Sunday, June 7, 2009

Things Pilots Should Never Do

(subtitle "the longest blog I've ever written")

A couple of gems from Andrew Murray:

“the Spirit of God has come to make our daily life
an exhibition of divine power
and a revelation of what God can do for His children.”

“Lord, let love from Heaven flow down into my heart.
I am giving up my life to pray and live
as one who has given himself up for
the everlasting love to dwell in and fill him.”

“Father, let the Holy Ghost have full dominion over me,
in my home, in my temper, in every word of my tongue,
in every thought of my heart, in every feeling toward
my fellow men; let the Holy Spirit have entire possession.”

I found these while reading the book “Absolute Surrender” by Murray himself. I have been reading this book off and on (more “off” than “on”). It stays in my flight bag and, since I’m not flying all that much, I haven’t read it much… much to my detriment.

I rediscovered the book while waiting for fuel to be delivered to the aircraft I was flying on June 6, 2009 at the Libreville international airport. The fuel was to be delivered at 2pm, but was about 2 hours late- not an unheard of time schedule here. I had already flown about 3 and a half hours in the morning, transporting payroll money to plantations around the country for a Belgium company.

Before the first delivery, we made a quick side trip to Port Gentil to drop off an employee- let’s call him “Dave”. The plan was that we’d drop Dave off and continue on the payroll delivery while he ran some errands there. Then, later in the day after dropping off the others and refueling in Libreville, I’d make the 40 minute flight back to Port Gentil to pick him up.

So, all was going according to plan. After a preflight, check of the weather, and filing a flight plan, the four of us blasted off from Libreville at about 10am, flying Southwesterly- a security guard (shotgun in hands), a business agent from the company, “Dave”, and myself. We touched down at Port Gentil, pulled in the parking area, idled the engines of the Beechcraft Baron, and let Dave jump out. The control tower cleared us back onto the runway and we were quickly back in business flying East. Forty-five minutes later we were touching down at one of the company’s plantation airstrips “Makouke” (pronounced MAH-COO-KAY). A security detail met us there- about 8 guys and more shotguns. The foot locker with cash was off-loaded and we were back on our way.

This process happened at 2 more stops as we made our way north through Gabon- at another plantation and then at the town of Bitam, near the Cameroon border. We added a passenger there- he was either French or Belgium and wanted to know if I thought it would be bumpy. Were there sick-sacs in the back? Hmm… I don’t think so.

After one of the company’s pickup trucks chased a small European hatchback car off the runway (I think he wanted to play chicken with the airplane),...


...we departed, turning West-Southwest and climbing to 10,000 feet (nice and cool!) for the hour trip back to Libreville. It wasn’t too bumpy and everyone was offering thanks as they deboarded. Gabon’s national soccer team had a big game with Togo that afternoon and a couple of them were ready to make it downtown to the Stade Bongo. That was about 2pm.

I was fine with having a 30 minute layover to grab lunch and file another flight plan. However, all that was done and now it was going on 4pm and still no fuel. I was sitting in the shade in the front of a near-empty hangar. Only two aircraft were inside.

One of the airplanes sitting there is a Cessna 206 (6 seater). It’s owned by a Spanish man who has let it sit at the Libreville airport doing nothing for 2 years. It’s value is next to nothing for the neglect. Very sad. The humanitarian work that we’re doing here could have really used an aircraft like this.

The other aircraft is a small European piston powered aircraft (4 seater) that’s been beaten on. Literally- people have beaten this aircraft! Here’s the story- it belonged to the owner of an airline that used to operate from Libreville. When word got out that the owner had raided the coffers of the business and left town, the only thing his employees had around to take it out on was this guys’ personal aircraft. So, they literally took up rocks and sticks and went to town on the aircraft.


I have no idea why these airplanes are now in this recently refurbished hangar, but there they are. I have asked the company that owns the hangar if I can rent some space in the hangar to keep our aircraft parked out of the sun and elements. Answer? Nope. Can’t do it. However, they seem to be cool with 2 broken down aircraft being in there. It’s things like these that leave you scratching your head. (Cultural note- Africans don’t scratch an itch on their head. They slap it. FYI.)

So, there I was, reading Andrew Murray and waiting for fuel. Time passed and still no sight of the refueling crew. Dave called my cell a couple of times. He was done with his errands and was checking to see if the delivery was on its way. His theory was that the refueler, named Baba, was out stocking up beer for the big soccer match. He was irritated and told me to give him a call when it looked like I would be leaving.

Meanwhile, my family, our friends, Tim and Meredith, and their 5 college-ish interns were enjoying themselves at the beach nearby. I decided to call them and tell them I’d be taking off soon and to see if they could see me as I departed over the beach area, about a mile to their south. I later found out they didn’t see any sign of me.

Four-thirty pm came and so did Baba at last. He had two 55 gallon drums on a cart and was slowly making his way across the tarmac to the aircraft. I joined him, we chatted about things, and then I jumped in the aircraft. I departed, made a quicker-than-normal turn on course (trying to be spotted by my peeps) and was on my way.

I was looking forward to spotting my passenger and picking him up without shutting down the engines. It was late in the afternoon and I wanted to avoid any night flying, especially since we were over water for portions of our journey along the coast.

Everything worked like clockwork- I landed, picked up Dave, and asked for clearance back to the runway. That’s when everything came to a screeching halt when the tower controller said I needed to shut down the engines and head in to pay my landing fees. Hmm… didn’t pay any fees when I landed this morning. I protested politely, reminding the controller that I paid fees for the entire voyage in Libreville at the beginning of the day. He told me to hold on. Dave, meanwhile, was growing irritated. He was ready to go. He spoke good English. In fact, I found out that he had a good command of slang English as well. He demanded to speak to the tower controller.


Ok… back to the story. I convinced Dave that I would handle it. The tower controller was taking his good old time, so I transmitted “Tower- I landed here this morning and there were no fees. Why must we pay now?” To this I received the same command to turn off my engines and come in. Dave? More slang flew about the cockpit and temper levels started hitting the roof. He commanded me to “just take off”.


Ok… back to the story. I told Dave that we should go in and settle this in a civil manner. Staying in the airplane, on the tarmac, was not going to solve anything and “no” I was not going to “just take off”. So, I shut down. Before I could discuss our approach with Dave, he was out the door and huffing and puffing his way toward the control tower. This is really disconcerting. Not only did we not discuss our strategy (would we do the “good cop, bad cop” routine or would one of us create a distraction while the other grab the ledger and enter us as “paid”, or…) but I’m thinking that an angry Belgium man should not be let loose in Central Africa. They don’t have a good track record- check your history books.

I secured the aircraft and caught up with Dave as he was lecturing the people in the aviation office. Many of you know that I went to language school in France. However, I still struggle with the language quite a bit. In this moment, I was thinking, not only would it be good for me to get a better handle of the French language, but also, why didn’t they have a class about “oral comprehension of very angry francophone people” at my language school? Needless to say, I didn’t catch much of Dave’s diatribe, but, being the sensitive type that I am, caught a little from the body language- yelling, furrowed brow, slamming of the counter, etc. I’m sharp that way.

Dave slowed down a little and the man behind the desk, which was behind the counter, responded strongly to him. He had his own diatribe (I like saying diatribe). There was so back and forth for the next couple of minutes. It slowed down and then I decided it was my turn to jump in.

Let me interject something here. Some of you may remember that, while living in France, I had tried to settle a fight between some of my son’s (Samuel) elementary school mates by entering the fray and yelling “bon appetite”. It was my hope that they would all remember that their mothers were at their home, waiting to feed their little euro-bellies, and that they should stop this foolishness and get a move on. In short, this strategy did not work, and the fight continued until another father had a better, more violent tactic that was very effective. Lesson learned.

However, in this situation, I thought that violence should be avoided. On one hand, I had Dave, who I would be spending 40 minutes returning to Libreville with, in a very confined space. On the other hand, I had an employee of “ASECNA”- the governing body over all things aviation in several of the Central African countries. These people could decide that, perhaps, I wouldn’t be flying airplanes here much longer.

I mustered up all the diplomacy that I had and simply started a polite line of questions meant to reveal to the ASECNA guy that he was dealing with a pilot that was new to flying in Gabon and, maybe, just needed to be filled in on the finer details of landing at his beautiful landing facility. Thankfully, the ASECNA guy started to answer my questions politely and it was his chance to help educate little, old me. I nodded my head from time to time, understanding about 60% to 70% of what he was saying. I responded with questions that verified what he had just said, and the whole situation started calming down. Seriously- I think I may have a future in crisis management. I was defusing a situation between a Belgium man and an African… Cofie Anan, Mahatma Ghandi, Jimmy Carter LOOK OUT!

It turns out that Port Gentil, as an international airport, has its’ own set of fees that cannot be paid in Libreville, making a quick passenger drop off, as we had done that morning, impossible. Voila! Simple. Let’s pay the guy and get going. Daylight’s burning. The man turned his attention to his computer to prepare the bill. I turned to Dave. Much to my surprise, Dave had not followed me down the road of diplomacy and peace. The redness of his face said it all.

I understood what Dave said next. I didn’t need an interpreter to understand him say “What’s taking so long!?! Is this your first time to prepare a bill!?!” Dave was not helping. “HOW MUCH DOES IT COST, SIR!?!” Not helping at all. The ASECNA guy was now being defended by another guy in the room, who appeared to be a friend. I had previously chatted with him discussing the announcement on the radio that the Gabonese soccer team was currently beating Togo 2-0. So, the friend told Dave to pipe down and that there was no need for anger. The ASECNA guy told Dave the cost of the landing fees (about 6 US dollars) to which Dave threw a bill on the counter that travelled off the edge and on to the floor.

That was it for me. That was uncool. The ASECNA guy decided to ignore Dave and keep about his job. However, I was not going to let that go. Apparently the friend also took exception to Dave’s behavior. He and I moved at the same time toward to pick up the money- he was telling me that he would get it, but I got there first. If he had gotten there first, I’m convinced that he would have told Dave where he could put the bill. As it was, I got there first, picked it up, and then put the bill on the counter directly in front of Dave and said twice, “we must be civil” (in French). Dave stayed quiet from that moment on and seemed to get his druthers together. Crisis averted.

During the flight home, Dave took a nap. That was probably the best thing that could have happened. It helped me enjoy the flight. There was a sunset off of my left wing and a full moon was rising off of my right wing. The Lord seemed to be letting me know that he holds it all in balance. He gives attention to the “big things” of the universe, like planets and solar systems as well as caring for the much bigger issues of our heart.

I’ve recently been disappointed in the way that I’ve responded to someone that really rubbed me the wrong way. My response was to do us both a favor and steer clear. Is that right? Some may say “yes”, but I hardly think so. There is a cool thing that God is waiting to do as I discover how to better love those that I think are “unlovely”. Certainly, my life is to be an exhibition of God’s love for the world to see… there’s no “withdraw” plan involved.

I'm loving the Murray book as it has pushed me back toward those who, in my own strength, I can't stand. I need to trust that the Lord will be there in our conversations and interactions, doing something supernatural. I need to trust that the Lord could use me in their life and (this is that part that's hard to swallow) that the Lord could use them to affect my pilgrimage.

Lord lead.


  1. Steve,
    I pray for you often. May God continue to bless you as you minister to others, especially the "unlovely". I love your SIDE NOTES, they are quite the practical help to us pilots. Keep up the good work, and hope you have some more stories from Gabon for us. lol.

    Chase Ketcham
    Aircraft Mechanic
    Wycliffe Bible Translators

  2. Cousin Steve,

    I try to keep up with you and the family in Gabon and pray for you all often. You all are such an inspiration to me and I hope the many trials and challenges like the one in this blog are far and few between. Sounds like you handled it well and are learning diplomacy 101. And I'll be looking for the Murray book soon. Be safe and fly high.

    Cousin Todd O

  3. Enjoyed reading "the longest blog I've ever written" and appreciate your recommendations for pilots. I'll keep them in mind. I played chicken with a turkey buzzard last week and believe I won. Hit my left wing lift strut. No damage, to the aircraft that is. You and your family continue to be in my prayers. Say hello to your wife and kids for me.

    Tom Buchner