When I was studying aviation in college, I had a flight instructor who talk a lot about character. He said that what made a good pilot was not necessarily the ability to fly the airplane. Sure, you need the hands-on skills, but what you really needed was character. The kind of character that knows your own physical limits, the limits of the airplane, and the limits put over you by regulations or operation manuals. On a recent flight, I had my own character tested, in all of the previously mentioned ways.
An early takeoff was planned from Santa Cruz and I would be bringing four passengers to a remote community over 300 miles way. There was extra baggage, some clothing that would be given away to needy people during a 10 day river boat trip, but we were at our legal weight limit for the airplane with only the four passengers and their baggage. As much as the clothing was needed, I was not going to exceed the gross weight of the airplane even though it would have been for a very good cause. This is sometimes the hard part about mission flying, there are so many needs and as a missionary you want to help everybody. However compromising safety would be just that, compromising.
After a three hour flight against strong head winds, I dropped off the four passengers and flew one hour to a nearby town to refuel and pick up three more passengers. Since this was a controlled airport, time on the ground took over an hour due to the need for filling out flight plans, receiving a weather briefing, filling out a passenger manifest, and having the "Anti-Drug" authorities look through all the baggage. On the one hour flight back to the community where the river boat was based, I began to calculate how much time I could stay on the ground before needing to leave for Santa Cruz and make it back before sunset. In Bolivia, single engine airplanes are not allowed to fly at night time, so all flights must be on the ground before sunset. Our personal SAMAIR manual says that we need to be on the ground an hour before sunset unless there is good weather at the destination and we have permission from the chief pilot. I calculated that 20 minutes on the ground would give me a 15 minutes cushion if we wanted to get back before sunset. Upon landing, I told the passenger he had 20 minutes, not a minute more.
Unfortunately he took 35 minutes. Sunset was at 5:46pm and I knew it would take two hours to get back home, even with the tailwind helping us. Level at our cruising altitude, the GPS was saying our arrival would be at 5:46. Running the engine at a higher power setting than normal and staying at a lower altitude to take advantage of the winds, I watch as the GPS flickered between 5:45 and 5:47 for the next hour. It had been a long day and the thought of spending the night in my own bed was mighty draw. However I knew that the GPS was giving me an arrival time which did not include two minutes of circling over the landing field to land. 40 minutes out the GPS was holding steady on 5:46pm. My mind began trying to rationalize landing two minutes after sunset.
Since I am the only pilot with SAM in Bolivia, I am the chief pilot, I can do what I want! The mechanics have no idea when its sunset, it will still be light out and they wont know the difference of two minutes anyways. I'm physically tired from flying 6 hours! Its just two minutes...
Then the words of my flight instructor came back to me. One of his favorite quotes began running through my mind:
Character cannot be summoned at the moment of crisis if it has been squandered by years of compromise and rationalization. The only testing ground for the heroic is the mundane. The only preparation for that one profound decision which can change a life, or even a nation, is those hundreds of half-conscious, self-defining, seemingly insignificant decisions made in private. Habit is the daily battleground of character.
-Senator Dan Coats
I knew I would be compromising my character if I continued on. I knew I would would be rationalizing my decision to continue on. So, 40 minutes from home base, I turned the airplane 30 degrees to the left, got on the radio to home base, and informed them that I was not going to be able to make it home before sunset. I would be landing at an airport in ten minutes and spending the night there. Two minutes is not very much time, but for me, it was enough to remind me what character was really all about.