So, yeah... the day (my birthday, that is) started out innocently enough. I showed up at the Aero Club at the Libreville Int'l Airport with a good friend, Wendy (from our home church in PA) and my mother-in-law, Barbara, to meet with Egmont, another pilot and friend, for some coffee and breakfast prior to our flights.
The Missions that we chose to accept:
Egmont had asked Wendy (who is an out-of-practice private pilot) if she would like to sit in the right seat of his Piper Cheyenne as they picked up and dropped off some of his company's employees at two different locations in Gabon and then return by 2pm or so. She happily took him up on the offer.
Me? I was taking Barbara along on a flight to deliver sensitive eye equipment to the Bongolo Hospital and then, after a quick unload, pick up the Eric and Wendy H. and their brand new daughter, Esther for a trip back to Libreville. We were borrowing a Cessna 206 from a very kind French businessman.
And so it begins:
Following breakfast, Egmont and I walked together, down the tarmac to the control tower for filling out our paperwork and checking in with the weather station. We both then loaded our passengers and were set to go. Egmont started up his twin turbo prop moments before I cranked over the engine on our aircraft.
After departure, we switched radio frequencies and reported in on the channel where pilots give their position updates to one another. On this frequency I learned that Egmont was already descending to land at their first destination- a rubber plantation. You see, his airplane has two engines, each one generating well over twice as much horsepower as my single engine. Needless to say, he has a fast aircraft- I've got an aircraft that is quite the opposite- slow. Case in point- a half hour later, Barbara and I were still chugging along at 3500 feet altitude and about 140mph, 55 minutes 'til our destination, while Egmont and Wendy were back in the air on their way to their second destination- already passing ahead of us at a much higher altitude! They were in the clear blue skies enjoying the sun on their way to a cattle ranch in southwest Gabon. Us? Again... quite the opposite. We were in the haze and clouds on our way to a hospital in south-central Gabon.
So... you see the pattern? Yep- a study in opposites. They soared high; we stayed low. They were above the clouds; were were in them. They were fast; we were slow. If you thought that were enough, just wait... it get's better!
Touchdown at "The Bong":
Landing at the Bongolo Hospital is always fun. First off, if you have ever driven the road to Bongolo and then fly there, you are simply amazed at how much of a blessing the tool of aviation is. I know that I'm impartial, but, come on... how cool is flying!?! A mon avis, c'esttrès, très cool. Plus, I can't resist the temptation to buzz by the hospital campus as my way of saying "Bonjour tous le monde!!!". Barbara snapped a few photos and then we landed at the airstrip. We received a warm welcome from those that gathered (Dan L., Tyler R., Josh R., Becki T., Rachel T., Nicolas and the Hofman family). The eye equipment was put in a Land Cruiser and Becki and Rachel drove it off, very slowly, to the excited staff at the eye clinic.
The Hofman's luggage was loaded and we were set to take back to the skies... and then? Upon flipping my battery switch, I heard the normal start-up sounds for just a split second, then those sounds stopped and I heard a faint hum of some connector not making its' connection very well. So, I started my investigation- we were in for a bit of a delay... I had a hitch in my giddy-up.
Quickly we deduced that our starter relay/solenoid thingy-ma-jigger was not getting enough juice from the battery to make the connection and get the starter to engage. I knew it would be a long shot, but I suggested to Dan that he give a try in hand-cranking the prop- the "old school" style of starting the engine. We tried many, many times (thanks Dan!). One time, the engine actually sputtered to life, but there was still no electric power to generate the fuel pump power needed to keep fuel flow adequate to keep the hot engine alive. So, we would have to wait, let the engine cool down, and try a new idea.
Meanwhile, "back at the ranch" (literally!), Egmont and Wendy had touched down and were at the cattle ranch's dining facility for lunch prepared by a private chef that featured a variety of delicious food! I'll let Wendy describe: "It was my first time to venture out in the countryside of Africa. We had an amazing lunch of a giant 'Bar' fish that fed 7 of us, rice, steamed veggies, wine and sort of a pureed mango for dessert. The view was beautiful from the terrace of the vip lounge of the ranch. I felt like a queen! At the lunch table were the French vet, the plantation manager, who was from Paraguay, an Indian (from India) worker, the Malagassi technician, a Gabonese worker, a Bulgarian mechanic, the German pilot who works for the ag company, which was started in Belgium, and me! The Indian man said we had the whole world at that table!"
We had decided to take a lunch break at Bongolo, but were treated to a meal a bit different- mac 'n cheese! Our company was a bit more uniform- all 8 of us American sitting around the table at the Envision short term mission center, hosted by the directors, Dan & Alicia, and their intern, Faith. We may not have felt like "kings" and "queens", but we were given the VIP treatment as the Envision team dropped everything to take care of us!
Getting Back to "The Ville":
After lunch, Wendy and Egmont launched off of the ranch's airstrip and climbed high for the hour flight back to Libreville. It wasn't until touching down there that they heard of our delay in Bongolo. Egmont checked his cell phone to find my text message that I sent earlier inviting him to stop by the hospital to pick up my passengers if he could. However, it was too late to launch a new flight to the south of the country. It was of no consequence because, back in "opposite-ville", things had changed...
Around 4:30pm, Paul Davis had an idea to link two 12 volt batteries in line, making 24 volts, and assist the aircraft battery to energize the starter solenoid contacts and allow juice to flow to the starter. This worked smashingly! I started up, idled the engine, carefully guided the passengers into the airplane and departed, turning once over the airfield prior to the northwest departure toward Libreville. The alternator showed a nice charge to the battery, but again, the battery was suspect at this point.
Had it been earlier in the day, even a half hour, we would have made it to Libreville. However, the sun was starting to get low in the sky and with a setting sun in dry season in Gabon, the haze will often turn to fog. There was no fog to be seen, but with 45 minutes of flight left, there most certainly could be upon the arrival in Libreville. I made the safe call of landing in Lamberene, a 3 hour drive from Libreville. There, we were helped by the local Alliance church pastor (thanks Andre!) and found a $65 taxi ride to Libreville.
Prior to departing Lamberene, our group grabbed some "street food" (food you buy from a vendor along the road)- chicken on a stick along with some fries and a couple bottles of water. The "other" group? Egmont and Wendy had now joined my family to celebrate my birthday (without me!!!) at an African restaurant in Libreville. They were treated to two drunk men "preaching" at each other, then dancing together, then singing together. In our taxi, we were entertained by the scary driving of our Beninese taxi driver that featured his stereo that played 25 minute-long traditional Beninese music!
My Birthday Ends:
As June the 24th drew to a close, the "other's" in Libreville settled in their comfortable beds while our group continued the twisty-turny drive. We were somewhere near the equator when the clock struck midnight. I was fading in and out of sleep and, as I learned later, snoring occasionally to the amusement of our driver. It wasn't until 1am that we pulled up to the gate in front of our house. Finally... this birthday... these "opposite" adventures were drawing to a close!
Oh yeah... you're wondering about the Cessna 206 sitting on the ramp at the Lamberene airport. Well, while I was there in town, I met the nice gentlemen that is almost always at the airport. He said that the airplane was parked and secured well- no problem. I have talked to the aircraft owner and we are looking for a new battery to install- not an easy thing here in Africa. Just today, I have received a number of phone calls from a couple of officials at Lamberene. It turns out that there is a big ceremony on the airport ramp area (where the aircraft is parked) slated for Monday (tomorrow) that features local big wigs and the president of Gabon himself! They are asking that we come and move the airplane! Hmmm.... I think that's a story for another time.
Here are some of our biggest supporters at the MMS Aviation facility. They are part of a prayer group that meets twice a month for prayers for missions at the Bedford Alliance Church (Temperance, Michigan). Their leader, Eunice W. says about their group, "It has been thrilling to share answers to prayers as we receive missionary letters. It's truly a joy to be part of this worldwide work."
We know that there are hundreds more praying for the thorough and speedy restoration of our Cessna 207. We are so blessed to have an active and engaged group of supporters that stand with us. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts!
Here is what Dale, or lead mechanic (center in the photo above), says about this week's work: "The front and back floor skins are going in at the moment, and the horizontal is coming apart and the STC is going on (leading edge reinforcement). By the end of next week I hope to start on the spar carry through. I should also have the right wing painted by the end of next week too."
Here's the latest update from our lead technician, Dale, at MMS Aviation in Ohio:
"Hi Steve. Well, we are at the 4 month anniversary since we started work on 207FD, and I have included a photo of the aircraft on its wheels for the first time since early last year. I feel that we are probably at the halfway point of the work, and then we will have to do an Annual inspection and tidy up all the loose ends.
The Horizontal leading edge kit arrived yesterday, and I also received the Field approval for the wheels. the right wing is in the paint booth along with the right aileron, right flap, right strut and forward cargo door. The floor skins will start going in today, and once those are in, we will start on the aft spar carry through. I am expecting that to be quite a big job."