Story and Photos Tim Neufeld
If you ask a student pilot what their favourite required study topic is, very few will answer Meteorology. Lapse rates, temperature/dew point spreads, fronts, troughs, isobars and isotachs can be a bit hard to get excited about.
In the mountains of Papua New Guinea, learning to read the weather conditions, and anticipate what the day holds seems to be more of an art than a science. With the absence of reliable weather forecasting and reporting (better now than in the past, thanks in large part to websites like windy.com), MAF PNG has a chapter in one of our manuals that describes the predominant weather patterns. For our base in Goroka it can be condensed down to “if the morning is really poor weather, you can expect good flying weather in the afternoon and vice versa.”
For me, the weather briefing for the day comes in the morning while waiting for the kettle to boil for making coffee. A quick look out the window tells me if the ridgelines are clear, if there is blue sky, or if we are completely fogged in.
Weather plays a huge part in the pilots’ workload and decision making during a day of flying.
We are flying in and around mountains, landing on grass or dirt strips. Even if there are no clouds to contend with for landing, we have to know how wet the strip is for braking, and then again for being able to take-off.
Some days we get really lucky; the sky is clear and empty of any clouds, the wind is calm. It is on days like this that the pilots can really put energy on moving quickly, and try to move quickly to get as much done as possible. The demand for flights is never-ending, so being able to fit in one more leg than planned on a good day can make a big impact on someone in a remote community.
Conversely, on days that the weather is very poor and flying safely requires us to slow down, there can be moments found that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Sometimes we need to just sit and wait for the rain to pass, or clouds to clear. It is moments like these when we can stop what we are doing and just visit. This is such a great way to ‘tok stori’ (Tok Pisin for chatting) with people in communities where usually we just come in and out as quickly as possible. We can learn about the people, the challenges, life and loss in these places.
Often, the medevacs that we are called to do are for women experiencing difficulty in labour. Our hearts are heavy when we fly a woman whose labour has gone on too long or has had complications and the little life has already ended. Sometimes, the mother has walked or been carried for days just to get to an airstrip and the hope of medical intervention. Life in this country can be so hard; and the stories so heart-wrenching. Other times there is the joy of a new life. On one occasion this month, a baby was born on the MAF plane en route to Goroka!
On the MAF PNG website, you can read about this joyful moment. Click HERE.
In a few communities, there are missionaries. We know that if we ever needed, there would be a hot cup of coffee and an excellent conversation waiting for us if the valley system they are in was not allowing us a safe flight out.
So it could be said that the weather is actually very interesting, for you never know what it is going to give you on any given day… Just that it will probably be different than yesterday!