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The Browns – Tom, Ali, Crescena, Bez, & Ber
January 14, 2017 4:42 pm
Published in: Uncategorized

 

“Sierra India Mike, this is AIM AIR, how do you read?”

…static…

I note that at 500 feet above the ground, the 20-foot tall trees dotting the otherwise reddish brown landscape look large as they fly past at 100 mph.

“Sierra India Mike, this is AIM AIR, how do you read?”

…static…

The refugee camp, the surrounding village with the large, white UN tent structures, the glistening tin roofs from the glare of the sun, and the narrow cut in the trees where the airstrip is located are visible 4 miles ahead – a quick glance at the GPS display confirms the location and distance with 1 minute to arrival at this speed. I’m already mostly configured for the landing and allow the plane to slow towards my final approach speed while hoping for a response on the radio. The last 27 hours since receiving the call for an evacuation have built to this moment. We pulled a team of people in from their Christmas break to coordinate a plan to put planes from 3 bases located in 2 countries on the ground, fill them with passengers, and get them back in the air with minimal time on the ground and minimum risk to all involved.

The morning of the flight, I and the 3 other pilots on this operation waited for confirmation that the fighting, which had started on Christmas day and prompted the evacuation request, had calmed. We finally received word that both the local military and UN commanders had cleared us to fly in and assured us that adequate security would be provided. We launched our planes and 3 hours later had arrived at the location, hoping for a response on the radio with final confirmation that the area was still secure and safe to land. Without that final confirmation, we would only have a short window to wait before needing to turn back.

We operate with a specific set of criteria and precautions in situations like this, and due to the locations of the fighting and the airstrip, we had determined a fly-over of the area to look for ground signals was not an option. The communication methods being used between our operations office and the missionaries on the ground were no longer working so we were dependent on handheld VHF radio communication. Unfortunately, the handheld radio isn’t great over more than a few miles, so we knew we wouldn’t get that confirmation until right at the last moment.

Already though, God had orchestrated too many aspects of this operation to give up hope. In addition to working through the efforts of our staff and local authorities, He arranged the winds so that 3 airplanes coming from different directions at different altitudes with different engines (and no prior knowledge of what the wind would be) all could arrive at a single point with perfect precision of timing and without any speed adjustments along the way other than last minute spacing for landing! So onward we went.

“Sierra India Mike, this is AIM AIR, how do you read?”

…static…

3 miles to go. The runway now straight ahead of me, the cool air of high altitude has been replaced with the heat of low altitude just a little north of the equator during dry season. There is no sign of current fighting in the area, but the lack of people to be seen anywhere is testimony to the fact that the entire refugee camp of 50,000 people had already emptied itself into the bush. My co-pilot (who is our most experienced pilot) and I had briefed our plan and he was in his seat ready to jump out of the back door of the Caravan we were flying as soon as I came to a stop. He would load each plane as we landed and took back off in sequence, finally getting on the last plane once the missionaries were on board.

“Sierra India Mike, this is AIM AIR, how do you read?”

…static…garbled voice slowly coming into clarity, “I can hear you, can you hear me?”

“We can hear you, are you at the runway?”

“Yes, I am here and the others are walking here and will be here in the next 2 minutes.”

“Is the runway still secure?”

“Yes, everything is secure, there is no fighting.”

“Ok, we are landing… AIM Base, area reported secure, landing.”

Just over 1 mile from touchdown, the airplane is now completely configured for landing, final checks are complete, the 2 AIM AIR planes behind us know we are landing, and we have started descending on the final portion of the approach. As the ground gets closer, a series of quick glances around confirms that everything appears to be secure – I notice that the runway has a mixture of military personnel and peacekeepers positioned around the perimeter. The upper branches of the tree’s reach above me, the edge of the red-dirt-murrum-packed runway passes below my wheels, and my hand brings the power lever steadily back all the way as I simultaneously raise the nose so the rate of our descent is almost zero right as the ground meets the main tires and the wings stop flying. I immediately step hard on the brakes using only a little reverse thrust to minimize noise and not attract any more attention than possible. A slight left turn into the cutout parking area brings me to a full stop amid a swirl of red dust kicked up from my wheels and propeller. After a quick check around, my copilot hops out and starts arranging the passengers in their groups for each plane.

10 minutes later, I release the brakes and pull ahead as the second plane starts loading. At the turn around, I pause to wait while the 3rd plane lands and I give a quick glance behind me to confirm that my 13 passengers are still seated and ready to go.

As soon as the third plane clears the runway, I push the power lever forward. A quick takeoff and climb up to the cooler air above is interspersed with the various radio calls from our 3 planes as each of us taxi into position, takeoff, and report operations normal in the climb. Twenty-two minutes after the first landing, all 3 of our planes are in the air, carrying a mixture of 32 adults and kids back to Kenya.

As the General Manager for AIM AIR, I get to see the vastness of how so many things impact the success of this kind of flight. The IT support that makes sure we have working computers and internet access in an unreliable environment, the mechanics who ensure that pilots can operate with confidence that the equipment is going to hold up, the administrative personnel who handle HR issues, parts supplies, and secure permits and authorizations so we aren’t delayed by red tape when the minutes count, the wives who release their husbands in the middle of a holiday into a war-zone, the people who staff the phones to get contact with military commanders and monitor radios so the pilot knows someone is watching his back, and the supervisors who get on a conference call within minutes to discuss risks and measures to mitigate those risks all make the delivery of those 32 missionaries to caring hands possible. I am proud of the team we have and honored to work alongside them in a way that allows me this vantage point.

We arrived back in Nairobi that night just before 8:00pm and delivered a group of tired, hurting missionaries to the loving arms of their leadership and support team who stood at the exit of the airport and embraced each one as they passed the gate. Our passengers each had the equivalent of a small backpack – which for many of them is now all that remains of their belongings. Over the next week we slowly learned that fighting resumed the day after the evacuation, that their homes, clinic, and offices were looted, and that several people they had befriended over the years had become casualties. It can seem like the end, but as their discussions to return continue, we see it is just the beginning of another chapter in one of God’s many redemption stories. These are the stories that remind us of all God has done and remind us that, in the end, they aren’t my stories or any of our stories, but they are God’s stories told from a character’s vantage point.

3 Responses to “From my Vantage Point: Emergency Evacuation at Christmas”

  1. Eileen Agnes Says:

    This was a very moving account and when I saw the picture of the passengers walking to the aircraft I just cried. We know some of the evacuees and my husband has been to Doro twice with our son who was a missionary there. We live on the small island of Jersey, a tax haven, where wealth abounds and everyone is looking out for themselves, yet these dear missionaries are willing to risk all for their Lord as you pilots do also.
    A very big thank you from us.
    Robin and Eileen Agnes

  2. Christiane Fox Says:

    Thank you so much for this post. As one of the missionaries who was flown out, it adds so much gratitude to what we were already feeling, when we learn more about what each step of the way really takes. It’s such a rich blessing to be part of the Body of Christ, all working together for His Glory, and each with such specific parts that He equips us for… amazing really.

    I am wondering if you’d mind if I put a link to this blog post in my next newsletter? I think it would be so interesting and enlightening, not to mention encouraging for my friends and supporters to hear the same story from a different perspective. I love what you wrote at the end, about it being God’s story, told from different character’s vantage points 🙂

  3. tabrown Says:

    Hi Christiane, sorry for not seeing this sooner! Yes, please feel free to link this anytime – it was a privilege to be a part of your ministry in this way.

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