‘Seeing a young boy fall and scrape his knee, I walked over to check and see if he was alright.  But the attention of the “whiteskin” captain was too much, the young boy was afraid and ran off’.  States Richie Axon.

Although this is a typical reaction to our expat pilots, Richie decided to try another approach.  He pulled out of his Bible Box (link to story on Bible Box) a Children’s Bible with pictures.  He sat down in the shade of the airplane wing and opened the book.  Immediately several children as well as a few mothers gathered around him as he slowly showed the pictures and read the Tok Pisin words and storied a little with them about it.

Finding meaning beyond simply flying here is at the heart of Richie and his wife Bernie’s desire to work here in Papua New Guinea.  Based out of Telefomin, a small community nestled in the remote highlands of PNG, they have a passion for ministry beyond the use of aircraft.  Bernie’s passion is children’s books and Bibles and after starting with stock they bought themselves with help from their supporters in Australia MAF Australia found out about it, and she was blessed with boxes of such books sent on the container that comes up with aircraft parts every so often.

Since MAF Technologies (CRMF), who supplies the Bibles for our Bible Boxes, has had some difficulties getting their latest shipment in, Richie’s Bible Box has been filled with these Children’s Bibles and Christian Story Books.  This day was no different as he was being checked into his final Class D (short and/or steep slope) strip in the Sepik river valley, Busilmin, with Paul Woodington. The technical aspects that make this strip a Class D are partly due to the fact that it is in a side valley, off a high valley and due to the steep terrain, from the parking area on the strip it is not possible to see down into the main valley to know if there are clouds such that would make a flight not possible.  A pilot needs to be set up and prepared to make an immediate turnaround and land if when he pulls off the ground and gets a look down the valley and sees impenetrable clouds.

The village is a 20-minute walk from the airstrip, so unless they are expecting the plane, it will take some time before they show up once you have landed.  Although typically you will always have a few kids there almost immediately, curious about the plane, what it brings and who is flying it.  And this day was no different, thus, Richie’s opportunity to sit in the shade and read to the children, as a way to bring the injured boy closer to make sure he was OK, which he was.

Today they had a little extra time as well because they had been informed by staff when they left Telefomin that there was a medical patient needing transport to a hospital.  Due to weather and the time of day, they decided that they could wait for 1 hour for the patient to arrive and still be able to drop the patient at a hospital and get back to home base before weather set in for the day and darkness fell. The patient arrived in time and the flight was completed as planned.  And Richie went home thankful that he had packed the Bible Story Books and had an opportunity to share with them in the shade of the wing.

This story is told by Marijke Muilwijk, based in Telefomin, after she had the opportunity to join a Medevac flight with her husband Pilot Piet in the end of August. 

Last Saturday Piet was asked to fly a medevac. A woman with a broken back was reported. A MAF lady suggested to babysit our boys so that I could join Piet. A golden opportunity!

The flight was beautiful! We picked up the woman at a remote airstrip in the middle of the mountains. The woman had no broken back but was very ill. She was thin, covered in sores and trembling a lot. She was in a lot of pain.

We understood that the men from the village had walked for 2.5 days to go to a place where they had range to call MAF. And then 2.5 days back.

Just before departure I saw several women walking up to the sick woman and putting money and some food in her bag. The woman who accompanied her also took a large bunch of bananas. I wondered why.

After a quiet flight, (luckily for the woman no turbulence) she was transferred to the hospital in the town of Tari.

The question about the chucked in money and food was solved. They don’t get anything to eat in the hospital. They have to rely on the care of wantoks (family). People from the bush take food with them to sell in order to buy other things they need. Fortunately, the medical care itself is good in this hospital, they had 5 doctors, someone said proudly!

On the way back we made another stop at the village where we had picked up the woman. From Tari we had taken people who had to go back to this village. One of them was a teenage boy. And truly, that boy was all happiness and joy! He just kept giggling and smiling. He punched me a few times and was so happy, “I’m going home” he said. And when we got home it turned out that the love and longing was from both sides! Just priceless!

What a beautiful morning to experience together like this!

Carin LeRoy and her husband, Dale, serve with Pioneers. They were church-planting missionaries from 1982 – 1994 in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea. Over the years they have returned for visits and each time MAF has flown them to their former home in the jungle. In this story Carin shares about their work and how MAF has been a lifeline in their mission. 
The roar of the engine buzzed in our ears as we journeyed interior. We were headed to the Western Province in the country of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Visibility was nonexistent on this day in 1982. We flew through thick clouds inside a six-seat Cessna 206 plane. My husband and I had just arrived as new missionaries, and our MAF pilot was flying us to our first assignment.  Being cocooned in this metal cubbyhole with wings put my nerves on edge, and all I could see were billows of white. I hoped the pilot knew where he was going in these murky skies.
After about fifty minutes, the pilot turned to look at us and broke the silence.

“Do you see the ground anywhere?”

When your pilot asks that question while you are flying at 5,000 feet, it sends you into a panic. Fear swamped me when I realized he couldn’t find his way.

What? Does the pilot know where we’re going? We’re going to die before we make it to our first assignment.

My husband and I looked out the windows to help locate ground, except I focused more on the fear while my husband looked for trees or dirt – or anything that looked like a place to land. Eventually, toward the left, we saw a break in the clouds that revealed ground far below. The pilot banked the plane to pop down through the opening and get below the cloud cover. With good visibility, the entire landscape came into view. He easily navigated to touch down on the gravel airstrip in Kiunga. As I stepped off the plane, I took a deep breath of relief when my feet stood on solid ground again. We had arrived at this little town on the Fly River in the middle of vast rainforest.

Yehebi airstrip 1990 where LeRoy worked.

I didn’t know this was normal for air travel in PNG, one of the most dangerous areas in the world to fly. The difficult terrain and unpredictable weather patterns created challenging conditions for any pilot. Tropical storms could start in minutes without warning and fog-clad mountains weren’t for inexperienced pilots. Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilots were some of the best trained in the country. In the l980s, these pilots didn’t have the GPS navigational devices in small planes that most have now. They flew by sight, maps, and their knowledge of the area by using rivers, villages, and other landmarks to find remote locations. Pilots flew at a high altitude, sometimes in dense clouds, until they were clear of the highlands. Once they reached the lowland areas, then they descended.

We were safe all along. Yet, my lack of knowledge made me jump to a fast conclusion and react in fear. To this day, I wonder if our pilot was trying to add a little “excitement” to our maiden flight into a remote area. The pilot knew how to navigate the plane. I didn’t. With understanding of the intricacies of flying in PNG, I soon learned what to expect on a flight.

Over our years of living and serving in a church planting ministry as missionaries, we built an airstrip and lived remotely in the Western Province with a small tribe. It was MAF that serviced us and brought us everything we needed, all our food and supplies. As our station grew, we needed building supplies, roofing iron, water tanks, plumbing supplies, nails, fuel, and gas tanks. Then when a medical clinic came and a small store was set up, they flew in medicines and items for the store. They carried in the work parties and teams that assisted us during the summer months.

Delivery of building supplies and fuel.

As our family grew to five, MAF flew us out each time to await birth and back in again with our new baby. Our children grew up loving “our” pilots, and the arrival of a plane was a big event for the village and our children. One Christmas when our son was about four, he opened a parcel that had come for our family. He held it high and said, “Look at what Uncle Roy gave to me!” He attributed all the things that arrived on the plane as a gift from our pilot.

“Actually, Grandma mailed that to you, but Uncle Roy flew it in for us.”

During our years living remotely, we had several family medical emergencies. It was our pilots who took care of making sure we got the medical help we needed. When our young son overdosed on a medication, the pilot flew in two missionary doctors. That enabled him to receive a drip that helped to dilute the medicine in his system while we flew to a hospital. Our son’s life hung in a delicate balance for eighteen hours, but by the grace of God, he survived. Had we not been flown out; it is likely our son would have died.

Dale LeRoy with the son and the two doctors, 1986.

Without their efforts, we could not have lived remote as a family to reach a tribal people that needed to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. MAF was our lifeline to the outside world and the carrier of all things our family needed. They were also instrumental in helping the community by flying in the equipment we needed to improve the lives of the villagers.

MAF pilots are the heroes who selflessly service remote areas. Dotted around the world are small communities made better by the efforts of those who fly and serve those in forgotten places. Their work shows the heart of God. Isaiah reminds us, “the spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound,” (Isaiah 61: 1 ESV).

Steven and Markus flying us on a visit in 2016.

By the grace of God, we planted a church that is still alive and growing, but it may not have happened without the help and service of our friends from Missionary Aviation Fellowship. It’s an important partnership that has helped to carry out the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. Let’s celebrate their decades of faithful service.

 

Carin writes about those years of adventures in her newly released book, Where No Roads Go, Trusting God Through Challenges and Change.

LeRoys in PNG 2016

Singing people, dancing in their most festive clothing expressing their joy and appreciation was the scene that welcomed pilots Richie Axon and Paul Woodington as they brought in the first aircraft after 22 years of isolation into Yalum. The airstrip was closed due to civil unrest, but the need and longing for an open door through aviation caused the people to come together in peace talks and step up to clear the runway so that MAF once again can serve the community.

It was a fine and sunny morning when the pilots prepared the test landing for Yalum. The airstrip with its 450 meters and 2.4 % slope is a great challenge which limits the load of the aircraft and demands certain safety measures. The RAA (Rural Airstrip Authority) had done a survey a month before, but the pilots needed to confirm the length and that the clearway was free from obstacles. Richie Axon describes the event before landing.

“We took our time to fly around the airstrip and orient ourselves. We flew two low level inspection passes to examine the airstrip. Then I flew an approach down to short final and carried out a go around to evaluate what would be our ’committal point’ and Paul Woodington flew the first landing”.

Surprising survey

Yalum is located in the Enga Province and has around 10-12 000 people living in the surrounding eight council wards. Peter Pyandea from RAA was one of the men who conducted the survey before the test landing. He says that it took a full day of driving from Goroka to reach Laiagam, the closest town, where they spent the night before they continued the next day for another hour by car and 7-8 hours walking to reach the Yalum airstrip.

“I was expecting to see trees and bushes growing but was really surprised to see that the airstrip was clean”, he says. “It was much better than I expected”.

The community had come together and cleared the airstrip of grass, trees and had put up a fence. The only feedback from the survey was some loose gravel in the line area that needed to be buried and that they needed to move the fencing a little bit.

“The community had done most of the work, which really showed that they need this airstrip”, says Peter.

Changing history

The communities around Yalum have been suffering from civil unrest for many years, and it was when a group of armed men attempted to storm the aircraft to attack a passenger that they felt was their enemy, that the airstrip was closed with immediate effect over 20 years ago.

Fortunately, the attempt failed, and the police became involved. But with difficulties and distrust within the relationships in the communities continuing, the airstrip remained closed and started to overgrow.

Until now. The people didn’t want to live in isolation anymore and after encouragement and pressure from a few key leaders, the villages came together last year for peace talks and started mobilizing for change. And together they cleared and prepared the airstrip.

God’s servants

When MAF landed this test flight the community was waiting with a large singsing group.

” We were greeted with handshakes and smiles by some of the community and church leaders. It was obvious that a lot of work had gone into preparing and the community leaders kept saying how much they appreciated the airstrip being reopened”, says Richie.

With the challenging short airstrip which limits the amount of people and cargo that can be flown in and out, the village was encouraged to work with RAA to try to extend the airstrip which could then open up more possibilities. Richie greeted the people with a short speech.

“It’s a privilege to reopen the airstrip. We appreciate the effort you have put in to improve the airstrip to a level that we can operate again. But don’t look at MAF as your lifeline, see us as God’s servants to you. I hope our coming here will remind you that you are not forgotten, even though you don’t have access to “normal” services.”