| MAF Australia Pilot
SYDNEY - Probably one of the most common questions I’m asked by friends and supporters back home is, “What’s it like flying in Papua New Guinea?”
I thought I’d take this opportunity to answer it.
The risks of operating light aircraft, particularly in PNG, necessitates strict adherence to procedures and extensive training.
For each airstrip we go to, we have published parameters for things like wind, temperature and surface condition that vary how much load we can take in or out, or may prohibit us from landing completely.
The parameters themselves vary for each airstrip depending on the elevation, length, slope and surrounding terrain.
There is a fair bit of margin built into these parameters to allow for unexpected fluctuations beyond what we’ve planned for.
Aside from the safety achieved by only operating within these proven parameters, there is a stringent training and checking process to ensure pilots are competent to fly into each place.
This covers not only landing and taking off at the airstrip, but also flying the route to get there as well as any alternate routes.
So what does a typical approach to landing look like?
Well I thought I’d show you one of my favourite examples, depicted here. The red line shows the approximate flight path of the aircraft on approach to land.
The blue line shows the exit path in the event we need to abort the approach.
The dotted line indicates times the aircraft is flying behind the terrain and the pilot cannot actually see the runway.
One vital element about flying in PNG is what we in MAF call the ‘committal point’. This is the point on the approach path that is our last opportunity to safely exit a difficult approach.
That is, if we continue past that point, we must land, there is no option to abort!
In most of the aviation world, a missed approach is typically possible right up to the point of touchdown, and often after.
In my example here, the committal point is just a bit before touchdown. At some airstrips it can be as far as a minute out from landing. A lot can happen in a minute.
Before we continue past the committal point, we need to be confident the winds are suitable, the runway is clear and that turbulence will not destabilise our approach.
There are rare occasions where unforeseen changes to wind or turbulence occur past the committal point, and in those situations we are glad for the safety margins built into those operating parameters I spoke about.
The takeoff equivalent of the ‘committal point’ is the ‘safe abort point’. This is the latest point along the takeoff run at which we can safely abort the takeoff and come to a stop with some runway remaining.
The safe abort point is something the pilot nominates before each takeoff, and can vary slightly depending on the conditions at the time.
For a flat airstrip the safe abort point might be somewhere around halfway along the runway. However many airstrips in PNG have slopes of over 10%, and so stopping is impossible after releasing the brakes. In those cases we have no option to abort a takeoff and must continue.
All that might make you a bit nervous. But rest assured, it makes us really safe pilots.
Because there are less options and margins for error than we might have operating in Australia, every decision we make is well thought out and considered – there is no room for a she’ll-be-right mentality.
We are forced to be very actively engaged in the flight.
Hope that answers the question!