Flexibility and ingenuity enabled plane maintenance to continue in east DRC despite lockdowns and curfews
Story by Natalie Holsten
What do a truck of bananas, a dugout canoe, a river crossing, and a local chief have to do with airplane maintenance?
In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (EDRC), these were the links in the chain that enabled engine maintenance to take place when the COVID-19 shutdown complicated how things are usually done.
In a normal year, under normal circumstances, the routine maintenance of MAF airplanes in EDRC requires a relatively quick flight over the border into neighboring Uganda, where aircraft parts are easier to obtain, and MAF staff and a fully equipped hanger stand at the ready.
But when the world shut down in March of 2020, so did the border between the two countries, forcing MAF pilots and mechanics to think creatively about how to continue to carry out critical maintenance.
“Normally we just say, ‘tomorrow’s a shuttle, we need parts,’ and it’s not a big deal,” said Ron Wismer, country director for the MAF EDRC program at the time. “But with COVID, it was getting to be weeks, months before we could get to Kampala (Uganda) and back.”
Unlike many areas where MAF operates, the flying in EDRC actually increased during the pandemic. Insecurities because of tribal infighting led to many locations being cut off from overland routes, with many Internally Displaced People groups, and the workers assisting them, relying heavily on MAF.
“We weren’t slowing down on the flying,” Ron said. “Maintenance was still needed. It was very stressful for us.”
Early in the lockdown an issue arose with one of the Cessna Caravans. Oil samples revealed the presence of metal particles, which could mean the failure of an oil seal or the failure of a bearing. “They (MAF maintenance team members) were quite concerned,” said Lary Strietzel, EDRC assistant chief pilot. “This could be critical.”
Because of the particles, the engine oil needed to be tested frequently and the sample analyzed by an aviation laboratory in Louisiana. But first, the staff in Uganda had to find a way to get the testing equipment and other supplies across the border to where the plane was. On both sides of the border, various types of transportation had to be arranged, a licensed courier located, and government restrictions and curfews navigated.
On the EDRC side, MAF staff flew to an airstrip near the Semliki River, a serpentine waterway separating the two countries at the south end of Lake Albert. They also had parts – including a tire from the Caravan – that needed to get to Uganda for repairs. Enter King Albert Retahaba Ibanda Kitiku, the local chieftain and a longtime friend to MAF, who served as the go-between. King Albert sent the parts across the river, and he, together with the EDRC team, arranged for a truck to bring the parts to Kampala.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the chief’s help,” Lary said.
Once in Kampala, the truck was met by Mike Shutts, director of maintenance for the DRC. He took the tire, then passed on the testing equipment. The driver “moved his bananas and stuff that he was buying while he was here, and we loaded in my stuff and off he went,” Mike said.
The courier drove to the border, then the parts were shifted to a dugout canoe that crossed the river, where the EDRC staff received them.
“I must admit I was a bit worried that the parts would not make it, that they might get confiscated by the police or customs or just fall overboard from the canoe,” Mike commented. “But the Lord worked it all out and there were no problems.”
Once the EDRC team had the testing equipment, Mike was able to explain to them over the phone the process of how to collect and prepare the samples for shipment. Eventually, the testing paper made it to Louisiana. The plane was able to keep flying as the EDRC staff continued to test the oil.
Several months later, when restrictions loosened and the EDRC planes could fly to Uganda again, the mechanics were able to do a full oil system flush. Afterwards, all samples were clear.
This incident is just one illustration of the ingenuity, flexibility, and commitment to excellence our pilots and mechanics demonstrate daily, even during a global pandemic. Their commitment to safety ensured that MAF could continue to serve as an “air bridge” for hundreds of passengers over dangerous territory during unsettling times.