This morning, I began my day as most others that involve flying. I arose at 4:45 am, had a wonderful time in Biblical meditation communing with the Lord, and left the house at 6 am. As I drove our Kawasaki Mule up the trail, two of our Kamea boys met me along the road. Since it is a common rule that “nobody knows how old they are,” we can only guess at the ages of these two little guys.

I’ve noticed that Morgan has been around for quite a while, and the first memory I have of him is the day his mom passed away. He was in the hut with his older brother and a younger sister. While I preached on eternity less than 100 yards away, the three of them had been waiting for her to wake up that fateful Sunday. He had a pretty bad cut above his eye, and I brought him and his two siblings to my house, and gave them each a bath in our bathtub–quite possibly the first time any of them had washed in warm water. He was quite small, and that was about 6 years ago. So, I guess Morgan (we used to call him “Muki” back then) would be about 10 years old.

Peter is Morgan’s friend, and is about the same size. I never noticed Peter until he broke his arm. He wore a cast for quite a long time, and that was when I noticed his smile the most. It was persistent. Always smiling.

This morning, I was headed up the trail on the UTV, and I came across Morgan and Peter. It was early in the morning, and they asked if they could ride up to Kanabea Airstrip. It’s about a 2 hour hike, or a 45 minute ride in the Kawasaki. I knew they just wanted to go for a ride, but I don’t care. These two little guys come to Sunday School every Sunday and they play with my kids. They pitch in whenever they can–in fact, last week one of them randomly volunteered to carry firewood for me.

They rode quietly in the back of the Kawasaki up to the airstrip. When we got to the grass runway, they helped me take down our temporary fence that we place around the airplane to remind people that they are not supposed to play with, touch, or deface the airplane. (For the most part, people leave the plane alone.) The boys respectfully stood to the side while I pre-flighted, and they helped carry water to the plane so I could wash the windshield. That’s when it occurred to me: These little guys would probably like to go for a ride in an airplane!

I asked them both, “Have you ever ridden in an airplane?” They both answered, “No.”
“Have you ever been to Kerema?” (It’s a three-day hike away.) They answered, “No.”
“Would you like to ride down to Kerema?” (I knew I had space going both directions.) They both grinned, questioning my sincerity. I assured them that I would bring them home, if they wanted to go for a ride.

After a lengthy briefing on the importance of a seatbelt, and how to actually use it, they were ready to go. Smiles spread from ear to ear. Morgan opted for the backseat, and Peter was going to be my co-pilot. I put a headset on Peter.

We took off for Kerema–just the three of us–the experience of a lifetime that would last only 13 minutes. Immediately I realized these two guys were polar opposites in the aviation world! Morgan was shouting in the backseat, pointing out villages he could recognize. He strained against his seatbelt, looking out the window and pointing at things that just looked so different than he had ever seen before. Peter, on the other hand, preferred not to look outside, and obviously cared for the whole experience to be over–the sooner, the better.

Since Peter was on the headset, I spoke calmly to him, hoping to calm his nerves. I pointed out mountains in the distance because he would be more accustomed to what they looked like. I showed him with my voice and with my actions that everything was normal, and there was nothing to fear. (I thought about explaining the intricacies of the turbo-charger and how it helped us at these higher altitudes, but that would not have helped.) He held one hand on the seat corner, and with the other hand, he grabbed my “Pilot’s Clipboard” which sat between our front seats.

We approached the lowlands of the Gulf and I began to make out Kerema in the distance. This being their first time to Kerema, it would mean nothing to them for me to point it out, so I kept their focus on what was relevant. There was a big river below us–and that’s when Morgan saw a dinghy (fiberglass boat) for the first time in his life! He grinned real big and mouthed the word to me, pointing it out. He pointed it out to his friend Peter. Then there was another dinghy. By the third dinghy, and the accompanying plethora of canoes, the excitement had disappeared.

By then, it was time to land, and I began the approach into Kerema. I have a portion of a briefing that I normally give to the person occupying the co-pilot seat during flights. It involves a portion of flight where we maintain what is called a “sterile cockpit environment” which means that we just won’t be having any chit-chat during the takeoff, approach, or landing portions of the flights. Peter obviously forgot about that (I have a feeling he had been overwhelmed by the seatbelt part of the pre-flight briefing, not to mention the use of the fire extinguisher or first-aid kit). We were just about into the flare of the landing, when Peter quickly interjected, “Nogat diwai hia.” (“There are no trees there.”)

Alright, that threw me for a loop–first of all, I wasn’t expecting him to talk. He had made it an entire 13 minute flight without so much as grunting responses to my questions. Second, what was he talking about!? Trees?! There were trees all over the place! Coconuts lined the right side of the runway. Little shrub trees just short of the runway which we had just flown over. Trees were all over the place.
It’s a good thing that Morgan and Peter had never been on a flight before, because they had nothing to compare that landing to. As far as they were concerned, it was a good landing. With as many as I’ve logged, I can say that one was a lousy landing–largely because my mind went from “flare the aircraft, touch-down smoothly” to “No Trees?!”
All of that happened in about 0.7 seconds, and we were never in any danger. I landed using muscle memory (while logging away a mental note to remind future co-pilots about sterile cockpit procedures as we approach the airport of intended landing).

As we taxied into the ramp and shut-down the airplane, I couldn’t help but think about his comment about “no trees.” I told the boys to stand in the shade while I loaded our missionaries on the plane, along with their boxes. That’s when I overheard the boys talking–they were definitely talking about trees. This just overwhelmed me–I had to know what Peter meant. I asked him as soon as I was able.

This was the first time for these boys to ride in an airplane. It was the first time for them to have a bird’s-eye view of their village. It was the first time for them to be removed from earth’s grasp. It was the first time for them to be in Kerema. It was the first time for them to see cars and trucks, and paved roads, and electric power lines, and canoes and dinghies. It was the first time for them to see the lowlands with its expansive swath lacking mountain peaks. Yet, the “first” that stuck out the most to them was…the ocean. It has no trees–for as far as you can look, the ocean has no trees.

Within an hour of taking off for their first time, we were on our way back to Kanabea, to let them return home to the parents that had no idea they ever left. (Parental consent waivers…well, that’s another story for another day.)