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A Muddy Landing

Sarah Faegre | Aug 13, 2008


January 19th 10:00 p.m.

Torrential rain, tent-crushing wind and thunder and lightening.  I am sitting, damp, smelly, and with a bad case of stomach bugs in a little tent at the estancia of Esperanza.  Shortly after I wrote from Nueva Hora, three days ago, about the rain that would prevent us from leaving, a series of miscommunications led to a near disaster when plane came despite the weather conditions and had to take off from a short, muddy runway.  The plane was also well over max gross weight, pushing a bad situation into something could have become more critical.  What follows is my short account of our survival, against what I perceived at the time as rather unfavorable odds:

After lunch the rain had slowed and then finally stopped and at 1:00 pm. Señora Teresa got a hold of the property owner by radio and yelled repeatedly (to my dismay) that it had not rained only sprinkled, she said, but did not rain and the bad weather had passed.  The plane is already on its way, we were told.  By one account it had left 12 minutes before hearing from others it was waiting for confirmation on the condition of the runway.  Either way, out of the cloudy sky came our little Cessna 206 and Steve and I (both pilots) watched apprehensively as it landed and mud sprayed up onto the wings.  As the plane taxied through mud puddles I wondered a bit about our takeoff.

We were loading the plane when the pilot began swearing under his breath about the terrible runway conditions.  "Why did they tell me it hadn't rained here?  The runway is a disaster!" he fumed.  "Why didn't they tell me not to come when the runway is in such horrible condition?  And now, the plane is heavily loaded-they told me it would be light.  Why did they send an extra passenger along if he's not even going to stay here?"  I couldn't answer any of these questions, which were rhetorical anyways.

When the four passengers, the very large pilot and all of our gear (well over the maximum weight of 500 kg) were in the plane and taxiing to the far end of the runway that the pilot began to speak heatedly, almost yelling, about the horrible runway-"Four-hundred and fifty meters of mud!" he screamed.  He had to use full power just to get the plane to move forward, at a creeping pace, sliding towards the end of the runway.  This concerned me and apparently the pilot as well who exclaimed, "We're too heavy-it's not going to work.  This plane is not going to take off." 

If we failed lift off before the end of the runway, Carmen, John and I, sitting on a improvised wooden bench in the back, would almost surely fly through the windshield and be crushed by the plane as it tumbled to a stop in the hummocky, flooded savannah. 

"I don't want to die," I said loudly as the plane approached the far end of the runway.  "I would rather leave my stuff here if the plane is too heavy."  Carmen, tried to reason with the pilot, saying that if he didn't think it was safe we could leave some stuff behind.  I was scared enough that I was about ready to volunteer that I would stay behind when the pilot turned a sudden 180 at the end of the runway, fairly spat out the words, "A ver como sale." (Let's see how it turns out), and gave the plane full power ahead.  As we sped, faster and faster toward the end of the runway, mud spraying up onto the windows and dripping down the wings, I felt my heart pounding in just the same way as it had when I stepped only one foot away form a huge, venomous snake. 

The hummocky, flooded pampa was rapidly approaching and the plane showing no signs of lifting off and oddly enough one of my thoughts was about the bucket of limes on my lap:  If we don't lift off in time and the plane goes tumbling through the pampas, I don't want one of my last thoughts (before flying through the windshield) to be about dropping the bucket of limes.  So I set it between my feet and braced myself.  "I don't want to die, I don't want to die," I thought desperately as the runway ended, the stall horn sounded and miraculously we took off, with not more than a meter of runway to spare.  I looked over at the pilot, rivulets of sweat pouring down his face and his neck.  With the plane in the air he relaxed visibly and certainly Steve and I breathed big sighs of relief.

Plane arriving to pick us up

Packing up

Looking into the back seat of the plane

Looking out the window, as we fly towards Trinidad (capital city of Beni, Bolivia)