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.

Geogrid reinforcement

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”.

 

17 Nov

On 13th July 2020, a 23-foot boat departed in calm seas from Wuvulu, bound for Wewak, with 6 adults aboard. When the boat didn’t arrive that evening, as was expected, an alert was raised. MAF was contacted the next day and asked for help to search for the boat and pilots Wilfred Knigge and Andy Symmonds got involved in the search. This is the story and personal reflections of how it all played out, written by pilot Wilfred Knigge.

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’ve landed at Mount Hagen. Andy, a colleague pilot from Wewak, tells me something is going on around a missing boat near the East Sepik capital. We quickly walk to the operations manager’s office for some clarity. There are hardly any details. All we know is that a boat went from Wuvulu Island to Wewak but failed to arrive there at the agreed time.

The previous day, Monday, I’d been on Wuvulu. I’d loaded the maximum number of people and cargo but couldn’t take two passengers because they would have exceeded the maximum take-off weight.

The two had found that a bit annoying, of course, but luckily a boat was leaving later that day. They could travel that way.

I realised that the two passengers I left behind were on the missing boat. They weren’t strictly my passengers, but it felt like they were. In fact, I felt very involved, partly because of my role in it.

We quickly left Hagen. The clouds were getting darker and as we sat course, Hagen town had already been swallowed by the rain. Fortunately the Sepik, where we were heading, was only slightly cloudy with a lot of blue sky. We left the bad weather behind and flew into some beautiful weather.

That evening we were told the search would continue tomorrow. There was still no concrete information, but we knew where the boat departed from and where it was going. The plan was to leave early in the morning, but not as early as in the dark. We called the company that provides fuel at the airport and asked if they could be there extra early. Everyone went the extra mile to ensure a good outcome of the search. My day off was going in the trash, but at that point I didn’t mind. That’s why we are here: to help.

The quest

Andy has experience in flying patrol and search operations. That’s a huge asset to MAF PNG. And Wewak is the best place to have him stationed, the only base we have on the sea.

On Wednesday morning we came up with a plan and gathered as much data from as many sources as possible: wind and ocean currents; time of disappearance; how long had they been drifting. We tried to calculate and reason everything. But at the same time we found that we were not equipped or enough experienced for this kind of mission.

It was my first time and Andy did have experience but with different resources and different circumstances. He told me that there are much more data on wind and currents available in Europe.

We took off from Wewak and began the search almost immediately. We all put on life jackets because we planned to fly up to 200 km from the coast. Initially we planned to fly at 600 meters, but clouds made it impossible to search well, so we dropped to 300 meters.

After almost six hours of flying on reduced power for maximum flight time, we landed at Wewak again. Unfortunately, with no result. It was unclear if the search would resume the next day, so we prepared as much as we could, just in case.

In the evening it became clear that we would resume searching the next day. We now had two extra men as observers. One of them left on a boat from a neighboring island on the same day as the missing boat. He had a good idea of the wind and currents at the time and, together with him, we decided on a new plan of which area to search.

We took off again early Thursday morning and did the same as the day before: life jackets on, low over the water, flying a pattern for six hours in a row and continuously looking out in the hope of finding the missing boat.

Unfortunately, not found this day either. I was frustrated and disappointed. We should have been able to find them. Was the lack of data a bigger problem than estimated? It was disappointing, but there was nothing we could do.

That evening it was decided, the search had been canceled. The boat had been missing for more than 80 hours and the search area expanded every hour. The weather models were contradictory, one indicated an easterly flow and another a westerly flow.

Where should we look then?

In my head

Over the following days the search haunted my mind. Every time I saw the sea, I thought of them. I wanted to go out to sea again, search further. But it would have been just foolish to continue. The boat may have drifted more than 300 km from its original location. Impossible!

It became clear to me that this action was affecting me more than I cared to admit. I didn’t say too much about it and my wife Harriëtte didn’t pick up the sporadic signals either.

I was tired from the many flying hours and needed rest. I did nothing all Saturday, but the thoughts remained.

The relief

On Sunday we had a joint service with other mission organisations on the hill overlooking the sea near Wewak. I stood outside on the hill looking at the sea, looking for a white boat bobbing around. They must be somewhere.

It was clear to me now that I had to process this and talk about it. I know we did everything we could, but it felt like failure. We didn’t find them.

At the end of the church service, I look out over the water again. I spot a white boat bobbing up and down. For a moment I thought, ’What if…?’ but it’s impossible. There were many other boats around and no one was heading for this boat. It must have been someone fishing.

Several people heard the story and Harriëtte shares it with someone. We went home.

Half an hour later the phone rings. It’s the person Harriette spoke to. He has a guard from Wuvulu at his compound who knew about the missing boat. The guard said a call had come from Jayapura just that morning. The missing boat washed up there and all the occupants were alive.

They had drifted at sea for almost six days, without paddles, sails and without means of communication.

What a huge relief. No more worries; no more asking if we could have done better.

Joy and gratitude. And next time, we’ll find them!

 

 

 

The need for lifesaving flights is greater during some weeks than others. This particular week five people from different rural villages were medevaced by our pilots Joseph Tua and Jan Ivar Andresen. Saving several weeks on rough bush tracks and rivers with only a few minutes in the air. 

The first medevac of the week took place, Monday. 

”I had just taken off from Mt Hagen and got a message that there was a medevac needed in a place called Aiambak”, says Joseph Tua.

The patient was a woman who had lost a lot of blood and whose bleeding couldn’t be controlled. The woman lived in a village even further away from the airstrip and had been brought there on a canoe taking more than four hours. 

” When I got to Aiambak I could clearly see that she was very weak and close to losing consciousness. We loaded her into the cabin as gently as we could and then I took her and her guardian to Kiunga where the ambulance was waiting for us. If they had to take her to Kiunga on foot, I believe it would have taken them at least two days”, Joseph continues. 

 

Tuesday early morning it was time for the next medevac. A young woman had been badly beaten by her relatives and she had lost all feeling in her lower limbs and couldn’t walk or move her feet. Joseph received the message the night before and prepared the aircraft to be ready for an early take off. 

“The weather was good, and I was able to get into the village early morning. The patient and her family were already waiting at the airstrip when I arrived and with their help, we loaded her into the plane along with her two guardians”.

A journey that would have demanded at least four days of bush tracking and travel with canoe, was now accomplished with a 20-minute flight.

The third call for a medevac came from Mougulu. Pilot Jan Ivar Andresen had just come back from flying passengers from Port Moresby to Mt Hagen and was about to call it a day when he found out that two people urgently needed to go to the hospital. As there is only one stretcher in the aircraft, he quickly had to find a second one before heading off to Mougulu.

A young man had fallen from a tall coconut tree and was unconscious for 1 ½ hours and clearly injured his back. The other passenger was a pregnant woman expecting her second child. Sally Lloyd describes the situation.

“She was at our clinic for the delivery. She was into the fourth day of labour with strong contractions and attempting to deliver the baby for many, many hours, but she could not deliver. She began to lose strength, and by the morning she was totally exhausted, and health workers knew she or the baby might not make it if we delayed”. 

When Jan-Ivar arrived at the airstrip, they started to load the woman on the first stretcher. But she had a hard time lying down, so she ended up sitting in the back seat, and the man was placed lying down.  

After 35 minutes in the air, they reached Kiunga where the ambulance was waiting. 

Jan-Ivar had once flown a medevac when the woman had been in labour for three days and the baby didn’t make it, so he thought that saving the mother was the only possibility.

“I was so happy when I received a photo of the mother and the baby two days later, with both of them looking good and strong. Walking to the hospital would have taken 6-7 days and would not have been an option at all in their condition”, he says. 

Another lifesaving flight. 

The last medevac of the week happened Friday afternoon.

“This day was supposed to be my day off, but I had a feeling that I might be needed so I stuck by my phone. And sure enough I got a call around 9 am that a medevac might be needed in a place called Suki” explanes Joseph. 

Suki is located in the Western corner of Papua New Guinea close to the border of Indonesia 50 minutes south of Kiunga, so the team tried to find another alternative.

“For some reason I already knew I was going to do it, so I got myself and my gear ready and headed to the office around noon. About 15 minutes after stepping into the office it was confirmed that I was doing the medevac and I got my aircraft up and ready and departed for Suki”.

The passenger was a young man who was hit by a spear in the groin. He wasn’t able to sit down and when he laid down, he couldn’t move by himself because of the pain. The man was loaded onto the plane as the weather was getting worse. 

“I was quickly running out of daylight. The weather reported at Daru was good, so I was happy to continue, and we got to Daru right at 5 pm where the ambulance was waiting. Without the aircraft, it would have taken them a week or two to either get to Daru or Kiunga from Suki”.  

So, in a total of 142 minutes in the air, instead of three to four weeks by foot, five people with life threatening conditions were brought to hospitals. 

A week of flying-for-life indeed. 

‘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.