Desert Caravan

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The tiny desert strip of Julud is receding below the Caravan's wheels, and I'm beginning to breathe a little easier. With its 2,000-foot elevation, a rough and almost indiscernible dirt runway that changes heading more than 10 degrees in its 750-meter length, a tall ridgeline close in to downwind and a mountain less than a half mile off the end of the strip, Julud is a dodgy place to take off and land, even without 95-degree temperatures and thunderstorm cells bearing down on the field.

We-we being myself and Denny Dyvig, the AIM Air pilot I'm flying this Caravan with-had to navigate around those thunderstorms on the way in, and we could see lightning striking the hills to the east as we hurriedly worked to get our cargo and passengers unloaded. In the civilized world of paved runways and malaria-free accommodations, we might even have entertained the more relaxed notion of waiting it out. But if we don't get off before all that rain reaches us here, it'll be days before the airstrip dries out again. And Julud, Sudan, isn't exactly a place one wants to be stuck.

"Okay, once we start, we're not stopping," Denny cautions as he hustles into his seat, latches his door and clears me to start the engine. We run through an abbreviated checklist and I bump the throttle forward as Denny calls out a litany of taxi directions. "Avoid those clumps of grass, those are soft spots," he warns as we begin to move across the soft vertisol. "Green clumps means there's water there … and watch that, there, that's a thorn bush, don't hit that, it could give us a flat tire." I swerve left and right as best I can while keeping the yoke full aft and trying to guess where the sidelines of the runway lie. They didn't train me for this at FlightSafety.

We reach what seems to be the end of the runway with Denny still calling out progressive instructions. "Okay, now high idle, ignition and standby power on, put the throttle up in the turn," he says as I swing the Caravan around toward the darkening eastern skies, switches on and pushing the throttle forward as I turn. "Good, now watch that rut, stay to the right on the dirt here, keep that power coming up. Let's go!"

Seconds later, the Caravan's wheels break ground and I bank away to the right, steering clear of both the mountain and the thunderstorm. I get the flaps up, trim set and am just beginning to breathe easier when the HF radio crackles to life. The connection is not good-not surprising given that the Nairobi base operator is 1,100 miles and a country away from us. But there is urgency in his voice. After several frustrating back-and-forth transmissions to confirm our location, he says, " … we have a … crackle … situation … crackle, crackle … hos … crackle … need you … crackle, crackle … " The voice breaks up in the background static.

Denny looks at me with a concerned frown on his face. "Did he say 'hostage?' " he asks. I shake my head, unsure. "I thought he said 'hospital,' " I answer, "but it could have been 'hostage.' Or 'hostile.' What do we do?"

"I'll call him on my satellite phone when we land at Kauda," Denny says. "We'll go from there."

"What if the place he's calling us about IS Kauda?" I ask, tension creeping back into my muscles.

"Don't think so," Denny says. "We were just there an hour ago."

"And they shot eight people near there two months ago."

Denny nods. "I'll call ahead before we land, but I think we're okay."

Thirty minutes and one radio security check later, we're on the ground and refueling in the Muslim town of Kauda, in the Nuba mountain region of central Sudan. From up on the refueling ladder, with workers from the local Samaritan's Purse organization turning the hand-pump on the fuel barrel below me, I watch Denny pacing up and down the airstrip as he talks on his satellite phone. I try to discern our future by watching his body language, but all I can see is focused concentration, and he has that attitude anywhere he flies here. Which is part of the reason I'm willing to fly with him.

Denny was one of the pilots I flew with when I was last in Sudan, six years ago. At that time, we were flying into a certified war zone, running risks that included getting shot down or bombed on the ground. Today, Sudan's civil war is officially over. The northern government and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) signed a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 (although it didn't cover the western region of Darfur, which is part of the reason for the trouble there). But as I'm quickly discovering, tribal tensions and violent habits formed over 22 years of conflict and civil war don't disappear just because a piece of paper gets signed.

Denny shuts his phone and walks over to where I'm climbing down from the wing. "Well, turns out it was hospital and hostage," he says. "They've had a kind of mutiny/uprising at a hospital in the village of Akot, south of here. The SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army, the official military of Southern Sudan) apparently has it subdued, but they want us to go in tomorrow morning to pick up the hostages."

I nod, help him close up the plane, and climb aboard a muddy Land Cruiser for the bumpy, wet and rutted trail ride into town. But as we jolt and slam our way toward rustic accommodations in a place that-like a Mason-Dixon state in 1865-is still struggling to heal bitter wounds and re-integrate returnees from both sides of a war, it occurs to me, once again, that one should be careful what one wishes for. Because I'm here in Sudan, taking on dust, mud, malaria mosquitoes, primitive sanitation, challenging runways and a potentially dicey hostage rescue in the morning … entirely by choice.

Back in March, I'd gone through FlightSafety's initial pilot course for the Cessna 208 Caravan ("The Wizards of Oz," June 2007). The Caravan is a turbine-powered airplane, so it's a big step up from the Grumman Cheetah I normally fly, but it's still a fixed-gear, single-engine airplane that handles very much like a heavy but docile Cessna 182. It's also one of the few high-performance airplanes that's commonly flown VFR. Not by FedEx, perhaps, but in the bush, where the Caravan offers an attractive combination of rough field capability and cost-effective transport of passengers and cargo. So as a VFR-only pilot, the Caravan is one of the few high-performance airplanes I could conceivably fly in the real world.

At the same time, I'd been talking to a nonprofit organization called AirServ International, an on-demand charter company that provides humanitarian airlift services in natural and human disaster zones around the world. And while their aircraft and operational locations varied, they flew Caravans a lot. Especially, they told me, in Africa.

It seemed the perfect trifecta: a chance to put my Caravan training to use in the real world, a chance to do some more disaster relief flying-with a couple of different organizations that operated Caravans-and a chance to return to the adventure-filled world of Africa, all wrapped up in one.

Granted, the countries I ended up flying in-Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo-all share the distinction of being on the State Department's "bad idea to visit" list. But that comes with the territory. The United Nations and crisis relief organizations don't go into places where things are going well. In addition, planes are an expensive way of getting goods and people around a country. So they're generally used in two situations: where roads are either impassable or don't exist, and/or where an ongoing conflict makes ground transportation too risky.

Of course, flying into these places carries its own share of risks. A Russian pilot who'd flown in Liberia, Angola, Congo and Mozambique, as well as Sudan, told me that Sudan was one of the most dangerous places he'd flown. Not because of the conflict there, but because of the condition of the airstrips.

It's not just that many of the strips in Sudan are short and poorly maintained, although they are. Or that many bear a closer resemblance to a challenging dogleg, Par 5 hole on a golf course than anything one would term a runway. Or that they're often cluttered with people, animals and other obstacles, and sprinkled with deceptive areas of "black cotton" soil, which turns into a morass of spongy goo when wet. Or that fuel is a scarce, "bring your own" commodity, in a country filled with some seriously hostile terrain, including the infamous "Sudd"-which pilot Beryl Markham described as "twelve thousand square miles of swamp that seethes and crawls like a prehistoric crucible of half-formed life."

It's the combination of all of those things that makes the flying in Sudan so hazardous. And that's not even counting a complete lack of weather forecasting and other information available to pilots there, or the oppressive heat, dust and primitive conditions on the ground. Or, as I'm discovering, persistent security concerns in some places, despite the official peace.

Denny and I are up well before dawn. We get an update confirming our mission and that the SPLA does, in fact, have the situation in Akot under control. As the sun breaks over the mountain ridge east of Kauda, I lift the Caravan's nose off the grass and dirt surface of the runway and we're on our way. We fly over the reflective water and dense forest of the Sudd on the way to Akot, and I decide Markham knew what she was talking about.

As we close in on Akot, we're getting security updates every 10 minutes. We stay high as long as possible, and then I pull the throttle back below 300 pounds of torque, which turns the Caravan into a big, gentle "down" elevator. We drop 2,000 feet per minute toward the end of the runway, and still touch down gently, causing me to bond another few degrees with this lovely machine. I taxi quickly to the end of the strip, where our human cargo has been told to await us. Just last year, Denny was doing a medevac from a nearby hospital strip and the patient and staff were ambushed by an opposing tribal group en route to the plane. They shot the patient dead as a nurse tried to carry him from the car. Even though we've been assured that order has been restored here, Denny doesn't want us near the hospital this time, and I don't blame him.

We're carrying a passenger from Kauda, and he tells us now he has to get out and pee. "You have 60 seconds, and we'll leave without you if you're not back," Denny cautions sternly as he unbuckles and goes to open the back door. Less than five minutes later, I've got the throttle at full takeoff power and we're climbing steeply away from the airstrip.

It's only as we reach a safe altitude and I begin to breathe normally that it hits me. I've been here before. Six years ago, Denny and I flew a Cessna 210 into this very same strip. And we had to do a quick turn then, too-because we were flying into a war. A wave of sadness comes over me as I realize the irony of our rescue. Southern Sudan is no longer at war. But an absence of war does not necessarily equate to peace.

There are changes in Sudan today, to be sure. People are returning to long-deserted villages and children aren't being bombed as they walk to school. Minefields are being turned into thriving open markets. And there is hope written across the faces of people everywhere-from the smallest village to the capital city of Juba.

But violence is evidently a hard habit to break-a point I'm about to have driven home with even more force. Because my next stop is eastern Chad, where the French Foreign Legion still has an outpost, the biggest gun still rules, and flooded-out runways are the least of a Caravan or Twin Otter pilot's daily worries.

Now, anywhere the French Foreign Legion still has an outpost is almost guaranteed to offer some good adventure. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, and all that. And lord knows, I love a good flying adventure. But even as I pack my duffel and head off to Chad (via Uganda and Ethiopia, because although Chad borders Sudan, you can't get there from here-at least, not directly), that same old nagging thought taps at my brain again, like a bum knee portending a change in the weather.

Be very careful what you wish for, the warning voice cautions. For the universe may just deliver it … in spades.


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