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Flying the Sudanese Skies

January 30, 2008

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    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps Photo:

Today we took three flights to reach our field office in Agok. At the Wau airport we ran into Bente, Mercy Corps' capacity-building specialist. She was on her way from Malual Kon to Wunrock. Only 100 kilometers separate the two towns, but there's no road between them. So the trip requires three flights and a two-day layover in Rumbek because of the limited schedule. "Welcome to Sudan," she said with a laugh.

Air travel is the necessary mode of transportation for aid workers in Sudan, especially in the south. Most flights are operated by the UN World Food Program's Humanitarian Air Service, whose 30-unit fleet ranges from helicopters to 39-seat jets to prop planes with unpressurized cabins.

The best part of riding in small aircraft is that the cockpit door usually stays open through the flight. This affords a view of the instrument panel and out the front window, plus you can watch the pilots' every move. You can also overhear what the pilots say during their preflight routine, which isn't all business. Our last flight of the day featured this exchange:

"You take the first leg, and I'll take the way back?"
"I said 'book'."
Pause. "What does that mean?"
"Do you have your mobile with you?"
"In predictive texting, if you write 'cool,' it comes out as 'book.'"

Start the propellers.