09 October 2007

more on planes

A few weeks or months before I came to Southern Sudan, I read an article about the hazards faced by pilots flying here. I read it with interest because I love planes and flying, even though I did not yet have plans to come here, but I really thought they might be exaggerating just a bit about the kids building piles of stones for soccer goalposts on the runway. They weren’t. The kids here in Tilt play football on the airstrip every evening beginning around five. Fortunately, they play crossways on the close (sandy) end of this runway, so the goalposts are on the edges of the space the plane needs to land.

Also, the cows use the runway as a route home. The far end of the runway, the hard dirt part, floods every time it rains and then the cows walk over the mud, leaving it extremely bumpy and slippery for car or plane.

Oh, and there are tire tracks all across the airstrip from all of us who use it as a road to get back to our compounds. Like the cows, we also use it when it’s muddy, so the troughs made by our tires are pretty deep.

For the first time, I managed to be on a plane that actually landed here next to our compound. The last time I flew in and then out, we had to go to the bigger, higher airstrip an hour or two away, which is less affected by rain. This time, we were informed that the airstrip here was perfectly dry.

I was sitting behind the pilot but watching all the dials and screens up front during the flight. I was particularly interested in the radar, which he turned on for storms and impending evening. When I saw that we were only a few nautical miles away from our destination, I started looking for the airstrip. The first thing I saw was the road, though, and the town. I pointed it out to the women in the plane with me. The knowledge that we were passing over their very own homes was greeted with exclamations and lots of pointing at various landmarks.

The procedure for landing on an airstrip like this is far more complicated than a simple fly-over. You fly over in one direction, checking for landability (immoveable obstacles, mud). Then you make a sharp 180 degree turn, wing pointed almost straight toward the ground, and buzz the airstrip to chase off the cows and the kids. If you do this right, your passengers should think you are actually planning to land on the horns of the cattle that are loitering on the runway (the kids are smarter and move away more quickly). Hopefully one of the kids will chase the cows away. Make one more tight 180 degree turn at the other end of the runway, and down you go. Ideally, that cow that is venturing back on to the airstrip will not move fast enough to block your way. And that skidding feeling is nothing, nothing really.

We all piled off the plane and the pilot, who had forty minutes to make a fifty minute flight to the nearest town with an airport (where the insurance company allows the plane to park overnight), opened the compartments under the plane, threw out our bags (we helped) and started shouting, “Tell them to move the cows! Can someone please tell them to move the cows? Someone move those cows!” so that he could take off again immediately. A child was sent to move the cows and ambled off to do so, while the pilot jumped in the plane and took off, sans security checklist (again).

(‘Round here, we call this an airstrip. And we land on it. Notice how it, oh, ISN’T STRAIGHT. Seen through the blur of the propeller.)

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