I should start this story by saying "Now, you are not going to believe this one!" But you have read so far, and I can assure you that this one is as verifiable as all the others--and a high-tech joke on us. In the early days of the "trek missionaries", the white man's burden was sometimes quite literal, when the pith-helmeted Bwana was carried in a sedan chair. I had once stated that this would be a nice touch for my travel in remote then-Zaire, but I would want to be carried in a sedan chair only if I could be carrying a dripping Cape Buffalo hindquarter on my head at the time! So things are changing--both harder and easier, and sometimes both at once.
This is a story about luxury past calculation that came to us at the later stages of the goiter investigation in remote villages of Central Africa. A philanthropic donor had been quite impressed with the versatility of helicopters in Vietnam operations and evacuations in remote and inhospitable regions, and thought that this would be a nearly ideal way to get to very secluded parts of mission stations where there are no roads. He founded Helimission, and we could have access to the services of this Tristar chopper, if we could somehow find a way to bring in two dozen barrels of Jet-A kerosene to service its heavy thirst. We could furnish the most wonderful laboratory for the remote field, since we had no passable roads or navigable rivers, and would have to wait for the rainy season to flood enough to allow a dugout to carry fuel, one barrel at a time ( a few minutes flight time) for this piece of modernity to be dropped into the Bronze Age of the Congo.
But with this really magic carpet, we could quadruple the output and productivity of the study, since several of the villages were several days walk at least from the base of the study at Assa, and we could gather both samples and patients for operation and carry them back for treatment. What would take days to weeks in treks would now be accomplished in several exhilarating minutes of rather noisy attention-getting modernity invading this ancient world of tradition and not a little superstition.
Here I am, strapped in at the time the rotors are starting up to the great fascination of everyone within the "localitie". The parents had first seen modernity arrive in the form of a tireless bicycle, then were flabbergasted to see white men so audacious as to get into a small white plane and fly. At the time of my first arrivals the children had drawn outlines of the Cessna single engine aircraft as representative of the magic of the Wuzungu. And, now, this! It was worth the grit in the eyes from the propwash just to see and hear this awesome machine that would go straight up and down, bending the trees and blowing the thatch off the huts. A real crowd pleaser. Now, all the little children drew the helicopter outline in the dust, and for months after the event, palm frond helicopters were flying and crashing. The single engine Cessna that had inspired such wonder before in its arrival no more often than once in three months had now been displaced by this bracket creep in wonderment.
And, we were off. With a whir that pushed over bushes and dusted everything and everybody below, we clattered over the bush near the station on our way to Ebale village. I was in the copilot's seat and talking by way of the headset earphones about GPS headings and the terrain below that was so familiar to me form long dusty treks on the hunt with my companions. I had my telephoto ready as we could sweep over the terrain that would take several days hiking--swooping low to see Cape Buffalo and the rufous red forest buffalo that this strange clatter from above had put to flight. Giant forest hogs were flushed out of their riverine cover, and even a small elephant herd was spooked--all in the fifteen minutes of flight time as we approached Ebale. Five days of steady hunting in stealth could not have produced so much game spotting as we just rustled out in a quarter of an hour!
We arrived at Ebale village, and there were the cordoned off landing zone, set up according to the specifications relayed by a very officious runner, keeping people back from the area between the huts--and all newly swept, which made the loose dust billow up in great clouds covering all the upturned faces, including that of the Ebale chief seated in dignity in his chair. It was that chair that had been strapped to a bicycle with him doubled over in it, when he strangulated a hernia.
He had been pushed in that makeshift ambulance all the way to Assa, several nights and days travel through bush trails on tireless bike wheel rims, to arrive in Assa and find that the European missionaries were on furlough, but that Inikpiu was there, our nurse trainee. Inikpiu went through each of the steps he had been taught: the hernia was irreducible and already there was dead bowel. The spinal anesthetic did not relax the muscles and let the hernia reduce, so he prepped and draped, and opened the abdomen, finding a long segment of black bowel which he resected. he had been taught that he could bring out the two ends of the bowel, and we could reconnect it later, but this is how it would be done then and in this kind of on-the-job training, Inikpiu had learned the bowel anastamosis he now did on the chief of Ebale. He recovered and went home in a joyful parade a few weeks later when he was strong enough to endure the bicycle's return trip.
This was the chief's chance to show his gratitude. he had ordered everyone in the village to participate in the goiter study, and NO one was unaccounted for. he had posted a guard over our large and fascinating helicopter, and NO one would touch it. And they didn't.
We completed the examinations and sample collections in record time, and gathered up several patients who needed operation, one a young man with an enormous obstructing goiter with all the veins in his neck standing out, and his breathing strangled and his speech a hoarse whisper. We had a ceremonial dinner with them, in which all the finest of their foodstock was put before us, and we paraded in triumph to the helicopter with gifts and tokens from the people of Ebale.
The young man with the strangulating goiter was the first one to be strapped in. This was his first experience in a conveyance of any kind, and he was the subject of great envy all around. "Oh, if only I had such a big goiter to interest the Bwanas so that I could not only touch, but get into this big machine!" When all the samples had been stowed and everything from the gift chicken to the passengers had been stuffed securely on board, the crowd backed away, and the engines were switched on. The big noisy rotor began to turn, an as the chopper was powered up on its turbines, a grating noise was heard and the rotor spun freely until it stopped. The shaft of the starter-generator had sheared. Now, we were stranded in the bush, a long way form our base, with the only functioning transport quite possibly being the same bicycle to which the chief's chair had been strapped, and no, it still did not have any tires!
How have the mighty high flyers been brought to ground! The chief was distraught that such evil had befallen this machine when it was a guest in his custody, and he set about trying to learn what enemy had cursed this device to maroon his benefactors here. The young man with the goiter still had not opened his eyes when I unbuckled his seat belt. He could not believe we were there already, but he soon found out we were not.
We went back to the huts in Ebale, and camped out in the same thatched huts they use--although we had no "necessities" such as toothbrush and hair dryer! We told stories and sang a few songs, as the rest of the remarkable story unfolded.
There is a universal distress signal "AOG" ("Aircraft on Ground") which was sent out from the chopper's radio at the time the Helimission was scrubbed, and there are several organizations world wide who monitor such distress signals on the frequencies that transmit them. There is a very handsome fee that attends these monitoring services but I would learn a bit more about that quite a lot later. Almost immediately, a call answered and zeroed in on our transmission: "This is Radio Berne Switzerland" came the call, "Report to us your location and problem." The report returned that we were stranded in the Central African bush with a shorn starter-generator motor shaft, and the part number was read out into the thin air, where it was picked up and promised to be on the next KLM flight to Nairobi tomorrow. Modern wonders never cease! But, now, about Nairobi, which quite possibly IS the nearest thing to a city in this part of Africa, but it happens to be three international (and not real friendly) borders away, and about twelve hours flying time if there were such a flight from where we are in a roadless vast expanse of bush where an ore smelting blacksmith is the closest approximation of a mechanic we might be able to produce.
After quite a few exchanges with Radio Berne, including comments like "You're kidding, right? There still are such places left on earth? Can't you just go to a fast food restaurant and use their pay phone, and call a taxi to deliver the part from the nearest airport?" "No, thank you; YOU are the ones who are kidding!" I am not sure they ever did believe us--we were, after all, using a radio, weren't we?
The denouement will be summarized, but it is (predictably) the substance of another story as to how we made it back to Assa by land, and the part was delivered by air--literally. That same Cessna single engine plane that was the acme of techno-wonder before its dethronement by the noisier and more spectacularly maneuverable Tristar jet helicopter came to the rescue. It loaded the part delivered by the KLM flight to Nairobi, as good as their word. But now the hassles of importing it and throughpassage through three borders, each with the smell of easy money in import duty of greater than 200% of the very steep invoice price and even higher stakes because of the urgency of "AOG". Through means I really do not want to know, at the entrepot in Kenya, Uganda and Zaire the part was passed along skidding on US currency that it shed along the way, until the AIMAir Cessna was loaded with the double crated helicopter part and one dummy crate of similar weight and size. The Cessna was chartered for this single mission flight with a pilot who would also act as the bombardier if he could successfully get the door open against the passing air pressure at a low level pass at slow speed without stalling.
After several practice runs for reconnaissance over Ebale and practice in door opening, the next run was for the dummy drop. The crate was shoved out as the little plane rocked, and the dummy crate landed about 300 meters from the drop target and split into dozens of pieces. That might be either an ill omen, or a sign that the next one is a charm, but the pilot was aware that he was using up fuel, time and luck also so on the next pass he pushed out the double crated helicopter part. Bullseye! The much better accuracy of this drop was followed by considerable worry as both crates spit open an out bounced the helicopter starter-generator unscathed, complete with instructions. The pilot had it in and working even before the Cessna pilot made it back to Assa to learn of the success, which he first learned by hearing the "thwock-thwock-thwock" of the rotors emerging from a cloud of dust settling in, once again, on Assa station.
Ah, the comfort, convenience and selfless service rendered to us by these marvelous machines of the jet age!