Praying through the Storms

A story from Colin Brown, Maun pilot:

At home, tinkering with an electric motor, I am startled out of my concentration as my cell phone rings at my side, it is 3:45 pm. The clinic in Seronga, a village ninety miles away, needs a mercy flight to transport a severely injured woman to the hospital.

Seronga is a small village in the Okavango Delta panhandle in the northwest part of Botswana. Though it is connected to the road system, the ride for a critically injured patient to the nearest hospital can be a tooth jarring four to five hours. Though the hospital is only 34 miles to the west, the road travels first north 100 miles, across a bridge and then south another 200 miles to reach the hospital. With an airplane, the travel time can be cut down to just twenty minutes.

I race to gather my flight bag, a stretcher and some blankets for the plane before driving to the airport. At 4:00pm I’m at the airport and by 4:30 I’ve filed my flight plan, removed two seats from the Cessna 207 aircraft, secured the stretcher into it, preflighted the plane and taxied for fuel.

This afternoon is a typical Botswana rainy season afternoon. There are huge towering thunderstorms dumping torrential amounts of rain onto the earth below.  Just as I pull up to the fuel pumps one of these storms moves onto the airport. The wind gusts blow, the rain comes down in sheets and lightning strikes all around. I can see the fuelers are reluctant to fuel under these conditions. Sympathetic but impatient, I know that waiting for the storm means there won’t be enough time to finish the flights before the airports close at dusk. And so, realizing this is a critical mercy flight, the fuelers run to the hoses and plane with the foolishness of the brave. Two men hold the ladder as another climbs up to the wing and yet another holds an umbrella that threatens to collapse in the wind. The first prayer of the afternoon: "Lord protect these men, don’t let lightning strike here."  Prayer answered.

Storm 1

Its 4:45 as I begin taxiing down to the end of the runway, the path is all blackness punctured with white lightning bolts. Second prayer of the afternoon: "Lord move this storm from the runway end".  A few minutes later I reach the end of the taxi way and turn the plane to line up on the runway.  I see light grey rain mists with hints of blue sky beyond – the blackness is gone. Prayer two answered.

Reaching the Seronga airfield, I glance at my watch: 5:45. I have less than two hours to make it back to Maun before the airport closes. The ambulance, a small four wheeled drive pick-up truck with a covered bed, backs up to the plane. I open the cargo doors on the plane and help the medics remove the patient from her foam mattress in the truck bed and load her in the airplane.

The patient, an elderly woman, has been accidentally wounded in the back and legs with a blast from a shotgun. My heart breaks as I see this small, elderly African woman whose face is wrinkled with time and experience now contorted in pain. Lifting her into the airplane, the woman groans with unspeakable pain. As the medics hang her I.V. from the ceiling, I hold her small head in my hands and pray the third prayer of the afternoon: "Lord ease her pain, let her ride be comfortable and preserve her life". As I open my eyes I see her smile at me, she is still in pain but not more than she can bear. Prayer answered.

Departing Seronga at 6:00pm, the twenty minute flight to the hospital in Gumare goes quickly. In Gumare we off load the elderly woman to a waiting pickup truck ambulance and leave her to the care of the Gumare medics. The medics and I hurriedly depart for Seronga where they are dropped off before I begin my flight home to Maun. Leaving the Seronga airport for the second time that day, I glance down at my watch. It reads 6:50 – only 45 minutes until the airport closes at Maun.

It is becoming dusky and as I fly there are heavy rain and thunder storms that must be circumnavigated. The routes around the storms have cost more time, I’ll arrive several minutes past ‘official’ dark. Considering the necessity of turning back, I look behind me and can see there is no turning around – a line of thunderstorms has built up behind me as well.

Thirty miles out of Maun, with the help of an overcast layer of cloud, it is dark. I look forward and expect to see the glimmer of Maun lights but they are not there. In the darkened cockpit, I look at the bright screen of the moving map GPS navigation radio. It shows little "z" marks on the map where lightning strikes and right now there are a line of "z" marks between Maun and me. Suddenly I realize that I can’t see Maun because, lurking out there in the darkness, there is a line of heavy thunder storms.

With head bowed and eyes momentarily closed, I offer the fourth prayer of the afternoon, now evening. "Lord, I need a path through this weather and I put myself fully in your hands". As I looked up with the confidence gained of similar prayers answered many times, I saw first the "z’s" on the GPS screen were gone and then saw the lights of Maun. Confident of God’s help, it is always still breathtaking to see a prayer answered so visibly. I land at Maun twenty minutes after dark but only eleven minutes after official dark. I said the fifth prayer of the day, a prayer of thanksgiving.

God likes to leave no doubt of His greatness or who is carrying us through. Many of my experiences in life, and especially in Maun, bring to mind Deuteronomy 3:24 which says, "O Sovereign Lord, you have begun to show your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do?