Here’s another story that Jim told me; this one started out as a flight to deliver some French folks to a game preserve in Burkina Faso. Again, this is more paraphrased than direct quotation.
“It was after the end of the rainy season, about November, and we were going to land in this game preserve in Burkina Faso. I knew approximately where the runway was, but the grass had grown tall with the rain, and completely covered it. I made a pass over the field, trying to see where the runway might be. I found it – at least I think I did; it was hard to tell – and circled around to land. After I touched down and cut the throttle, one of the front wheels (it was a taildragger aircraft) dropped into a deep hole that had been rooted out by a warthog – remember, everything was overgrown with grass. I looked over at the wing, and the impact had shoved a spar from the landing gear up through the wing. It was a mess, and I was not going to be able to fly that plane out of there. I taxied it in to the airfield and tied it down for storage. We’d have to get a new wing built.
“A message that the plane was damaged was sent back to the SIM base [Jim’s mission]. We couldn’t get through to Niamey [in Niger] directly, so it had to be sent by way of Air Maroc and a few other airfield towers. I had just met my future wife, too – she had come out to Niger for short-term service. She said that the girl who delivered the final message to her was as white as a sheet; the word that had come through to Niamey was that my plane was down, with no news of any survivors. At a small operation like ours, the loss of a pilot and plane would be devastating.” Jim laughed. “My wife must have thought, shoot, I just met this guy, and I kind of liked him, too! But we got that cleared up.
“Our base director drove down the next day to get us. It was a short flight, but a long drive – eleven hours over really terrible roads. To make matters worse, a military coup had just happened in Burkina Faso, so the borders were completely closed. However, he was a French speaker, so he managed to get through the border and pick us up. We left the plane there and drove back to Niamey.
“We didn’t get the new wing built and crated for transport until February. After dealing with all of the paperwork, we finally drove back down, another eleven hours, to airfield at the game preserve. When we saw it, our hearts just sank. The airfield was completely burned over, black with ash.
“The guy at the airfield came out to meet us. He looked at us and said, ‘It was the strangest thing. We had a fire out here. It went straight down the airfield, but when it got to your plane -‘” Jim made a diverging motion with his hands “‘- it just went around it and kept going.'”
I stared at Jim. “So there was a circle of unburned grass around the airplane?”
“Yup. It wasn’t big, just enough to clear the wingtips – it was the freakiest thing. We got the wing on and flew the plane out, but God … God protected that plane.”
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This will be my last half-week here at JAARS; I’m heading home for Christmas! Please pray for my travels as I wrap up and drive my car up to Indiana. I also had a site interview with Aerojet this past week, so please pray for that process as well.