All around the world, pilots have to deal with sub-par conditions and overcome a whole variety of obstacles. Be it weather, terrain, quality of the airfield, difficulties in communication or even security, these issues must be resolved if the pilot wants to successfully do whatever it is he or she is there to do. A lot of these pilots aren’t flying around for fun, they are delivering much-needed aid and supplies, conducting military operations, or transporting valuable personnel from point A to point B.
Danny Cooper, American aid pilot based out of Kenya, often flies up into South Sudan to deliver medical supplies and transport relief and aid workers/missionaries. A huge challenge he has come across is communication. In the United States, Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) have all sorts of systems in place to help out the pilots. At a regular airport, they’ll have ground controllers, tower controllers, approach and departure controllers, and a “center” which coordinates planes en route to their various destinations. All of these are on separate frequencies, and they’re coordinating with each other too.
In South Sudan, they have no such luxuries. There is no “center” at all, and the entire nation is under one traffic advisory frequency. Everyone having to do with air traffic is talking on that single frequency–aid workers like Cooper, military personnel, local flights–everyone. Contractors from Russia, South Africa, Kenya, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and many eastern European countries are all struggling through the language barrier to speak English and keep accidents from happening.
Controllers from South Sudan are often sent to Kenya to get training, but they generally do not utilize any sort of standard phraseology. Consistency can be key, as clear communications are imperative to keep planes from colliding as they arrive and depart from the various airports. “It all sort of comes in waves,” Cooper said, “there are periods in the day when it’s really busy, everything’s happening on one frequency that everyone is calling in on. Coming into Juba (the capital city of South Sudan), there can be a lot of [radio] traffic. When you’re inbound, it can be almost impossible to contact the controller and get a clearance between the non-stop chatter.”
Juba tower is effectively the only ATC in the country, and though the controllers do the best they can, it’s hard work that doesn’t always pay. The ATCs have gone on strike in the past because of this, which obviously causes further problems and can shut down the airport. They have no radar, which “slows things down because aircraft have to give more information to the controllers which takes up air time.” The tower is also constantly controlling aircraft as they are starting, taxiing, taking off, landing and approaching.
These issues can have huge consequences on the people, especially in the northern refugee camps. “There’s a whole generation of people there that have grown up solely off of aid and relief. That’s how long this thing’s been going on,” Cooper said.
Cooper filmed an aid drop, an alternative for large amounts of supplies without having to land.
His front nose tire was flat, and as he was getting it fixed he could feel the packages hitting the ground from that far away.
He went on to describe some of the problems having to do with the terrain. There are less than a handful of paved air strips in the country, so that is a luxury he does not often enjoy. Many are made out of “murram,” that hard packed, red clay you often see throughout Africa. These strips are generally easier to land on because the surface is better, but in the rainy season they can get washed out on the edges, creating deep cuts in the runway that can damage the landing gear. “Those airstrips are all-weather strips, you can generally land even after a heavy rain.”
That’s in direct contrast to the black cotton soil, which is good in the dry season as it hardens well, though it can get some pretty big cracks in the ground. These cracks aren’t necessarily a problem, they’re just a good indicator as to what type of soil he’s dealing with. The soil also gets much darker when wet. “The cracks go away in the rain, and could even look landable when it’s not. It can get super soft and sticky and builds up on the tires.”
And of course there’s everything in between. “Black cotton and sand, sand and murram–there are a lot of combinations. Some strips get pretty overgrown with grass. The rainy season can really make it difficult, whether it rains or how hard it rains can really make the strip unlandable and you can’t get in via plane. May take a week or two to change.”
Military and relief pilots are no stranger to these difficulties, but they adapt and overcome in order to complete the task at hand–it’s what they’re there for, after all.
Video and images taken and provided by Mr. Cooper.