September 08, 2014


At the start of every school year, the whole high school heads off to the beach for a retreat to get to know one another, be challenged spiritually, and frolic in the sand and waves.  The kids look forward to it, and so do I, since it’s two days off from teaching.
David preflights the plane

For one of those days, I went flying with David.  I’ve been flying with him several times since we’ve been in Papua, but it had been a while since my last flyalong.  It’s always good for me to break out of my two-mile radius world in Sentani and connect with what David does.

The passengers on the first leg of our flight were several ladies who had been in Sentani to do supply-buying for their families.  We had a bit of a delay in Sentani, waiting for permission from the air traffic control tower to take off, but these ladies and their kids took it in stride.  I don’t know many little babies that would tolerate being strapped down in a hot airplane for very long, but these babies did great.  We were soon airborne and the little ones fell asleep.
Satisfied customer

I have such complicated feelings about Papua.  Sometimes it really scares the yahoohoo out of me, but other times the beauty of this place is breathtaking and I could just give this crazy bird-shaped island a kiss on the cheek.  On our flight to our first destination we passed loopy rivers, rugged mountains, and huge waterfalls.  We wove through valleys until David pointed out Bime, a short airstrip carved into the side of a mountain.

I’ve heard there’s a show called “The Scariest Places to Fly” and that Papua has been featured in it.  People, that would be one reality show you can believe.  As David – calm and collected as ever - was circling over the airstrip, a mountain loomed large in front of us.  David must have sensed my anxiety because he calmly said, “Don’t worry, I will turn the plane.”  Of course, of course, I told myself.  He knows what he’s doing.
Can you spot the airstrip?

He did indeed turn the plane, with air to spare, and then deftly landed on the airstrip.  He hopped out of the plane to handle the second most challenging aspect of his job – sorting out the next flight’s passengers and cargo.  There are airstrip agents (often the pastor of the village church) who help with this job, but David still has to count money for tickets and verify the weight of the cargo.
The villagers surround the plane as David preps for the next flight.  Almost everyone wears a nokin, or net bag, even if it's empty and they have nothing to carry.

Some of the cargo: sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and a bow and arrows

While he was doing that, I wandered around the edge of the village.  I tried talking to some of the people, but their Indonesian is limited and my command of the local language is limited to one word of greeting - "telebe."  I made a few babies cry, from the sheer whiteness of my skin.  It’s hard not to feel like a bit of a freak show when going interior.

It was a short hop to our next destination, where some passengers got off and I found a bathroom.  Then it was on to the final village, which was down in the lowlands and had a decidedly different feel.  When David shut off the engine, he turned to me and said, “Stick close to me here.” I peered out of the window and quickly saw why.  Some very rough looking characters emerged from the jungle to check out the plane.  They were all friendly enough, but when one sidled up next to me to get a photo, David said no. 

On our way home, David got clearance to do a low pass over the beach where the kids were.  I’ve been to these beaches many times, but never seen them from the air.  Oh, the blueness of the water!  The kids were on the beach and appeared to be having fun.  This mama was relieved to see that.
"Middle" beach is one of our favorite spots in Papua

The high schoolers at "Outside" beach

When we landed in Sentani David practiced a short-field landing.  We were in the Kodiak and it must be what a dragonfly feels when it zooms in, hovers for an instant and then lands, because that is what we did.  Okay, we didn’t hover, but he brought that plane to a complete stop in less than 300 feet. 
Home sweet home in Sentani

Like I said, I’ve flown with David numerous times, and every time, I am amazed at what a darned good pilot he is.  On the days he goes and flies, so often I just sort of dismiss it, and don’t really think about what it is he’s doing.  Then I fly with him, and the coolness of it, the scariness of it, the “oh yeah, this is why we’re here” of it hits me again.  This is what he does.  And he rocks it.

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