Perspective from Far Side of the World: A Day in the Life of Banda Aceh

A friend sent me this excerpt from a diary of a relief pilot working in the tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia. This was probably three weeks into the relief effort and I’d encourage you to take the time to read it. It will give you a heart for the crisis there and those who serve in the midst of it. I find stories like this are a great way to get perspective on my own life. Living in the abundance and decadence of Western culture a
This was written by Andy McCain, a helicopter pilot in Indonesia, and is reprinted here with his permission. If you’d like to write a note of encouragement to he or his wife, Tammy, you can do so at

I am sending you a snap shot of what kind of an average day is like, as we go about the day to day of meeting the needs of the hurting and helpless of Banda Aceh. I am changing the names of the people we serve, as I do not want to expose anybody to publicity that they may not want.

3:30 AM: I awake to the sound of the water tower next to my tent clanging away like it is being beat with a hammer, as steel framework twits and turns in the pre-dawn air. My air mattress is also shaking and rolling, kind of giving me the feeling that I may be surfing away at any moment. What is going on I wonder, then I realize that it is just one of the usual early morning earth quakes that likes to wake us up in the wee hours of the morning. Only a 6.5 this morning on the richer scale we find out later in the day. Nothing to worry about. Found out later some of my teammates ran out of the house fearing it may collapse. I had to chuckle a bit. The people of Banda Aceh have been through so much, the sight of 2 approaching middle aged westerners running out in the yard in their underwear may have pushed them over the edge. Good thing it was still nice and dark and nobody could see the horror of that sight.

Shaking subsides to a small follow on tremor. I roll back over for a few more winks, as I know we are facing a busy day. At 4:30 AM, the local neighborhood mosque announces it is time to get up with the morning call to prayer. Sigh, lay there for about a half hour and then crawl out of my tent to begin a new day. Morning shower is dipped out of a cement bat or water tank with a plastic dipper. Nice bathroom even equipped with an Indonesian squat pot—luxury living at its best. I say that tongue and check, realizing that I know I am so blessed by what we have here. There are thousands of refuges with nothing more than a plastic tent for shelter, knowing that if there is no relief flights today, there will be no food or water for them and their families on this day.

6:00 AM breakfast arrives, cooked by our neighbor lady. Nice Muslim family who have been very friendly to us, and appreciate our concern and compassion for their people. We have provided the funds for food, and she does the cooking. Breakfast is nasi goring (fried rice) and eggs sunny side up topped with a few nice red hot peppers. That will get even the most tired eyes wide open once you chop down on these little morsels. You can quench the flames in your mouth with sweet tea, made Indonesian style, with enough sugar to float a ship. Wonderful way to begin a bold new day in Banda Aceh.

6:30 AM we are leaving the house as the first rays of the morning sun are streaking the eastern ranges around Banda Aceh with a soft orange/red glow. We had originally planned to leave the house around 7 AM, but during the night, we had an urgent phone call from “Folks with many Doctors”. Seemed the team we had inserted late in the afternoon day before, had come into contact with members of the resistance movement. Fearing any problems, were asking for an emergency extract first thing in the morning. We had huddled up quickly during the night, and opted to get going early on this extract so we could get them out for peace of mind, and keep the flight schedule on track for the relief supplies. The drive to the airport is a study in contrasts, as beautifully kept rice paddies wiz by near the airport, and people are careening in and out of traffic on motor scooters and motorcycles with sidecars. The amount of goods and people you can pack on a motor scooter can only be seen to be believed. Reality comes crashing in though as we pass the mass grave site, the earth moving equipment is silent now almost peaceful in the early
dawn light. We all realize in a few moments, they will be belching thick diesel smoke as they move mound after mound of dirt to accommodate the victims, both young and old that will be arriving by truckload during the day to the mass grave site. I have to look away for a moment, and think of home and family, we hold our breaths while passing by the mass grave area this morning. You can’t breath in this morning without feeling sick.

6:45 AM We are uncovering HCM (the helicopter) to get her ready for another days action in the skies over Banda Aceh. James from Australia is helping me push 55-gallon drums through the sticky mud from the nights monsoon deluge at the airport, so we can fuel HCM. Joel who handles the flight scheduling, also from Australia is busy opening up the helicopter for our first load of cargo to go in along with bringing out the distressed team from “Folks with many Doctors”. My teammate is up taking the covers off the main rotor head and the engine that help keep out the deluge of rain during the night. Across the flight line we can already hear the chop of the Australian Army Hueys as they are already taking into the air. All over the flight line engines are coming on line and blades are turning up.

7:10 AM We are fueled, loaded up, turned up and calling the control tower for departure clearance. Much as expected I am told to go and report 5 minutes out. Flying here is defiantly the “wild wild west”, right now. There are no rules to speak of, and very little control except maintain 1000 feet outbound and 500 coming in and nobody should be hurt at the end of the day. See and avoid is the survival rule of the day from an aviation standpoint. We make the pick up of the “Folks with Many Doctors”, they are quite relived to see us. Back to base at Banda Aceh, call tower next to Sultan pass, getting a call in edgewise is like pulling hen’s teeth. Tower says report left base to the helicopter spots realizing, that I will be lucky to get a turning final call out before landing. We usually settle for a safe on the ground call to the control tower.

8:10 AM The team of doctors and their emergency triage kits from “Folks in the western US” has arrived for transport a hard hit village called Lamno about 25 minutes flying to the south and is ready to go. HCM is out bound on what will be the routine for this day, and all the other days. We head outbound as I pass over the coastal side of Banda Aceh city, and see the devastation below me. I can’t help but think of the young man at the airport who told us how he had been married for only a month. How excited he and his wife had been when she landed a job at one of the better stores in the lower part of town. I looked down and wondered in all the wreckage which was the store that she had worked in? Newly weds looking forward to a happy life together. Home and a family, now the young groom can not even find his bride to give her a proper good bye, she like thousands of others lost to mountain of water that crashed ashore here. I am glad in many ways that I am busy flying, getting position reports out on the radio, and watching out for all the other air traffic. The busyness and attention demanded by flying in a high traffic environment like a major relief operation, does not allow my mind to have time to wander and reflect for to long on the devastation passing below us.

I make two more relief flights by 1 PM, in-between

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