I landed the mission Cessna 180 at Corozalito and walked into the tiny grass-roof house where Wycliffe Bible Translators Florence Gridell and Mariana Slocum lived and worked. A small Chol Indian woman followed me in, laid her precious newborn baby girl on a rough wooden table, and cried out for Florence—“Doña Florencia; ayùdame, por el amor de Diòs! (Florence, help me, for the love of God!)” Florence took the baby in her arms but it was too late—after a few minutes the baby stopped breathing. It was 1968.
The woman wrapped up her precious bundle. When we walked outside I felt the heat and smelled the steaming jungle with its rotting vegetation. Florence told me, “We need to get to Mexico City. If you can fly us out to the highway at Salto, we’ll arrive just in time to catch the bus up to the capital.”
I agreed, and grabbed my spring scale to weigh up the women’s baggage. I told her, “With this heat and humidity we can’t carry more than 200 kilos. I’ll have to take Mariana and the baggage out to Salto, then return to pick you up.”
Mariana and I climbed aboard the plane, and I taxied out to the end of the 300-meter airstrip hacked out of the jungle with the help of the Chol Indians. We took off, and at best angle of climb barely cleared the treetops at the end. Then I made a fateful decision. “Mariana, I think we should go back and pick up Florence.” I reasoned that we would save time by making only one flight to Salto rather than two. So I circled back and landed the second time in Corozalito.
Florence boarded, and we taxied to the end of the airstrip. She told us, “The mother already took her dead baby back to the village,” I thought about Florence and Mariana—fifty-ish, unpretentious, always wearing blouses and skirts (never pants), dedicated to the Chol people all around them. Every day they passed out pills, taught health classes, delivered Chol babies, and buried the dead. I thought about their brave work, thankful that Mission Aviation Fellowship could provide them air service.
For this second takeoff, I got out and pushed the tail of the plane back into the weeds so I could use every inch of the airstrip. The relentless sun rose hotter and hotter, and I felt sweat running down my spine. I noticed I was breathing heavily and my clammy hand clung to the throttle. Did I make the right decision? Do we have enough margin of safety? A little proud and overconfident, I hesitated to change my mind again.
I applied full power, released brakes, and the plane hurtled down the airstrip. We accelerated well, and as we rotated I willed the airplane into a climb. The engine sucked in the hot, humid air, doing its best. The trees loomed larger and larger.
Soon the highest tree branches filled the windshield—then we shot over them.
After flying the ten minutes to Salto, I unloaded the passengers and cargo and then checked the landing gear, half expecting to find twigs or pine needles caught in the wheel struts. I took off with a troubled mind and flew home to the MAF base in San Cristobal.
That evening, I scoured the inscape of my mind, wondering why I had talked myself into making that second takeoff with no margin of safety, a takeoff that jeopardized precious lives, all just to save twenty minutes. Instead of listening to the voice of my better angel, I had made a poor decision.
I said a humbled prayer—“Thank you God that yet again you refused to give me the consequences I deserved.” Mercy.