Monday, October 27, 2008

Life Lately

Things are going pretty well around these parts. Getting pretty hot all the day long. It's rainy season until February. Then March and April are just plain hot. Then May starts to cool off and then "summer" is beautiful and cooler. It's mainly been raining at night, but, occasionally we'll have an all-day soaker.

LAUNDRY: We really depend upon the sun for drying our clothes, but you have to stay close to home during the rainy season. Otherwise, you're liable to have a "pop-up" thunderstorm and come home to wet laundry. We've tried to set up an indoor drying rack with fans, but, with all the humidity, it's days befor you really get the level of dryness that you need. Oh- there's also the fun of "Mango Worms". They get into your clothes while they are hanging outside and then into your body when you put on said clothing. They're too small to be seen, so the only way that you know that they are not in your clothes is to wait 2 days to wear anything that was hanging outside or to pass a hot iron over every inch of the fabric. Joey actually was the first to get a Mango Worms... thankfully, the only one to this point. You get a pimple looking thing that won't go away. You then put some Vaseline on the pimple to cut off the air source of the worm that is living in you. Then, when the worm comes up for air, you pinch it out. Joey's was about a 1/2 an ich long. He was actually a little excited about the experience because a couple people had told him that his pimple looking thing was just a rash, but he was convinced it was a mango worm. He was happy to prove them wrong. So... laundry here can be exciting on a whole other level.

FLYING: I have flown the Beechcraft Baron for about 10 hours to 5 airstrips around Gabon. It's been a great experience. This is expanding my knowledge of flying twin engine airplanes, of flying in Africa, filing flight plans, paying for flights (it's free in the US... not here!), and more. This week there are two trips planned- one day trip and the other is an overnighter ( my first overnighter). The company that I'm flying for is SIAT- a Belgium agricultural company that is helping Gabon revitalize it's Palm Nut industry. They have many plantations across the country that were formerly run by the government. The gov't let the plantations tank, and SIAT is going in and getting them running again. To do this, they have had to bring in workers from other African countries like Nigeria and Cameroon. This is because Gabonese are not inclined to do physical labor- surprising. They are all holding out for the cushy government job behind a desk. In some towns, some of them rather large, SIAT is the largest employer, so they've created quite an "ex-patriot" community in these places.

CULTURE: We're getting used to new and different ways of doing things here. Periodically, there is a person or two that march down the street, at night, in an oversized "straw" outfit with a large head covering thing. They usually have a group of people that are marching with them that are holding sticks and branches. The ones in front brush the street with the braches in a sweeping motion, and the ones with the stick beat on gates, doors, and various things. They making a "wha" noise that starts low and ends high. Our night gaurd, Malik, told us that no one is supposed to be looking as this person goes by or else they get beat with the sticks. Our friend Arnie also believes that these guys are called in when someone on the street dies. It's a ritual or something. Malik suggested that we put our camera away, as this may lead to beatings. That seemed to make sense to us.

FINANCES: The currency here, the Central African Franq (CFA), is tied to the Euro. Since the dollar is gaining ground on the Euro, it's a good time to get out to the local ATM and make some withdrawals. I'm certain that there is money to be made in trading currency somehow, but, with the heat, I'm not smart enough to figure out how that would work. Arnie tells me that there are Lebanese businessmen here that like to buy US dollars from him every now and then. This is good because the local banks never honor the going rates of exchange and they pile on the fees on top of that. When we first got here, I could withdraw 200,000 CFA from the ATM for $435. Now, it's down to $395. That's pretty good. I'm sure missionary agencies are thankful for the stronger dollar, but biting their nails about the "economic crisis" in the US and elsewhere. We are praying for everyone back home about this. Must be a little scary. It's hard not to feel removed from it all here.

HOMESCHOOLING: Homeschool is going great. All 6 students of "The Palm Forest Academy" are passing and enjoying things. Alace and Cheryl are doing an amazing job of teaching. The schedule is Monday through Thursday, 7:45am to 12:30pm for their "regular classes". Tuesday and Thursday from 2pm to 4:30pm, they have back to back gym classes held at the housing compound for US embassy workers. They started the year with volleyball then swimming. They now do basketball then swimming. On Friday's, they have "study hall" from 9-11am (the ladies do some grocery shopping), then they have fencing (that's right, I said "fencing") then time at the beach from 2pm to 5pm-ish. The fencing is taught by Wendy- her husband is a worker at the US embassy and they live right on the beach. So, the kids get a treat being in some AC in her house when they are fencing, then they are happy to have fun in the beach afterward. What a life.

FUND RAISING: The director of Air Calvary, Brock, has suggested that we come back to the states around the holidays for some presentations. We are really trying to wrap up the funding on the airplane and I think that he feels the holidays are the time to find people in the giving mood. Our concern is that many people have such a busy holiday schedule and that churches are often maxed out in terms of schedule then. We are praying about this and looking for clear confirmation. If we were to travel in this manner, we'd only do so with some rock-solid dates with individuals and donors. We have some possibilities in the Chicago area and California, but nothing definite. If you know of anyone connections that we could make, let us know.

AIRPLANE: We stay in close contact with the seller of the Cessna 207 in the state of Washington. He tells us that there is no one seriously interested in the aircraft other than us, so we're not feeling the pinch to do anything super fast. However, this is a unique aircraft that we know others are looking for, so it could get snatched up at any moment. We're still standing at a need just under $180,000.

FLYING- PART II: I failed to mention before that I had a meeting at the offices of "Aviation Civile" on Friday. A gentleman in the office had received my paperwork from SIAT requesting that I get my Gabonese flight permit and they now wanted to see my original documents as well as milk me for 100,000 CFA ($200). This all went well and I should have my permit tomorrow (Monday). When I got to the large building, home to the Aviation Civile and the Department de Sante (health dept.), I decided to go to the office of someone that I had met about a month ago. He is the director of the the Aviation Civile as well as a worshipper at one of the C&MA churches in town. I thought I could explain to him why I was there and see if he "smelled" anything fishy with this other guy asking for money. However, he seemed to think everything was in order and helped me find the office of the guy I needed to see. When we were getting our things out of port, there was a demand for extra money that seemed fishy, so I thought this may be one of those situations where someone wanted their palm "greased". But my pilot friend, Egmont, said that 100,000 CFA seemed right, so everything is cool, I guess.

CHURCHES: We're still making the rounds to various churches to do some respectful "meet and greet" stuff. It will be a month or two 'til were done with this. Kind of a bummer since we're used to settling in to a church and worshipping with the same people week in and week out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Just when you thought the vaccines were done with...

GO PENN STATE!!! WOW! I read the report of the Michigan game over the internet... what a pounding! I hope they keep it up against Ohio State.

We are still getting all of our stuff into storage space and getting creative. We also bought some "rutan" shelves on the side of the road. This is how the Gabonese sell there things. These shelves really helped us. We're also still making use of all the shelving space in the bedrooms as well. I think we'll be in fine shape soon. The guest house doesnt' offer much more room for storage (to answer your question), so it's good that we learn how to make it all fit now.

I'm doing better with the drinking of water and staying healthy. We have so many large water bottles in the fridge. Everytime that we use one up, we have to use our filter (a stainless steel thing with filters inside) to run our tap water through and refill the bottles from the tap at the bottom. This makes for a good chore for the kids.

We are going through some more vaccinations- this time it's Rabies. The missionaries are all getting this- apparently there have been some deaths in other countries. We actually had a little bit of a scare. The day that we were unloading the large 40 foot container, we had just begun when Joey walked up saying that a dog had just bit him. He pulled up his shirt (which I noticed had a hole in it) to reveal a nice scratch on his stomach. The dog had not punctured his skin, but had scraped some skin. It was a dog that lived at the Bible School campus that was previously owned by Al Stombaugh. They were surprised that it was acting up like this. So... needless to say... we have been having people keep an eye on the dog, just in case. The dog has shown no signs of rabies- it has become mad due to the change in environment and living conditions since its' former owners have left.

I started using a new pillow and that has helped my sleeping. I like the idea of ear plugs- that could help as well. Also, taking showers right before bed has been helpful. That seems to be the way to go here- sweat all day and clean it off prior to laying down. Also, the water seems to come back on in the evening, making it one of the only times to shower anyway.

I'm headed to the airport to go flying with Egmont today! A short 1/2 day trip to a couple stops down south in the country.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dog bites and more!

Here's some prayer items quickly:

PRAISE- The container from the US has arrived and we were able to get it unloaded and loaded a truck for things going down-country to the Bongolo Hospital

PRAISE- Joey, our oldest son, was bitten by a dog on Tuesday. We have kept an eye on the dog and are thankful to report that there is no fear of rabies. This has been a wake-up call to us, however, and we have started our rabies injections. There are many stray animals here.

PRAYER- The heat has gotten the best of me (as I mentioned). We are learning to drink a lot more than we think we have to.

PRAYER- That we continue to adjust to our new home. Sometimes the water service is out all day. This is quite a nuissance on days when the temperatures climb into the high 90's and you're covered in sweat in just minutes.

PRAISE- A large church in California is raising money for a large church campus expansion and will be donating a percentage of funds raised to the airplane! Praise God!

PRAISE- Our children continue to do very well in homeschooling for their first year! Joey is working ahead in math and will be able to do two years of study in just one!

PRAY- We have several things in process... driver's license, airport clearance badge, and investigating boarding schools options for Joey for next year.

PRAY- we are planning to take Joe to preview a boarding school in Cameroon the first week of November. I'll also be visiting the hangar of the SIL / JAARS pilots there. Pray that this goes well and we have discernment in this very hard decision for us.

THanks so much!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

When the Landing Gear Fails

Just another day at the Office…

So, on the first Saturday of every month, Egmont, my German pilot friend, delivers the payroll to the employees of the palm tree plantations that his company operates in Gabon. He asked me to come along and learn about the airstrips that he uses for this trip. This is great for two reasons: first, when Egmont goes on vacation, I will be his fill-in and will need to know as much as I can about every airport he uses- some of which are his company's private airstrips located right at their palm tree plantations. Secondly, the airports that Egmont and I visit may be some of the ones that we use in the future when flying medical emergencies.

The morning of our flight, I arrived at the airport around 7:45am. Egmont was just getting out to the airplane, so I joined him and we conducted the preflight of the airplane. Since the payroll money is transported in 3 large footlockers (1 footlocker per location), we had to remove the two seats at the rear of the airplane. This left 4 seats- in the very front were two seats, one for the pilot and co-pilot, and then, in the back, two passenger seats. After the preflight checked out normal, it was time for a cup of coffee at the "Aero Club" for 1,000 central African francs (about $2.20). Then, we filed the flight plan, said a "bon jour" to the regional air traffic controllers at the airport control tower, and then made it back to the airplane.

At the airplane, we were met by a fellow employee of Egmont's company who assists in the payroll flights. Soon, another, rather sizeable, employee arrived. This gentleman was returning from being out of the country and was catching a lift to his home and our first destination of the day, Bitam. Just as we were getting to know each other (thankfully they were speaking English!), the money arrived.

There was no mistaking the arrival of the money! A small truck with a large metal bin drove up to the airplane. The cab of the truck had three men and there were four more men hanging off the back- each with a shotgun! As the truck came to a stop, the guys on the back sprinted into a perimeter position around the airplane. These guys were serious! I was thinking about asking one of them what type of shotgun they had, but a quick look at his face told me he was all business. The men in the cab of the truck jumped out and unlocked the large bin in the back. This revealed an inner chamber that they unlocked and then pulled out the three footlockers. These were put in the back of the airplane, Egmont signed some forms, and then we jumped in the airplane for departure. It was only when we taxied for takeoff that these men stopped providing security for us- they finally got back in the truck and took off.

I flew the airplane from Libreville to Bitam at 9,000 feet- up where the air is nice and cool. After about an hour, we were descending to the Bitam airport and Egmont took over the controls to show me how he handles the landing at this airport that features a dirt runway that has an "upslope". Another interesting feature is that it is located directly in the center of the town with no fences! So, it's used as a road and walking path! YIKES!

Egmont started through the "before landing checklist" by putting the gear selector in the "down" position. Normally, this action is followed by a distinct sound of the electric landing gear motor operating and the sound of buffeting air around the three extending wheels. However, none of these things happened this time!

Egmont and I shared a startled look for a moment and then did what comes naturally to pilots- check the circuit breakers. Egmont found the breaker, pulled it out and then reinserted it. Then, "Viola", the landing gear extended! We shared another started look that said, "hmm- that was interesting", and then continued with the landing.

Egmont was right. As we landed, people cleared to the sides of the dirt runway- a sight I had only seen in videos until now. We taxied off of the runway to the terminal where, once more, we found ourselves surrounded by another security detail. We said a goodbye to the one employee, one footlocker of money, and we took off on our way to stop number two.

Stop number two was a private airstrip called "Mitzic", at one of their company's plantation. It was only about a 25 minute flight to the South and I piloted this leg of the journey as well. Once more, I turned the controls over to Egmont as we were arriving near the airport, and, once more, the landing gear motor failed to work- even after we tried the trick with the circuit breaker! Now Egmont and I really shared a startled look!

Now, let me put your mind at ease- especially all of you who travel frequently by airplane. Almost all critical systems on an aircraft are "redundant"- meaning, there is more than one way to operate them. So, in the case that, say, your landing gear motor fails, there is another way to get your wheels down and ready so that you can land the airplane.

The aircraft we were flying, the Beechcraft Baron 58, has a hand crank system, located under the rug behind the co-pilot's seat, for times when the landing gear motor fails. Knowing that this system is difficult to use and something you only want to do once before getting the landing gear motor fixed, we decided to head back to Libreville where there were mechanics who could assist. This decision meant that the payroll money would have to be delivered some other way to the remaining destinations, but that was not our issue to worry about.

We changed our course, climbed to 10,000 feet and, about an hour later, were approaching Libreville. We descended for the airport and, while I flew the airplane, Egmont reached back and cranked, and cranked, and cranked until the gear was down. It was about a 8 minute ordeal and Egmont told me he felt like his hand was going to break! While all this was going on, the remaining passenger was in the back of the airplane, trying to figure out what was going on!

Thankfully, we landed, back at our home airport, without incident. Just another day at the office!

You'll all be happy to hear that the airplane that we are raising funds for has landing gear that is permanently in the landing position- it does not retract, so there's no motor that will fail. Good news, right!?!

Also, we have just found out that the aircraft has ended its' contract with the parachute jump team and is now ready for sale. Please pray that we are able to discuss terms with the seller and we don't lose this opportunity to obtain an aircraft that is so well suited for our needs.

Thank you for your prayers and teamwork!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Gabonese Validation

So, in December 2005 I met Egmont during the time that Alace and I visited Gabon. He is a believer and a friend of Bongolo Hospital who lives in Libreville, the capital city of Gabon. From the beginning, he has been there to lend a hand with the project to start the air medical program.

Fast forward to 2008. Egmont is still living in Libreville and working as the only pilot of an agricultural company. With no back up pilot, it is almost impossible for him to get time off for vacation.

So… along comes Steve and the answer to his prayers! …And I'm thinking the same thing! The Lord has provided this opportunity to fly with Egmont as a way for me to learn so much about flying in Africa. Essentially, Egmont will be my pilot mentor- what a blessing! The added blessing is that Egmont will finally get to go on vacation and enjoy his new grandson back in Berlin.

Egmont's company's aircraft is registered in Gabon and to be a pilot of a Gabonese registered aircraft, you must have your Gabonese pilot permit. As a US pilot with my FAA license, this means that I will have to take a check ride with an approved pilot evaluator. It just so happened that one such evaluator was in town about a month after our family hit the ground here in Libreville- nice timing, eh? Thanks Lord!

I told Egmont that I did not want to make a fool of myself during the evaluation, so I should have 2 or 3 flights with him to get to know the airplane- a 1979 Beechcraft Baron 58 twin-engine aircraft that seats 6. However, after the first flight of about an hour, Egmont said he was convinced that I'd do fine and not to worry. He said that he knew the pilot evaluator and he was a nice guy from South Africa. I took this to mean that the evaluation would include one or two elements, a landing or two and then we're done. How mistaken I was! Read on…

So, the day came- Friday, October 3rd. I was face-to-face with my evaluator, both of us in our pilot "get-up", sitting down across a conference table. His name is Tony Smit- A 70 something year-old South African man who has flown pretty much every type of aircraft you can think of. He's been in the Rhodesian and South African Air Forces as well as for the CIA during the Angolan crisis. I had forgotten that Zimbabwe had once been named Rhodesia… it was Zimbabwe, right!?!

Tony asked me about my flight experience and then launched into an overview of what we were about to do… it went something like this… "when we get on the runway, we'll go to full power, but then I'm going to fail one of your engines. You'll find that the Baron will really want to take off to the side of the runway like this, so I want you to see that." GULP!

…he continues, " I'll recover your failed engine and then we'll continue the takeoff. After we have a little altitude in the takeoff, I'm going to bring one of your engines back to zero thrust condition to simulate an engine failure. Let's see what the Baron will do on takeoff with one engine."

Ok… at this point I'm starting to breathe a little heavier and perspiration is rolling down my back. I'm thinking "Engine failure!?! Egmont and I only practiced this once!"

…he continues, "Then lets climb up to 10,000 feet for some steep turns and stalls…" ok- I know all about that stuff but, 10,000 feet!?! We hadn't been up over 2500 feet in the Baron so far!

…he continues, "then I want to show the Vmc (Velocity of minimum controllability) maneuver. The Baron is a cheeky little airplane that will really want to snap inverted on you in this configuration… we'll take a look at that and I think you'll be surprised to see how much altitude we'll lose in such a short time." DID HE SAY "INVERTED!!!" I am now earnestly praying for Jesus' return- NOW!

…he continues, "so then you can show me the Vmc maneuver yourself, and then we'll come back to the airport for some touch and goes…" cool- touch and goes I can do! "…and then some instrument approaches with one engine failed before we call it a day." Call it a day!?! How 'bout we call it a day right now!

Seriously… I was sitting there trying to figure out the best way to apologize to this man for wasting his time and call off this flight that I felt I had no reason to fly.

Now, let me interject an important point, here. I have indeed done everything that he was requesting of me, but not since my multi-engine check ride over a year and a half ago and never in succession like this. On top of that, I had only been flying twice since coming to Libreville- once for a ½ hour joy ride and the other one doing some simple maneuvers with Egmont for about an hour. Prior to that, I haven't been flying since July of '07 when I left the US for France and language school! Do you see where my anxiety was coming from?


He then asked if I had any questions and, in my stupor, said "Nope! Sounds good!" Did I say that out loud!?! Of course none of that sounded good!

So, as we stood up and started toward the tarmac for the flight, I quickly hatched an agreement with the Lord. I excused myself to visit the bathroom prior to the flight. My agreement with the Lord went like this: Lord, I'm going to the bathroom right now. If I'm meant to gracefully bow out of this evaluation and save myself embarrassment, then I'm going to need You to make me violently ill in the next minute or two. This seemed like a very reasonable agreement, so I headed into the bathroom. After two minutes and no violence or illness, I headed out to the airplane, into the airplane, and the evaluation commenced.

I'll quickly sum it up by saying this… I PASSED! We did everything that he explained on the ground and our gracious Lord kept my brain synapses firing so that I had good recall of the hours and hours of training over the years. Praise the Lord!

Following the evaluation, Egmont, Tony, and I headed in town for a delicious meal (crocodile kebab!) and story swapping. However, once Tony started telling stories, Egmont and I quickly figured out that our stories were not nearly as interesting, so we spent most of the time pulling more out of Tony. There is something to be said about pilot camaraderie. It was a privilege spending time in the cockpit with such an accomplished pilot and I hope he returns next year for the checkout.

So, I now have my Gabonese pilot validation and am able to fly aircraft registered in Gabon. There is an idea brewing in me that the Lord will use this to further our efforts with the hospital in some way. Please pray with me that our flights begin soon.