BOBETE, Lesotho -- The flight to this remote mountain village went smoothly until the very end, when a flock of sheep decided to run onto the grassy airstrip - straight into the path of a rapidly descending Cessna 206 Turbo.
"Dumb sheep," growled pilot Tim Vennell. Maneuvering quickly, he kept the single-engine plane aloft 150 feet farther than usual, something he'd rather not do on a strip just 1,800 feet long and nearly a mile and a half above sea level.
Seconds later, the six-seater landed, and out hopped a nurse and two trainers for caregivers of the terminally ill. And so, Vennell's Idaho-based Mission Aviation Fellowship once again did its part in a growing battle against the HIV/AIDS scourge in this battered southern African nation.
The religious fellowship has become a vital link in a new quest to improve health care for rural villagers cut off by poor or nonexistent roads. Their impoverished isolation is especially acute now, with snow painting the alpine landscape white and temperatures dropping below freezing.
The five red-and-white Cessnas transport doctors, nurses, anti-retroviral drugs for HIV, blankets, coal, food and any other supplies that can fit, including, once, live pigs. And they evacuate patients with emergencies to the capital, Maseru.
In short, the planes make possible the health project recently launched here by Partners in Health, a secular medical charity in Boston that works in rural areas of Haiti and seven other countries. The planes also make possible a support program for 2,000 AIDS orphans being led by Catholic Relief Services, which is based in Baltimore.
"We wouldn't even fathom the possibility of being here without [the flight service]," said Dr. Jennifer Furin of Partners in Health.
Since last year, the organization has begun projects here and at two other mountain health centers in Lesotho (pronounced Le-SOO-too), with seven more planned. The goal is eventually to reach 300,000 people who receive scant care and often no HIV treatment.
This village is technically accessible by car, but that requires a dangerous seven-hour trek along rutted dirt roads that snake up and over mountain peaks reaching 10,000 feet. The absence of guardrails explains the twisted hulks lying in deep ravines.
Safety aside, the half-hour flight from Maseru to Bobete saves time - and lives. "In this country, someone dies basically every 10 minutes from HIV and AIDS," said Furin. "For every hour that doctors and nurses and other health professionals are on the road, it's six people dead."
And unlike many African countries, Lesotho's HIV rate is higher in rural areas than in its few cities - one legacy of a system that sends thousands of men to South Africa's gold mines for work. About 25 percent of Lesotho's adults are thought to have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; in remote areas, Furin says, it's close to 50 percent.
In Bobete during the past six months, the number of people receiving HIV treatment has soared from zero to 231 and counting. While thousands more in the region probably need the lifesaving drugs, those are 231 lives that almost certainly would be lost without the drugs and, by extension, Mission Aviation Fellowship.
MAF, as it is known, has deep roots in Lesotho. It arrived in 1980 at the government's request to establish the Lesotho Flying Doctor Service. Wholly surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho is smaller than Maryland with just 2 million people, many sprinkled around small villages established near water and grazing for cattle.
For the Protestant evangelical aviation fellowship, founded in 1945, Lesotho offered a way to spread its mission of "overcoming barriers, transforming lives, building God's Kingdom." Worldwide, it works in 26 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with a key aim of moving missionaries over difficult terrain.
In Lesotho, Vennell always pauses before takeoff to say a prayer. But in some ways, the operation resembles any small-plane charter service; fewer than 3 percent of the flights are for missionaries or the church. Many Basotho, as Lesotho's people are called, know only that the planes are a force for good.
"I just know it has brought people who are going to help me," said Mamonehela Moalosi, 22, a mother who walked to a clinic one recent morning to have her 18-month-old son vaccinated.
Today, 90 percent of MAF's flights are health-related. Two-thirds of the total is for the Ministry of Health, including regular trips for nurses who commute to distant villages for vaccinations, prenatal care and family planning. A quarter is for groups such as Partners in Health, the Clinton Foundation, Catholic Relief Services and the United Nations.
"We fly anyone involved in helping the mountain people," said Vennell, a 36-year-old Texan who studied mission aviation technology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and lives in Maseru with his wife and five children.