The Amazing Race Against the Sun

At 4:20pm, as I was packing up my toolbox after a day of maintenance in the shop. Isto, one of our Indonesian employees, came to me, “There’s a lady in Malinau having complications with labor, and she needs to get to the hospital in Tarakan.” My first thought was, “No way there’s going to be enough time!” I knew sunset was around 6:00pm, and with it being a half-hour flight each way, plus having to fuel and pre-flight the plane and turnaround time in Malinau, there just wouldn’t be enough time. Our MAF Aviation Operations Manual stipulates that we must be on the ground before sunset, and strongly recommends we be on the ground 45 minutes before sunset. The jungle turns into a big black hole of nothingness when it gets dark and is no place for a single-engine airplane.

Passengers helping a medevac patient board the plane at Malinau.

However, there was a plane that had just been flown that day. So it was just about ready to fly, except for needing to add some fuel. I immediately went to Steve, our program manager, and asked about getting a waiver for an after-sunset arrival. He agreed to give me an extra 15 minutes after sunset, while there was still some light left. Program managers can grant waivers, but there needs to be a very good reason. Another of our pilots quickly checked the sunset time in Tarakan for that day, which was 5:57pm. I had until 6:12pm to be on the ground or else I’d be filling out an incident report.

I quickly filled out a flight plan, grabbed my helmet and flight bag, checked fuel (which had already been added by our awesome staff), and got in my favorite Cessna 206 for the empty leg to Malinau. Thankfully there were no delays from ATC, and I was wheels up leaving Tarakan at 4:40pm. The weather was beautiful, and with only myself and a few hours of fuel on board, I was quickly up to my cruising altitude of 4,500 feet. Normally we run our engines “lean of peak,” a method of leaning the engine to an economical fuel burn to save fuel with the tradeoff of a slower airspeed, but today I was using a richer fuel burn, trying to squeeze out every knot I could in a race against the setting sun.

I arrived in Malinau around 5:12pm and was relieved to see our MAF airstrip agents waiting on the ramp, along with the lady in labor and her family. We quickly loaded the lady into the airplane, and after just eight minutes on the ground, we were airborne again, heading back to Tarakan. Half an hour later, we touched down on the ground in Tarakan at 5:52pm . . . five minutes before sunset! An ambulance was there to take the lady to the hospital where she could get the medical help she needed, and I was relieved to have a little bit of light left to park the airplane.

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