Surviving Rainy, Swampy Air Strips


Nobody likes to get stranded when they are traveling by plane. A cancelled flight or mechanical failure can be frustrating beyond belief, especially when we simply want to get home to a loved one. When you are a missionary pilot flying in the jungle, those frustrations still exist.

I once went to pick up a missionary who had been serving in Ecuador for 30 years. The rainfall was so intense the previous night that the water rolled off his tin roof in one continuous, corrigated sheet for hours. With such rainfalls, getting in and out of these areas require precision, patience and careful examination.

So how do jungle pilots determine the safety of the strip’s surface while still circling overhead?

Mission Aviation Fellowship Papua Indonesia

Sheets of rain like this in Papua create spectacular rainbows, but that same water isn’t so great for grass and dirt airstrips.

One of the techniques pilots use to accomplish this is by approaching the strip at such an angle that you can catch a reflection off the standing water. Once you’ve determined that there is water, you have to next determine how deep it is. I have radioed down to the air strip and asked people to walk through the puddles to determine their depth or watched animals cross the air strip to see if they remain on top of the ground.

A soft airstrip can grab your tires and flip your plane in a split second. It’s not something you want to happen to your plane. Ruts can be even worse, forcing you off the air strip as you’re landing and sending you careening into a ditch nearby or into trees surrounding the strip.

And none of these observations are worth much if you can’t see the air strip – which is a real problem when you’re flying in the rain. Whenever rain drops cover a windshield, the rain drops wreak havoc on your depth perception. We teach our pilots to rock their head from side to side as they approach air strips to avoid this problem, enabling them to clearly perceive their depth of vision.

Observing donkeys crossing the air strip, rocking your head back and forth, and assessing an air strip’s viability for landing from the air – it’s all in a day’s work for a jungle pilot.

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