Excerpt taken from the book Hope Has Wings, by Stuart King. Photo credit: MAF Archive
MY AIRSTRIP IS READY BUT A LITTLE SOFT. COME AT YOUR DISCRETION.
The telegram was from a mission doctor who’d just cleared a strip in a remote region of southern Congo. Two-thirds of the way across Africa on our long survey trip to Leopoldville (modern day Kinshasa), we were being asked to try it out.
Dr Mark Poole and his wife had suffered from sleeping sickness as a result of frequent long journeys through tsetse-fly areas. A plane could have spared them that.
To make their airstrip at Bulapé, the doctor and his helpers had cleared 6,000 trees, filled the holes left by them and levelled and rolled the surface.
Knowing about all that effort, we were eager to land at Bulapé. If, on arrival, we felt the strip was unsafe, we’d just have to fly off again.
A sand strip in a sea of green
Dense, green tropical forests stretched like a sea in every direction beneath us, unbroken except for one spot. There the small sandy-coloured clearing, hacked out from the tall trees around, stood out clearly.
As we circled directly above it we were startled to see movement along a few narrow paths leading towards it. Hundreds of people were running as fast as they could, in spite of the scorching midday heat, converging on the clearing.
‘Any moment that airstrip’s going to be covered with people,’ observed Jack. If that happened landing would be impossible. Then we realised that everyone had stopped dead at the edge of the forest. No one ventured even a step on to the strip.
We descended to about 400 feet, trying to size up the situation.
‘We’ll go down and take a look,’ Jack concluded. He lowered the wheels, then the flaps and, keeping a fair amount of engine power, made a cautious approach to the clearing. ‘I’m making a dummy run first,’ he called across to me. ‘We’ll test the strip to see how firm it feels.’
A soft landing
Skimming over the sandy ground, the wheels just running along the surface didn’t sink in or leave any marks as they touched it. Jack pushed the throttle open and we climbed away.
‘At that speed we still had a lot of lift,’ he commented. ‘So it’s not too good a test.’ He thought for a moment, then continued: ‘I think it’s a bit soft, but not enough to stop us landing.’
We came round again and made a final, even more cautious approach. Holding on to some power again to cushion the landing, we touched down, the control column pulled back to prevent a nose-over in the soft sand.
We decelerated quickly and came to an abrupt stop after only 120 yards. Jack switched off and we jumped out. The little wheels had sunk up to their axles.
Crowds surged out from the forests engulfing the plane. In front of them were a tall American couple. ‘Welcome! Welcome!’ Mark Poole called out above the clamour and we were soon shaking hands. For the moment we ignored our bogged-down plane.
‘We thought the airstrip would be swarming with people when we tried to land!’ I said.
‘I warned them that if they stepped over the edge of the strip the plane might kill them instantly,’ explained the doctor. ‘They have their own question,’ he added. ‘They want to know how you found their village when you’ve never come here before.’
We’d known that this small place in the forest might be hard to find so had taken special pains with our navigation, checking our map and course carefully all the way. So the Bulapé villagers had seen the plane in the distance coming straight towards them and arriving directly overhead. That had really impressed them.
How many wives?
‘They are asking how many wives you have,’ the doctor interpreted further. ‘Important people in this area have lots of wives.’ They were shocked to learn that we had none.
One chief present had 30. It was our turn to be shocked. We noticed another chief had lost many front teeth. The doctor explained this to us as well:
‘Whenever there’s a special occasion in their lives, a tooth is removed. He’s had a number of special occasions, as you can see.’
I winced, wondering whether our landing would demand yet another tooth extraction.
Over that weekend 3,000 people came from all around, walking up to 30 miles through the bush to see the aeroplane.
Jack and I were asked to preach at the Sunday services through interpreters. On this occasion the church was crowded with people who wanted to hear what these strange ‘flying men’ had to say.
Onwards and upwards
Throughout the weekend Jack and I were wondering how we’d get the plane out. We’d landed without damage, but our plane might now be unable to leave.
We had to lighten the plane by taking out all the removable spares and equipment and let Jack fly off on his own. Dr Poole drove with me over 90 miles of unimaginably rough roads to the nearest official airstrip where Jack was waiting.