March 27 – The Longest Flight

July, 2007.

I had made the trip fifteen or more times already. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  With good connections you could make it in around 24  hours: leave the church and arrive at the airport two or three hours early; an hour and a half from Pittsburgh to JFK; two-hour lay-over at JFK; ten hours to Sao Paulo; another two or three hour layover; and then  the hour plus flight into Belo Horizonte; immigration, customs, and Belo Horizonte traffic – finally to IPJA.

The unexpected happened early.  Oh, we boarded the flight from Pittsburgh to New York just fine, but then we sat on the tarmac in Pittsburgh for well over an hour as we waited for thunderstorms to pass over JFK.  By the time we made it to the American Airlines international check-in counter at JFK, the flight had boarded and our seats had been given to standby passengers.

Add 24 hours.

At least they gave us hotel vouchers.

We checked in for the next day flight with plenty of time. Boarding was smooth and the flight departed right on time. Settle in for the long overnight flight.  We were probably 35,000 feet over Cuba when my daughter Alanna woke me up, “Dad, they say we’re turning around.”  Long story short – a radar station in the middle of the Amazon had gone down. No ground control for all of South America and every plane in route to every city in South America had to find a safe place to land as soon as possible.  San Juan, Puerto Rico, Miami, and other Florida airports filled up quickly with planes crossing the Atlantic and running low on fuel.  We had plenty of gas to get back to JFK. The place looked familiar.

We were wondering about a flight back to Pittsburgh.

American decided they’d still fly our plane to Sao Paulo, but the original crew had timed out, so it would be a few hours until they could round up some pilots and flight attendants.

Add 20 hours.

We left late afternoon and the radar in the Amazon was up and running.  Apparently some number of our fellow passengers had returned to Omaha or Buffalo or wherever.  There was plenty of room to stretch out.  But we arrived in Sao Paulo at some unknown hour of the very early morning.  They told us to come to the rebooking desk when it opened in the morning.  Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro later that afternoon. Long layover. An hour and a half from Rio to Belo Horizonte.

Add 12 hours.

It began with an unexpected thunderstorm.  80 hours later we had made it to our destination.

There were times during those 80 hours, especially during the second trip to JFK, when I thought we just wouldn’t make it. Not this year. Not this trip.  A couple of our team members were a little anxious, but their friends were just the kind of friend you need when 24 becomes 80 just like that.

No one knows where we are on this journey with Coronavirus.  Maybe we’re at 35,000 feet over Cuba.  Maybe we’re growing really tired of the American Airlines terminal at JFK.  Maybe we’re on approach for a very early morning landing in Sao Paulo.  We don’t know.

It turned out to be a great mission trip despite our lost 60 hours.  And, after all, the point of the trip was the mission, not our convenience.

See you when we get there.