Out Of The Blue

During the frosty, dark hours of a winter morning in the Kalahari Desert, a baby boy was born to a young San (Bushman) woman. The birth of a baby in Botswana is a welcome and celebrated event, a triumph for the mother. This mother's joy, however, was mixed with worry and fear. Her tiny son, weighing only one kilogram, had arrived prematurely, 30 days before he was due.

The staff at the hospital in the village of Hukuntsi, where the baby was born, knew that the baby's chance for survival lay in transferring him quickly to Gaborone. There the baby could be cared for by specialists at the Princess Marina Hospital's “Special Care Baby Unit.” As is normal when the Hukuntsi hospital has a patient needing urgent, specialized care, they placed a call requesting an air ambulance flight.

When Mark Spicer received the call that morning, he wasn't sure what to do. Both of FMS's air ambulance aircraft were “down” for maintenance. He tried phoning neighboring charter operators, but no one had an aircraft available. Shortly before the call came from Hukuntsi, Mark and Jeff Royce had been doing a test flight on one of the FMS aircraft. Their takeoff was delayed for the arrival of a PC-12 (large, single-engine aircraft) from South Africa. When he was unable to locate another local aircraft to make the trip to Hukuntsi, Mark started wondering about the PC-12. The pilot had left the airport, however, and no one knew where he had gone. FMS pilot Matt Hogeboom had an idea. “Why don't we go to the Briefing Office and check his flight plan? It might give a phone number for his company.” Mark and Matt hurried to the Briefing Office where they were able to locate the necessary number.

When Mark phoned the company, he was told that the pilot had gone to a hotel, but that his cell phone was turned off. When the South African company heard about the premature baby's need for air transport, they offered to track the pilot down at his hotel and have him contact FMS. They also said that this particular pilot had experience doing air ambulance flights for the Red Cross in South Africa.

When the pilot called Mark, he said that he had nothing to do for the rest of the day and that he would be happy to fly to Hukuntsi. He agreed to let Matt accompany him as co-pilot. Matt has a lot of experience flying air ambulance flights in Botswana, and he knows the procedures here well. With two such well-qualified pilots, Mark was confident that the transfer would go well.

“It was a normal winter day in Botswana, with blue skies and just a few white clouds,” said Matt. “Aside from more people than usual gathered at the airstrip, nothing seemed different about this flight until I saw the bundle which was the baby. It was so small. The mother showed no emotion, not even any hesitation about getting on an airplane, even though it had to have been her first flight. She climbed aboard, and then the paramedics brought the little bundle on board and put it in an incubator.”

Matt had his first look at the baby when the PC-12 landed in Gaborone one hour later. “I couldn't get over how small he was. His head was the size of an apple! He looked so peaceful and content. When I saw him, I was very happy that we were able to do the flight. It would have been an 8-hour trip by road, and it would have been so hard on the baby and the mother.”

That night Mark picked up a 2 kg. bag of rice. “I couldn't believe that the baby from Hukuntsi was only half as big as that bag of rice. It was a miracle that he was alive!” The provision of an aircraft was a miracle, too. There was not an aircraft available anywhere, and then a PC-12 suddenly appeared – out of the blue Botswana sky.