Around here, when a pilot is assigned to an administrative task, we sometimes joke about him “flying a desk”. It’s not a descriptor any of us particularly relish. And if this describes your fate, it can be tough to watch your comrades blast off on adventures—to come back mud-encrusted and story-rich—while you have, sadly, spent the week in meetings and manuals.
To some extent, this has been my duty these past six months. I am an Operations Manager here. In principle, I’m still a pilot, but one who has stepped back from an active role among the line pilots. A step back from the front lines. But my role is to make sure it all still happens. I’ve had a hand in training some new guys to fly my planes and fill my shoes. And I’ve had a critical role in keeping them flying—in keeping the whole organization on course actually.
It’s been a tough go these past six months. Some days I’ve come home and collapsed in fatigue. On some, I’ve retreated to an iPod or a book and a corner of the house apart from my family. Some days I’ve been physically sick. Lost sleep. Lost patience with my kids. Lost sight of the “call”. One recent evening I stayed up late, reconstructed my resume, and perused possible job opportunities Stateside.
To be honest, I’ve had some flying assignments which pushed me as hard. But planting the Caravan in a swamp cleverly disguised as a runway at the end of a long week in the middle of the sweltering Sudan has a dual effect. One of utter frustration (I believe I actually argued with God that day) and one of awesome reward (I delivered dozens of newly trained Sudanese pastors home that week). I could come home and lick my wounds (and repent a little) and sleep unencumbered. In fact, I have seldom slept better.
But alas, these days I have been flying the desk. And the effect has seemed terribly one-sided. Except for a Sunday a few Sundays back. On that day I was torn from church by a phone call from up in Kenya’s Northern Frontier. A pilot based there relayed to us a short message that would make for a long day.
“Ken and Susan were ambushed on the road down to Maralal. Susan’s been shot. Ken says he needs a helicopter.”
Some seven hours later, after exhausting our search for a chopper, after launching two airplanes and one doctor, after landing a 206 on a bit of dirt road in the desert, after a hundred phone calls, some pretty hard decisions, and all the emotional energy I could muster, Susan was safe, in a mission hospital, scheduled for surgery.
I had done little more than “fly a desk” that Sunday. But at some point, while coordinating with Ken over the HF radio from our hangar in Nairobi to his shot-up Land Rover in the desert, I was on the front lines again. As I spoke with Ken I heard the voice of a friend, and so did he. In his voice I could discern the agony of a man who wasn’t yet sure he wouldn’t lose his wife that day. And in mine he could discern that help had arrived.
The 206 roared overhead and set down near his vehicle. On board were two friends with an IV and a stretcher. 15 minutes from there was the King Air with a doctor on board, standing by.
At some point, while Susan was being transferred from airplane to ambulance, I found myself alone in the hangar. There is a way in which an empty aircraft hangar is like an empty church—serene, and standing as a symbol of something bigger than the building, something greater than what the walls contain.
I went down to the floor and pulled open the massive steel doors. Sunlight spilled in, across the polished gray concrete floor. I grabbed a stray seat from the King Air—one hastily removed that morning to make room for a patient—and dragged it to center stage. I faced the open doors and took a seat.
There I let my body and soul collapse. I prayed for Susan and thanked God for helping us that day. And I contemplated my seat and my role. This chair detached from an airplane. And my assignment absent from the sky.
And I thanked God for that too.