Wednesday morning we woke with the alarm at 5am to complete our final preparations before our four month hiatus. While Elizabeth dressed the kids and set out the pumpkin bread, I put the final screws in the wire-mesh that will guard our lowest windows until we return–a job I was wary to complete before the last minute in case a window escape had been necessary our final night. I loaded our luggage on the 4-wheeler and Wes drove it to the airstrip where he unloaded the cargo. A Menyan friend stood watch while Wes drove back to shuttle his youngest. Meanwhile, I turned off the water pump, propane tank, and inverter and locked everything lockable at our house. The six of us began the hour walk to the airstrip. The first five minutes took us fifteen as our neighbors emerged to say goodbye. Five more minutes and Sylvie was spent–she assumed her position in the backpack. Belle Lucy and Everett each did a great job on the trek with just a pair of water breaks.
As we climbed the last hill to the airstrip we heard then saw the first 206 descending in its circling pattern. The plane beat us to the strip, but we were there before it was done taxiing. We unloaded the Chappells’ groceries and transferred them to the 4-wheeler. To our dismay, the toilet we ordered from the States almost a year ago to replace our shattered one was also on the plane. It had to come off because we had a full load leaving Menya. Thankfully it fit on the 4-wheeler with the Chappell groceries. Wes drove away with the load and the second 206 landed shortly after having already dropped off a load of fuel in another tribal location. Lucy realized she had left her giant pink beach hat in the house–a travesty considering our planned stop in Hawaii. I caught Wes on the phone as he arrived back at our houses and asked him to retrieve it. We loaded our cargo and then our bodies onto one of the 206’s leaving Penny and the kids to wait for Wes and then ride the other. As we ascended I spotted Wes running up the last hill to the airstrip a few hundred feet below waving Lucy’s pink hat.
To balance the weight in the plane, I had to ride shotgun. Elizabeth supervised the second row of three seats and Belle sat in one of the two third row seats. The neighboring seat was left in Goroka to maximize our weight allowance and make room for cargo.
Sitting right next to the pilot I had the self-assigned responsibility of monitoring all the dials and controls. Thankfully I had my aviators.
Everett and Sylvie were terrified of the noise when the engine ignited, but none of the kids are scared of flying–probably because Elizabeth won’t let me read them Hatchet. As usual Everett spent a substantial portion of the flight puking. Sylvie cried unless I had my hand stretched behind me for her to hold. Belle screamed giddily during take-off and enjoyed all but five minutes of the flight when she too utilized the barf-bag. Lucy put on her headphones connected to nothing imitating my official co-pilot headset and then later used them to watch “Frozen” on the iPad.
Riding in a 206 is an inspiring, but nerve testing experience. Soaring over the mountain jungles of PNG at 10,000 feet–at times lower than the mountian peaks–is awesome. The country is beautiful and the perspective is sublime. But the plane and the wind conspire to provide regular reminders of our fragile position. The difference between riding in a commercial airliner and a Cessna 206 is equivalent to the difference between speeding down I-85 in a Suburban and speeding down I-85 in a grocery cart tethered to that Suburban. The plane bounces and shimmies constantly while the pilot changes altitude or takes wide detours to circumvent the clouds. On the worst days the plane tips at least thirty degrees to either side and only the seatbelt prevents our heads from knocking the roof as the invisible enemy jolts our aircraft. Thankfully Wednesday was not one of the worst days. And thankfully we have a skilled and dedicated team of pilots and mechanics who keep these planes flying and allow us to keep working in Menya.