As the small pickup backed towards the plane, my confidence wavered. The truck’s rear springs compressed completely. The tires rubbed wheel wells at every bump in our grass ramp. In its bed a diesel powered generator hunched like a docile beast whose size and weight substituted for ferocity.
The HCJB mission hospital in Quito ran a research clinic at Zappallo Grande, a village in Ecuador’s coastal jungle. Previously, a 12- to 18-hour drive positioned the doctors for an additional four-hour canoe trip to reach the village–if the river cooperated. Now, we fly them there in 45 minutes.
Thursdays we delivered the team to Zappallo where they focused on finding a treatment for River Blindness (Onchocerciasis) — a disease spread by fly bites that causes total, irreversible blindness in millions of people worldwide. Sundays we brought them back. While there, the doctors radioed us when they were ready to collect patient blood samples. If the weather looked good, we approved the collection. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived with ice-filled coolers, packed the samples, and flew back to Quito. A waiting car delivered the coolers to the lab.
The system worked well, but one day I asked the director, missionary Ron Guderian, “Is there anything more we can do to help?”
He laughed and said, “No. Unless you can fly a generator there. It would really accelerate our work, but it’s too big for the canoes.”
“Let’s take a look,” I said.
I measured the monster and over the next few days visited equipment dealers in Quito, searched the web and finally calculated that it weighed 850-900 pounds. If I left all extra seats and fueled for a one-way flight plus reserve, I’d be within both the airplane’s center of gravity and weight limits. I could refuel for the return flight from our cache in Zappallo.
So, we drug the beast from a groaning truck bed into the airplane. After securing the load, I pushed the tail of the Cessna 206 down to the ground, then let go. This test alone wasn’t enough to determine the aircraft’s center of gravity, but offered a good confirmation of my calculations. The tail rose quickly. Nothing left to do but recheck the weather and fly.
That generator dramatically improved the Zappallo clinic’s research. Ron estimates that they developed a River Blindness treatment two years sooner than their highest hopes.