Story by Richie Axon and Mandy Glass
“It is dark and cool with mist in the air as we arrive at Goroka base. We filed the flight plan, refuelled and prepared the aircraft the last evening, so a walk around is all that is required. With the first sunbeams on the horizon the Twin Otter waits on the runway with full power settings for take-off, we release the brakes and the plane gains full speed and within a few seconds we are airborne climbing out of the Goroka valley and breaking through the typical morning cloud layer, which in the next couple of hours usually sinks deeper into the valley to cover the airstrip and township with fog. The view out of the cockpit is breath taking and compensates the early morning get up.”
In a recent 4-week period Richie Axon as First Officer, based at Mt Hagen, together with Volkher Jacobsen, who works as MAFI Flight Trainer Manager at the MAFI office in Cairns, were filling in for the Goroka crew who were away on home assignment. For Richie and his family this month was kind of special: “It was nice to return to where I started flying in PNG, to meet people again and fly to airstrips that I knew back in 2010.”
Goroka is located in Eastern Highlands province PNG and normally enjoys good weather for most of the year. However, “the weather was very bad for the first two weeks,” recalls Richie, “and we had a number of days where we got the aircraft ready and loaded, only to wait and then give up at lunch time because the weather was not improving. But the last couple of weeks were good weather and we got a lot of flying
Many of the flights in the Twin Otter out of Goroka are charters with outward loading of building materials, food or other supplies, and loading inbound to Goroka with coffee which provides a way for the people to earn some income to pay for development of their community. The communities of Kabwum, Simogu and Herowana are a few examples.
For a flight to Kabwum, paid for by the local administration, the Otter was loaded with 160kg of bees and a full aircraft load of their boxes. All up it was over a 1000kg of load. This was a first-light departure out of Goroka, a beautiful morning with the ranges all clear; “one of those really nice moments in flying,” remembers Richie. Kabwum is located in the Finisterre Ranges. The people there struggle because MAF is unable to provide much service because of reduced pilot numbers. However, when the MAF plane comes people are excited. Richie continues: “After landing in Kabwum we were greeted by a shower of flower petals and given gifts of string bags (bilums) made in a traditional way but with modern materials.
These were filled with fruit as a sign of their appreciation.” On the return, the Twin Otter was again filled with coffee beans to take to Goroka for sale. For the 20-minute flight to Simogu the Twin Otter was loaded with building materials for the Primary School to build a new classroom. Coffee was the back load and “Jack and Stoni helped me load the coffee. Even though they are small guys they were throwing 60+ kg bags of coffee around and we got the Twin Otter loaded really quickly. Both asked to see the picture – and laughed,” recounts Richie with a smile.
On another day the Twin Otter was loaded with roofing iron for a new Elementary school building at Herowana. For 36 years since the airstrip there was opened, Avit Wako has been our MAF Agent. On the way back the Otter was piled up with local timber for the construction of a house for Herowana students living in Goroka going to high school.
Recalling another day of flying Richie‘s voice drops. “We had to fly two charters from Madang to Simbai with coffins of four young people who were students at Aiome High School. They had been travelling with friends to Madang for school holidays. They were travelling by canoe at night when the canoe got overturned by currents on a bend in the river and they were drowned. One flight was with the coffins and one with family members to take the bodies back to their villages. One student was from Sengapi, one from near Dusin and two of them were from villages near Simbai. On the second flight one of the passengers was the governor of Madang province who paid for the two charters.”
When there are natural disasters in PNG, like landslides, floods and storms it is really difficult to reach the affected communities because of PNG’s poor infrastructure and roads. Often air service is the only option. Recently floods in Gulf and Southern Highlands Provinces caused about 4000 people to lose their houses and gardens as the Purari River rose up to 6m in places, and landslides were caused from waterlogged ground. MAF flew loads from Goroka to Wabo, mainly rice and flour, mosquito nets and 20L water containers.
Ori, a policeman, and Andy and Max, two government workers were helping to coordinate the distribution of relief supplies. “It was about 37ºC and 98% humidity and hard to keep paperwork dry,” Richie explains, “but these people face worse – hunger and exposure, including malaria and waterborne illnesses.” There are so many more stories to tell, how flying our workhorse, (as we sometimes call our Twin Otters) out of Goroka makes a difference to lots of communities; Like shuttles with full loads of coffee 1700kg from Aziana, which at 320 metres is the shortest strip in PNG; and to Aiyura with trade store goods back; or when more school building materials were flown from Madang to Tep Tep in the Finisterres…
Our Twin Otters carry passengers as well. During the time Richie and Volkher flew the Twin Otter a New Tribes Mission family with nine members from their home church boarded the Otter to go back into Norambi after their 12 months leave in the US. Their home church friends came to help them clean the house and get set up again.
It’s not because of the beautiful view out of the cockpit that our pilots have their alarm clocks set on 4.30am in the morning, it’s because they know that their hard day’s work will bring hope and relief to those in the remote and sometimes forgotten parts of this beautiful country.
Richie concludes: “It’s a privilege to fly and help all these people with what they are doing, so that they will know that God cares about them wherever they live and whatever their need.”