Story by Satish Moka. Photos by Satish Moka (SM) and Mathias Glass (MSG, cover photo)

The series of flights crisscrossing the country would eventually bring us back to our base at Mt Hagen only by about five o’ clock, the usual time for afternoon showers. Having been forewarned to prepare for an overnight stay, in the not so unlikely case of bad weather, I was ready for a packed schedule of flying with Pilot Mathias Glass. Flying in the co-pilot’s seat as an observer is part of MAF’s in-country introduction and training process to eventually transition to the left-hand side controls of the aircraft. So, on completion of the flight planning and associated paperwork, we got off to a delayed start, the last thing we wanted on such a packed day, because of some fuelling issues. 

Fairly confident of making up the forty minutes delay with few quick turnarounds, we headed off north to the village of Simbai. Descending down into the bowl surrounded by towering hills, Mathias skill-fully manoeuvred his plane along the narrow valley as I frantically searched for the elusive airstrip. As we came around a spur, I could finally see the narrow strip and I was wondering how we would be able to land, as we had quite some height to lose. Following the established procedure, the pilot turned the plane away from the airstrip and into the valley, losing height in the process. Creating space for himself he turned the plane around in the narrow valley and I was getting a glimpse of what true bush flying was. As we were perfectly positioned on short final, Mathias’ call, “Committed to land” indicated that it was a one-way strip and there was
no turning back from this point onwards. 

Simbai – with hills all around (SM)

We touched down smoothly and taxied uphill along the bumpy slope of this airstrip and managed to unload the passengers and the cargo of blankets and trade store goods. It was indeed a quick turnaround and I could see the smile of satisfaction on Mathias’ face as we had cut down our deficit by a good twenty minutes.

The lovely blue sky with puffs of cumulus made for perfect flying as we were headed out to the highland town of Goroka. Enroute, we had a rare glimpse of the majestic Mount Wilhelm, the tallest mountain in Papua New Guinea, normally covered in clouds. I was lost in awe, struck by the sheer rocky faces of these towering mountains, while Mathias was busy on the radio coordinating with another aircraft. We finally saw the tiny speck of white, red and blue crossing us at 9 o’ clock low; a fellow MAF plane from Goroka heading to Simbai. Now we could descend safely through the Asaro pass into the valley ahead. 

Stony face – Mt Wilhelm in the background (SM)

 

Preparing the aircraft for a casket meant the removal of two double seats and refitting a single seat after loading the casket. This reconfiguration work and delay by the passengers meant we were back to square one with respect to our time schedule. As often happens in such situations, we were further delayed on the ground because of other air traffic. No wonder, as soon as we were airborne and set for cruise, we were busy doing mental calculations about time in hand and options available. We worked out that we were still in a safe zone provided we had no further delays.

The weather was still holding and that was a good sign. The leg to Kawito would be the longest leg today and within half an hour we were flying over a blanket of white clouds. The HF call to our base gave us the information that the weather was good enough for landing at Kawito. As we approached closer, we picked up a hole in the cloud-layer, descended through it and finally got a glimpse of the Aramia River which flows next to the airstrip. We positioned the aircraft and landed at the grassy airstrip at Kawito to a big gathering of villagers prepared for the traditional mourning called “haus krai”. Unloading the casket to the wails of the mourners did not distract us from the primary work of refuelling and reconfiguring the aircraft. We did manage a very healthy turnaround at Kawito, courtesy of the smart work of the ground team led by Billy Melesa.

Unloading the casket at Kawito (SM)

 

We quickly got airborne again and stayed at two thousand feet below the layer of low clouds on our way up north to Kiunga. The fact that we had about fifteen knots of tailwind brought cheer to us as we flew above the lowlands of Western Province, whilst being acutely conscious of the headwinds that awaited us on our return trip. 

The lowlands are predominantly flat, with brown muddy rivers winding their way through the endless swamps and forests. Once in a while, a ribbon of red mud cuts through this carpet of green leading to a river, the dirt tracks created by the lumber industry, but not a single road – either paved or unpaved.

Tracks left by lumber industry (SM)

 

The clouds seemed more ominous as we approached Kiunga. It seemed even the weather wanted to add to our woes. We flew around the patches of rain and worked our way towards Kiunga, just to land before the heavens poured down. As if the weather wasn’t enough, the drivers of the fuel bowser were missing in action and this meant further delays. A small respite in the rain and we were energetically hand pumping out fuel into the plane, still hoping to make it in time. Rumginae based pilot Steve Eatwell was to accompany us back to Mt Hagen along with the passengers to Kawito. We made the most of the window offered by the rain and were soon airborne heading back to Kawito.

Rivers – vital for transportation (SM)

 

The return trip was a battle against the winds and clouds. We climbed up to five thousand feet which gave us lesser headwinds but we were forced back down to three thousand feet because of the clouds. The IFR (Instrument) pilot in me was beginning to understand the struggles of a VFR (Visual) pilot who needs to keep clear of clouds. Radio messages to Kawito, weather updates from Mt Hagen and our continuing mental math revealed that a thirty-minute turnaround at Kawito would still give us a safe window to fly back to Mt Hagen. A smooth touchdown on the grassy strip and I was all set for a quick departure. 

As we were slowing down, the composed voice of Mathias stating that we probably have a flat tyre was the first indication of an issue at hand, to a surprised me. He tried clearing the aircraft away from the runway. But when he shut down the engine we still had the plane’s tail jutting onto the runway. We quickly unloaded the plane with the help of some villagers. Using engine power and the now lighter condition, we managed to move the plane just clear of the runway, thus enabling another body charter to land on the field. Mathias’ quick thinking in keeping the airfield open is so essential in these parts of the world, as often the runway is the only link for any further rescue, even for our own aircraft. 

Having secured the plane for the night, as we walked along the airstrip towards the base, it was time for a hearty laugh at the turn of events. The unplanned end of today’s flying at Kawito meant that three MAF pilots would be spending an evening together (a rare occurrence in PNG because of the flying activity and dispersed locations over which MAF operates) with nothing to disturb, even cell phones. We experimented with our culinary skills to turn the little food we had into a proper meal and then had a near candlelit dinner (to avoid the swarms of lowland flies) before we retired to sleep after an exhausting day.

MAF plane parked off the runway giving safe space for other aircraft to land (SM)

 

 

The next morning, our rescue aircraft was in the form of an Airvan with Pilot Tim Neufeld, the ever dependable Engineer Lazarus Nuleya and the pleasant face of Reji Yosuvaraj, our Flight Scheduler and Logistics Officer making use of the available space in the Airvan. Having handed over the tools and the new tyre, the Airvan departed with Pilot Steve and leaving Lazarus with us for the repairs. 

Our new tyre arrives (SM)

 

The art of changing an airplane tyre at an airstrip I realised, amongst other things, also involves substantial spadework (literally). After a couple of hours in the lowland sun and with smears of grease and mud to prove our efforts, we had the plane ready with a brand new tyre. The ever-willing villagers were present all along and fetched us a few green coconuts even without having been asked. After a few hours in the sun, I must admit that it was the sweetest coconut I have ever had.

Spade, timber, jack and ingenuity (SM)

 

As Steve my pilot on “The Double Rescue Act” queried, “What is it with Satish and flat tyres?“

Read the story about the Double Rescue Act HERE.