Monday, September 29, 2008

Gear Incident at Maun

I mentioned that there had been an incident in the same type of plane that I was flying a week or so before my own landing gear problems. I've found the story buried in a few places, most of them non-english websites. The local newspaper, The Ngami Times, was the only english one I found...unfortunately their website is a bit of a mess. If you go here, though, you should be able to read the story. Or you can go here and scroll down to find the story and some sharper pictures. The headline was "LEATHERMAN SAVES PILOTS."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Maun Medical

It has been a long time since I’ve done much night flying because pretty much all of the Maun flying is daytime VFR stuff, so it was a bit unusual for me to find myself winging across the country in the dark last week. Both of our King Airs in Gaborone were down for maintenance (one for a scheduled inspection and the other with overheating engine troubles) and two hospitals called Flying Mission with patients for medical flights on the same day. Since the only other option available in Botswana or South Africa was a prohibitively expensive Hawker jet, Mark called me up in Maun and asked if I could do the flights in the Cessna 210 that I had flown down from Zambia just a few days before. The call from Mark came in the early afternoon and the two flights would be a total of over 6 hours of flying so I found myself doing the last two legs of the day at night.
I was reminded again how much I enjoy night flying. There are few things more peaceful and settling to me than cruising in glass-smooth, cool night air under the bright shine of a full moon. The radio is quiet, with only the occasional overnight flight from Johannesburg to Europe breaking the silence on the airwaves. Even in the bright moonlight, a few of the brighter stars manage to push their way through. The luminescent white expanse of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans dominates the landscape for almost a third of the 1.5 hour trip home to Maun from Francistown. The feeling of solitude is strengthened by the knowledge that I am passing over a vast expanse of land virtually devoid of human habitation, save for the odd scattered cattle post (and not even that over the massive salt pans)…and this isolation feeds the only distraction from my sense of peace: the knowledge that I’m counting on one (fallible) piece of engineering to keep me aloft above this dry, desolate expanse. At night, my normal scan of the engine instruments becomes almost obsessive and borders on the paranoid. I reassure myself (half-successfully) by remembering that I know this stretch of desert intimately (I fly directly over Jack’s Camp, so the last half of the route is the same route that I fly from Maun to Jack’s an average of at least once a day). I know exactly where the nearest road is (there is only one paved road in the area after all), where the nearest groups of people are located, where the suitable landing strips are, where the trees start to take over the grassland and make any emergency landings more painful…and on top of that, the full moon would enable me to easily find and land on any of the airstrips on the route. So even my paranoia doesn’t detract too much from the experience.
The beauty and serenity of the flight was kept intact up until the very last minutes, when I innocently selected the gear down and patiently waited for the landing gear to extend and lock in the down position. And waited. And waited. And finally, after some long seconds, grudgingly came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the hydraulic pump meant to pump down the gear was not pumping. This conclusion was made even more uncomfortable by the memory of an incident that had occurred with this same type of airplane at Maun just a few days ago, in which the landing gear didn’t come down (it was an amazing story, actually, which you can read about here and here and here). I told the tower about my problem and asked to circle to the east of the field while I tried to take care of the problem. Cycling the gear selector did nothing, and all circuit breakers were in, so I pumped the gear down using the manual hand pump provided for exactly this situation, and the gear came down just fine. I then made a normal landing and headed for home, relieved that nothing more complicated came of the incident and relieved to finally be heading for bed (by this time it was 9:59 pm…I landed just before the airport closing time of 10). A long, but worthwhile, day. It feels good to be available to help out on flights like those, providing valuable access to needed medical care and even helping to save lives sometimes.