04/23/2011: Called to Kayata

Called to Kayata



“I wonder if they have finished the runway at Kayata,” I posed to my wife Shirley. It had been two months since we had walked the four hours required to reach Kayata from the end of the road near Gbarnga, Liberia, West Africa. On that visit we had been there to hold a meeting with the village elders about the school we were going to build there, and also to inspect the new airfield that we had commissioned the tribe to clear from the dense jungle so we could come more often, using our STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) Cessna 182 aircraft. My plane, the only one in the whole of western Africa being used by the Adventist church, had the capability of taking off and landing on very rough terrain, and doing so in less than 1600 feet of runway. The trip to Kayata by road and then walking took more than 6 hours; by air it was 30 minutes from Spriggs-Payne airport in Monrovia. Needless to say, I was most anxious for the airfield to be completed. I would be supervising the construction of the school, so many such trips would be necessary. The inspection revealed that the airfield area was cleared of brush and trees, but the runway seemed a bit short, so I paced it off. “Fifteen hundred feet,” I called to the village elders. “It needs another 300 feet to give any margin of safety.” “Very well,” the head elder called back, “we will have it done in a month.”

Knowing the lack of concern about when a project would actually be completed in Africa, I gave them double the time. Two months later I told Shirley: “Let’s fly up and see. If it looks okay I can land; if not, we will just come back.” Spriggs Airport was only five minutes from our house, so soon we were aboard and in the air. Twenty minutes later we were circling Kayata village and the airfield to the north. “I can’t tell,” I told Shirley. “I have never seen it from the air before, so I have nothing to judge it by. I’ll do a minimum speed approach and see how it looks.” The plane lands at 50 miles per hour, so I decided on a full-flaps 60 miles per hour approach. I could drop to within 5 feet of the runway surface and decide from there. At 60 miles per hour I did not have a lot of time to think, so a split-second decision was made; I cut the power and set it down gently on the end of the strip. I quickly hit the “flaps up” lever and pushed hard on the brakes. The plane was slowing quickly, but it seemed that the end of the runway and the huge trees looming there were approaching my windshield even more quickly.

It proved to be a tie. The plane suddenly shuddered to a stop with the propeller hub less than a foot from a huge Baobab tree. We climbed out of the plane to the cheers of the whole village, all of whom had assembled to watch the aerial show. The village chief said, “See, you did not need any more runway. I am happy that the plane can use the runway as it is. We were going to begin lengthening the field any day now, but we are happy that it is not necessary.” I explained to him that I would never land there again without the lengthening of the field, and in fact, I was not sure that I could make it out of Kayata. “We will have to wait until sundown, when the temperature will be going down and the wind will pick up, increasing our lift.”

We spent the late afternoon winding up the plans for the school, such as where to build it, getting the papers in order for the land, and so on.

The sky began to turn pink around 5 pm, which was the sign that the day was now cooling from the almost 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and the slightest breeze on the cheek blowing from the direction of the end of the runway toward which we would be taking off told me that it would be time for engine start in about 30 minutes. A check on the air temperature at 5:30 pm showed that the red in the bulb had dropped almost eleven degrees. It was the best I could hope for, so after turning the plane around manually by pushing down on the tail until the nose gear lifted off the ground and then pushing toward the left until the nose faced down the runway, I strapped myself in, closed the door and shouted “CLEAR” out of the open side window. The engine snapped to attention, and after a quick prayer I held the brake firmly until the RPM was at maximum, released the brakes, and we catapulted down the runway. I watched the airspeed indicator intensely as we fought once again the battle between speed and distance traveled. This time speed was the clear winner, and I rotated about 50 feet from the runway end. There was another blessing; this was the open end of the runway, and we only had cut-off stumps for nearly 100 yards, and after that the steep, downward slope of the ground allowed a low enough height to the tops of the trees that they would not be a problem.

Immediately a different problem became transparently apparent; I heard a thump as I rotated and the bird (airplane) would not fly straight as it began to gain altitude. I was in a slow turn to the right, and no matter how hard I kicked left rudder, the belligerent bird refused to respond. Now the huge trees, with their rope-thick vines wrapped around them like a kidnapped being, began to loom closer and closer. Just as we were about to clear the tops of the forest, the right wing, which was dipped slightly low because of the turn, caught the highest branch. The resulting spin-turn caused the nose to dip. The dipping nose caused the propeller to engage the tree branches, which in turn stopped the engine, which made the plane stop. There we were, perched atop a tree 100 feet above the ground, like one of the many pelicans that nested in the nearby trees along the river. This glorious view of both the village and the runway was short-lived as the plane, caught by the vines around the landing gear, began to pitch down and fall toward the ground. The vines kept the fall speed to a minimum, and soon we were sitting at a 45 degree angle nose-down with the wheels on the ground.

The Lord had obviously controlled the whole happening; if we would have cleared the trees, then what? I would have circled in a wide turn until we either ran out of gas, or I would have figured out a way to land somewhere, somehow, no doubt not nearly as gently as had just happened. Shirley and I both said thanks to the Lord, and then opened the doors. The natives had already reached the plane, expecting to find us both demised. They were whooping and praising God when they saw us open the doors. I told someone to cut away the vines; a machete instantly appeared and the vines were cleared away. “Push down on the tail!” I yelled out. Our view of the ground suddenly changed to a view of 50 sets of white eyeballs in the fading light.

It was only a short distance to the runway, and after locking up the plane (monkeys are very clever, and if they opened a door, the interior would be destroyed in a few minutes of playful inquiry), we walked to the village meeting circle to decide our next move. I was wearing a business suit, and Shirley was in a dress and heels—not the best attire for a four-hour trek through the jungle. One of the young men gave me a sweatshirt to wear, and another youth presented my wife with a pair of very old tennis shoes, only two sizes too large. With our new fashions adorning us, we set off down the trail toward civilization. Several young men with torches (flashlights) were to accompany us for a couple of reasons, the first and foremost being that the African jungle is a place where man is not at the top of the food chain, but somewhere in the middle. Leopards are abundant, along with a variety of snakes, both bone crushing pythons and terribly deadly cobras; the rule is, if it moves in the night it is out to get you! The second reason was that the jungle night is as dark as a coal mine. It is virtually impossible to see anything without an artificial light, so the more lights and viewing eyes behind them there are, the better. The trail led through a jungle swamp, the only way of crossing it being a walkway consisting of flattened logs laid end-to-end that looked like a yellow brick road, as it wended through the brush and trees growing in the fetid water. The men were talking enthusiastically and singing native songs with gusto, partly to pass away the time and partly to let whatever might be coming toward us on the path know that we were nearby. There was only one type of being that traveled in the night that could not be cajoled by our noise, as they do not hear anything except themselves, and indeed do not worry about anything that might be approaching them.

“Ants!” the leader yelled out. Our worst nightmare had just happened! Army ants, the soldiers of which come through the bush or farm with perfect security, millions of them that eat everything in their path that breathes, were less than 20 feet in front of us! “Into the water!” was the command. Great! We were either going to be eaten alive by this moving hoard, or perhaps have our flesh stripped off by something living in the swampy water!

In this case it was better to chance the unknown than to face the known. I had seen the bones of animals that had faced up to the ant army, gleaming in the sunlight of the tropical day. As the ants bite they inject a solution that immediately softens flesh, enabling them to tear off small chunks, like a school of vociferous piranha fish. There was no doubting the outcome of continuing on the log path. We immediately jumped into the water, praising the Lord that it was only thigh deep and not over our heads. Everyone gathered together, and all lights were now focused on the pathway. Ants were forming an edge-line on each side of the path, locking themselves together to form a fence that the innumerable hoards would not cross. The trail quickly became full of ants, moving like the well-trained army that they were. We watched in awe for more than two hours, until the roadway was almost empty and finally the edge-guarding ants fell into formation and moved off into the distance.

Our leader jumped easily back onto the trail and gave a hand to my wife, pulling her up onto the path. We all quickly re-established ourselves on the winding trail. We knew that we had nothing more to fear until we reached the road. Army ants clear the area for a good distance on either side of their direction of travel. Nothing that walks, hops, runs or slithers would dare to be on their occupied territory.

The only thing that would remain would be to return to Kayata with the proper tools, dismantle the airplane, carry it out piece by piece, put it on a large flatbed truck and take it to Spriggs airport to be repaired and re-assembled; and that is what we did!

By Pastor Del Harrison. Pastor Harrison is a retired minister/missionary currently residing in the Tacoma, Washington area. Email: hgdtacoma@yahoo.com