|The main gate to the clinic
|When the airplane is down, patients must get to the clinic by boat.
Late last year, Wayne Miller (the pilot for Alas de Socorro) was carrying several patients when his Cessna 206 suddenly struck a buzzard three miles from the airstrip. Fortunately no one was injured, and Wayne was able to make it back to Ahuas. The airplane, however suffered significant damage, including a broken windshield, a crumpled firewall and glare shield, and bent roof skins. Alas de Socorro currently does not have a mechanic that is qualified to repair the airplane, and so air support for the hospital was no longer available. As a result, many residents of nearby villages have been unable to receive the emergency medical care that they needed.
Fortunately, MMS Aviation was able to send a team to repair the damage to the airplane, and I am privileged to be one of three men chosen for the task. Mike Dunkley and I were here for three weeks, and Jason Maust worked with us for two weeks, having come a week later to bring the additional parts and tools we discovered that we needed during the first few days.
|The MMS crew with the guys from Alas de Socorro.
Our plan was to focus on the airplane that had suffered the bird strike (tail number HR-AJW, or "Juliet Whiskey"), and then to shift focus to another Cessna 206, HR-AUS ("Uniform Sierra"). Uniform Sierra was a lower priority, because it is uninsured and will be sold to make room for a turbo 206 that is being donated by another organization later this year. Uniform Sierra was in the middle of a major inspection when work was interrupted, and the inspection was never completed, leaving the airplane unairworthy.
|Alpha Uniform Sierra
Well, it wasn't long before we realized that our plans were being turned upside-down! We knew prior to arriving that the parts to repair Juliet Whiskey were held up, but we fully expected them to clear customs by the end of our first week in Ahuas. After two days spent disassembling Juliet Whiskey, assessing the damage, and requesting additional parts and tools from Jason (who was following us down a week later) we shifted our focus to Uniform Sierra.
As it turns out, there was much more to be done than we had anticipated, and Uniform Sierra became our main project while we waited for parts to repair Juliet Whiskey. Jason and I completely disassembled the tail to replace a cracked bracket. Mike replaced the emergency locator transmitter, which included fabricating a new bracket from sheet metal, without the the benefit of basic sheet metal tools. We rigged all of the control systems, replaced control surface bearings, replaced wheel bearings, repaired corroded skins, replaced the throttle cable, removed the throttle body for repair in the US, replaced severely corroded brake lines and other components, removed and cleaned the brake master cylinders and more.
By the beginning of the the third week it was becoming clear that we were not going to receive the parts to repair Juliet Whiskey. Even by Honduran standards, the parts sat at the port of entry much longer than anyone expected, and were only released from customs the day we left Ahuas. Even if we had stayed a few extra days (which we were willing to do), we could not have completed the repair in the time allotted. With our remaining time, we cleaned out the parts room, took inventory, and identified parts to be sold or disposed of. Some parts had been there since the late 70s and had either expired or were spares for airplanes that are no longer owned by the mission. Although inventory is not the most enjoyable job, we were able (with Mike's expertise) to clean out old inventory, and identify parts that can be converted into cash for the mission. We will also help them build an inventory appropriate for their current fleet. This was not a job we planned to do, but in doing it we provided a much-needed service to the ministry.
As the day of our departure drew near, we were feeling a bit discouraged. Despite all of our efforts—and the prayers of hundreds of people—the clinic still did not have a functional airplane. But into the midst of our discouragement there came a ray of sunshine. One day near the end of our stay we noticed the generator was not running. The hospital gets its power from solar panels, batteries, and diesel generators. However the solar panels and batteries cannot provide enough power for surgeries and sterilizing the surgical equipment; these require the generator to be running. Already, two surgeries had been postponed. To make matters worse, the starter for the backup generator had been sent away for repair just four days earlier. Because we had time to spare we offered to try to fix the generator.
We quickly diagnosed the problem as being the starter. Our first attempt at a repair was unsuccessful, and we realized we would need a replacement part, as the unit was beyond repair. They assured us there were no spare parts in town or on the premises, so we were going to attempt a temporary solution to get a single start the following morning so the surgeries could be performed. But later that night someone remembered an old generator was rusting away in the back corner of a storage building. They pulled it out, and to our amazement it had a Bosch starter, which had seized up but contained the exact component we needed for the repair! The next morning we got to work changing out components, and the starter was installed just thirty minutes before surgeries were scheduled to begin! As it turns out, there were four procedures done that day. We will never know if lives were saved that day, but it was a great blessing to us to be a part of getting the hospital's power back on line so they could continue bringing health, hope, and the love of Christ to the people of La Mosquitia.
Yesterday we left Ahuas, and today I sit in El Progreso, awaiting our Monday flight home. As I reflect on the past three weeks, I still don't fully understand why God did not answer our prayers for Juliet Whiskey's replacement parts to arrive. Why wouldn't he want the airplane up and running, while so many people need the help that it brings? At the same time, we have seen glimpses of the good in His plan. Because we focused on Uniform Sierra early on, we identified and repaired problems that otherwise may have not been discovered. Because we didn't have parts for the airplane, we had time to fix the generator so that the surgeons could do their work (as important as the airplane is, the generator is even more important to the hospital's operation). And what were the chances that we would find a replacement part in such an obscure place? God was clearly providing in an amazing way. Finally, although inventory and cleaning is not a glamorous task, our work will be extremely valuable for the long term viability of Alas de Socorro's ministry.
This trip was a reminder that, although we have our plans and purposes, the more important thing is to walk with the Lord and submit ourselves to His plan—to shape and mold us; to draw us closer to Him; to conform us more and more to the image of Christ; and to minister to others through us, in whatever ways He sees fit. I can rest in the fact that I am just clay in the hands of the Potter who has created me and holds all things in His hands, and who is good in all He does, even when I don't understand. And while airplanes can be an important tool for ministry, ministry is really about people. The past three weeks I have been privileged to get to know the Miskito people. They have been a blessing to me, and I pray that through my time in Honduras I was a blessing to them as well.