteries and then jump from the positive post of one battery and the negative of the other to get the 24 volts we needed. We didn’t have enough cables so Anthony went over to the security fence and cut a length of razor wire and I Vise-gripped it to the positive post of one battery and negative of the other. It worked to get the fuel pump up to the proper speed and get fuel to the engine, but it still would not turn to engine over. There was a problem with wiring or the starter solenoid. So we took the whole jumper setup to the other side of the plane and started over, connecting it all directly to the starter. It flung the prop at a rapid speed, but still the engine would not start. We had lost the prime. We had to move the whole setup back to the other side of the plane again and re-prime the engine, this time flooding it on purpose and giving us time to get back around to the other side of the plane to set up for a start. The engine turned over great but even though I leaned the mixture and advanced the throttle it still didn’t start before I became concerned that we might burn up the starter from running it too long. I got out and asked Antony to try, as he had been flying this plane and knew its particular traits. He got in and I connected the jumper to the starter and within two turns the engine fired up and ran beautifully. It had only needed to get rid of a bit more fuel from its system. Now we had the cowling off and the engine running and we didn’t want to shut down after all of this so, against every common practice, I very carefully put the cowl back on with Emmanuel, standing in line with the running prop, giving me hand signals as to how much space was between the spinning prop and my hand. There was always a good 8 inches or more and I hung onto the handle at the back of the firewall so I was as safe as I could be. Not something I would want to repeat often, but under the circumstances, it had to be done. We cleaned everything up and Anthony took off down the airstrip to fly the short 15minute trip back to safety in Rumangabo. As I put the battery back in the C182 and got it all ready to go, I noticed Antony had come to a stop sideways at the far end of the runway. Not good. We thought the worst, that the prop had sunk in again, so Emmanuel and some of the guys headed down to see what the problem was. He had bogged down in some of the soft soil, which is what had caused the prop strike in the first place, and was afraid to power out of it. The guys helped push him out and got him going. It was great to see him get off the ground and on the way. We then started up quickly and got on the radio to make sure Antony was doing well…and he was. By the time we were off, had climbed to altitude and crossed Lake Edward, he was on the ground safely at Rumangabo.
We had a nice flight back to Nyankunde and, although it had taken 3-4 more hours than expected, it was a wonderful day for me. After dropping me at home, Emmanuel still had the hour and a half flight back to Rwindi for a parade with his Parks staff there before returning to Rumangabo. It was a very long day for him. He is a strong man and has recovered wonderfully after being shot in the stomach, liver and lungs just over a year ago. You can see some of that story on “Virunga, the Movie” on Netflix. It was nominated for an Oscar last year.
These guys are all so generous and they thanked me over and over for “saving their airplane” from certain destruction. But they are the real heroes of conservation and my hat is off to them. In the end, it was another beautiful day at the office.