Urban Cowboys: Flying in PNG

20151120_103345 (800x276)Touring the Rocky Mountains is a thrill for anyone. As a pilot, flying the mountains and valleys of the massive National Parks of Alberta and British Columbia, was a dream come true. The seemingly endless miles of pristine, spectacular scenery helped to shape our understanding of the passion and artistry of our Lord in His creation. Judith and I were blessed as we tracked wildlife and chased forest-fires through the scenic Rocky Mountains but our life in Calgary, as “urban bush pilots” did not fully prepare us for the rigors of flying in Papua New Guinea.

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Airstrips in PNG are categorized into A,B, C, and D based on difficulty. This B airstrip in Simbai is often obscured by low cloud clinging to the sides of the mountains that surround it. It is a B because it is long, not too steep and generally maintained with markings and windsock.

The highlands of Papua New Guinea has plenty of grande scenery and high mountains equally as daunting as the Rockies but the hundreds of remote airstrips makes flying here far more demanding than flying Canada’s National Parks. In Banff, Jasper and Yoho, there are no airstrips (at least none that can be legally used). Most of the flying we did in support of wildlife research was done on fair-weather days under generally favorable conditions.  We always avoided flying on days with strong winds, precipitation, thunderstorms, snow, icing, turbulence or heavy smoke. The nature of the National Park flying missions allowed us to pick our flying days but that is not so in Papua New Guinea. Unless fog, low cloud or heavy rain is blocking a route, flights continue to be dispatched. If MAF had to wait for fair weather days there would be very few flights, indeed! It is almost always raining somewhere in the country and flights must be dispatched, even when conditions force pilots to fly roundabout routes diligently searching for safe passage. I am not suggesting that MAF is does not put safety first!  There are times when turning back is the wise choice; not every flight can proceed safely and pilots are not pushed to continue when it is not safe. Similar to our experience in Africa, the majority of small communities in PNG are very remote, without road access. They depend on aircraft for almost everything: trade store goods, mail, doctors, teachers, church workers and critical medical supplies.  That is why MAF is here, supporting communities with a holistic approach to its mission and working in all conditions.

Weather was just one factor on a recent route familiarization flight with senior Captain Irwin Hodder at the controls. We were to fly a Cessna Caravan full of medical supplies for clinic in the village of Woposali. We took off with the sun shining overhead Kagamuga Airport in Mt. Hagen. Despite the sunshine, we had to find our way past a wall of cloud blocking the main mountain pass before we could get moving in the direction of Woposali. As we approached our destination we had to work our down into a series of interconnected valleys, barely big enough to turn around. Finally we came upon the airstrip which is the bottom of a deep gorge with high cliffs on each side of the runway.

My job that day was to watch and learn. Next time, I would be expected to do the same. When I first sighted Woposali airstrip, I thought to myself that there was no way that we could get past the scattered cloud that was lingering just above and below the ridge-tops of our intended landing place. As Irwin skillfully maneuvered the aircraft through the narrow passages, we safely reached our objective and were greeted by a crowd of people who quickly carried the metric tonne of medical supplies we were carrying to the nearby clinic.

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Captain Hodder at the controls as we maneuvered in the narrow confines of the valley above the Woposali airstrip.

Returning to Mt. Hagen, I found my self thinking back to the movie Urban Cowboy with John Travolta. The story is about a sub-culture of city slickers who dress up like cowboys and cowgirls. They go dancing, wear big belt buckles just like the ones earned as prizes at the rodeo. The boys ride a mechanical bull trying to be just like authentic bull-riding cowboys.  Little do they know the reality of being a real cowboy: the hours of hard work, the solitude, the sweat, the physical demands, the pain and variety of skills needed to do their job.

In the same way, being an urban bush pilot in Calgary is a far cry from the realities of flying in the bush of Papua New Guinea. Real bush pilots have to endure plenty of hard work in difficult situations in nearly every kind of weather. They must hone their skills of visual navigation and their knowledge of weather patterns and mountain winds just like in the Rockies but PNG bush pilots must learn how to safely fly in and out of hundreds of extreme airstrips that are the most challenging anywhere in the world, some with slopes up to 12% situated in precarious places.  Flying to these remote places demands disciplined decision-making skills in addition to good flying technique. There is much to learn if we are to be useful and safe pilots in PNG. We must become real bush pilots and thankfully, the program has some of the best pilot-instructors anywhere in the world to help us reach the level of skill that we need to fly here.

The lore of bush flying, might attract some pilots to places like PNG to “fly the bush” just as the lore of being a cowboy might encourage urban cowboys to leave the city and move out to the open range. Carrying critical supplies to a medical clinic  and watching the faces of people as they hear the Gospel message builds within us the resolve to become real bush pilots for Christ’s sake. That is the call to MAF in PNG and we so thankful to all of our supporters who are encouraging us, praying for us and enabling us in our quest to reach the isolated, bringing help and hope in Christ’s name.

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The 9% upslopeslope is apparent in this photo of a well-manicured airstrip. There is a medical clinic that supports the surrounding area. Many airstrips in PNG are well maintained by the community to ensure that their air-link is not disrupted.

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A typical mountain strip.  If the pilot elects to abort the landing, it cannot be much beyond this point along the final approach so that the aircraft can still escape to the left.  The terrain is too steep on the right or straight ahead. Once past the committal point, it is land well or land hard; there is no safe abort.

 

 

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