In Thee we trust, whate’er befall;
Thy sea is great, our boats are small.
—Henry van Dyke, from “O Maker of the Mighty Deep”
I see Muleticos airstrip appear from behind a hill—my last stop for the day. I test the brake pedals—they’re firm. Here in northwest Colombia the tiny grass airstrips dotting the landscape appear more like pastures than runways. Airstrips most pilots would eschew. Turns out, I should have eschewed Muleticos that day.
I remember Barbara and I and our three-year-old Kimberly flying into Barranquilla, Colombia where our new coworkers, Bill and Carole Clapp, meet us at the airport. On the long bus ride down to our new home in Monterìa, the blacktop undulates in the heat. I’m fatigued, pensive and plagued with doubts. Have we made the right decision to come to Colombia?
Bill, the great pilot and genius mechanic. He’s been with Mission Aviation Fellowship for several years. Some swim; he walks on water. Thirtyish, he’s slightly built with sandy hair and comes equipped with a can-do attitude. In his orientation, I don’t learn much from him about the people, culture or the long-standing Colombian civil war. He focuses on the machine we fly and the tiny airstrips we service. It is as if we live in our own mechanical world, insulated from everything around us. When he checks the oil, he wipes the dipstick off in the crook of his knee and says, “Just don’t let your wife catch you doing that.” He reminds me, “Bush flying isn’t safe, it’s dangerous—you gotta constantly manage the risks. Once a kid rammed a stick in my elevator hinges. Another time a drunk climbed up on the back of the fuselage just as I was about to take off.”
Knowing these risks, MAF fields some of the best bush pilots in the world. Some fly on skis in the snows of Nepal; others fly over the jungles of Brazil. In its first twenty-five years, MAF flew thousands of missions around the world with no fatal accidents. I began my flying knowing all men are mortal, but I somehow assumed we MAF pilots were an exception. And yet, shortly after I started my Mexico tour, George Raney crashed in New Guinea. A year later, Don Roberson crashed in Venezuela after an in-flight fire. Paul, my chief pilot and good friend in Honduras, ran into a mountain. So much for immortality. As I would fly over the vast jungles sustained only by a thin aluminum wing and a single propeller, I realized that I faced the same risks that had overwhelmed each of my friends.
Here in sparsely populated Northwest Colombia, no electronic navigation aids guide you so we fly mainly by compass and clock, trying to identify farmsteads, dirt roads and low hills. Crude homemade windsocks at some of the strips signal the wind’s direction and velocity. Bill says, “Always fly over first and check for people, animals, tools or debris on the airstrip.” After several orientation flights, he releases me on my own.
Today, like every day, I strap the airplane to my back and begin to-ing and fro-ing between Betania, San Pedro, Tierra Alta, Saiza and Nazaret, each flight taking less than thirty minutes. I notice that I’m flying the approaches just a tad faster than I did in my previous tour in Venezuela, touching down a little later and burning up a bit more strip before stopping—the price of taking two years off of flying. It’s late afternoon. I’m tired, sweaty and ready to be done for the day. I head for Muleticos with three people aboard including Adalberto, the hacienda owner. After Muleticos I can return home.
I circle over the 350-meter strip; it’s seems clear. Adalberto maintains the airstrip for the village because it connects him to the outside world where the paved road begins. Bill had told me, “Look how the strip here is fenced in. But those holes in the fence allow people and animals to cross. Always circle first and gun the engine. People will hear the plane and keep clear. You’ve got lots of room, but you can’t takeoff to the west. You would splat against that little hill, which would be counterproductive. You’ve got to land west and takeoff east.”
We bank to land to the west, steadily losing altitude. There’s not much wind. I’m glad that our Cessna 180 has a Robertson conversion—drooping ailerons and specially modified wings that give it a lower stalling speed and shorter landing roll.
I peg the airspeed at 55 mph and watch the boundary fence grow larger. I’m in the groove, staring at my touchdown point—a single tuft of grass. If the tuft moves up the windshield, I add power; if it moves down, I throttle back.
When we’re a thousand feet out, I notice the airstrip weeds standing as high as the top of the plane’s wheels. Too low now for a go-around—we’re committed to land.
I cross the fence and am flaring when out of the corner of my eye I see two black pigs running across the foot trail. The left landing gear shudders when it rips one pig in half, then the other—thunk, thunk!
I jam on the brakes. The right brake grabs, but the left brake pedal sinks to the floor. The collision must have severed the brake line! In tailwheel planes like this Cessna 180, if you swerve too much, the nose and tail will switch places. When we lurch right, I release the brake and the plane straightens, but the far fence looms large in the windshield and I’m alarmed to see several people hanging over it. I brake again and the plane again swerves right. I release the brake and the plane straightens. We’re running out of strip but still going 30 mph. I brake again, hard. The plane pivots right. I’ve lost all control now and I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion movie. We crash through the side fence and plow into a six-inch tree trunk.
As we slide to a stop, I yell, “Salgan todos ya!” (Everybody out now!) My passengers scramble out of the plane. I’m surprised at my first thought—Good; I won’t have to make any more flights today. I realize I’m completely drained.
We inspect the plane. It rests inert on its crippled left wing like a wounded insect. I smell aviation fuel, and ask someone to put a bucket under the dripping tank vent. The left landing gear lies curled back under the fuselage, tethered only by the brake line. The crash has severed the left wing strut. The dogs have carried the dead pigs away.
Curious campesinos gather around. “Hermano, will the plane fly tomorrow?”
I’m barely able to communicate by HF radio with the distant control tower in Montería—”We’ve crashed here in Muleticos. Please phone my wife and tell her we’re all right. I’ll come out overland tomorrow.”
The local Christian brothers feed me a supper of rice and beans. It lies tasteless in my mouth. I feel weak, despondent. How will we ever repair the plane? I sink exhausted into my hammock and immediately fall asleep.
The next morning I sit astride a mule on the long, enervating trip home, my head down, one hand on the reins and the other balancing the plane’s battery on the mule’s neck. It hasn’t rained, and I choke on the dust swirling around my face. The mule’s sweat smells and the saddle chafes. Finally, we reach a waiting Land Rover and continue our journey over dirt roads that pass through many corral gates.
Long after dark I arrive home in Monterìa unshaven, covered with sweat and dirt, teared up and penitential. Barbara gives me a great hug at our door. I tell her, “I broke the airplane!” She reminds me of the many things I should be thankful for. The plane, completely out of control, miraculously avoided the people lining the fence. No one was injured. The plane is repairable. But how little gratitude I feel at that moment!
The next day I tell Bill. “The left strut’s severed; it’s useless. And the left landing gear’s broken off.”
Bill has restored whole airplanes in his home basement. Several times MAF has sent him to the other side of the world to help rebuild crashed airplanes. He decides we should go back immediately and patch the plane together, assuring me, “We’ll order a new strut down from the States.”
After another Land Rover and muleback journey we arrive at the airstrip where Bill casts an eye on the damaged plane. He minimizes the fact that the rear wing spar has two right-angle bends in it and enlists several men to help us lift the crippled left wing and shove a wooden rice-pounding mortar under the belly to support the plane. A donkey with half-closed eyes scratches his behind against one of the airstrip markers and dumps a brown dollop on the grass. I think, He never has to worry about broken machinery.
We work two days. Bill hacksaws off the damaged part of the strut and asks one of the campesinos to go find a good hardwood tree. The man soon returns with a block of hardwood and using his machete, deftly fashions it to fit inside the severed strut stub. Bill’s tools seem a natural extension of his arms and fingers—he expertly attaches the wood splint with big PK screws. The broken landing gearbox presents the most complex problem. Bill says, “We need an electric drill to remove the large, severed rivets.” But no electricity.
Adalberto says, “I’ll bring my light plant over from the hacienda to run your drill.” Soon a donkey shows up with the light plant balanced on his back. We drill out the rivets in the landing gear attach bracket and install large bolts.
After much patching up of the airplane, we finally start the engine. At 1800 rpm the whole airplane shakes. The bent prop is an inch out of track! We use a wooden prybar to attempt to pull the blade back into alignment, but it doesn’t budge. And yet Bill, ever the can-do optimist, says, “It’ll push air fine. We just won’t fly it at 1800 rpm.”
The airplane now stands on its own two feet, the lower part of the left wing strut an unpainted hardwood stub. Large bolts secure the damaged landing gear to the fuselage. A mass of PK screws and duct tape strengthens the wrinkled aluminum at the end of the left wing. The controls seem to work fine.
Meanwhile, Aeronautica Civil has helicoptered in to inspect the crash. They give us permission to sacar la avioneta (take the airplane out). That means we can dislodge the plane from the bush and set it upright on the airstrip. But Bill employs a more liberal interpretation—“sacar la avioneta”means we can fly it to Bogotá! (He follows the dictum, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.”) When he runs the engine up it seems fine. So he advances the throttle, hurtles down the strip, and soon disappears over the hill. I feel lonely, abandoned. All that remains is another day-long muleback and Land Rover trip home to Montería.
A few days after returning home, I fall ill with a rising, burning fever. When the fever breaks I’m covered with sweat, shivering with shuddering chills. Barbara piles on blankets, but they don’t warm. Then the fever rises again and the cycle repeats. I think, I have malaria. But after some blood tests the doctor declares, “You’ve got typhoid fever.”
I take antibiotics and lie in bed for one month, weak as a flaccid noodle, rehearsing the accident a thousand times. Should I have intentionally ground-looped? Pumped the brake more? It will be two months before the airplane returns to service. Yet I’m perversely cheered that my typhoid provides an excellent excuse not to help Bill with the airplane repairs in Bogotá. I eventually recover and we finish the repairs together.
Our months in Colombia stretch into three years. We suffer eight robberies. The bank forecloses on the owner of our rented house. We launch an abortive communal living experiment. A school bus backs into our Land Rover and then a loaded dump truck crashes into it with Barbara driving. Were we wrong to insist on going to Colombia instead of Nicaragua, where MAF assigned us? Was it a bad decision to land at Muleticos in the one-foot-high grass? Should I have tried to ground-loop the airplane?
Yet Colombia provides us many treasures. We encounter many memorable people—Mario, the pastor of the local church; Andrés, the agriculturalist who helps improve the campesinos’ cacao crops; Gregorio, the faithful pastor who carries in his pocket two letters of reference: one to the army and the other to the guerillas.
I eventually stop asking why the accident happened and start asking, “God, what do you have for me in this? How should I respond?” I realize that life is fecund, full of God-surprises. I’m thankful for Barbara’s faithful support and thankful for all the rare and wonderful experiences in Colombia. That’s why grace is called grace. Every curse becomes a blessing. No one was injured in the accident, I survived typhoid fever, and while in Montería we adopted two more precious children—Tim and Jennifer.
Colombia, I embrace you. You’re a contradiction, a harsh teacher. But you’re also a vehicle of grace. I love the slightly-modified bumper sticker I’ve seen —“Grace Happens.”