It’s the local communities!

In 2017, our MAF aircraft landed on 217 different airstrips across the mainland of Papua New Guinea, which is more airstrips than airlines like Qantas or Lufthansa land at.

It is not an easy task to keep the little bush airstrips in operational condition to comply with the high MAF standards for safety. Keeping the grass cut all the time in a tropical climate, and having a good drainage system to prevent the airstrip from being soggy is very time-consuming. Imagine if your little airstrip doesn’t get a lot of traffic, but you are still having to cut the grass all the time by hand, just in case there’s a medevac or other need.

MAF pilot Remi van Wermeskerken (MG)

“This is one of the biggest struggles we have as pilots,“ says Remi van Wermeskerken.  “Whether to close an airstrip or not if it’s not maintained to a safe standard.“

Because it is quite challenging to encourage the communities to keep their grass cut, a small NGO called Rural Airstrip Agency, RAA, was formed a few years ago by an ex-MAF pilot. RAA gets funding from the government to bring lawnmowers and fuel to many of these communities. It’s working and RAA is doing a great job. But since they don’t have airplanes, they depend on MAF to bring the fuel and one of their personnel to each airstrip on a regular basis. The worker checks the condition of the lawnmower and gives instruction to the community on how to maintain the airstrips. It makes the life of our MAF pilots a lot easier and safer!

By mid February, it was time again for the RAA’s quarterly charter flights out of Mt Hagen to airstrips in the Enga and Western Provinces. While the Cessna Caravan was the perfect plane to do the long sectors towards Western Province, the GA8 Airvan was chosen to do the trips to the Enga airstrips.

Originally based at Madang, Remi van Wermeskerken had to come and overnight at Mt Hagen in order to do three continuous days of flying for RAA to stock up the fuel and bring the RAA worker to many airstrips. 

“It’s fun,“ says Remi. “Knowing that together we’re making the lives of the villagers a lot easier is a great thing!.“

But it is also hard work for our pilots and requires a lot of flexibility and creativity on the spot. Often enough, a nicely planned flight schedule gets shaken for various reasons no-one could have foreseen. 

Below, Remi shares some of his experiences from his third and last day of the February RAA charters:

 

An Early Take-off: Things don’t go as Planned 

It was going to be a regular day of flying, taking fuel and lawnmowers to several small airstrips we service with our MAF planes. The route for that day was: Mt. Hagen-Lapalama-Iropena-Yomneki-Mt Hagen-Maramuni-Eleme-Mt. Hagen. 

 

Lapalama airstrip (MSG)

 

The afternoon before, I made sure all was ready, only to find out that the jerry cans of fuel weren’t filled yet, the money to pay the airstrip workers hadn’t been asked for yet, and no one had checked the condition of the airstrips. I asked the RAA worker, who was in charge of the flights, fuel, and lawnmowers, if at least he could be at the airport at 6 am the next morning for an early start before some of the airstrips close because of the weather. He guaranteed that he would. 

So now the race was on to try and take out K 10,000 from finance to pay the airstrip workers. That was completed just before the finance people went home for the afternoon. Then we found out that there was major fighting in Iropena and Yomneki so we had to cancel going there. To only go to Lapalama, wouldn’t be cost effective so the route was changed to only one round: Mt Hagen-Lapalama-Maramuni-Eleme-Mt Hagen. Except…..that I hadn’t been to Eleme before so had to ask experienced pilots who recently have been there about the condition of the airstrip, dangers, peculiarities, and other pertinent information so that I could then ask the Flight Operations Manager for approval to land there. 

The next morning, I was ready to take off at 6 am but the RAA staff was not to be found. He showed up almost an hour late with the reason that, “he was afraid to walk to the MAF base in the dark.” So we got a later start than I had planned on. Then I gave him the K10,000 that I had received from MAF the previous evening and he started counting it and then counted it again, and then split it up in small amounts to be divided between the airstrip workers. Then he started filling out lots of paperwork. Obviously, he wasn’t under any pressure to get anywhere or complete the flights. So I had to coach him along to work fast and consider doing things in the plane as we were flying to each destination.  

Then one of our base staff came to ask if we could help her load the lawnmower, “because she couldn’t do it by herself.“ Well, a lawnmower weights about 120kg!

A 120kg lawnmower needs a few hands to be loaded (RvW)

 

First Stop Lapalama: Another Delay

The first landing was uneventful at Lapalama. Except that the person holding the keys for the shed where their empty jerry cans were stored was nowhere to be found. So we couldn’t transfer the fuel to their jerry cans until the person finally showed up. So we had another delay and still lots to accomplish, especially because after three nights away from home, I wanted to get home to Madang to celebrate Valentine’s Day with my wife and another couple.

Transferring the lawnmower fuel into the community’s containers at Lapalama (RvW)

Maramuni: A Phone Call

Doing paperwork in the cockpit (RvW)

Next leg was to Maramuni where we had to replace a broken lawnmower with a new one. They weigh 120kg so are bulky and heavy. After landing in Maramuni, I was wondering why the RAA worker didn‘t get out of the plane after just having sat for half an hour in the plane, staring out of the window. He decided to then start doing his paperwork.

Transferring the fuel at Maramuni (RvW)

After unloading the new lawnmower and loading the broken one into the plane, instead of wasting my time, I thought I‘d just give the new lawnmower a try, only to find out that as soon as we put fuel in the tank, it was leaking all over and there were other issues. So we started taking apart the new mower and took parts from the old one to fix it. 

But then, my phone rang. Our head office wanted to know where I was and if I could do a very urgent medevac flight from a nearby village for a woman having serious difficulties in giving birth. So I had to figure out if I had enough fuel and time to do it. We figured it was possible but…..I‘d then have to fly from Kompiam, where the mission hospital is, back to Mt Hagen to get more fuel to complete the previously planned route. 

I asked the RAA worker if he would be ok if I left him in Maramuni for a couple of hours while doing the medevac. He was ok with it, especially because he had to get the new lawnmower running. I only had one extra seat in the plane which would be enough for the husband of the woman with the medical problems and I could then strap the woman down in the back as she couldn‘t sit up anyways. So off I went on a 15-minute flight to Malamaunda. 

Maramuni (RvW)

Stay tuned for Part 2 and continue reading how the rest of Remi’s flying day unfolded with the medevac and the remaining RAA mission of that day to Eleme. And also to find out if Remi managed to get home in time to celebrate Valentine’s Day with his wife.

 

 

Story Mandy Glass. Photos Remi van Wermeskerken (RvW), Mathias Glass (MSG), Mandy Glass (MG)