What a nerdy pilot thing to say for a title, right? Like accountants saying they find freedom in a spreadsheet (I’m sure some do), or a mechanic finding joy in their cold, greasy toolboxes (I know some who do).
But here’s the thing: If I didn’t know what the limitations were in flying, I would constantly be nervous, questioning my decisions, and pulling life and death guesses out of thin air. And so, it is in the beautiful, predefined and consistent limitations that I find peace and joy as I take to the skies.
Flying in Lesotho is a constant process of evaluating limitations, and making sure we don’t run up into them. I find that from the moment I’m on duty to fly, I have these limitations and countdown timers running in my brain:
4hrs30 until sunset
1hr20 fuel remaining
50kg payload remaining
7 knots tailwind acceptable for landing
and so on.
These are absolute limits, and the only leeway we have is the margin we build in.
Yesterday I had a tough flight in the morning. I headed out and had very strong winds to deal with. I decided the safest course of action was to head home after my first stop and see if the wind improved later in the day.
As the day wore on, the countdown in my head started reminding me that if I was going to go out again, daylight would start to become a limitation. If we can’t get back to base in the light, we can’t go out in the first place.
The flight I had remaining was short. Out and back, just over an hour total time. We were still within limits with lots of extra daylight to spare.
Then came a Code 1, emergency call, and it happened to be from the exact place I was scheduled to go.
We got the plane prepared with enough fuel, got the planned passenger loaded and ready, and set-off. We were already well into the afternoon, but had at least 30 minutes of margin with daylight.
Happily, the wind was calm and conditions smooth, and I landed at the destination, Nohana, with no problems.
The nurse who was waiting with the emergency asked if we could go to the district hospital with the patient, oxygen bottle, mother and nurse, and then return the nurse to Nohana.
In my mind this flagged some limitations:
Did I have space and weight to carry them, plus 2 other patients who were going to Maseru?- Yes
Would I have fuel for this? -Yes
Could I carry the giant oxygen bottle the premature baby needed?- With some extra time for loading and securing, yes.
Could I do this all and return in daylight?- No
So then, on to Plan B.
Could the mother safely care for the baby with no nurse?- They determined yes.
Plan B it was.
After weighing all the patients, double checking we were ok with weight and fuel, and after strapping down the big oxygen bottle, we were close to being ready. The delays from decision-making, as well as loading, were turning my mental ‘green flags,’ into orange ones. Caution flags. We could still do this, but I had to be swift if we were going make it back in daylight.
The nurses explained that the ambulance was already at the airstrip in Qachas Nek, the place we were taking the mother and child, so that stop should be quick, and we could hand the patient off into the competent hands of the nurse.
We took-off safely, and I made every effort to stay as low as safely possible, as the premature baby was having trouble breathing. The oxygen helped, but I figured I should do what extra I could to give the baby’s lungs a chance. Climbing to 9500’ didn’t seem like a helpful thing to do, so I safely stayed down at 7500’ (the baby was born in a village at 5300’).
20 minutes was the best I could do to get to Qachas Nek, and we safely landed, only to find no ambulance waiting!
If they didn’t arrive in 20 minutes, I would have to make the call to not depart again for Maseru, and find some way for my extra 2 passengers to stay in Qachas Nek, instead of Maseru as planned. And I would have to keep the airplane company for a cold night on the airstrip.
The mental clock was ticking, and flags were almost turning red.
Then the ambulance arrived.
I quickly helped unload the patient and mother, and got back into my seat, and got things moving in the direction of home.
I still had buffer between the time now, my flight time to return home, and sunset. Enough buffer for me to be 100% clear that this was the right choice, to return home.
We got home by 5pm, 20 minutes before sunset. Well within limits for when we do emergency flights.
In knowing what the limits were, I was able to clearly and with 100% certainty, make a decision at each stage of this flight. Without them, I would have been guessing and hoping from the start, never quite knowing if my choice was going to get me into trouble or not. Without the limits, I may not have gone on this flight in the first place, and would have missed out on the chance to help that little baby get to better care.
In one short paragraph, may I expand this idea to encourage you all: Figure out your limitations, your boundaries. Don’t fear them, but let them channel and guide you. Knowing them will help you do more, and help you stay out of trouble.