In the fall of 2008, Maxime Laliberté, Captain of the Cessna 206 of Avions Sans Frontières (ASF), published an article in the magazine entitled Plein vol, describing his experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
By Maxime Laliberté
The adventure started a few years ago when I first found out about ASF. A Cessna 206 used for humanitarian work in the DRC, that’s all I ever dreamed of! In December 2007, once I had obtained the necessary experience and was recruited as pilot, I arrived at our base in Dungu where I was warmly welcomed by my predecessor Stéphan Bihan, his partner Julie Roussel, and the ASF team, under the guidance of the director Ndombe Vincent. I was immediately charmed by the village of Dungu and by my new colleagues. My first two weeks in the DRC were full of new experiences: runways like I had never seen before, the local aeronautics procedures, the tropical climate in December, the Congolese culture that is so different from ours… What can only be described as “pleasant disorientation”!
Runways for All Tastes
ASF serves ten runways on a regular basis, and several others on a more limited basis. Among these runways, one can find just about anything: huge asphalted runways maintained by the UN, short and narrow runways maintained irregularly and runways, which in reality are roads that have been cleared of brushwood. It is important to note the state of a runway at each visit and talk to other pilots in the region in order to keep up to date. This is especially important in the rainy season since the grass grows at a phenomenal speed and it becomes very difficult to evaluate its height. One must also be careful about anthills since the termites are able to build a one-foot dome within two days. Such nests have caused the loss of several planes in the region since they are hard as rock and difficult to discern on the runway, thus catching the pilots off guard.
I arrived in Dungu in mid-December, right in the dry season. This season is remarkable in that a dry haze that comes from the Sahara covers the sky and this, combined with the smoke from the bush fires, often makes the visibility drop to below 3 miles. Luckily, the land that we fly over is generally flat, but nevertheless, navigation remains difficult with this haze, especially over the uniform savannah. On my first flights, when I wasn’t yet familiar with the region and when I had long forgotten my navigation techniques using a compass and a watch, I depended solely on my GPS. But after closely examining the land, you end up finding markers, subtle differences that help you find your way. Then came the month of March, and with it, the rain, which quickly sweeps the dry haze away. The visibility immediately increased considerably, and on the same routine flights, I discovered amazing landscapes, which I had never seen before. The rainy season also brings lots of storms, often on a daily basis, which can form very rapidly. These storms are full of surprises and can appear on your route at any moment. So, one must bypass the cells or land to allow the storm to dissipate.
We are very fortunate to have an extremely competent technician on site named Masta Vako. He handles the maintenance of the plane in our hangar in Dungu. The inspections (50, 100 and 200 hours) are carried out in Dungu, along with the repairs of most malfunctions. Once a year, the plane undergoes a more in-depth inspection in Nairobi, in Kenya, where nothing is left to chance. On several occasions, I had the opportunity to work on the plane with Masta, who must sometimes make miracles with limited means. The Challenges One of our main preoccupations is the supply of aviation gasoline (AVGAS), since the price of fuel increases constantly as do the delays associated with truck delivery. Two months can go by between the time fuel is ordered in Uganda and its arrival in Dungu; this is due to complications associated with paperwork and the roads being in such a poor state. The other challenge concerns the relief of pilots. These days, employment in this field is abundant in Canada. Moreover, we do believe that the development of a country belongs to its population, and so, we have begun to train a young man from Dungu so that he eventually becomes a pilot. But until he is ready, we will require additional pilots. Upon returning from a medical evacuation, or after having dropped off personnel from Médecins Sans Frontières at a location they couldn’t have reached without a plane, one really feels like he is doing something useful. The flying is also really interesting and presents several sizeable challenges, for a young pilot like me at least.