Recently the Watson family were invited to stay at Mibu, a newly opened airstrip in the Finisterre Range. Both Glenys, pilot for MAF since 2017 and Jonny, Technical Advisor for RAA, have a connection with the Mibu airstrip throughout the years of finalizing, opening and flying to the airstrip, and when they got an invitation from the NTM missionaries living and serving in Mibu to spend a weekend in the community, they were happy to come.
“We arrived in Mibu on Saturday morning and were greeted by a massive crowd of welcoming Mibus”, says Jonny.
“Because the long-awaited resupply of Tok Pisin Bibles had arrived at MAF Technologies (CRMF) on Friday the day before our departure, Glenys had refilled a Bible Box and taken it with us to Mibu. So as we unloaded the plane she introduced the Bible box to much delight from the crowd, especially the church leaders. “
They decided to sell the Bibles a bit later at the house where they would be staying in. And when they did open the Bible box, all the bibles were gone shortly after.
“Over the course of the afternoon the SD cards preloaded with Bible content were also all sold. Only a few solar powered audio bibles remained at the end of the weekend”, says Glenys.
Saturday afternoon the family had a sit-down question and answer time with the Mibu community on the airstrip.
“The topics ranged from how much it cost to fly with MAF to various locations, airstrip and road construction, to our story of how we came to be in PNG. We were grateful for Chris who acted as translator for us at times”, says Jonny.
The history of Mibu airstrip
It is estimated that the community started construction of the airstrip in 1989 using digging sticks and bamboo stretchers, before the New Tribes Missionaries (NTM) started work in Mibu in 2002. Although it wasn’t until 2006 that they began construction in earnest, digging the airstrip out of the side of a hill, aided by shovels and wheelbarrows. On 9 August 2018 the airstrip was opened, but unfortunately the same day the aircraft landing had a prop strike due to soft ground and the airstrip was closed.
After the prop strike incident, the RAA carried out an investigation into the soft ground issues and designed engineering measures to remediate the airstrip. Something that Jonny was very much involved with.
Part of the solution was subsoil drains across the runway. To construct these, 17 trenches were excavated across the runway and the Mibus carried gravel and cobbles in sacks from a nearby river about 1.2km away, and 350m below the level of the airstrip. In May 2021 RAA sent a field crew of four staff to work with the Mibu community to construct the subsoil drains and install geogrid reinforcement over the top of them, this treatment was applied to about 100m of the airstrip. Two months later the field crew returned to install more geogrid reinforcement, to create a 13.9m wide runway for nearly all the whole length of the airstrip.
“We believe that Mibu airstrip is the first and currently the only airstrip in rural PNG to have the geogrid reinforcement installed to address the issue of soft ground“, says Jonny.
“The whole airstrip was constructed and the geogrid was installed using hand tools only; shovels and wheelbarrows. The only powered tool was a jumping jack compactor, which fitted in the helicopter. The geogrid was flown by plane to the nearest airstrip; Nanakina, which is a 12 hour walk away from Mibu. From Nanakina is was slung under a helicopter to Mibu.“
The Watson connection
Once the RAA completed the work in August 2021 and a final assessment had been made the Mibus were really keen to have a plane land as soon as possible; they had completed years and years of hard work and it was time for the balus (plane) to come.
Jonny spoke to Brad Venter (MAF Flight Operations Manager) about the possibility of MAF going to Mibu. MAF went through their usual risk assessment process and deemed it acceptable. So, on Thursday 14 October Brad made the first landing, shortly followed by the second and the third landing.
On the second landing, Brad took long time NTM missionary, Chris Walker, who has been instrumental in helping the community open the airstrip including many hours on the end of a shovel alongside the Mibus”, Jonny says.
“Ten days later, I was checked into the Mibu airstrip, and it didn’t take long for the Mibus to make the connection between the ‘meri pilot’ and Jonny from the RAA”, says Glenys.
When Glenys then flew Chris Walker into Mibu in the beginning of November he invited the whole family to come and stay at Mibu over the weekend and said that the community would be delighted to have the family come and stay.
Since the first landing MAF has made several more landings at Mibu, already taking in medical, food and building supplies and taking out coffee. Coffee had previously been walked to the coast, a journey of 2 to 3 days.
Bush walks, waterfall and church
“On Sunday morning we went for a walk to Beng Village and then to and along a nearby river to swim beneath a beautiful waterfall, we had many local children as our guides, they helped us as we clambered over the rocks and did a great job looking after us”, says Jonny. Glenys continues.
“After a swim and a bit of time to dry we went to church. We were honored with special shaded seats; church was outside as there are too many people to hold the service inside the building. After a time of teaching, a drama and singing we were once again thanked by the Mibus with gifts for helping them with the airstrip and flying the MAF balus there, and for spending the weekend with them. It was truly humbling.”
On Saturday afternoon Jonny had shared with the church leaders about not being certain of what he would be doing when he came to PNG and was also grateful that he could help.
“When the Mibus thanked us, they shared that they had been praying for help with their airstrip, especially after the setbacks they experienced in 2018, and God answered their prayers through us.”
‘In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps (Proverbs 16:9)’.
“We are so glad that God has brought us into contact with the people of Mibu, because while they say that we had encouraged them for staying with them, we were equally encouraged by them; by their example of faith and their generosity”, says Jonny.
After church they had lunch together before they walked, mostly uphill, to Mibu village and then onto Tibu, where the missionary’s houses are, as well as the airstrip. Glenys sums up the weekend.
“Early Monday morning we loaded the plane with Mibu coffee and flew back to Goroka with memories that will last a long time”.