Small Strips of Earth

The airstrip at Korr, Kenya

I’ve flown into many interesting airstrips with MAF. Some are short, some neglected, some with roads or paths that cross through the middle, some used as soccer fields, a few fenced, some with cows and goats grazing on them (or elephants and other wildlife), and always with children playing. In the rainy season, some airstrips begin turning to mud, and occasionally the planes get stuck. For most strips, the MAF pilots do a low pass before landing to chase the animals and people off plus check the condition. It doesn’t always work. In Congo last year, a motorcyclist drove across the airstrip exactly as a MAF plane touched down. The guy didn’t even see the plane until it pulled up to avoid killing him. The man was saved, the plane was not, but no one was injured.  Thank God the MAF pilots are highly trained bush pilots.

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The airstrip where the accident took place in DRC.

When a plane lands in a remote location, often half the village comes out to gather around the plane. It’s live entertainment for people who don’t have much else. On one airstrip in South Sudan, even a very large golden-haired monkey came to check out the plane, climbing into the pilot’s seat before it was chased away. Unfortunately, I missed the shot.

Motot, South Sudan

What strikes me most is the complete remoteness of the villages – two to three hours of flying over small villages dotting the landscape, but few or no roads. Such isolation.

The “airstrip” at Tseel Sum, Mongolia – just a piece of flat land marked by a few rocks

SOUTH SUDAN

The Sudd (pronounced like ‘sood’) in South Sudan is a vast swamp formed by the White Nile. It spreads out from 30,000 to 130,000 square kilometers, isolating villages during the rainy season that can become completely surrounded or even submerged by water. Airstrips are often the only access in and out, and even these can become too wet and damaged to land. Mayendit has the most dramatic contrast of endless green swamp abruptly stopped by brown and burnt ground where the village and airstrip lie. The isolation makes for good security, but at this time, there is little access to food and people are starving.

MAF Pilot Adrian describes Longochuk as “astonishingly desolate”. In the wet season it can be too muddy to land. The village is made up of traditional huts and children in ragged clothes or boys with no clothes at all.

Four large refugee camps with over 125,000 people surround the airstrip at Doro in northeast South Sudan. MAF was the first airplane to land on the new 750 meter airstrip several years ago, which was lengthened following two crashes (not MAF planes).

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When we landed at Ganyiel airstrip in April, Pilot Ryan excitedly pointed out a soccer pitch on the right side of the wide airstrip, which thankfully didn’t pose a problem for our landing. Ganyiel, like many other airstrips is very isolated.

Motot is an airstrip that can become impossible to land on in the rainy season. Tearfund, who works in health and water/sanitation projects, flew in two full loads of a nutritional supplement for malnourished children ahead of the impending rains. The plane is always surrounded by crowds of children. I stepped on a lot of bare feet trying to move around the plane.  On the last trip, as I tried to record video of the pilot thanking donors, a boy did a crazy, distracting dance in the background for the camera. In retrospect it was funny, but at the time I wanted to strangle him.

Sometimes people watch from a respectful distance.

 

5 Comments

  1. Terri Turner 26 May 2014 at 12:19 am #

    Great info and pictures. Your childhood probably helped prepare you for the crowds. . . (-;

    • LuAnne 27 May 2014 at 11:17 am #

      Haha. Yes. Those crowds of people touching my red hair as I walked through them. Never liked that. I don’t actually like crowds, probably because I’m so short. They make me claustrophobic. At least these crowds are mostly children so I’m a bit taller. Finally.

      • Terri Turner 29 May 2014 at 11:31 pm #

        I remember stopping on the way to the beach and a crowd surrounded our car, so I put my pillow in the window so they couldn’t stare at me.

  2. Shelley Leith 27 May 2014 at 10:32 am #

    I love this focus on the challenges of the airstrips. The MAF pilots are so incredibly skilled at landing planes in difficult places. My favorite though was the Banawe airstrip in the Philippines – about 30 yards of crooked rocky trail up and off of a cliff and into….nothing. Taking off from there probably shortened the life span of the brave MAF pilot, Paul Allen, by a few years each time.

    • LuAnne 27 May 2014 at 11:16 am #

      You know, the airstrips I’ve been on most recently in DRC, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Madagascar, East Timor, and Arnhem Land in Australia are tame compared to ones I’ve only heard about where MAF flies. I never landed at Banawe in the old days, but that sounds about like what I’ve heard. You’re fortunate. Some of the most unusual ones are in Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and I think Kalimantan in Indonesia. I’m so dying to go to these places. In a couple of weeks I’ll be going to Bangladesh where MAF has a float plane, so I can add water airstrips to my list, which I suspect might be my favorite.

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