Helios and Ground Loops

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving! Mine was pretty fun. Two of the families from the hangar get together every year for the meal, so they invited me to join them … good times!

I heard a number of stories last week, so I’ll spread them out over the next few days. I also met some people:

Ray is a pilot-mechanic serving in Cameroon. I’d guess he’s in his mid-thirties; he and his family are at the JAARS center to do his recertifications. (Most of the pilots that JAARS picks to serve overseas have to have extensive flying hours, as well as the FAA Airframe and Powerplant mechanic certifications.) He’s pretty tall, and nearly bald, and when I met him near my apartment on Tuesday he was taking out the trash. He recognized me from the aviation department meeting on Monday, and stopped to say hello. We got to talking, and it turns out that his father is a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, so he knows some people at Purdue. The base in Cameroon, he told me, has a Robinson R44 helicopter and three light aircraft, including a Cessna 206. (We’ve got a PC-6 in the hangar that will be ready to go back there soon.) They had been working out of a really old, small hangar until recently, when they finished work on a new hangar. However, they’re still pretty understaffed. Cameroon is the only base that Wycliffe/JAARS has in Africa, although the different mission aviation organizations do work together.

I had dinner that evening with Tammy and Brian, who are an outdoorsy young couple with two little sons. They only arrived here a few months ago, so they’re still getting settled into one of the apartments on Center. Brian is from Illinois; he’s working in the Language Software Department here. The department (with its unfortunate acronym) has people at JAARS and at Dallas, which also includes my Dad. Their software tools help to organize cultural data, create dictionaries, and do the actual work of Bible translation.

On Tuesday, I was working to dig up some old documentation about using our landing gear strut alignment jig. One of the Helio Couriers in the hangar is from the Indonesia base; it’s being refitted and generally checked out. (I took a picture of it; it’s the one at the beginning of this post.) Helio stopped making these planes in 1974, so JAARS  has had to learn to machine what components are no longer available (which means: almost all of them). They’re tailwheel aircraft, so they have two landing gear under the cockpit, and one wheel under the tail. We had one of the front gear off to check for alignment, and Don, one of the mechanics, wanted to get it back on the plane, so he didn’t have to leave it propped up on wooden crates overnight. We got the strut checked, and it was okay, so he reinstalled it. In the process, he told me why the Helio had gotten bashed up.

There were three valleys leading into the base, and the pilot, on this particular day, went down the wrong one. Hemmed in by mountains on both sides, he didn’t realize that the airstrip at the end of the valley was too short until it was too late. By “too short”, I mean that there was a mountain at the end of the airstrip (this is pretty common in jungle pilot stories). There was also a brick wall in the side of the mountain at the end of the airstrip, possibly a retaining wall – and the Helio was headed straight for it. It was touching down, but there was still no way to bleed off the speed quickly enough.

“The pilot wanted to save the the propeller,” Don told me – understandable, since propellers can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and having a brick wall push an engine into your lap does not make for a good day. “So he pulled a ground loop and ran the tail into the wall. Quick thinking.” (Ground loops are when the plane is spun around, while still on the ground; they usually are caused by, or end up with, things breaking.) A tail is easier to replace than an engine.

While you’re thinking about Cameroon and Indonesia, here’s some ways to pray for them (the links go to information pages on the JAARS website):

  1. Central Africa and Nigeria are home to more than 20% of the languages without the Bible. In March, the Chrambo translation of Luke was released in the Bambalang language – pray for the continuing work as the rest of the New Testament is translated.
  2. There are more than 700 languages in the Indonesia region! In addition to the needs there, please keep the family of Paul Westlund in your prayers. Paul is a pilot who was killed in an airplane crash on September 22; this has impacted both his family, the missionaries in Indonesia, and the larger JAARS family.
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