Well, I just finished my last two flying days in Indonesia. Sniff, sniff. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, see my earlier post entitled "BIG NEWS".)
I was off on Monday because I've been working Saturdays. So Tuesday was my first day this week. I was scheduled to give airstrip checkouts to one of our other pilots, into two of our most marginal airstrips in East Kalimantan. These are tough strips! Our guys usually don't get checked out in these strips till they've flown here for about three to five years! You've gotta fly very precisely, and everything has to be just right, or it's a no-go.
Well, I landed exactly on the spot I was supposed to, with the exact speed I was aiming for--everything was perfect, and I still slid further than ever before. That's because everything wasn't perfect. The airstrip condition was way, way wetter than described on the radio.
It was a great demo for the other pilot, who was along to get checked out at this strip, that despite doing everything "by the book", a strip like this can still throw a curve ball at you. Frankly, the weather and airstrip condition reports were quite misleading, and had we known that we wouldn't have landed. However, because we always have some built-in-margin in our strips, everything was o.k. Had I landed long, or been fast, or caught some wind--perhaps it wouldn't have been. But then, that's why we don't check new guys out here--you need to be able to read the wind, and nail your speeds and touchdown spot, and have the confidence to say "no" when something isn't right.
Well, after coming to a stop I turned the airplane around and promptly got stuck in the mud, right there in the middle third of the "rollable surface". So we had to shut down and get about 20 people to help us push it out. Needless to say, we did NOT do an airstrip checkout there that day.
Next we went to another strip--even shorter, but slightly more sloped. Suspecting from previous experiences I've had here, that the radio report I received that morning on this strip might also be inaccurate, especially related to the condition of the grass, I first did a low pass over the strip, before committing to land. Although the grass looked a bit tall, it seemed o.k. from the air. Plus our airstrip agent had said that the grass was cut and the strip was in good condition.
However, upon landing, it became obvious that this was not the case. A small patch at the top end was cut, but in the landing area the grass was waste high. On a very marginal strip like this, that's not something to mess around with. So yet again, we cancelled the checkouts and left empty. So we never got any airstrip checkouts done that day, but hey, at least we came home in one piece with an airplane in good condition. Better to play it safe!
Today, my final day of flying in Indonesia, was tough for a whole different reason. All day long I was saying goodbye to my good friends in villages throughout East Kalimantan--both in person and over the radio. Since I was the only MAF pilot flying up in this area, there were a lot of folks calling on the radio and saying goodbye--especially from villages where I wasn't able to land today.
It was tough. For the past week I've continually had thoughts of "this is the last time that..."--fill in the blank. Today it was all about my friends in the villages. It was an emotional day for me.
In Mahak Baru, the village heads, the local village government representative, the pastor, and my good friends the MAF agents, and a bunch of other folks, were waiting there when I arrived. I was deeply humbled and honored as they each shared with me how much they appreciated our family's contribution in serving their village and people, as well as investing into their lives. (We've stayed overnight in that village on a number of occasions, and have really developed close friendships with a number of them, as have our kids with their kids.)
I was further humbled as they presented several beautiful gifts, explaining the symbols and reasons for each gift and what they represented. It was very touching!
Before I left, they painted my face with what I believe was ash. From what I understand, this was a real honor, and again I was really humbled by it. They explained that this is their tradition when a family member goes away on a very long trip. There was a lot of laughter, but also tears.
I flew the rest of the day like that, having promised to keep the "paint" undisturbed, at least till I got home. Everywhere I went after that, people immediately recognized what had happened, and the significance of it, and commented about it. Again, I was very humbled, and can only say that it's been an incredible privilege to serve wonderful folks like this, who I'm honored to call my friends!
And I thank YOU, who are part of our ministry team, for your faithful prayers and ministry support that enable us to be doing this. Our family is just a small part of a much larger team, and the gratitude that was expressed by my friends all over East Kalimantan today, goes out to all of YOU! Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, and from theirs!
It was a long flight day, made even longer by the numerous goodbyes and cantankerous weather. So I found myself arriving back in Tarakan well after 5:00, when there were no other airplanes in the area. So having received special permission from the control tower, I did a low pass over the MAF hanger, to the delight of our national staff who were still hanging around waiting, and then landed for the final time in Tarakan. And at 6:15pm, having finished up post-flight checks and paperwork, I turned the lights off in the now-quiet MAF office and hangar, locked the doors, and drove home on my little motorcycle after a long flight day, for the last time in Tarakan. It's been an honor and a blast!
Stay tuned...the adventure continues!