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!