The 10 Hour Day of an MFI DC-3 - A Travel Journal

Missionary Flights was blessed with an International Relations intern from Brown University this summer - Annabel Sessoms. The last week of her internship she traveled to Haiti on one of our flights with pilots Kenny Gumpel and Phil Karnes. This is her account of that trip.

It’s six in the morning and the sun has barely given off any rays to light the Fort Pierce airport. The Missionary Flights office is quiet, filled only with the cargo support staff, Reservations Coordinator, and pilots. The day’s passengers have yet to arrive.

Captain Gumpel on the ground in Pignon, Haiti during a previous flight.

Captain Gumpel on the ground in Pignon, Haiti during a previous flight.

Captain Kenny Gumpel sits in his office conducting a final review of the flight plan and weather. Meanwhile, Co-Pilot Phil Karnes sits in the right-hand seat of a DC-3 checking cockpit instruments and preparing the plane for flight.

Passengers begin arriving with luggage in-hand shortly after six. Awake and energetic from their boosted adrenaline levels in anticipation for the trip, they hand over their luggage to be placed in the planes and then meet as a group to stand on the industrial sized scale for a pre-flight weight check. The quietness of the MFI office ceases as the passengers move through the hallway, all the way to the end, and into the waiting room. Kenny, full of an equal amount of energy, walks into the room and begins becoming acquainted with his passengers for the day. The flights do not take off without Kenny managing to snap a few selfies with his passengers and the plane in the background.

The sky, now filled with various tones of light, and the two DC-3s settled beside each other outside the hanger, fills the eyes of the pilots and passengers as they board the planes. Kenny leads his passengers in a prayer and then sits down in the captain’s seat next to co-pilot Phil. Switches are flipped, lights begin blinking, a few yells of alert are given out through the modestly sized windows, and the Fort Pierce Air Traffic Control contacted through the pilots’ mics. The pilots taxi via taxiway Charlie, cross onto Alpha and then lineup for their turn to take off. “Runway two-eight-left clear for take off.” Fort Pierce Tower sends as clearance. “Runway two-eight-left clear for take off.” Kenny confirms. Phil pushes the throttle all the way forward and quickly checks the instruments’ responses. The plane’s tail slowly lifts off the ground and the yoke is pulled back. The smooth cement runway is left behind as the orange morning sky is entered. Landing gear is pulled into the plane and a colorful backdrop above the calm blue water is found to house the buildings along the Fort Pierce coast, not to be seen again until ten hours later.

Once level and at cruising speed, the controls are handed over to Phil as Kenny walks back to check on the passengers with a basket full of cookies and the offer of tea or coffee. The three hours to Cap-Haitien are slow and uneventful but the pilots keep each other entertained. They chat, make the necessary flight calls, check flight instruments, and gaze upon the cloud-covered skyscape.

Three hours later, the green luscious, mountainous coast of Haiti appears surrounded by blue-green sparkling Caribbean waters scarred with blobs of light brown runoff. Passengers are alerted to fasten their seatbelts as the plane approaches the Cap-Haitien airport. An expansive mountain ridge fills the left windows of the plane. A smooth landing shortly follows. The airport is quiet, no other planes are in sight. The property is surrounded by a twelve-foot high barricade, trailed by armed guards. Before the barricade was built, three years ago, airliners refused to land in Cap; they still do not readily chose to do so. Packages onboard the plane are unloaded by the pilots and MFI Haitian volunteers. These packages, along with the packages and luggage destined for Pignon, are cleared by customs. The remaining packages are placed back on the plane, taxied to the runway, and lifted off into the air, direct for Pignon.

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Pignon Terminal

After a brief twelve-minute flight south, the Pignon grass strip appears. Tiny colorful houses of pink, yellow, blue, and green line the clearing. The plane lands beside the airport building, orange and sized similar to that of a common house in the States. No customs are established, no airport personnel visible. The location is rural. Passengers exit the plane with their luggage and a brief exchange of greetings are shared between the pilots and missionaries on the ground. Many of the missionaries have waited weeks for the arrival of passengers and packages to Pignon. MFI flies to this location only a few times each month.

The plane, now empty of passengers but still packed full with cargo, takes off again for it’s last and southernmost stop, Port-au-Prince. After passing through a valley of mountains the Port-au-Prince airport is spotted in the distance. It is large and commercial. The pilots can hear through their mics Air Traffic Control swarming with requests and commands. Languages converge as English, French, and Creole all intermingle amongst pilots in the airfield and the Tower operators. Extra focus and concentration is required. Amidst the confusion, the plane lands safely, is shut down, and then surrounded by workers to unload, alongside the pilots, a multitude of cargo. It takes a while but everyone works efficiently and with joyous hearts. The heat reaches over a hundred degrees. The shirts of those unloading give way to blotches of sweat - including the MFI pilots.

After the unloading is finished, cargo checked by customs, and a few new passengers boarded en route to Fort Pierce, the DC-3 takes off for its final segment of the trip and sets out in flight over the calm Caribbean waters. The flight back is silent. The pilots have worked long and hard and are now dedicated to giving their new passengers a comfortable flight to the States. The passengers graciously accept pillows and blankets handed to them by Kenny and then quickly fall asleep. There is no energy left to eat the rest of the cookies on board.

Co-pilot, Phil Karnes.

Co-pilot, Phil Karnes.

No clouds are in the vicinity during the flight back home; instead, windows are filled with views of clear Bahamian waters and lines of coral reefs. Patterns of the sand are detected through the crystal blue waters and groups of migrating lobsters are spotted by Kenny, a lobster hunting fanatic. After a day’s work of three cargo stops and passenger transportation, the flat coastline of Florida reveals itself upon the horizon.

Thanks is given to the Lord for his support of the work of MFI and for safeguarding our pilots and passengers during each and every flight. It is by His work that these trips are successfully made over a hundred times a year.