“Nice takeoff.” Steve observed.
“Thanks for noticing. Just call it natural ability or maybe attribute it to the flight school I attended in the jungles of Vietnam,” John replied.
At 1000 feet above the ground Steve directed a 90 degree turn to the north. Obediently, John steeped the plane gently to the right and flew toward the mountains. From that height they could appreciate the beautiful green countryside. South, they saw a sea of fog extending for miles. To the north, high clouds and clear skies below as the rain had yet to fall.
Ahead, mountains shrouded in a sheath of drizzle, vented steam as the rain cooled the warm ground.
Below, the Baliem wound to the east and then south again as it carved its way through the valley. The river looked muddy in contrast with the lush greenery of the canopy above. Villages dotted the river every few miles, and larger cities such as Wamena had been claimed from the jungle.
The river was the life of the communities that thrived there, and the mighty Baliem offered food and water from its depths.
The weather began to deteriorate as clouds lowered.
Realizing they might be headed for trouble, Steve recommended flying north on the other side of the valley.
Taking the controls, Steve brought them to mountaintop level. There, visibility was safe enough for low level flying through passages. Light tufts of fog wisped around the wings and left swirls in the plane’s wake.
“Okay, I’ll demonstrate flying through these passages before these clouds get too low,” Steve yelled over the roaring engine. “Do you see the break in the mountains ahead? Fly to those, staying as far right as you can.”
“I’m staying to the right, and I don’t mind telling you this is a little nerve racking.”
“I’m with you, but this is the only way to some of the villages.” Steve knew John would have a hard time at first.
“Just remember to stay to the right. That way if you find you may have mistakenly flown the wrong passage, you will have ample room on the left side for maneuvering.”
“Well, I can tell you that this barely leaves enough to turn. I’d hate to have to make a hasty U-turn or other emergency procedures,” said John.
There was only a mile of flying space between mountain–plenty of room for turning a car around, but an airplane is another story. The perception of speed was great as they passed within twenty-five feet of the mountain to the right. The trees and tree top houses were a blur along the mountain side.
“About the U-turn you mentioned earlier,” Steve shouted. “About 18 years ago one of our own was flying a missionary family through a similar passage. They were headed south to do a revival near Agats. He was heading out of the Maoke Mountains, when he realized nothing looked familiar. He rationalized that he must have gone down the wrong valley.”
“How come he didn’t climb out and get his bearings?” asked John.
“Because of similar weather conditions. The pilot opted to continue the route. Visibility was horrible when suddenly a large object loomed before the plane. Instinctively, the pilot initiated a climbing turn hoping to fly back,” said Steve.
“I guess since he was on one side of the valley, he made it okay,” John guessed.
Jeffrey W. Bennett, is the author of Commitment-A Novel and other non-fiction books, novels and periodicals.