Balus i kam: The joys & hazards of PNG aviation
18 March 2016
DEPENDING upon whom you choose to believe, the first flight by a powered aircraft in Australia took place either in Sydney during 1909 or in Melbourne on 18 March 1910, when the famous escape artist, Harry Houdini, deftly flew his French made Voisin biplane around the appropriately named Digger's Rest.
At the time, flying was regarded largely as a novelty because almost no-one could foresee just how the flimsy, unstable and often lethally dangerous aircraft of that era could be used for any commercial purpose.
Dangerous and impracticable as it seemed, aviation progressed rapidly, especially during the First World War, which saw huge advances in the speed, power and endurance of aircraft.
The post war era saw a succession of truly astounding feats of aviation. In 1928, Australia's Bert Hinkler was the first person to fly solo from Britain to Australia, while Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm were the first to fly across the Pacific.
Aircraft themselves also rapidly changed from under powered wooden and fabric biplanes to machines made of stressed metal, equipped with increasingly powerful and reliable engines.
Aeroplanes were becoming a stronger, tougher, faster and more reliable form of transportation than had been envisaged by all but the most enthusiastic aviation pioneers.
It is therefore not surprising that those who lived and worked in remote and rugged Papua New Guinea soon grasped the potential for aircraft to assist in the development of the country.
The first commercial passenger flight from Australia to PNG took place on 28 January 1933, but it is clear that aircraft (Junkers Ju 52's) were being used to ferry people and goods to and from the Wau goldfields as early as 1932.
On that basis, I think that it can fairly be said that PNG was one of the first places in the world in which commercial aviation was established.
World War II produced a further acceleration in the development of aviation and, in particular, brought into existence the vast number of aircraft, pilots, engineers and airports that formed the basis of the post war development of a truly global air transportation network.
In PNG there was a further rapid increase in the use and importance of aircraft after 1945 as the influence of the administration was steadily expanded across the country, initially through the activities of Patrol Officers (kiaps). As the kiaps opened up the hitherto unexplored hinterlands of PNG, they established more and more Patrol Posts and this, in turn, was often accompanied by the construction of airfields.
Many, perhaps most, of these airstrips were constructed by the local people using hand tools. The role of the kiap was to locate a suitable site, conduct a usually rudimentary survey of the proposed strip and then cajole, bribe or coerce the local people into building it under his supervision.
Mostly, the people saw the intrinsic merit in having an airstrip that would connect them to the wider world.
These airstrips were sometimes carved out in extremely unpromising locations. They were and are found perched precariously on ridge tops or surrounded by towering mountains or at the end of valleys where, once an aircraft is committed to land, there is no chance of going around for another go.
Indeed, PNG boasts the most hair-raising collection of airstrips in the world, which regularly test the skills, nerve and luck of pilots and passengers alike.
Flying in PNG was, from the outset, not an activity for the faint hearted. The terrain abounded in what pilots facetiously call "cumulus granite" and an unwary or just plain unlucky aviator could easily fall victim to sudden changes in the tropical weather and crash into the mountains. More than a few have done so but, despite the hazards, aviation has flourished in PNG.
For the Papua New Guineans first contacted by the kiaps, their initial experience of an aeroplane (called a "balus" in Neo-Melanesian Pidgin) must have been a profound shock. Nothing could have seemed more inexplicable and magical than a metal bird from which people and goods emerged.
Aircraft and flying became a potent symbol of the knowledge, power and reach of a remote yet manifestly very real "gavman".
Thus, in some of the most rugged and remote locations on earth, it soon became a routine ritual that when the distant drone of an aircraft was heard, the cry "balus i kam" would ring out. People would gather near the airstrip to enjoy the excitement of an aircraft landing, being unloaded and then taking off once more.
Very soon, the local people began to go aboard these aircraft and take their first flight. While posted at Koroba in 1971, I saw village people dressed entirely in traditional attire, nervously climbing aboard an aircraft, clutching their bilums and wide eyed with anxiety.
As the plane accelerated to take off, the noise and speed was clearly very frightening for them. Happily, exhilaration soon replaced fear for most of them and, of course, they had a fantastic story to tell their wantoks when they returned.
Now, flying is a fairly unexceptional activity for many Papua New Guineans, with aircraft traversing the country on a daily basis. Already, many Papua New Guineans have become commercial pilots and fly with airlines throughout the world.
That said, flying still possesses a degree of symbolic power, representing modernity and high technology in a country where most people continue to live in a traditional manner.
Any future history of PNG will need to devote a substantial chapter to aviation owing to its importance in opening up the country and its continuing role in delivering people, goods and services.
For those who have never been to PNG it is very hard to conceive of just how important a role aviation has played and continues to play in its development and governance.
The excited cry of "balus i kam" will continue to ring out in remote corners of PNG for many years yet.
Chris - there are some great clips on Youtube of scary landings at remote sites in PNG by light aircraft. This one is in West Papua, but there are many similar in PNG. Judged 'The world's scariest airstrip'.
Posted by: Peter Kranz | 19 March 2016 at 02:41 PM
Another aspect of aviation is the number of local pilots. Many of these have become successful overseas. I recall one PNG missionary to Ghana who told of his joy and surprise at meeting PNG pilots with Emirate Airlines flying in Africa. I recall meeting one Jika tribesman at a funeral near Hagen who after the funeral would return to his job of piloting Jumbo cargo planes in China. (Captain Makop). In a way the success of PNG pilots has been good for the confidence of the young. PNG can do it.
Posted by: Garry Roche | 19 March 2016 at 02:10 PM
Yes Papua New Guinea certainly led the world in aviation as in 1931 Guinea Airways alone carried 3947 tons of freight & 2607 passengers.And on top of that were the tons carried by five or six small airlines.
This is an astonishing figure when put in perspective of comparison that the combined airline services of the UK,France and the USA were recorded as only carrying 2670 tons of freight in the same period.
Seven dredges were flown in up to 1939,bit by bit & combined with trucks & machinery a total 73,480 tons were flown in up to the Japanese invasion.
Posted by: Rob Parer | 18 March 2016 at 11:57 PM
Believe it or not my 2nd flight on a single engine Cessena plane was with Capt Nat Koleala of Wapenamanda. We took off from Kandep to Porgera and onto Mt Hagen.
He surprised the two of us when he spoke to us in the Enga Language which left us in awe. I didn't know how he looked like before that.
Posted by: Daniel Kumbon | 18 March 2016 at 06:58 PM
My first plane ride was in a single engine Cessna aircraft. It was quite an experience, to say the least. As our roads are as dilapidated as they are, the role of planes still remain a reliable alternative for the rural folks.
Posted by: Joe Herman | 18 March 2016 at 05:13 PM
I remember seeing a one engine plane for the first time when I was 8 years old. We had to stop classes (Grade 3) at Burui Primary School near Pagwi, Wosera Gawi District, East Sepik Province.
We waited for the plane to land and then take off. The smell, the image stayed on for days. We talked about the plane for weeks, all written stories and pictures were about this plane.
I was about the same age at primary school in Nowra NSW in 1953 when the first jets we had ever seen (Sea Venoms bound for HMAS Albatross) roared overhead. The entire class immediately rushed outside to behold the spectacle. Each of the boys received one cut of the cane for his trouble - KJ
Posted by: Emmanuel Peni | 18 March 2016 at 10:32 AM