As the newest pilot on MAF’s Ecuador program in the late 1980s, advancing God’s Kingdom excited me. Yet, a hold-over from commercial pilot culture still nagged—having and keeping enough of the “Right Stuff” inside.
I paid close attention to Gene Jordan, my checkout pilot, but new information inundated me—tricks of 130 unique airstrips, radio Spanish, hangar procedures, paper work, and who was who in the jungle. Opportunities to fail abounded each morning, so I was glad for the few skills I brought—like dead-reckoning navigation. I could find anyplace with compass and clock.
The coordinator assigned me a flight to Molino, a Lowland Quichua village 30 minutes east. In that pre-GPS environment we’d first fly over Canelos, then follow the Bobonaza River to Molino. But I decided to recapture lost minutes and plotted a direct course instead.
Only one small cloud, directly ahead, marred clear morning air. Twenty minutes out, I passed through it with a bump and splash of rain.
Suddenly a passenger exclaimed, “I can see it!”
“What?” I asked.
“My home village, Masaramu!”
“Masaramu? Are you sure?”
Not good news. If Masaramu lay directly below, I was badly off course. I banked left to circle back. We’d heard they were building an airstrip. Sure enough, somebody was clearing land. Still not understanding what happened, I bowed to our mantra—“local knowledge trumps”—plotted a new course and time, then turned towards Molino.
When the time was up, I looked, but no village, no river. I flew another two minutes. Nothing. I wasn’t lost. I could see all the way back to Shell. But fuel would soon be an issue, so I had to find Molino quickly or give up and return to Shell—messing up everyone’s day and failing Navigation 101.
I radioed Gene.
“Follow standard procedure,” he said. “If necessary, land someplace and we’ll bring you gas.”
Suddenly a river. Each one displayed unique color, and I knew this color. It was the Bobonaza. But where along it was I? I saw a large open space downriver to the right with a paved runway—Montalvo, the only one in the jungle. That meant Molino was 14 minutes to my left. Tempted to head for the goal, I landed at Montalvo instead and measured just enough gas left to complete the flight with legal reserves.
Back in Shell, I stalked into my radio shop pulling the door closed behind me. My face burned. I felt worthless. Then I remembered the next flight and emerged to order fuel.
Gene asked, “Did you go into the radio shop?”
“Go back,” he said.
I returned, but this time looked around rather than at imagination’s rebuking scene. A 3-foot x 4-foot sign hung from the shelves. Gene, the artist, had drawn it and charred the edges. The title declared:
of the Ancient Quichua Culture”
Below, an airplane followed a twisted route over the jungle. Progress notes subtracted or awarded points for my decisions, such as “Storm – Lose one point.” Or, “Call Gene – Gain 2 points.” I laughed. Shame evaporated. Gene’s compassion reminded me Christ condemned no one, not even when the Right Stuff leaked out.
Note: The “Right Stuff” was a term coined by author Tom Wolfe in his book by the same name. In small doses the Right Stuff gives pilots the confidence to push past timidity. In large doses it can lead pilots to do stupid things.