FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2006
I knew when we did our first medical flight that it would not be the last. And boy was I right. In the nine weeks that I've been here, the helicopter has been used eight times to transport those who need urgent medical attention that cannot be provided on Guanaja. Says a lot about health care in third-world countries.
Friday is payroll day. I was immersed in spreadsheets and attendance rosters when I was called urgently to the phone. Another pregnant woman, another life-or-death situation, yadda yadda yadda. I confess that I'm getting a little jaded about these things. Not that I'm insensitive, but I can't invest too much emotion in the flight or I open myself up to the possibility of making a mistake. To me, it could be a sack of potatoes or a woman who's about to give birth; it's all the same. I'm just a driver. And it is why we let the local doctors make the decision whether to fly, not the friends/family of the injured. If the doctor says "go" then it's serious enough and we go.
This afternoon, the doctor said "go." We don't have a heliport on Banacca Cay, where the medical clinic is. I land the helicopter at the local airport, a short boatride from the Cay. "Short" being a relative term if you are in a lot of pain, I guess. Anyway, here comes the girl, no husband/boyfriend in sight (maybe he was working). Of course she's young and looks ready to pop. Forgive the bluntness, but it's a forty-five minute flight, totally over open water and I worry about being halfway between here and there and having the girl deliver in the backseat, which is tiny by the way. I cannot "just land on the water" as some people think. She'd be (and I hate to make this bad pun) screwed.
It was nearly three p.m. when we finally got airborne. The female doctor from the Cay wanted to ride along as an escort, which was fine. I contact La Ceiba Radio, our non-radar version of Air Traffic Control to file my flight plan, and the "controller" tells me that the airport has pretty much zero visibility with heavy rain in all quadrants. Ahh. Greaaaat. I know of at least one huge-ass radio antenna between me and the airport, and make a mental note to try to not hit it.
We're trucking along toward La Ceiba when the doctor keys the intercom. "I'm sorry, Mr. Bob," she says in a voice that tells me she genuinely is. "We hate to keep asking you to do these flights. But we wouldn't call you unless it was a real emergency." I look at her and see the grateful expression on her face. To the doctor, the girl in the back was not just a sack of potatoes. Suddenly, inexplicably, I get all choked up. "Look," I say, all Mr. Cool-and-Dispassionate Pilot, "we're glad to do it." I reach up and pat the top of the instrument panel. "It's great having a machine like this." I'm suddenly very proud of my little helicopter, not to mention my generous and benevolent boss who makes it available to the locals FOR FREE.
Going this way, we almost always have a tailwind. I'm experimenting, trying to find the altitude that gives us the best ground speed. Even if everything goes well, I'll be getting back right at sunset, and I do not like flying at night. But playing with different altitudes doesn't seem to make much difference today. Twenty miles out we enter the rain. I drop down to 500 feet, then 400. Turning around is not an option. This sack of potatoes is going to La Ceiba today. All that experience flying around the Gulf of Mexico in truly crappy is not going to waste. I've been here before.
The dramatic set-up was for naught; by the time we reach the coastline the rain at the airport has eased. I climb back up to miss the big radio tower, and the control tower clears me in direct. An ambulance is on the ramp, waiting for us when we land. Sometimes things just work out. I told the doctor that I would wait for her until 4:15 but at that point I had to leave.
Needless to say she shows up at 4:30. We lift off and head home, fighting a stiff headwind now. I drop her off at the Guanaja International at last-light. It's surprising how short "sunset" is down at these latitudes. One minute it's evening, next minute - like throwing a switch - it's dark. The hop over to our cay is in total darkness. Our caretaker has thoughtfully turned on the heliport lights. As the rotor spins down, I sit there feeling very content. Yes, I'm just a driver, but it makes me feel good to be able to do something nice for people in need. Tomorrow I'll call and check on the condition of my sack of potatoes.