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Bush pilot in PNG: ‘In the job I’m a pilot not a woman’

LandingGLENYS WATSON as told to Harriet Fitch Little | Financial Times

LONDON - For 10 years, until summer 2017, I was at home with my kids in Hamilton, New Zealand — I’ve got four daughters who are 10, eight, six and three now.

Six years ago, my dad passed away from cancer when he was only 59. That made my husband and I do quite a lot of reflecting on the fact the time we have on Earth is pretty short; we have to make sure that what we’re doing is fulfilling, and that it counts.

Before having children I had worked as a flight instructor, and carried out an air ambulance service for the local district health board. I’d heard about the Mission Aviation Fellowship when I was doing my pilot training and thought it sounded really cool.

It’s a Christian organisation. We fly light aircraft in remote areas and share God’s love by supporting the local community. We’re not in it for the money — we’re supported financially by individuals and churches — but our accommodation and school fees are provided, as well as an allowance for day-to-day living costs.

Once it was decided that we were to be stationed in Papua New Guinea, I spent four weeks in Queensland [one of the organisation’s three global hubs] doing a pilot standardisation program, then two months of local orientation, then flying orientation in the Twin Otter aircraft. It was a fairly significant training period.

Drought ReliefI’ve been here five months now and there are still restrictions about where I can fly, in terms of the length and the slope of the runway. The landing strips here are often built by hand by the local community — carved into the sides of mountains or next to rivers using pickaxes and pieces of wood. It amazes me that they’ve done that. I guess it speaks of the value these communities place on having access.

We live in Goroka, which is right up in the middle of the mountains. In PNG, 80% of the population live rurally and a lot of them don’t have access to roads.

We do a lot of medical evacuations, and without access to an aircraft some of these people wouldn’t live — knowing that is really rewarding. Last week I flew a planeload of teachers and their books from a provincial town to a small community.

My most significant concern before moving was how we as a family were going to live overseas. The girls are at an American international school and my husband Jonny, who was an engineering geologist when we lived in Hamilton, is now the one at home with them.

The hardest time was Christmas. There was a little bit of missing home and missing our family, and to top it off we had a tummy bug so were feeling revolting and throwing up. But it’s been really cool to see the family’s resilience.

I feel I’m still scratching the surface in terms of communicating well, which is frustrating. There are more than 700 languages in PNG, as well as Tok Pisin [the widely used official language] which I’m learning. It’s a pidgin English. So to introduce myself I would say: “Mornin, nem bilong mi Glenys.”

We’ve got 18 pilots in PNG and I’m the only woman. In the job think of myself as a pilot not a woman, but perhaps part of the role is to be a champion for women’s rights. I think there is a surprise and excitement when I get off the plane and people see I’m a woman. I’m always met with big smiles.


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Henrique Oliveira

Amazing, the help provided is really rewarding. Unfortunately, the religious part does not really fit me. The aviation part, 100%.

I'd love it based upon my previous experience flying for the Brazilian Air Force over the Amazon in quite similar conditions.

Gemma Meeks

Thats our girl! We are so proud of you and it has been a pleasure getting to know you and work alongside you my friend.

Mathias Kin

Glenys Watson, congratulations. This is a really nice feel-good story. I am trying to convince my daughter who is in secondary school to become a pilot.

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