Submitted by Pilot Pete Weiseth.
“Honey, your phone is ringing.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is! That thing six inches from your head on your side of the bed is your phone, and it’s ringing.”
“That’s not my phone.”
“Mercy! Okay, okay. Hello?”
Thus begins another day, or in this case night, of medevac flying. I, of course, deny that the above conversation ever happened. The first thing I remember is answering my phone out of a dead sleep at about 10:30 pm and hearing Tim, our chief pilot, tell me that there’s been a rollover car accident up north in the town of Kasane that requires a flight. But Shelley claims I repeatedly denied that I ever even owned a phone for a good while prior to that…
All is dead silent on the flight line when I arrive. Sir Seretse Khama International Airport closes at 10 pm unless there’s an emergency. But Tim has once again applied his phone charms and roused the airport personnel for the airports we’ll be flying to tonight. Andrew, the first officer I’ll be flying with, is already preflighting the plane, so I head inside to take care of paperwork. A few minutes later our medics, Patrick and Colin, arrive. 44 minutes after the initial call, we are a disappearing northbound speck in the ink-black Botswana night. This country is one of the least densely populated in the world, and it is evident from 27,000 feet. I can’t see a single light on the ground in any direction, and on a night like tonight, with clear skies and no moon, the only way to tell the ground from the sky is to note where the stars end.
Kasane sits in the northeast corner of the country, near Chobe Game Reserve. A good portion of Botswana’s 130,000 elephants live up here; I saw four or five walking down a paved road while on approach to the airport just a few days ago. Flying into Kasane at night is what we call a “black hole” approach – with absolutely no lights around the airport and no instrument guidance into the runway, pilots can easily become disoriented, thinking that they are higher, lower, or in more of a bank than they really are. We have special procedures and cooperate closely as a crew to make sure that we land safely.
The ambulance is just pulling on to the tarmac as we taxi in, and the medics quickly talk to the nurse. One man’s neck is broken, the other has head injuries, broken ribs, and possible further internal injuries. As they stabilize and load the two men, we check the plane over, and make sure everything is ready for our one hour flight down to Francistown. I gulp some lukewarm coffee – it’s a little after 2 am now, and the 45 minutes of sleep I got is starting to feel a bit paltry.
With the two men secure, we fire up our engines, check our systems, and blast off again. The air is buttery smooth, there is nothing to see, and one can almost forget that he is flying an airplane – until a groan from the cabin behind us brings back how critical it is that we are flying southbound at almost 300 miles per hour. 55 minutes later we are shutting down the plane, and helping the medics lift the two stretchers out of the plane. I pray silently over these two men for a brief moment, and then watch the rear doors slam shut in the eerie red and white strobe light.
It’s 5:15 in the morning. Time to find the house that we rent here in Francistown… and the beds therein. Although we don’t know it yet, we’ll be flying back up to Kasane at 3 this afternoon to pick up a woman who needs an emergency c-section.