This is probably one of the most common questions pilots are asked by friends and supporters when on home assignments.
Australian Dave Rogers, one of our pilots is going to answer it from his perspective, flying an Airvan GA8 out of Goroka.
The risks of operating light aircraft in general, but particularly in PNG, necessitates strict adherence to procedures and extensive training. For each airstrip we go to, we have published parameters for things like wind, temperature, and surface condition that vary how much load we can take in or out, or may prohibit us from landing completely. The parameters themselves vary for each airstrip depending on the elevation, length, slope and surrounding terrain.
There is a fair bit of margin built into these parameters to allow for unexpected fluctuations beyond what we’ve planned for. Aside from the safety achieved by only operating within these proven parameters, there is a stringent training and checking process to ensure pilots are competent to fly into each place. This covers not only landing and taking off at the airstrip but also flying the route to get there as well as any alternate routes.
So what does a typical approach to landing look like? Well, I thought I’d show you one of my favourite examples, depicted below. The red line shows the approximate flight path of the aircraft on approach to land. The blue line shows the missed approach path in the event we need to abort the approach. The dotted line indicates times where the aircraft is flying behind the terrain pictured. You can see in this example that for a portion of the approach we actually cannot see the runway!
One thing unique about flying in PNG is what we in MAF call the ‘committal point’. This is a point along the approach path that is our last opportunity to safely conduct the missed approach. I.e. if we continue past that point, we must land, there is no option to abort! In the rest of the aviation world, a missed approach is typically possible right up to the point of touchdown, and often after. In the above example the committal point is just a little bit before touchdown, but at other airstrips, it can be as far as a minute out from landing. A lot can happen in a minute!
So before we continue past the committal point we need to be confident the winds are suitable, the runway will remain clear, and that turbulence will not destabilise our approach. There are rare occasions where unforeseen changes to the wind or turbulence occur past the committal point, and in those situations, we are glad for the safety margins built into those operating parameters I spoke about!
The takeoff equivalent of the ‘committal point’ is the ‘safe abort point’. This is the latest point along the takeoff run at which we can safely abort the takeoff and stop in the amount of runway remaining.
This is something that the pilot nominates before each takeoff, and can vary slightly depending on the conditions at the time. For a flat airstrip, the safe abort point might be somewhere around halfway along the runway. However many airstrips we go to have slopes of over 10%, and so stopping is impossible after releasing the brakes! In those cases, we have no option to abort the takeoff and must continue.
All of that might make you a little bit nervous! But rest assured, it actually makes us really safe pilots. Because there are fewer options and margins for error than we might have operating somewhere like Australia, every decision we make is well thought out and considered – there is no room for a she’ll-be-right mentality. We are forced to be very actively engaged in the flight.