Plane Maintenance When Every Minute Counts

MAF pilots wear two hats—that of pilot and mechanic—and they come in handy when it comes to problem solving their aircraft.

A man was working on a roof in the northern Congolese town of Karawa when it suddenly collapsed from under him. His sternum broke and breathing became difficult and painful for him. He desperately needed a medical evacuation to get to a hospital. MAF could do the flight, but because of the distance, it would take two flight days and an overnighter for the pilot.

Kevin praying with passengers before takeoff.

Kevin praying with passengers before takeoff.

MAF pilot Kevin Spann took off on a Tuesday morning, intending to make it to Karawa before sunset. He would have to stop after three hours at Mbandaka to refuel and fill out paperwork and such. He was almost at his first stop when he smelled fuel.

The engine was running fine and there were no abnormal gauge readings, so he proceeded on while remaining alert to any changes.

The mental checklist

“I thought about where each fuel line was, where it came from, where it went, and was there anything I could do about it? Then I asked myself where the fuel system components on the engine were. If they were leaking, could I do anything about it in the air? Could the fuel be coming from a leaky tank, or sump drain? I didn’t see any fuel streaming from either wing or sump, so that was ruled out quickly.”

Once on the ground, Kevin quickly checked the aircraft to see if anything was amiss. He noticed drips coming from the cowl flap. He sniffed, and sure enough, it was fuel. The storm he just beat to the airstrip was about to let loose, so he turned off the fuel and made a mad dash into the hangar.

Once the rain let up, Kevin tightened up the filter; however it was still leaking after a test run.

Time to call for reinforcements

At this point in the day, it was too late for another MAF plane to reach him before sundown. Making it to Karawa was definitely out of the question. That would have to wait until tomorrow. Kevin made plans to spend the night in Mbandaka and called for another MAF plane to be dispatched in the morning.

A crowd greets Kevin after he lands at a remote village.

A crowd greets Kevin after he lands at a remote village.

The MAF Caravan arrived at MBandaka the next day and dropped off an MAF maintenance specialist and a Congolese staff member, plus some extra tools. Because time was of the essence, the Caravan continued on to Karawa to pick up the patient and get him to the hospital. Kevin and the other two men switched out the old filter and put in the new one. They ran it quickly with the cowling off to make sure there was no more leakage, then they put the cowl back on and gave it full power for about a minute and confirmed there was no more leak. Kevin filed the flight plan and they were ready to head for home.

“MAF pilot training and standard operating procedures, especially the electronic and yoke mounted checklists, really helped,” said Kevin. “Running the checklists, if you do them properly and consistently, can become second nature and ensures that nothing critical is forgotten, especially when something else is occupying your mind—like troubleshooting a fuel leak.”

Careful plane maintenance training allows MAF pilots to handle “detours” like this one, and be ready for just about anything—with a little flexibility. We’re grateful that the man made it to a hospital and pray that he will have a complete recovery.

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