Story by Satish Moka

 

‘Uniform’ doesn’t refer to a ‘pair of clothes of a certain color’ or ‘things of similar size’ or any of the twenty or so descriptions given in the Oxford Dictionary, in this place, it stands for P2-MFU, the venerable Twin Otter which is one of the workhorses of the MAF PNG program. If you can strain your ears and pick up those syllables, so surprisingly softly spoken in this world of steely engineers, you can hear a few more strange phrases like “fan gone U/S again in Uniform” (a malfunctioning fan in P2-MFU) or “Lima will come up by noon” (which has nothing to do with South America but our aircraft P2-MFL being handed over by the pilots for routine inspection at noon) and even simple things like “please pass me the flat and the ¾’ (a request for a flat screwdriver and a spanner of that size).

 

 

 

My attachment with the Engineering Department, which is part of my pilot’s training and familiarisation of how MAF PNG operates, started with the Monday morning briefing right after the Lotu (morning devotions before commencement of work for the day). What took me by complete surprise was that the briefings were literally Brief! Hangar Coordinator Lazarus Nuleya (Laz) curtly passed on the instructions and with an “em tasol” (‘that’s all’ in Tok Pisin), the purely functional briefing ended and within minutes the hangar was transformed into a beehive of activity. After Engineering Manager Tom Meeks welcomed me to the department, Chief Engineer John Kamalan (JK) briefed me on the safety aspects, the work planned and walked me to the hangar. At its centre, was the Caravan P2-MAG which came in for its 200 hourly inspection. Stripped of its engine cowling (covers), pilot and passenger seats and with several gaping hollows in the underside of wings and tail because of panels removed for inspection, the aircraft offered a totally different sight. Stepping inside, it was more like a dissected specimen in a biology lab – the usual plush white interior was now a bare metallic primer green and with the entire floor removed, it revealed the underbelly of MAG – control cables, several bright orange hoses, steely metal pipes and a bunch of thin white electrical wires in a tight loop running along the length and breadth of the frame right into the tail cone.

Coming outside, I could see a thick white folder on one side on a table which most of the engineers were frequently referring to – ‘the work package’.  The Maintenance Controller, Clay Walters, had already painstakingly assembled the ‘work package,’ which in addition to the routine maintenance activities associated with the inspection also included the ‘snags’ (defects in aircraft systems) reported by the pilots and a few observed by the engineers themselves. The package included routines on the Pratt and Whitney PT6A turbo-prop engine, flight controls, avionics and replacement of the propeller. 

Since I was scheduled to commence my conversion onto the Caravan in a month’s time I was more than excited at this prospect of working with  MAG. The most obvious thing that stares you in the eye is the engine, mounted right at the front is the steel behemoth, the engine – now devoid of the cowlings, the propeller and several fittings, and I walked towards it.

I could see Engineer Joseph Tambure working on the engine, slowly and steadily digging into the innards of the powerhouse. With his hands tangled within the maze of metal tubes of varying diameter, wielding a shining spanner and a torch, after a few agonising minutes, he managed to finally extract that specific valve, to access and inspect a certain ‘filter.’ The inspection was another ball game altogether, as he positioned himself into impossible angles trying to get a glimpse of that elusive filter. In spite of the magnifying mirror mounted on a telescopic antenna and the omnipresent torch, it took about a good quarter of an hour to finally get a decent peer at the ‘screen filter,’ which seemed to hide itself within the recesses of a small pipe. After a second opinion from JK, it was assessed that the visual inspection was satisfactory. Joseph signed off the work completed in the ‘work package folder’ and moved onto to the next job, removal of fuel nozzles, mounted along the circumference of the combustion chamber.

 

In the interim, my eye caught attention of the busy activity unfolding in the cockpit. Here I could see our sole lady engineer, Mechanical Trainee Amber Joy Mori, trying to affix a yellow bar across the two control columns (pilot yokes or steering wheels if you like it) with a green tape. It was in response to a snag reported by the pilots that the control column was slightly tilted with the ailerons in a neutral position. Once the neutral position of the control column was established and locked, she proceeded on to check the tension of each of the cables – steel wires which transmit the pilot’s inputs through a series of pulleys, bell cranks and push-pull rods to the ailerons mounted on the wings. The next step was to increase/decrease the tension of the wires by adjusting the turn buckles, which seemed to be located at such places that need your body to be at more than full stretch. It was more like trying to put a thread in a needle with your hands under your car seat. Working on the wires, adjusting and readjusting she finally got them right. However, since it was work involving the flight controls, this had to undergo a ‘duplicate inspection’ so as to be fool proof and later Laz completed this task. Meanwhile Amber proceeded to work on the issue with elevator trim, more work with wires and turnbuckles.

 

 

All through this while, Alwin Mas was busy working on the left wing tip. There was a reported defect of LH Nav light Inop (red navigation light of left-wing tip inoperative). Standing on the ladder, he unscrewed the light cover and replaced the light only to find that the defect still persisted. He had to go one step further, and further investigation revealed that it was a loose connection. Problem solved, the light was tested and found ‘sat.’ It was time to move on to the next item in the work package, the autopilot. During the same time, Kalex Menson was focusing on the undercarriage as he was fitting a black sleeve onto the fairing.

Meanwhile, Francisco Aska was right at the end of the plane, next to the rudder working on the defect of ‘excessive play in rudder gust lock handle.’ This job involved fitment of actuator reinforcement which needed to be manufactured in the workshop. It was cutting of plates, drilling holes and after three hours of hard work, Francisco had the desired object in hand. With the job completed, it was time to join hands with Alwin for the work on the autopilot. Laz was busy working on assembling the new propeller. Watching the diligence and precision required for the same, it was more like a doctor on an operating table than an engineer in a hangar. This he was doing while also coordinating the work and keeping a sharp eye on the progress of work.

As the pace of work continued to build out in the hangar, Francis Kama was busy sorting out the paperwork associated with the aircraft as a part of an upcoming inspection. The burden of painstakingly checking every entry seemed to give his face that weary look which seemed to say, I’d rather have my hands in grease. Engineer Brandon Coker on the other hand, was busy with loads of paperwork, literally tonnes – of folders and files, past records and present, in plastic bins and huge packets – sorting them out, one by one for storage. I could also see Clay staring into his screen, carefully monitoring and analysing the reports on the engine performances that have been downloaded and processed.

 

As the day progressed there was a call about “Uniform (P2-MFU) coming in with a defect.” Work had to be redistributed and engineers were allotted to rectify the snag as soon as possible to enable it to meet the operational commitments. Joseph was by now inspecting the combustion chamber with a borescope (a light and lens combination mounted on a flexible wire which is physically manoeuvred into the area of inspection and gives a visual feedback on the screen). Earlier I saw him open a bolt that required nearly 120 moves of the spanner (with a clearance of less than an inch for the spanner movement) while the next one needed only 30. While Jade Kunika and Francisco were replenishing the oxygen tank Maro Kopi was busy with fixing the autopilot with Alwin. Laz and JK were busy trying to get Uniform back into business.

It takes more than sheer engineering to keep the aircraft flying, I realised. It takes backbreaking hard work, commitment to excellence and tremendous flexibility on the part of our engineers. Their penchant for quality with built-in checks and balances, the meticulousness of paperwork and the monitoring of the aircraft and engines with an eagle’s eye are all essential ingredients that bring in foolproof safety to our flying operations. These bunch of men in dark blues with their soft-spoken voices and steely resolve are truly the ‘wind beneath our wings.’

Story Tim Bax, Member Care Officer at MAF Canada.

During my recent Member Care trip to Papua New Guinea, I had the privilege of spending time with our Canadian families in Wewak, Telefomin, Rumginae and Mt Hagen, as well as visiting a number of bush airstrips MAF flies to in the highlands. Needless to say, it was a great privilege to see our families in action and to have some extended time with them and in their homes and communities. While I took away a wide range of impressions from my time in PNG, the most indelible impression left upon me was the profound impact MAF is having on the lives of our national workers, many of whom have been serving with MAF for decades.

 

One of the first national staff members I met was a man named Steven, a “Traffic Officer,” one of three members of MAF ground staff supporting the three pilots and two aircraft at the remote base of Telefomin. He greeted me with a warm, engaging smile and shook my hand vigorously. 


For the next few hours I watched Steven interact with his colleagues, our pilots, customers and community members as they got on and off the plane, loaded their produce into the cargo pod for transport, and even carried a young boy on a stretcher to prepare him for a medical evacuation flight. I also witnessed him working hard under the hot sun refueling our aircraft with a hand pump, drawing Avgas from a 55-gallon barrel. As he moved the ladder and refueling apparatus from one wing to the other I couldn’t help but wonder how many millions of litres of fuel Steven had pumped into our aircraft over his 20 plus year tenure with MAF and how many lives were changed because of his faithful service and constant positive attitude. 

 

 

One of the next national staff workers I met was an older woman who was affectionately introduced to me as ‘Mama Kathy.’ Kathy had been helping clean the house of one of our expat families in preparation for my arrival. After asking her how long she had been working for MAF, and how she first started working with MAF, she began to tell her story… 

 

Over the course of the next 45 minutes, I heard a story of heartbreak and hope. During our time together, Kathy revealed that early on in her marriage, she had become a serial victim of domestic violence and that her husband had beaten her badly. With tears streaming down her face, Kathy went on to further explain how the eldest of her three sons had lost his life at the hands of some of her neighbours. This resulted in her needing to move her house (literally, the timbers, walls and roofing iron) for the safety of herself and her remaining two children.

While she revealed a number of dark chapters in her life story, she also began to share a storyline of hope that God had been divinely writing in and through her life and ministry with MAF. You see it was through her work with MAF that Kathy was able to break free from the darkness of domestic violence and begin to see the light of God’s grace in her life. Kathy worked hard for her family, was assisted by some of the pilot families to move her home to a safer location, was able to send her children to school through her work with MAF and eventually send one of them off to University. She was even able to forgive the men who killed her son, and live peacefully with them, even though they never faced justice. Today, she’s underwriting her grandchildren’s education, by continuing to serve through the ministry of MAF in Telefomin. While MAF has definitely had a profound physical and spiritual impact on Kathy herself, I can’t help but think that the impact on her own children, and now grandchildren, has been even greater!

Story and Photos by Dave Rogers

Of all the flying I do in PNG, I find medevac flights the most rewarding. MAF flights benefit the communities we serve in many ways, but nothing has a more immediate and tangible impact than a medevac. They are usually some of the most operationally difficult flights to manage given they come up at short notice, in the middle of our flying program, and often late in the day when weather or daylight is an issue. This makes it all the more rewarding when you get it to work.

My most recent case was no different.

Goroka, our home base, from the air

 

I was making my first stop on my second trip in the middle of a busy day when I was approached by a man asking if I could fly a badly injured woman to Goroka. She had been hit in the head with a rock as a result of a community dispute and was in urgent need of a doctor.

The regular health worker was away in town, and they had no radio or cell phone reception to call for help.

I tried to use the aircraft HF radio to contact the base to discuss the situation, but due to poor coverage that day I couldn’t raise them. I didn’t want to try for too long given the urgency of the situation. I was going to be on my own in working out the best way to help.

The community didn’t have the means to help cover the costs of the transport, and the provincial government fund had run out of funding a few months back. In this case, I decided it was serious enough to make use of the dedicated MAF medevac fund – established by generous donors.

The only problem now was what to do about the almost full plane load of passengers and cargo I was due to drop at the next two airstrips. A quick look at the figures told me it wasn’t going to work to take any extra loading due to the take off penalties of the short strips I was headed to. i.e. I had enough room now but would be too heavy to get off the ground at the next stop.

My next thought was to see if I had enough fuel to make my next two stops, unload all the passengers and cargo as planned, and return for the woman. It’s typical for us to carry around 30 minutes of extra fuel (on top of the reserves already required by law) to allow us margin to deviate around unexpected weather. Because the weather was really good, I decided I could use this extra fuel to help me get back and make the extra stop.

I worked hard to get back to the community as quickly as possible, and when I got back there about 45 minutes later, I was glad I did. They had to carry the woman to the plane and she was barely conscious. I couldn’t get her to stand on the scale so I had to weigh both her and the carrier together and work out the difference.

Loading the injured woman into the plane at Simogu

 

I quickly completed the paperwork and shut everything up to get ready to start when I got a tap on the shoulder from the guardian who indicated she needed some water. I was about to give her my own when someone in the community ran to find a bottle. Now we were finally ready to get her on the way to the care she so desperately needed.

Once in the air, I sent a message to the base using our satellite tracker asking them to call for the ambulance so it would be ready when we landed.

My message to our base. I was obviously too busy to proofread!

 

They replied moments later saying they’d made the call, and sure enough, as I taxied in – there was the ambulance waiting for us.

We got her loaded in and sent her on her way and I continued with the rest of my busy day, satisfied in the knowledge we’d been able to change, and quite possibly save another life.

Moving the woman to the waiting ambulance

Story by Satish Moka. Photos by Satish Moka (SM) and Mathias Glass (MSG, cover photo)

The series of flights crisscrossing the country would eventually bring us back to our base at Mt Hagen only by about five o’ clock, the usual time for afternoon showers. Having been forewarned to prepare for an overnight stay, in the not so unlikely case of bad weather, I was ready for a packed schedule of flying with Pilot Mathias Glass. Flying in the co-pilot’s seat as an observer is part of MAF’s in-country introduction and training process to eventually transition to the left-hand side controls of the aircraft. So, on completion of the flight planning and associated paperwork, we got off to a delayed start, the last thing we wanted on such a packed day, because of some fuelling issues. 

Fairly confident of making up the forty minutes delay with few quick turnarounds, we headed off north to the village of Simbai. Descending down into the bowl surrounded by towering hills, Mathias skill-fully manoeuvred his plane along the narrow valley as I frantically searched for the elusive airstrip. As we came around a spur, I could finally see the narrow strip and I was wondering how we would be able to land, as we had quite some height to lose. Following the established procedure, the pilot turned the plane away from the airstrip and into the valley, losing height in the process. Creating space for himself he turned the plane around in the narrow valley and I was getting a glimpse of what true bush flying was. As we were perfectly positioned on short final, Mathias’ call, “Committed to land” indicated that it was a one-way strip and there was
no turning back from this point onwards. 

Simbai – with hills all around (SM)

We touched down smoothly and taxied uphill along the bumpy slope of this airstrip and managed to unload the passengers and the cargo of blankets and trade store goods. It was indeed a quick turnaround and I could see the smile of satisfaction on Mathias’ face as we had cut down our deficit by a good twenty minutes.

The lovely blue sky with puffs of cumulus made for perfect flying as we were headed out to the highland town of Goroka. Enroute, we had a rare glimpse of the majestic Mount Wilhelm, the tallest mountain in Papua New Guinea, normally covered in clouds. I was lost in awe, struck by the sheer rocky faces of these towering mountains, while Mathias was busy on the radio coordinating with another aircraft. We finally saw the tiny speck of white, red and blue crossing us at 9 o’ clock low; a fellow MAF plane from Goroka heading to Simbai. Now we could descend safely through the Asaro pass into the valley ahead. 

Stony face – Mt Wilhelm in the background (SM)

 

Preparing the aircraft for a casket meant the removal of two double seats and refitting a single seat after loading the casket. This reconfiguration work and delay by the passengers meant we were back to square one with respect to our time schedule. As often happens in such situations, we were further delayed on the ground because of other air traffic. No wonder, as soon as we were airborne and set for cruise, we were busy doing mental calculations about time in hand and options available. We worked out that we were still in a safe zone provided we had no further delays.

The weather was still holding and that was a good sign. The leg to Kawito would be the longest leg today and within half an hour we were flying over a blanket of white clouds. The HF call to our base gave us the information that the weather was good enough for landing at Kawito. As we approached closer, we picked up a hole in the cloud-layer, descended through it and finally got a glimpse of the Aramia River which flows next to the airstrip. We positioned the aircraft and landed at the grassy airstrip at Kawito to a big gathering of villagers prepared for the traditional mourning called “haus krai”. Unloading the casket to the wails of the mourners did not distract us from the primary work of refuelling and reconfiguring the aircraft. We did manage a very healthy turnaround at Kawito, courtesy of the smart work of the ground team led by Billy Melesa.

Unloading the casket at Kawito (SM)

 

We quickly got airborne again and stayed at two thousand feet below the layer of low clouds on our way up north to Kiunga. The fact that we had about fifteen knots of tailwind brought cheer to us as we flew above the lowlands of Western Province, whilst being acutely conscious of the headwinds that awaited us on our return trip. 

The lowlands are predominantly flat, with brown muddy rivers winding their way through the endless swamps and forests. Once in a while, a ribbon of red mud cuts through this carpet of green leading to a river, the dirt tracks created by the lumber industry, but not a single road – either paved or unpaved.

Tracks left by lumber industry (SM)

 

The clouds seemed more ominous as we approached Kiunga. It seemed even the weather wanted to add to our woes. We flew around the patches of rain and worked our way towards Kiunga, just to land before the heavens poured down. As if the weather wasn’t enough, the drivers of the fuel bowser were missing in action and this meant further delays. A small respite in the rain and we were energetically hand pumping out fuel into the plane, still hoping to make it in time. Rumginae based pilot Steve Eatwell was to accompany us back to Mt Hagen along with the passengers to Kawito. We made the most of the window offered by the rain and were soon airborne heading back to Kawito.

Rivers – vital for transportation (SM)

 

The return trip was a battle against the winds and clouds. We climbed up to five thousand feet which gave us lesser headwinds but we were forced back down to three thousand feet because of the clouds. The IFR (Instrument) pilot in me was beginning to understand the struggles of a VFR (Visual) pilot who needs to keep clear of clouds. Radio messages to Kawito, weather updates from Mt Hagen and our continuing mental math revealed that a thirty-minute turnaround at Kawito would still give us a safe window to fly back to Mt Hagen. A smooth touchdown on the grassy strip and I was all set for a quick departure. 

As we were slowing down, the composed voice of Mathias stating that we probably have a flat tyre was the first indication of an issue at hand, to a surprised me. He tried clearing the aircraft away from the runway. But when he shut down the engine we still had the plane’s tail jutting onto the runway. We quickly unloaded the plane with the help of some villagers. Using engine power and the now lighter condition, we managed to move the plane just clear of the runway, thus enabling another body charter to land on the field. Mathias’ quick thinking in keeping the airfield open is so essential in these parts of the world, as often the runway is the only link for any further rescue, even for our own aircraft. 

Having secured the plane for the night, as we walked along the airstrip towards the base, it was time for a hearty laugh at the turn of events. The unplanned end of today’s flying at Kawito meant that three MAF pilots would be spending an evening together (a rare occurrence in PNG because of the flying activity and dispersed locations over which MAF operates) with nothing to disturb, even cell phones. We experimented with our culinary skills to turn the little food we had into a proper meal and then had a near candlelit dinner (to avoid the swarms of lowland flies) before we retired to sleep after an exhausting day.

MAF plane parked off the runway giving safe space for other aircraft to land (SM)

 

 

The next morning, our rescue aircraft was in the form of an Airvan with Pilot Tim Neufeld, the ever dependable Engineer Lazarus Nuleya and the pleasant face of Reji Yosuvaraj, our Flight Scheduler and Logistics Officer making use of the available space in the Airvan. Having handed over the tools and the new tyre, the Airvan departed with Pilot Steve and leaving Lazarus with us for the repairs. 

Our new tyre arrives (SM)

 

The art of changing an airplane tyre at an airstrip I realised, amongst other things, also involves substantial spadework (literally). After a couple of hours in the lowland sun and with smears of grease and mud to prove our efforts, we had the plane ready with a brand new tyre. The ever-willing villagers were present all along and fetched us a few green coconuts even without having been asked. After a few hours in the sun, I must admit that it was the sweetest coconut I have ever had.

Spade, timber, jack and ingenuity (SM)

 

As Steve my pilot on “The Double Rescue Act” queried, “What is it with Satish and flat tyres?“

Read the story about the Double Rescue Act HERE.