Part 2: An Interview with Joël Rominger

Joël has been fascinated by the weather since he was a small boy. At a Christian youth conference, he met a young man who had pursued his dream to become a MAF pilot and was ready to leave for his first assignment. This encounter was like a seed planted in Joël’s heart to become a bush or mission pilot himself. Several years later, after completing a degree in geography with a major in meteorology, he forecast the weather as a meteorologist on several Swiss radio stations. After he gained his Private Pilot Licence in December 2015, he enjoyed flying over Switzerland manoeuvring through the variety of the Swiss weather. To turn this passion into a profession, he trained as a professional pilot in MAF’s own flight school in Mareeba, Australia.
At the beginning of this year, Joël together with his wife Andrea arrived in our programme. To start off with, both enjoyed the beautiful weather in the Highlands as they were based at Mt Hagen. Some months later, they lived for several weeks at Rumginae, Western Province, experiencing the hot and humid climate of the lowlands, but also recognising the different weather challenges while Joël continued with the MAF PNG specific flight training there.
Currently, they have just set up a short-term home at Kawito to continue with Joël’s training.

The following interview reflects on Joël’s time flying out of Rumginae.

What does it mean for you finally to sit in the left-hand seat of a Cessna Caravan, starting your training to become a MAF Pilot? Share a bit about your history of how you started to become a pilot.
I did my PPL (Private Pilot Licence) in Switzerland. Flying over my country of origin with all its mountains, glaciers, rivers and lakes was a beautiful first flight experience. Then I did my CPL (Commercial Pilot Licence) and Instrument Rating with MAF in Mareeba, Australia. This was a great training environment with very experienced flight instructors. We had access to controlled airspace within 15 minutes flight and also a bushy dirt airstrip also 15 minutes flight time away. Besides that, this was also a wonderful landscape! Within 30min flying, we were overhead the Great Barrier Reef, over the Daintree Rainforest or over the dry outback of Chillagoe.
Now, flying in PNG is a real privilege for me: being entrusted with flying a brand-new Turbine Cessna Caravan C208, equipped with the latest amazing avionics in one of the oldest, busiest and most difficult MAF-I countries. This is all within the safe boundaries of two great instructors: Volkher Jacobsen is one of the most experienced pilots in terms of flying in Papua New Guinea; the other, Simon Wunderli, is one of the most experienced in terms of flying the Caravan within MAF-I.

What’s the biggest difference between your previous training experience and now flying with MAF in PNG, doing training but also already being involved in flight operations?
For the first time, I have paying passengers on board. With great pleasure, I check during flight whether they are okay and comfortable. It’s great to carry responsibility for them and care about their comfort. For example, I love to give them a captain‘s call while in cruise to keep them up-to-date about the flight time remaining and check their well-being.
In these past weeks of training out of Rumginae, was there a special Aha-effect/Wow-effect, a training lesson you will never forget?
There were a few:
• Finding a hole in the cloud to climb up by observing the sun-shade patchwork on the ground.
• How flexible our daily work schedule and plan has to be due to medevacs (cut off toe, mother in labour difficulties), due to weather etc.
• How different the seasons are whether you fly in North Fly or South Fly.
• What would be the right emergency aircraft configuration in case of a forced landing on top of the lush and wide jungle treetops.

What are the specific challenges of flying in Western Province?
In Rumginae, low clouds often stick around for a long time in the mornings, while in Kiunga (only an 8 minutes flight away) the weather is already flyable. Therefore, at the end of the day, we often leave the plane in Kiunga and travel back and forth by car, which is a 45 minute, bumpy, dirt road trip, one way.
Currently flying in the North and Middle Fly’s wet season is another real challenge for all of us. Especially as the Aerial Health Patrol flights have started and we often have to position ourselves from Rumginae/Kiunga to Balimo and vice-versa.
On a personal note, for me and Andrea knowing that we were based at Rumginae temporary for training purpose is a challenge on its own. The current training is scheduled out of Kawito… We long to know where we will eventually settle down so we can turn a MAF house into our home, at least for a while… Move Again Friend is a saying about MAF that we are experiencing for ourselves.

You are a fully trained CPL as your licence says, now that you’ve seen quite a bit of the country and MAF’s operations, would you rather just go flying on your own or are you glad to have an instructor pilot sitting in the right-hand seat?
On one hand, yes, I would love to take full responsibility. But on the other hand, I realise that the step from normal casual piston plane flying in flat Australia to high tech turbine plane flying in rugged PNG would be too big a step to handle safely. So I’m very glad that the two instructors take precious time away from their families in Australia to come and teach me and Joseph.

What was the most joyful experience you had flying in Western Province?
Starting the Aerial Health Project (AHP) and Joseph flying the first team to Wawoi Falls was a great event. This is one of the last regions that has not yet been covered by the Polio Vaccination Campaign within the last 1.5 year after a Polio reoccurrence in PNG. The last official and recorded health patrol in Wawoi Falls happened in the 1980-ies according to the AHP Project Manager. Landing with the precious freight and capable nurses on board made me very happy, especially seeing all the kids running around and knowing finally their essential vaccination and medicine has arrived. Then, with the waterfall in the approach and beautiful huge trees at the airstrip Wawoi Falls is just a very picturesque place.

What was the most challenging interaction at a remote community/ with passengers?
Closing an airstrip due to long grass at Nomad River, but Volkher’s appropriate Melanesian communication skills keeping the discussion peaceful.
Passengers in Mougulu or Lake Murray only having a receipt and not the correct ticket means chasing ticket information via poor phone reception or the aircraft’s HF radio to confirm that they are entitled to come on board. After all, paper work needs to be correct.

What are you looking forward to?
There are a few things coming to mind:
• More training experiences with the instructors
• Easier weather conditions for daily flying (bad weather makes the whole operation even trickier)
• My first solo flight one day
• To be able to settle down at a certain outstation together with Andrea.

From what you’ve seen so far, is this the kind of flying and living you expect when starting on the path to becoming a MAF pilot assigned to fly in PNG?
Yes. I heard that compared with most MAF-I programmes, here in PNG and also in Arnhem Land it’s mostly about transporting national people and their cargo. That’s an amazing way to serve the people and show them through aviation God’s unconditional love for them.