Tag Archives: Mission Aviation Fellowship

In the Land of 800 Airstrips


You know that saying, “The world is your toilet”?

Well, in Bangladesh, the country is your airstrip…if you’re a floatplane.

There’s no better bush plane you could have. With over 800 rivers and tributaries forming 24,140 km of waterways, and at least 18% of the country flooded every monsoon season, Bangladesh is like one massive landing strip for a floatplane. MAF currently accesses over 300 hard to reach water landing sites in the country.


Too Cool

In June I stepped onto a MAF floatplane for the first time in Bangladesh and I have to say, floatplanes are very cool on so many levels.

Just the idea of a plane landing on water is amazing. What lunatic thought of that? (If you want to know, and see some funky early designs, click HERE.) These guys had just barely figured out how to keep planes in the air when someone thought, “Hey! Let’s land it on the water!” Surprisingly, the actual landing is like setting down on a massive down comforter. It’s so smooth, if you weren’t looking out the window you might not realize you landed.


A Boat and a Plane

MAF has been flying in Bangladesh for 17 years, inspired to come following a devastating cyclone in the 1970s. Pilot Chad Tilley has flown this plane for eight years, and watching him makes you realize that he’s both a pilot and boat captain. He has to know his landing strips (water) as well as a bush pilot knows his dirt airstrips. But these landing strips move, and Chad vies for space with multiple other real boats. It can be a bit tricky. Just like a boat, it uses an anchor to stabilize in the water.


Hired boats sporting large red flags keep the competition out of the way for takeoffs and landings. In between, there is no keeping the crowds away. Nearby boats will fill with people to get closer to the plane. Children swim out and hover around the plane for as long as they can until they are ordered away for takeoff. They try to hang onto the floats and even when the plane starts up and begins to move, the teenagers will often attempt to swim after it.


When the plane is anchored on land, the crowds pour out of the trees and villages. One lucky boy or man is usually the designated anchor-boy. When MAF’s flight crewman, Raju, was growing up in a remote village, he acted as the anchor-boy. Now he works for MAF, throwing that anchor to the next generation of boys.


Flying for Life

The best part, of course, is what this remarkable little plane does, how MAF supports the work of many organizations that are trying to improve the lives of Bangladeshis with physical healing, clean water sources, real livelihoods, and holding back the water. Next blog post I’ll tell about a few of these, and you will agree this is a very cool plane.


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.


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


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).


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.


A Year of Firsts


Sometimes it hits me that I have an unusual number of “firsts” in my life, and this year with MAF will most definitely fill my life to overflowing. I arrived in Kenya to begin a new job as Roving Journalist for Mission Aviation Fellowship, and a week later flew to Madagascar for the first of many research trips.

The last two days began with some interesting “firsts”.  MAF pilot, Josh Plett, flew us down to a village about one & a half hours from the Madagascar capital of Tana to visit a team of doctors on a week long “Madagascar Medical Safari”, referred to as MMS. We arrived on the forth of five days and stayed overnight. The plane landed at a grassy airstrip about 3 km away from a wide river on the opposite side from the village of Beroroha. Getting to the village required a drive to the river, crossing the river in a canoe-like boat, then walking for about 15 minutes in the sweltering sun to the hospital. We had left Tana at 6:30 AM, and arrived at the location at about 9:45, soaking with sweat, red faced, and in desperate need of liquid and a breeze of any kind.


In contrast, two of the doctors had been pulling teeth, and doing circumcisions since 6:30 AM, while the other three medical personnel (a doctor, nurse, and volunteer medical student) saw patients who filled the shaded area next to the building, waiting their turn. A pastor sang and preached to those waiting. By 10 am the first two doctors took a break to eat breakfast, and by 11:30 AM they were back to perform three major surgeries that lasted until 10 PM, without a lunch or dinner break.

The surgeries were a first for me. I had never really watched a full abdominal surgery before where I could see the inside organs of a person. And this was no ordinary abdominal surgery. The 37-year-old woman, Nestine, had a tumor the size of a volleyball. She looked pregnant, and had suffered from this condition for more than a year. With no money for a trip to Tana, plus surgery (costing over $300), lodging, food, and medical fees, they felt there was no hope. She would simply die eventually. MMS charged $7 for a surgery that lasted 2 ½ hours.


The second surgery was for a 16-year-old who had suffered from a hernia since he was a baby. It was a complicated surgery, the doctors said. The boy was given a spinal anesthesia so was conscious through the procedure, and the anesthesiologist read a Bible story to distract him during the surgery.

The third surgery was for a 30-year-old deaf man, Langa, whose hand was bitten by a crocodile three weeks earlier. They walked five hours from their village to the hospital where they received little help until the MMS doctors arrived, but by that time it was too late to save the hand which had turned black and smelled of rotting meat. It had to be amputated. It took the man a day to come to terms with the loss of his hand before he was ready to have the surgery. This was also a complicated surgery requiring tendons to be tied off, blood vessels sealed, and many other details I don’t understand – a three-hour surgery. I stayed for the first part where they literally just broke off the rotting fingers and bones but managed to save the thumb.


We slept that night in a tented camp set up for the MMS team, but had eaten and were in bed by the time the doctors finished around 11 pm.  6:30 AM to 11 PM. They kept these hours for three days in a row.

I asked 46-year-old Dr. Clara, who assisted Dr. Sylvain in the surgeries, how she felt about the hard week which included her sleeping bag getting wet from a rainstorm on the final night and spraining her wrist when she fell off a cart that tipped over on the way to the river on departure day.  She responded enthusiastically, “I loved it!”  Irene, the 23-year-old anesthesiologist, could barely express herself as she held her hands over her heart and her eyes filled up with tears, while she explained how meaningful it was for her to be helping her desperately poor countrymen and women.