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Siobhain and Ryan Cole and the beloved GA8 Airvan - keeping the people of PNG connected

SIOBHAIN COLE | MAF Papua New Guinea

Being a Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilot family based at a remote outstation like Telefomin or Rumginae includes aircraft maintenance and grocery shopping trips for the family every third month to MAF’s main base at Mt Hagen. After coming back as a married couple from an extended time of leave and home assignment, Siobhain Cole traded her role as MAF PNG’s ground operations manager to being a pilot’s wife at an outstation.

She still does operations project work and flight bookings for the department she previously led, but she also has to look after the wellbeing of her pilot husband, Ryan, who flies the Twin Otter as a first officer and also the single crew GA8 Airvan, both out of Telefomin where they are one of three pilot families.

In the past, Siobhain orchestrated other pilot families’ schedules to come and go out of Mt Hagen for shopping and aircraft maintenance trips. Now she is experiencing the joys and challenges of such trips, like unexpectedly getting stuck in Mt Hagen for an extra night or two and not necessarily getting home in one go. Here she shares some of her experiences of a recent trip to Mt Hagen and back home to Telefomin, a good 90 minutes flight away, close to the western border of PNG.

TELEFOMIN - A little while back, on a Monday morning, Ryan flew me and another pilot direct to Mt Hagen to attend some operations meetings, and to swap his Airvan for another one with the intention of returning back to Telefomin before the end of the day.

Unfortunately, the aircraft he was swapping for was a little bit more broken than the poor, hard-working engineers realised and not serviceable yet. So Ryan ended up getting stuck in Mt Hagen with me for two nights and was only able to fly back to Telefomin on the Wednesday.

I felt sorry for all the people who couldn’t fly for three days because the plane was broken; but I’m awfully glad because it meant we only spent one night apart in the end, instead of three.

After the meetings were over and I’d had a handover from a friend who was going on holiday whose work I would be covering, I left Mt Hagen on the Thursday. It was the Mt Hagen based Cessna Caravan, flown by Mathias Glass and Luke Newell (who was checking Mathias into an airstrip he hadn’t been into in the Caravan before), who flew me home.

However, I’m not the queen and so I don’t get to fly direct unless the plane happens to be going direct, which is rare as Telefomin is approximately a 1.5 hour flight from Mt Hagen.

So I had the fun of flying through four other airstrips before being dropped home in Telefomin. Well, I say fun, but mums with a bunch of kids definitely wouldn’t say that and, after a full day of flying, I do feel rather tired and a little nauseous. I really don’t know how my husband does it all day every day.

At Wanakipa for the first time four years ago, Siobhain felt a little intimidated; now old friends rush to greet her

First stop was Wanakipa, which was the first bush airstrip in PNG I ever flew into more than four years ago. I remember then feeling very intimidated by the hundred or so people lined up along the edge of the runway, just staring at us.

I didn’t know what to do and back then I couldn’t speak a word of Tok Pisin, so I just awkwardly stayed under the shadow of the wing, feeling unworthy and like an animal at a safari park.

This time, four years of experience later and a little bit of language, I walked amongst the people, shaking hands with some of the women and talking to whoever would look me in the eye without running away.

Then I spotted someone with a tee-shirt that read ‘I Need A Hug’ and insisted I do as her tee-shirt said and give her a hug, which she allowed, much to the amusement of everyone watching. How much my perspective and confidence has improved in the last four years.

The second stop was Tekin, one of the more tricky airstrips to land at and the location of a successful high school which was founded by a single missionary lady, Glenda Giles, who still works there training the teachers.

Glenda is from New Zealand and has worked in PNG for over 50 years. Here we met Paul Woodington flying the Cessna Caravan based in Wewak and the three pilots started talking about their beloved aircraft whilst the agent, Patrick, ran around busily, arranging the different passengers for each aircraft.

The third stop was Rumginae, a base where MAF has two pilot families, the Eatwells and the Neufelds. Both were away at the time - the Eatwells because their Cessna Caravan was in maintenance in Australia, and the Neufelds on sick leave.

Francis Kama at Rumginae
Engineer Francis Kama makes some maintenance adjustments to the Airvan at Rumginae strip

As they were away, Rick Velvin, a well-experienced ex-MAF pilot, had been covering for a few weeks. Because his GA8 Airvan had a maintenance issue, we had to drop off an engineer to fix the aircraft so Rick could fly it back to Mt Hagen before he left the country the very next day.

It’s very unusual for a Mt Hagen based aircraft to go all the way out to Rumginae but I made the most of the opportunity by using the bathroom in the Neufeld’s house. (Thanks!)

The fourth stop was Tabubil, the MAF base closest to Telefomin which Ryan flies out of several days each week. The staff there are used to me visiting from Telefomin. But today they were very surprised to find me on the Hagen plane.

Eventually, after a very long day of flying (for me) we reached Telefomin and I was very pleased to be going home, especially as Ryan was off sick that day with a bad cold.

It was much more of an adventure than I’d expected, but it got me home to our little house in the mountains and gave me the opportunity to appreciate this beautiful country in which we have the privilege of working and to meet some of the people who we have the privilege to serve.


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Garry Roche

If I remember correctly MAF recently bought five new Cessna Caravan planes. MAF provide a vital and wonderful service for rural communities in many parts of PNG. One hopes that government agencies do their part to keep rural airstrips open. Congratulations to MAF and their Staff for the great work they do.

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