Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Behind the Scenes, Pt. 1

A huge event has occurred in the past few weeks that I have been remiss in not writing about. For the last year or so, all of the air ambulance flights that Flying Mission has been doing have been subcontracted to Netcare, which is a healthcare provider that won the Ministry of Health contract when it was first tendered two years ago (it had been a huge disappointment to Flying Mission when they hadn’t won that tender, although they ended up doing the flights anyway when Netcare defaulted on their contract). However, the Ministry of Health recently put the contract out for tender again and Flying Mission of course applied. After a long period of uncertainty, we learned early last week that Flying Mission had won the contract this time around, giving us some stability for the next few years and more control over the whole process since we now hire the paramedics and act as the call center for ambulance flights. The announcement of the contract was big news, and we were all very excited to hear that. It has meant a lot of work setting everything up and ironing out the details, but things are going quite smoothly considering the rapidity with which we had to start up.

One of the things that is changing is that pilots who are on standby will now be acting as “flight coordinators” outside of normal business hours, meaning that we will receive the calls from the hospital and do all of the phoning and coordinating that needs to happen for a flight (Mark and Bob, the managers, used to always do that, but we’re helping to share the load now). Since I’m not flying at all (and since I’ve basically been acting as the secretary anyway for the past few days since Kgomotso is sick), I’ve taken over the job for the first few evenings. Tonight was the first night that I’ve really handled an after-hours call, and it was a busy one. Here’s a rundown of the process: I received the call from Maun hospital and learned that they had three patients needing transport. I had to tell them we can only take two at a time, so if all needed to be done tonight we’d have to do two trips. She would call back when they decided what to do. I called the pilots and told them about the flight, called the paramedics, called Maun back to get details on the patients’ condition, filled the paramedics in on the patients, heard from Maun that they only would move two patients tonight and would have to go to Francistown instead of back here to Gabs, called pilots and told them where they were going, called Maun and gave them the ETA there, called Francistown hospital to arrange for the ambulance to pick the patient up, called four lodges in Francistown until I found one with four rooms open, heard from Maun that one of the patients had died so they would take the other two, relayed that to paramedics, gave Francistown the ETA there, arranged for the pilots to be picked up at the airport by the lodge, and called a final time to be sure that the ambulance was leaving Francistown for the airport at the right time (you can never be too sure). Then all I had to do was wait for the pilots to text message me saying that they had arrived at Francistown (we do all our flight following by SMS), and I could breathe easy again. Needless to say, the whole thing kept me busy for about a solid one and a half hours and burned about $15 worth of phone minutes (cell phones use mostly prepaid minutes here). But it was fun to be involved in the whole process and make sure everything lined up the way it needed to. Most flights aren’t quite that crazy…this one had three patients involved and required the pilots and paramedics to overnight in Francistown. It’s satisfying to know that the flights we do for the Ministry of Health are helping people who really need it and even save some lives, although of course the less we fly the better it is. Better no accidents at all than helping people recover from them. It’s somewhat of a strange paradox when you depend on people getting hurt for your livelihood. Anyway, thanks for all of your emails and support…it’s all much appreciated. Love,


Pyro fun

We were all enjoying a typical day at the hangar yesterday when Walt (the elderly mechanic) came in looking a little bit out of breath and said “did you know there’s a grass fire headed for our planes?” Well, no, we hadn’t known. So we all rushed outside to see what he was talking about, and sure enough, there was a huge cloud of smoke billowing off of a line of flames being fanned by the strong wind right towards our hangar. We immediately raced to get the tow bars and pull the two aircraft away from the edge of the ramp to where the fire couldn’t reach them, choking in the heavy smoke. The flames were moving very quickly, and (after someone remembered the fuel cart at the last minute and we frantically moved that) we noticed they were headed for the hangar. We joined some of the other folks who were beating at the edges of the fire rather ineffectively with branches and dispensed the contents of something like four fire extinguishers, but were having a hard time keeping the flames from advancing towards the side of the hangar. Finally, the airport fire truck came barreling down the taxiway and managed to put out the worst of it with their water cannon. We ran around for a little while after that and put out the little pieces of smoke and fire that were left, and in the end we got the fire put out and saved the planes and the hangar from a sure death. It was definitely the most exciting part of the day, though, and was kind of a fun break during the times we weren’t too afraid that millions of dollars of equipment were going to go up in flames. Apparently, some chap over at Air Botswana (the national airline that has a hangar next to ours) was using a grinder and the sparks from that ignited the tinder-dry grass in the large field between our hangars. It was amazing to see how quickly the fire spread and how hot it got (it melted the plastic globe of a light on a high lamppost and some plastic netting on the lean-to on the side of the hangar). I also lost half of my arm hair and some of my eyebrows to the blistering flames. It was a good thing that Walt saw it when he did. Another day in the life, I suppose.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Then they gave me a license.....

On Monday, I took my P2 (copilot) checkride in the King Air. It was a bit of a confusing situation, since the pilot who was giving me my test (Dan) was being observed by a fellow named Dennis from the DCA (Department of Civil Aviation) so that he could get his license to give other pilots checkrides. So I was taking a sort of exam within an exam. In addition, one of the other pilots, Tim, was going to switch places with me and give Dan a test for the renewal of his license so that Tim could renew his own examiner’s license. It was pretty low-key. But the short of it is that I got my pilot’s license (well, I will pick it up tomorrow at the DCA, but I passed the test anyway), so that’s good news. I also went on a trip up to Seronga (on the edge of the Okavango Delta) on Tuesday with Tim, which was a lot of fun. It’s a long, boring flight most of the way up there, but once you get past Maun (the last ¼ or so of the flight), you start flying over the Delta and the scenery is beautiful. The landscape changes from an endless stretch of brown scrub and dust to a lush green maze of water channels, lagoons, and islands. It’s still flat as a pancake, but much more beautiful and full of wildlife. The flight back wasn’t nearly as fun, because I had to give up my front row seat to a passenger (because of space issues) and sit with my neck bent on the lav seat way in the back, studying a Flying Mission annual report from 2002. Other than that, I’ve been helping out with random things around the office like making up forms in excel, editing our Air Ambulance Procedures manual, and working on registering an ambulance from the UK that we’re going to be using in Francistown between the airport and the hospital. So life is good and all that jazz. And word on my residence permit is that I should have it within the next week or so, so we’ll see. Keep in touch. Peace-


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Quick Update

In a few hours, I will be heading for the airport for my first flight in the King Air, which I’m very excited about. I’ll be going along on a charter flight with Dan Shenk, one of the other pilots. We’ll be going to Francistown to pick up some passengers and then heading up to Kasane to drop them off before coming home for the night. This flight is to be the beginning of my orientation to airports and navigation in Botswana, and then Tomorrow (Monday) I will be doing a training flight in the King Air and then taking my checkride (a flight test) in the afternoon to get my Botswana pilot’s license. After that, I just have to play the waiting game and hope the paperwork goes through quickly. With any luck, though, I’ll be ready to fly for real within the next couple of weeks. It can’t come too soon as far as I’m concerned. While waiting for all my training to get lined up and finished (Tim, the chief pilot, has been gone a lot of the last two weeks on trips and that has slowed my training down), I’ve been helping out with the sudden rush of work that’s come into the maintenance side of things recently. I performed an inspection on one airplane and helped Walt out with a big project that he’s working on. It’s been fun to get my hands dirty and feel like I’m actually helping out rather than just sitting around and waiting to start flying. As far as being able to fly, I have come at just about the perfect time. Flying Mission is in a bit of a crunch for pilots right now, since with the recent departure of Jeff and Micelle Royce we are down to four pilots for two aircraft until I come on line. And since one of those pilots is the Ops Manager and one is the Chief Pilot, they have too many administrative duties to be considered full-time pilots. In addition, we just got news this past week that Flying Mission won a contract with the Ministry of Health for air ambulance flights for the next 2 (extendable to 3) years, which will give us a steady source of flying for a while. So, needless to say, they have been pushing to get my training done ASAP and relieve some of the pressure. Anyway, that’s a quick update on the flight side of things here. Hope that everything is going well for all of you back home. Keep in touch. Love,



If any of you had been following my family’s blog while we were traveling here in Africa, you may remember Tayopa, the boy my age that I used to play with when we lived in Maun many years ago. Well his mother, Bessie, lives in a village called Mochudi about 30 minutes from Gaborone. While we were visiting Tayopa in Maun, we had called Bessie and I had promised that I would visit her after I moved back to Gaborone. So on Saturday morning, I did just that. When I got to the post office (where we’d said that we’d meet), I gave her a call and she informed me that I should just wait for 30 minutes until she could get there. So I walked around for a little while, feeling much more out of place than I do in Gaborone and being very aware that there were no other white people around at all and also no other vehicles nearly as nice as mine. When Bessie finally arrived, she greeted me enthusiastically, shaking my hand repeatedly, hugging me, and kissing me on the lips several times (I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that, but she didn’t seem to notice my awkwardness at all). She exclaimed over and over again how much I had grown and how good it was to see me, laughing joyously and grabbing my hand to shake it anew every 10 seconds or so, and sometimes hanging onto my hand for quite a long time. Finally, we headed for the Land Rover (which I was pretty embarrassed about) and climbed in to drive to her house. I soon discovered why it had taken her 30 minutes to get to the post office – it’s quite a long walk from the post office to her house. Her plot consists of two tiny rectangular mud brick buildings, a few trees and a garden encircled by a wire fence. Two of the cutest little girls peeked shyly at me from behind the reed wall around their cooking fire, and slowly came out to greet me and shake my hand. Bessie set three small, dilapidated chairs (probably all of the furniture she has) in the shade of a tree and we sat down and chatted for a little while. It soon became clear that Bessie had hoped that I would pick her family up and take them back to my house and show them where I was living, which I had not expected at all. I tried to tactfully let her know that I couldn’t do that because I had other plans for the afternoon, and I think she was pretty disappointed. Eventually, she brought me a bowl of sour bogobe, a bitter-tasting porridge that is ubiquitious here, and I did my best to swallow a few bites without grimacing too badly. Before I left, I asked if I could take some pictures of them, and they were more than happy to oblige, but they decided that they had to get all dolled up in their church clothes first. Somewhere in there, a random neighbor who I was never properly introduced to showed up with her chubby toddler strung around her back in a cloth, and she of course wanted to be in the pictures too. So we took some pictures (which was quite an operation), and then I bid them goodbye and promised that I would get the pictures to them sometime. It was difficult to be around these people who have so little, especially with my big Land Rover and nice camera. Bessie kept telling me how hard life is for her now (neither her nor her husband – who is her second husband and not Tayopa’s father – have steady jobs), and she asked me several times if I need a maid. She would point to the bricks that are stacked neatly in her plot and tell me how she wanted to build a better house, but that it was hard. Not enough money. It was very uncomfortable for me to be in that situation, as a guest and as a sort of long-lost friend, and to be asked so explicitly for help. Before I left, Bessie apologized for not having enough food to spare me any for lunch, and then I headed back to Gaborone for a gourmet lunch of Mexican casserole put on by Flying Mission. I don’t know if I have ever felt as uncomfortable with my wealth as I did that morning.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Lessons from Patrick

Patrick and Mox are probably the most colorful characters that I work with. They are two
Batswana (Botswana citizens) who help out at the hangar. They’re a lot of fun, and during the days that I was studying in at the hangar, they would often come into the lounge that I was working in during their breaks and sit and chat. While I often have a hard time understanding his English or his Setswana (for obvious reasons), Patrick is my most diligent Setswana teacher. He will say things to me in Setswana and let me take all the time that I need to work out what it means, without getting frustrated and just telling me in English right away. He also tries to get me to understand some of the finer points of Botswana culture. Every time he comes in eating a fat cake (a fried ball of dough), he asks me if I want some. Of course, I never accept, since he paid for the fat cake and it’s his, right? Once he went on to explain to me that in Tswana culture, it’s impolite for him to eat when somebody else isn’t, unless he first ensures that the other person doesn’t want any food. If someone comes to visit and you happen to be making dinner, you are expected to throw on some more food and feed the visitor. If you happen to be eating already and there’s not enough food, then you don’t need to feed them, but definitely need to offer them a drink (usually tea). Another day, he tells me that “in my culture” you need to greet somebody before you ask them anything else. “If somebody comes up to me and asks me for something without saying ‘dumela’…unnh,” he grunts, shaking his head at the thought of such insolence. At the very least, you have to greet, and usually you would also go on to ask how the other person was doing, and maybe even say a few words about the weather or ask about the persons children or some other triviality before getting down to business. And I think I learn as much from observing the Batswana who work at the hangar as I do from Patrick’s lessons. In addition to Patrick and Mox, there is Cain the accountant, Kgomotso the receptionist, Kenilwe who cleans once a week, and Keanole, who helps Cain in the finance office. So with Patrick’s patient help and careful observation, I’m slowly learning a few things besides aviation regulations.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Why I'm Here

In case you don’t already know, I’m living in the Southern-Africa country of Botswana for about 15 months to volunteer with an organization called Flying Mission. Flying Mission does two different things here, one of which involves aviation and the other of which involves HIV/AIDS ministry. I am, of course, involved in the aviation side of FM, and will mainly be flying for them as a pilot. I say mainly because I am also an aircraft mechanic and may help out with maintenance on occasion as well, although flying is really where my heart lies. The aviation program here in the capital city of Gaborone now is mostly occupied with emergency medical evacuation flights (or “mercy flights”) for the government department of health, and the aircraft they are flying is a Beechcraft King Air C90. Once I get my Botswana licenses and my residence permit paperwork comes through, I will begin flying as co-pilot on mercy flights in the King Air. Since the King Air is a twin turbine-engine aircraft, any flight time that I can get it in would be valuable time if I want to get another aviation job, so I’m excited about that aspect of it as well as the opportunity to fly. Another possibility during the next few months would be a move to the northern Botswana town of Maun, where FM will be setting up a base near the end of the year. If I would be placed in Maun, I would be flying smaller single-engine aircraft into remote camps in the Okavango Delta. Flying in Maun would be exciting flying into some of the more beautiful areas of the country, and would also mean a lot more flying hours for me, so I am also very excited about that opportunity. Either way, I can’t wait to get into the front seat and start flying again. So that’s basically what I’ll be doing while I’m here. If you have any questions or just want to get in touch with me, please email me at I would love to hear from you. Thanks, and keep in touch. Love,