Thursday, June 08, 2006

Short Story: Flying in Rain

"The only reason to have an airplane with two engines is to be able to fly with one".
The Australian engineer's comment returned to me as I watched the sweating Bolivians close the cowl of the second engine and wipe up the oil underneath. They cleared things away and the pilot grinned back at us.
"Ahora si!" he said, "Vamos!"
I settled back. This was likely to be a long flight and I had brought nothing to read. Jose Luis in the seat beside me was gazing out across the sunny runway to the ramshackle buildings on the other side of the boundary wall. The propellers of the small plane kicked into life. The whine rose to a crescendo, slicing the air just a foot or two from my head. When the noise satisfied the pilot we taxied forward onto the runway, waited a few seconds for final clearance and took off.
Santa Cruz wobbled into view. We were flying from a small runway almost in the centre of town, not the big international airport further out. Which felt priviliged. Santa Cruz was a red-roofed haven to drug smugglers and hard-working honest men. We had two hours flying time ahead of us, over the dry jungles of eastern Bolivia.
We were aiming for a small landing strip in the jungle well to the north. Many years ago the Jesuits had mined gold in the hills out there. The ground had recently been pegged by a small company. My job was to go and look at this ground and assess the possibility of future commercial gold production. Jose Luis was coming along to assist me.
I worked for a big company and that was the reason we were flying in a twin-engined plane, the luxury of safety. We levelled off at about 10,000 feet. The sun was bright and the jungle green below us. But thunderstorms rimmed the horizon ahead.
I watched the pilots do the things that pilots do and then noticed a book stuck in the seat in front of me. I opened it and found it was a western. I started reading and found it was a pornographic western. I read some pages with great interest as I had never before read a pornographic western. I forget the hero's name but he had an awful lot to say about his one-eyed snake and how often it stood to attention. More of a cock swinger than a gun slinger. I got bored with the book and put it down. Watched the greeness below and the thunderstorms advancing.
It started to rain as we got deeper into the clouds. I never liked flying in small planes in bad weather. It got bumpy. The pilots were unconcerned. They flew around some clouds and through others.
As the flight continued the pilots talked less and concentrated more. The talked on the radio and consulted their GPS navigational instrument. We were flying towards nothing more than a bush airstrip, bulldozed out of the jungle and allowed to grass over. No air control, navigational beacons or staff. Nothing at all. I believe there was a radio at the local military base and that they had been warned we were on our way.
The weather grew worse. The genial atmosphere of the early part of the flight had evaporated. The pilots still seemed relaxed but they were quiet now and their eyes were watchful. One could not say they were tense, but they were paying great attention.
The little plane bounced on. I gazed out at the jungle, intermittently visible between streaks of cloud.
The pilots were talking to each other. I could not make out what they said, but they seemed to be discussing fuel and the likelihood of being able to land at our chosen site. They decided to continue and we flew on.
Visibility was poor now. We were close to our target zone. The plane banked and we started to circle. I did not know how high we were. The landing strip itself was next to a river, I knew that, but I also knew there were mountains nearby, because the gold prospect was in mountains.
Suddenly close below us was the jungle again. I had had no idea we were so low. We were very close to treetop, perhaps 100 metres up. Dense jungle. The huge river circled into sight and out again, visibility 150 metres. It was pelting with rain. We continued to circle, coming lower as the rain increased, flying just above treetop level. Visibility ahead was virtually nil. I hoped that the GPS was set correctly, that the pilots had not misread it, and that we were not about to smack into those mountains.
We flew on, still circling. I guess they knew where we were because the same river came into view again and again, but I could see nothing that looked like an airstrip. I did not know whether we were looking for the airstrip or whether we knew exactly where it was. It was impossible to speak to the pilots. They were quiet, concentrating, talking in short phrases to each other. The jungle close below looked grey through the deluge of falling water.
We continued to circle, the river swam into view again, and disappeared again. This went on for some time. I began to wonder whether the pilots did know where the landing strip was. The rain poured down. There was a point of no return, I knew, a point at which if you had not landed you had to fly back to the nearest airstrip or risk running out of fuel. I also knew that in Bolivia strict rules are not always enforced. There was no radio communication with the ground.
Despite the rain it was hot and wet inside the little plane, the windows were fogging up. The pilots were soaked in sweat. Jose Luis was staring out through the front window between the pilots. I did not know what he was thinking. The pilots were very quiet. The engines were purring sweetly enough. They were beautiful looking machines, poking out on long nacelles well in front of the wings.
We suddenly banked very sharply, one wingtip almost touching the treetops. We swerved round in a tight turn, straightening up in almost the opposite direction and in a minute or two the landing strip was below us. We were coming in. The pilot lined up on the tiny grass-covered strip, which seemed too small to land a paper dart.
As we dived I had an impression of the pilot forcing the plane down through the water against its own buoyancy. We touched down in a spray of white, the little plane skidding from side to side through plumes of water. Eventually the tail came down and we skidded and slid to a halt. A bright red Toyota was standing next to a shelter. It drove over to us. The rain stopped. The pilots opened the hatch. We all got out. The truck drew up and our two field assistants got out, beaming. The pilots were grinning. Cheerful exchanges in Spanish. The pilots were laughing now. Everyone smiled and joked.
I asked the genial chief pilot what we had been doing. "Oh no" he said in Spanish, "no problems at all, we were just waiting for the rain to stop, there were no problems at all".
"Una pista buena!" a good strip, the pilots beamed at each other, "esta una pista buena". They gazed with huge satisfaction down the grassy strip "una pista buena!"

A little later. The sun peeping out. Sitting in a muddy shack beside a grey river in the jungle, watching a bright and pretty Bolivian woman talking on the shortwave radio, chatting up her friends, passing messages, while I smoked a wonderful cigarette.


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