Part 3: What keeps a pilot coming and help in an emergency?

Do you remember some of the Oksapmin Secondary School students’ theories why our pilots keep coming to their village shared in our previous communications?
Here are two more:

Momai: They do it because they would like to show their love for all people, despite of racial expressions, and to help maintain better living standards. In addition, our remote place transports out most of the vegetables to help them with their healthy diet especially in towns and cities. That is why the pilots, in spite of difficulty, come to serve people.

Sinda: They want to protect us from getting illnesses and dying from them. They also come because they really want to help us by providing services. Overall, in order to move cargo and people from one place to another even though they don’t like it, they have to fly for our lives to be good and blessed.

Richie Axon, a pilot flying for MAF Papua New Guinea since 2010 and who has landed at Tekin airstrip more than 200 times, shares some of his motivation to become a MAF pilot. Richie has been flying pretty much all across mainland PNG since joining MAF. He and his family are based in Telefomin, an outstation in the west of Papua New Guinea.

However, Richie is one of the pilots who, in the uncertainty of COVID-19 in April, was sent back to his home country, Australia, with his family. Back in March, the scheduled final check flight for him to be released for line operations on the C208 couldn’t happen as the only authorised checking pilot and his wife were unable to continue their journey from Germany to PNG when the borders were closed. With no training and checking pilots present in-country for the foreseeable future and the unpredictable development of the COVID-19 situation in PNG, management decided to have the family moved to their home country.

We hope and pray that the Axons will soon be able to return to PNG so Richie can again do what God has called him to do and what he calls “the best job in the world.”
Enjoy reading his story!

What’s your story? Where are you from?
I grew up with parents who followed Jesus. We moved around when I was a child as my dad worked on farms in New South Wales, Australia. By Australian standards, we were not rich but we never went hungry and always had lots of fun together as a family. We always went to church on Sunday, but God was part of our life all through the week.

When I was 7, our church went on a family camp for a weekend. The lady who ran the kids‘ programme explained the gospel to us and I trusted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, based on John 3:16, because he died for my sin. I am still growing in my understanding of what a wonderful thing he has done for me.

How did you hear about MAF and actually became a MAF pilot?
My Aunt was a nurse in PNG working with the Australian Baptist Missionary Society in the Baiyer at Kumbwareta, and I read stories of missionaries like Hudson Taylor and Eric Liddell (China) and Jim Elliot (Ecuador) and Richard Wurmbrand (Romania), and I wanted to do something for God with my life.
I first knew about MAF when I saw a poster of a brown and yellow MAF Cessna flying over the jungle. I didn’t know anything about them, but knew that flying aeroplanes and working for God would be the best job in the world. So all through school and after leaving home, I had this thought that one day I would like to be a missionary pilot.

In 2006, about a year after my wife and I got married, we decided to go Bible College since we had no debts or other commitments and it seemed a good opportunity to be equipped for what God might have for us later on. While we were at Bible College (2007-2008), we realised that now was a good time to get involved in mission, so we applied to MAF and were accepted, and in 2010 came to fly in PNG, when our oldest child was 6 months old.

We never had a specific call from God as some people seem to have, but believe that he wants “committed volunteers,” and that it’s the work of all his people to tell the story with our words and actions of the One who has brought us out of darkness into his light (1 Peter 2:9).

Richie Axon talking to passengers at Wobagen

Where did you learn to fly?
Armidale, NSW, Australia

Is being a pilot your only training/profession? What did you do before joining MAF?
I have a truck licence so I can drive semi-trailers. I wanted to join the airforce after leaving school so they could pay for me to learn how to fly, but I didn’t get good enough marks, and I was kind of mentally burned out, so I just worked on farms for a couple of years. Then after saving some money, I had the opportunity to learn to fly, so I worked on farms and drove trucks while I learnt to fly.
This didn’t pay very well, so it took 4 years to get my commercial licence.

What does a typical day as a MAF pilot look like for you?
Usually, I start work at 7:00 am. I unlock the office and turn on the computer and check any NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) that apply to the day’s programme. Then, I unlock the aeroplane and do the daily inspection. Once the base staff have completed the manifest and got weather reports and loaded the aeroplane, we pray as a team, asking for God’s blessing of strength and wisdom, for pilots and ground staff. This is really vital and probably the most important thing we can do all day. We are all in his hands, but so easily forget it.

The flying for the day has been planned by the programmer who does their best to consider weather and loading and “a thousand” other things. But I like to talk about having a “preference sheet” instead of a “flight plan” because so often there are changes as we go through the day.

The day usually follows the pattern of filling the manifest and loading, startup, take off, fly to the destination, land, shutdown, unload and repeat.

What we carry in the aeroplane is really varied – it may be building materials for a school or house, medical supplies for aid posts or school supplies. Our passengers might be pastors or Bible School teachers, students or medevac patients, workers travelling to or from their village or just people going someplace. I really enjoy having time to talk to people at the different airstrips, and hope that most of the time I’m a blessing.

We get back to Telefomin anywhere from 14:30 – 17:00, depending on the weather and how many changes come up. Then there is about 30-45min of paper and computer work, checking emails and reviewing the next day’s programme before going home. I live about 50 metres from the base, so I love the short walk to get home.

Richie weighing some passengers bags of fresh local produce to take to market

What do you value the most about being a MAF pilot? Is there anything particularly rewarding?
As a pilot, I enjoy getting outside and going somewhere. I like working with machinery and the challenges of fitting things into the aeroplane. I enjoy working with people.

Working with MAF, I thank God we are able to help overcome the isolation for people, knowing that short flights are equal to days of hard walking.

As a pilot in PNG, I enjoy the constant variety of weather, terrain, loading, almost everything about the work.

I try to pray with each medevac patient that I fly and I’ve been really blessed later when someone came up to me and said “Thank you for praying for me. God has healed me and now I’m well enough to go home.” I pray that God would grant them spiritual life as well.

What are some challenges of being a MAF pilot?
Knowing that the flying we do has such an impact makes it hard to say no, because when we say no it means that someone misses out. In those times, I have to pray and trust God with the outcome, believing that he is in control and that he always does what is good.

Sometimes we start thinking too much about the revenue or getting all the flying done and miss opportunities to care for people and share the hope we have in Jesus. With all the work we try to do, it can be hard to be sensitive to the opportunities.

You’re married and a father of three beautiful children. Choosing a life like that needs the whole family to agree and be happy with it.
My wife and I together made the decision to follow Jesus into mission, and we didn’t feel that God was leading us to one specific place, so we said to MAF that we would go where we were most needed and that was Papua New Guinea. In the 10 years that we’ve been with MAF in PNG, there have been some hard times, especially for my wife, but we remind ourselves that we didn’t come here for the lifestyle, although there are things we enjoy about living and working here.

We came to use what God has given us, to serve others so they would know how great He is and hopefully come to know and trust Him for themselves. He is our provider so we keep going.

Our kids have spent their lives between PNG and Australia, so it’s partly home for them. Sometimes people think that having a choice will make them happy, but actually, having a purpose and being loved are more important, so we love our kids and remind them of God’s love, and of why we do what we do. They have good days and bad days like all of us. We are blessed these days with the internet and so many resources for schooling and they play with their PNG friends, so really they don’t miss out on much that matters.

How comes that you don’t fly for another airline (back in your home country)?
God’s people exist to share him by their words and actions, using whatever he gives them. We will be happiest when we seek to honour him, even when times are hard. He has given us the opportunity and skills and support of others to be able to do this with MAF in PNG. Finding your joy in loving God and serving others is much better than making lots of money or having a comfortable life.

What comes to mind if you think of Tekin as a pilot who has landed there more than 200 times…
I love Tekin, although not so much when it’s windy. We did our bush orientation in Tekin and have some lovely friends there.

What advice would you like to give young students like the ones at Tekin?
Read God’s Word and ask him to help you know Jesus. Make him the centre of your life. There is nothing more important than your relationship with him, because only he takes away your sin, it’s only his opinion that counts in eternity, and only he can make you truly happy.

Work hard, at school, or uni, or work, or in the village; but trust God with the results.
Don’t build your life on cargo, or money, or health, or a big name, because it’s God who gives them to you and he can take them away. Use what he gives you for his glory, he will satisfy you.

How is Covid-19 affecting your work? How is it affecting your family? What do you feel is God teaching you through this situation?
We had to leave PNG and return to Australia because at the same time that COVID-19 hit, MAF PNG had a series of incidents that caused us to stop the operation. It seemed best to MAF leadership, and to us, that we wait in Australia until things get sorted out. So, I’m working remotely on some projects. Sitting at a computer is not my preferred work but I’m thankful that I can still help out.

We had only a short time to leave PNG, so we didn’t have time to think about it much. It has taken some time to get used to the idea of being in Australia again, and not knowing how long it will be for. Our kids have settled into a little Christian school here and have enjoyed new experiences and making friends here. We miss Telefomin and our friends there, but God is still good.

God has been teaching us that we need to make plans, but hold them loosely, and lean on him for wisdom and strength to cope with changes. No matter where we are in the world, as God’s people we can live to know and love him more, and share the wonder of his love with those around us.

Richie doing wieght and balance calculation back in the days when he was flying the Twin Otter

Where are you from? Where do you live now?

I am actually from Simbu, but I say I am from Mt Hagen because my Mom is from Mt. Hagen and I grew up and have lived in Mt. Hagen for most of my life.

Can you tell me about your family?

I have two older sisters, a younger brother, and my mom. One of my older sisters lives in Sydney, Australia and the other lives in Mt. Hagen. Right now I live with my mom and younger brother in our family home.

When did you join MAF? And why?

I joined MAF in January 2018.

I’ve always wanted to join MAF; I think I was in the 10th grade when I knew I wanted to join MAF and be a missionary. However, around the time I was in university studying engineering I got a little side-tracked and completely forgot about my initial call to missions. I thought I’d rather go and make money.

After university, I did a two-year trade course for aircraft maintenance engineering. After that, I had the opportunity to live and work in Australia provided I could secure a job. However, after numerous unsuccessful job applications, I realised that maybe I was meant to come back to PNG as I had two job offers from PNG. In hindsight, I realise now that God was closing all those other doors and calling me back to PNG. So, I accepted one of those offers and moved back to PNG. I joined Manolos Aviation, a helicopter company in Rabaul, which I think was a great stepping stone to coming to MAF. I worked there for a year and a half before joining MAF.

When did you first hear about MAF?

I’m not sure when exactly I first heard about MAF. From a very early age, I was aware of what MAF was, what they did in PNG, and why. I went to primary school with a lot of MAF kids and there were a few MAF missionary families at our church. Living in Mt. Hagen, it’s kind of hard not knowing about MAF.

What is your role within MAF?

I’m an Aircraft Maintenance Engineer, an AME. We fix planes…that’s pretty much it!

What does the day-to-day look like in your role?

On Monday mornings, we have a stand-up meeting where we’re told what aircraft are coming in for scheduled maintenance. We plan our week based on that; whether it’s a 200 hour or minor inspection and if a job has to be done in a certain time frame. The team leaders will appoint co-ordinators to respective jobs and the co-ordinators then delegate who does what.

My work is different from day-to-day because I’ll have different things to do depending on the type of maintenance job. Sometimes there will be break downs and unscheduled maintenance and if you get assigned those jobs you have to drop whatever you’re doing and tend to that.

At the moment, we’ve been very busy because of the two incidents we’ve had. A lot of the inspections and repairs involved in that are not common tasks so I am learning a lot of new things.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

There’s a sense of satisfaction when we complete scheduled maintenance on time and the engineer or pilot comes back after an engine run or test flight and says, ‘Everything was great!’ I feel a sense of satisfaction because I was a part of that.

One thing I find about this role: you never know enough. There’s always something new that I’m learning, which is interesting. I think I enjoy that aspect of my job.

What do you find most challenging about your role?

One of the most challenging things about this job for me would be always being willing to learn and be corrected. I’m learning new things all the time and I can get caught up in thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve done this a million times.’ There’s always a revision or change so I have to be willing to go back and accept that I never know enough.

Another thing, especially as a girl, is that there are certain things I am not strong enough to do on my own. I’m learning to accept help, ask for help when I need it, and think outside of the box to find alternate ways of doing things that would otherwise be beyond my physical capabilities.

Seeking and accepting assistance and being teachable are not attributes that come naturally to me because I can be a very stubborn and sometimes proud person, however, I realise that they are essential in this line of work (and I guess life in general) so I’m working on that.

What does MAF mean to you?

MAF to me is a lifeline, it’s a lifeline to a lot of people in PNG, especially to the rural communities. There aren’t a lot of other airlines which fly to the places we fly or provide the services we do, such as medevacs. The communities really need MAF and I know and have seen firsthand how grateful they are to have a flight service.

One of the things I like about MAF is they always try to put people first. In this pandemic, I know a lot of people in the aviation industry have lost their jobs. MAF has a value of putting people over profit and that is something that I am grateful for. We’ve been blessed that no one has lost a job yet due to the pandemic.

What is something people might not otherwise know about you?

I am currently trying to learn French and Swahili. Swahili is so difficult though! I’m learning these languages because I’ve always wanted to go to either the DRC, Kenya, or Uganda. I might as well start learning languages that might help me in the future.

Do you have a favourite food or actor or superhero?

My favourite food…anything sweet! Cheesecake is really good, but my favourite would probably have to be an almond croissant.

I don’t really have any favourite actors. I watch a lot of stand-up comedy, so maybe Aziz Ansari, Trevor Noah, Russell Peters and Ricky Gervais although I don’t always agree with everything he says, lately I’ve been watching a lot of Mo Gilligan.

What does MAF mean to you? Can you condense MAF’s 70 years of impact in Papua New Guinea’s remote communities and the ongoing need for MAF’s presence in PNG into one logo?

MAF PNG is preparing to celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2021.
Your logo design could potentially turn into a temporary MAF logo for 2021 and be carried proudly throughout the nation of Papua New Guinea in 2021.

Get creative! Use your imagination, your pencils, watercolors, computer programs, etc.
We would appreciate it if you would share the thinking behind your logo design and artwork with us. In a short essay, please explain the different elements, colours, symbols etc. represented in your logo design. A short English or Tok Pisin phrase may be included in the logo.

Entry is open for Papua New Guineans of all ages and those associated with the work of MAF in Papua New Guinea.

Our MAF PNG team, both nationals and expatriates, will judge all the submitted designs and select the one which best represents MAF PNG’s past and present. We will publish the top 5 designs on our social media and acknowledge the designers.

As a reward, the winning logo will be turned into our 70th-anniversary logo and become the temporary face of MAF PNG in 2021 – flown around by our aircraft and seen in various other publications, nationwide and internationally.

Submit your logo design by 30 September 2020 using one of the following avenues.

• Via Email
[email protected]
Subject: Logo competition for MAF PNG’s 70th anniversary in 2021

• Via PNG Post or mailed by MAF aircraft addressed to:
Communications Dept. c/- Mandy Glass
PO Box 273
Mt Hagen, WHP 281

For legal purpose, please read our Terms & Conditions for participating in MAF PNG’s 70th-anniversary logo competition. Then please copy/paste and sign your submitted artwork with the following statement:

Intellectual property
By entering this competition, I grant MAF Papua New Guinea Limited, its related bodies corporate and associates (MAF) an exclusive, irrevocable, world-wide, royalty-free licence to use, copy, distribute, modify and commercialise the logo design and any other material I submit for the competition. I acknowledge and agree that MAF may or may not attribute authorship to me during its exercise of this licence and that this will be at MAF’s sole discretion.
Participant name: Date:
Participant signature:
Contact details:

If you would like to receive a flyer to advertise our competition at your school or univercity, church, workplace, store, etc., please don’t hesitate to contact us: [email protected]

We hope you enjoyed the story about the Oksapmin Secondary School in the remote village of Tekin and how the year 11 students have been writing about “What comes and goes on a MAF plane.”
Here is the link to the article.

Today’s second part continues with the dialogue exercise and focusses on the student’s memories of medevacs out of Tekin and quite interesting “speculations” what actually drives our MAF pilots to land at such remote airstrips like theirs

Part 2: Emergencies Remembered and Pilots’ Motivations Imagined

MAF aircraft in PNG flew 210 medical evacuation flights in 2019, but actually transported 375 critically ill persons to the hospital. Tekin, where the Oksapmin Secondary School is located, only has a small health clinic. Critically ill patients have to be referred to better-equipped hospitals in the province, such as the Telefomin District Hospital, the Provincial Hospital in Vanimo, or others.
Part of the dialogue exercise for the grade 11 students was prompting the students to remember such an emergency:

“Do you remember any times when MAF has come to help in an emergency?”

Betina: My brother broke his arm while playing soccer. He was put on a stretcher and carried up to the airstrip. When the plane arrived he was put on the plane and was flown off to Wewak. This was because in here the health centres cannot treat this kind of emergency situation. After a month he came back. I saw his broken arm was cemented and bandaged.

Momai: I remember when my mother had an internal sickness so she was sent to Tabubil hospital on a small MAF Caravan. She went into a surgery section where they operated on her carefully. Then the doctors found that she had an immense sore in her lung. Eventually, the doctors treated her properly and she became well.

Megaden: I remember when our tribesman cut his wife on both sides of her leg last month. It was so terrible. The Oksapmin High School truck helped to carry the patient down to the Oksapmin clinic. From there the MAF Caravan took her to Wewak for Wewak hospital for further check and operation.

Inox: I remember when MAF took Miss Glenda Giles to Kudjip General Hospital when she was infected with malaria and after a week she was recovered so she returned to Tekin and also Mr. Y., ward member for Tomianap, when he had a problem with his kidney they sent him to Port Moresby General Hospital.

Julipah: I was in Sisimin Primary School doing my grade five. I got Malaria so an agent contacted the captain and they took me to Tabubil General Hospital and after three weeks I came back to Sisimin again.

Dipo: I remember when Mr. E. who is the current headmaster for Tomianap Primary School was badly injured by a poisonous snake. He was carried by the village men to the airstrip and the MAF plane took him to the Kudjip General Hospital near Mt Hagen. After two weeks of treatment, he returned home by MAF again.

Some of these stories might be a mix of various events and contain some twisted details, but some might have happened just like that. Nevertheless, they all illustrate the remoteness of the valley and the few options the people have when they are seriously ill, but even more, show the life-saving impact our MAF flights have.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Need for Medevacs

Air travel in and out of Tekin has been challenging during these past few months because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions enforced by the Papua New Guinea government to protect its people. Schools were suspended for almost 6 weeks and so were domestic flights crossing provincial borders. A day before the COVID-19 related restrictions, MAF PNG did temporarily shut down operations after an aircraft accident to re-assess our operations and in particular the conditions of the remote airstrips we fly to. Consequently, all airstrips were closed for our operations and listed to being surveyed. Tekin’s turn for the survey was sometime in mid-May, just a few days before the dialogue exercise. The community looks after their airstrip well and the airstrip passed MAF’s and RAA’s (Rural Airstrip Agency) risk assessment.

“Tekin airstrip was opened for MAF passenger flight operations on Friday, 5th June, so today I was happy to fly out to Wewak on the coast after five months inland,” posted Glenda on social media a couple of days later.

“It’s so good to have MAF back in the air. We managed OK but the loss of medevacs hit hard. We lost a student who was at home in Bimin during the school closure. Just an infected foot but he died. His father, in grief, attempted suicide but the tree branch broke and he sustained a severe back injury. They carried him to Bak but no medevac. Think of the stories we don’t know about because of no communication.”

This is heartbreaking to read and to know. How many more untold stories are out there of people who are even more isolated due to COVID-19 restrictions?

Meanwhile, restrictions are lifted. MAF is flying again, with limited personal resources though. Since the start of the COVID-19 situation in March, five MAF pilots have had to leave PNG for various reasons (e.g. medical, home assignment, etc.) and only one has been able to return. There are only eight pilots currently in PNG, less than half of what is required for our normal operations.

Ryan and Siobhain Cole, a pilot family based “down the road from Tekin” is desperate to return PNG after their home assignment which turned out to be much longer than planned because of COVID-19. We all hope and pray that they will arrive in August. A few weeks ago they wrote in their newsletter: “We are extremely keen to return to PNG because there are no pilots currently flying out of our home base of Telefomin, so that area is getting very little help.”

The dialogue exercise finishes with that final question: What drives our MAF pilots to serve and fly in Papua New Guinea to places like Tekin? Some students had quite interesting ideas on this last trigger point of the dialogue.

“Why do you think those pilots keep coming?”

Ireck: They do it because the MAF company operates under the mission aim. Therefore MAF is willing to come here. This airstrip was made by Christians who came here first with God’s word for us. MAF always helps the remote places around the world like here at Tekin.

Jenitta: We don’t have very good access to hospitals for medicine supply and there are no roads for land transport and no sea for transport to make our life easier, so only air transport can make our life easier. They bring goods and services to our place so that people can survive. That’s why the plane will come in and go out because of these things that will really need to improve our lives.

Jaysina: I think they do it because of the emergency call that is made by the people. They risk our one-way strip to give us services like getting goods and pastors and it makes it easy for us to travel to other places in our province for education. Even though we are remote the pilots are meeting our needs.

Dipo: They do it because they will earn more income than those who fly in and out of the towns and cities. They like to fly through the rugged, mountains and valleys. Another thing is that they want to see the beautiful mountains and the forest in our place that is blessed by God.

Ken: They do it because the pilots want to make money circulate and other places need our vegetables. Furthermore, some of our businessmen want to make money by chartering the plane to come here. Therefore pilots keep coming into this remote area. This brings good opportunities for our people to have cash flow. Otherwise, we remain as primitive people who do not know about God.

Stay tuned for part 3, a pilot’s perspective on the final dialogue question.