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Aviation: Safe landing & taking off in PNG

Dave Rogers and his aircraft
Dave Rogers and his aircraft - safe on the ground

| 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.

Typical landing approach
Typical landing approach, the wingtip marking the approximate committal point and exit path if the touch down needs to be aborted

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!


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Martin Kaalund

One story I can offer is about Onkolok. Sitting for dinner at Top Camp, Frieda River, Bob Hall told me that five sponsored students had been neglected by Mitsubishi when they operated the exploration program.

He had enquired and found no allowances or tuition had been paid during Mitsubishi’s tenure. He was regretful and on his next trip to Port Moresby he was to contact them. This was after five years neglect.

Onkolok must know more about mining executives and management styles than any other PNG individual. I hope his son has a harbourside residence, he earned it.

How respected he must be with his twin rotors and high altitude experience. If only he could vet applicants for a couple of production permits. In the home of oil,Texas USA, oilmen have Chinooks to deliver feed to their cattle.

Please tel me of any Captain Onkolok stories. I loved the older pilots like Bill, the Mt Isa Mines ex test pilot. I flew with the pilot that crashed at Bimin, it for Oksapmin, with a full load he was to drop off enroute to Kiunga.

What madness for a first time Wewak-Kiunga trip.

Robert Wilson

Love this reminiscing about flying in PNG. I may be a little hazy on some dates but I recall an accident on the slopes of Mt Wilhelm where an Australian helicopter crash landed on a training flight 1972.

I think either serious injury or perhaps fatality to trainee and or instructor. However, the fresh young didiman from Madang along with a couple Madang kiaps decided to spend Easter (1973) climbing Mt Wilhelm.

We flew to Kegusugl and started to climb at 2 am by torchlight to be at the peak when the sun rose. (I still have a photo of myself under a very tattered flag on the peak.) With plenty of black ice it made for an interesting climb.

When the sun came up and fog cleared, we could see a helicopter (the bubble nosed one, forget type but maybe a Bell) sitting perched on the slope below us. On our way down, we scrambled over the side of the path down to a very intact and seemingly undamaged chopper.

Luckily I had thought in advance and carried a couple of bilums, some tools and proceeded to remove a bank of eight (I think) radios that were mounted at the front.

We carried these back with us to Goroka where I met with someone from Talair who took them off my hands. I understand they were tested and found to be in working condition and subsequently installed in Twin Otters.

The resultant remuneration paid for our Easter holiday.
Needless to say we never talked about that and I think the statute of limitations may now have passed.

Martin Kaalund

My friend Brian Sullivan died after trying to abort a landing with 13 passengers in a Nomad at Tapini in 1978.

It was a friendship that started when he landed his helicopter to talk to me on the beach at Peli. Then a year later he would arrive in a plane at another strip, the last Marawaka in 1976.

He gave me a lift to the show.

I thought I would mention his name as it is not recorded in Balus by James Sinclair. Gone but not forgotten.

Alex Andervoitin

Hi Dave, Great article, I’ve always wanted to do the sort of flying you describe here, it looks absolutely amazing!

I’m currently flying the airvan doing scenic and charters in NT.

I was wondering are there many other GA companies in PNG these days and whether there are any flying opportunities there?

Chips Mackellar

My only frightening experience when flying in PNG occurred when one day a few of us were travelling in one of Bobby Gibbes' three engined Junkers, from Goroka to Lae, Bobby being the pilot.

Half way down the Markham valley one engine conked out. I called out to Bobby, "Hey Bobby you just lost your port engine." He called back, "Don't worry, we still have two more."

Bobby wasn't worried, but we were terrified, thinking that if one engine conked out maybe the other two will also. But we landed safely on two engines.

Philip Kai Morre

When road links were non existent in the highlands of PNG since 1933 to around the early 1950s, airplanes were essential services in these remote parts bringing much needed goods.

As far as I know in Simbu, Keglsugl was the oldest airstrip build in 1937 by Fr John Nilles followed by Mingende, Kup, Koge, Derima, and Yombai.

The airstrips were used by SVD missionaries and some lost their lives in crash landing. Kerowagi, Omkolai and Kundiawa were build by kiaps and the most dangerous airstrip is Omkolai, death or life and most times you will pray for safety.

Karamui has 11 airstrips but some may be closed and others still maintained by MAF and Adventist airways.

Arthur Williams

Oh I do so enjoy yarns about aviation especially in PNG. My thesis for final year at teachers college was on Passenger Air Transport. At that time I’d never been in anything other than a static Link Trainer at a St Athan’s At Home Day.

I was in the 21st Cardiff Air Scouts an innovative move in the Scouts just before WW2. I think there may still be one or two of such groups still in the UK.

I was unlucky that my family and I were sent by ship for our £10 assisted passage to West Australia rather than by air as would soon be the norm.

A glimpse of things to come was my first flight from a paddock in Bruce Rock when a MAF pilot on a fund raising and awareness trip gave a talk to the school there. After that he had a cuppa in our staff room he asked if anyone wanted to have a ‘joy’ ride.

A lady teacher and I jumped at his offer. What a delight to sore like an eagle even if ended up with my having a somewhat green faced as he dived and twisted over her home on a farm I think and quickly twisted and turned over a few of the small bush town’s beauty spots.

Within a few months I had motored across my new nation in my Holden to attend ASOPA and before the end of the year had experienced my first commercial flight in a TAA from Sydney possibly in a Fokker F27 Friendship direct to Port Moresby.

On the flight path over the land west of the capital the land below looked parched and brown while in the distance was the rainforests and mountains.

My family and I were reunited after I spent a few weeks familiarisation at Kwikila and then I was on my second commercial flight. We were diverted enroute Kavieng to Rabaul due bad rains in our destination.

The approach to the Lakunai aka Matupit strip meant at times we were almost on a wingtip turning in a circle inside the remains of the ancient volcanic and now Simpson Harbour. That was the first of my hair raising landings in the country.

My next date with aviation destiny was when Peter Whitehead the OIC at Taskul Govt. station had to find me something useful to do for my first week as a new kiap.

He sent this ex-bank clerk and teacher to supervise a labour line working on an airstrip on the eastern boundary of the station. They were busy planting what I only recently knew as kangaroo-grass, which apparently provides quick cover of a lawn or in this case a landing strip. Others were constructing the fencing for it.

Little did I know that I would one day be one of the few commercial passengers who ever flew from it possibly on the last flight. It closed in the seventies and when I saw it in 2007 the SDA church which had always had a small building near it had grown and the pastor’s house was built at the site of the old terminal. It looked as if there were some veggie gardens growing on parts of the landing strip.

For the next 30 years I flew many miles in all sorts of carriers but the majority were with the smaller airlines. I was agent for Talair at Karoola on Buka for a brief time.

Later I was agent for Douglas at watery Baimuru and got them interested in using a float plane during the rainy season when their competitor couldn’t land on the grass airstrip having to overfly onto Kikori where the Marsden matting once at Baimuru had been transferred over a dispute with the government over not siting a high school.

I recall being up to my thighs in the Purari mud getting the float plane fully back into the river after a falling tide had left it marooned up the slippery filthy mud while the pilot had come to my home for a coffee break.

Transferring to Tari I was given the ANG agency after the LLG had been unable to provide an efficient service for the national carrier. One task I had to get to grapple with was the arrival of dead bodies from other airports.

The first one I had to manage followed the recent procedure where wailing crowds rushed the plane to get their wantok out of the rear cargo hold of the Dash-7. I had to get my workers to force them back to wait the stopping of the rotating propellers.

There was also a scrimmage as the two groups of relatives had both brought their trucks onto the parking area and the in-laws wanted to fight the ‘outlaws’ for the body.

Incidentally it was merely wrapped in thick transparent plastic sheeting and you could make out the corpse’s frozen features. My Koroba Kopiago workers were afraid of handling it and allowed the scrum to manhandle it out of the plane an eventually onto one truck.

Every flight I organised one of my workers to stand at the boom-gate onto the tarmac and he was told to only allow the first truck to arrive to enter then he would close and lock the gate.

I also lectured my guys about the least of their worries came from immobile dead bodies. Also that we would wheel out a trolley to the plane when it was safe and we would load any body onto that and pull it over to for relatives who had to stay near their truck.

From then on it worked a treat and was made easier by the use of proper coffins that helped my workers’ squeamishness.

Tari was a great place to live and lots of memories remain. As well as ANG I was agent too for Talair which I was told was unusual for the PNG. In a way it didn’t matter as I could always sell capacity seats on any flight that came to me.

One event was the arrival of the world’s largest cargo plane that was on a charter flight round the world from Texas to Tari to deliver desperately needed drilling equipment for Oil Search who were in the process of finding rich oil and LNG in the nearby jungles.

The plane arrived late and wouldn’t stop its engines to avoid having to spend perhaps 14 hours idle in Tari and costing a fortune to Oil Search. It took off as the valley was getting misty and dusk approached.

Oil Search had set up their camp at the southern end of the airfield. I often moved many of their international FIFO workers coming and going to the USA, Australia etc on the scheduled service flights.

A scary part of the miner’s activities was the many hours of helicopters taking off and flying not too many meters above my store and my family home. The worst part being the sight of their loads of steel hanging from wires and I always prayed their loadmasters would secure them safely.

My kids would love to stand outside the fencing watching daddy with his two fluorescent paddles guiding the bigger planes to a safe spot to park.

My best day was Good Friday 1985 when the store was closed and I had given my guys the day off as only one flight was due to land. That day I had my first really highland sweats as instead three planes all arrived within minutes of one another.

I even had to refuel one of them with an old drum pump as we didn’t have electrical equipment. ‘Masta I kas!’ said some of the usual bystanders that gawped at the arrival of every plane; perhaps hoping that a wantok had arrived with ‘kago’ for them from Moresby.

In my time I have flown into many Southern/Hela and Western strips some of which can be quite hair-raising and restricted to licenced mission planes only.

I believe one of the best to experience for a first timer is the ECP Mission’s Pangoa in the middle of Lake Murray. I think now closed. You land at a fast speed uphill from the lake to quickly throttle back at the flat top of the strip.

The take-off reminds me of a fairground ride rapidly down the slope heading straight for the water before a surge of power lifts the plane off and up over the lake.

My scariest was the descent into Oksapmin not improved by the site of a pranged plane near the strip. Apparently there are special air currents or sheer winds that you must master to land safely.

I enjoyed the company sitting alongside some of the aviators of PNG and have admiration for all who ply their trade among its mountains and deep valleys.

Especially I think MAF deserves praise for the hours that their pilots spend keeping many isolated stations viable and providing service to small communities miles from any other settlements.

Robert Wilson

As a young didiman posted to Usino Patrol Post in 1973 I recall a serious locust plague in the Ramu Valley around that time and DASF had vehicles chasing the swarms from Gusap towards Dumpu spraying them.

My role was as a spotter for these vehicles in a chartered TALAIR 207 which located swarms along the valley sides and chasing them up ravines and small valleys.

Hair raising stuff but I now suspect the pilot revelled in the illegal flying he was being paid to carry out.

At the end of it all I asked how could anyone enjoy flying with that continuous horn blaring in the background. Ah, the innocence of youth!

I was then told this was a stall warning that indicated the plane was almost ready to fall out of the sky.

Still to this day I can recall those close up views of wavy swarms of kunai on the valley walls and besides the fast flowing creeks as we swooped mere feet from it all. Absolutely best years of my life!

Ross Wilkinson

In early 1969, as a very inexperienced Cadet Patrol Officer, I flew from Kundiawa to Omkalai, in a Cessna 337 which was commonly called a “push-pull .” This was because it had twin engines forward of and at the rear of the cabin. It was often considered a cheap option to get “twin” endorsement for a young pilot.

And this was the case on this flight as there was a pilot and check pilot beside him which meant I was in the second row of seats. There was a young Chimbu woman beside me who was traditionally dressed as the Chimbu women did in those days with her best young assets on display. It was all I could do to keep my eyes forward to observe what the pilots were doing and saying.

However, the plane was apparently an interesting model to fly and it appeared to my senses that we seemed to be flying with first one wing tip forward and then the other as the young pilot was adjusting the pitch and trim.
Finally we turned onto the approach path, “short final” as I’ve heard it called, when the pilot commits to the landing. At this point we appeared to be heading towards a very steep strip of mown grass and red clay, but we were approaching it sideways!

All of a sudden a hand gripped my forearm and I looked sideways into the fear-ridden eyes of the young woman beside me. Then the grip changed to both arms wrapped around my upper arm and her head was against my shoulder. At that point both pilots turned around and laughed at my predicament and joked that I appeared to have gained a girlfriend.

To me in what seemed like seconds before touchdown, the plane was flicked into a straight line ahead and we landed. As described, about halfway up this near vertical incline, the pilot gunned the motors to climb to the top where a horizontal hard-standing pad had been carved out of the red clay. If he hadn’t timed the braking well the pilot may very well have run us into a bank of hard clay. My travelling companion took off like a startled rabbit as soon as the doors were opened, so much for that "friendship."

My stay was short and the take-off a day later was nowhere near as adventurous as the landing. I’ve flown into Tapini, Aseki and TepTep and none were as fearsome as Omkalai.

William Dunlop

Yes, Philip, Omkalai. My last trip there was with TALair pilot Alan Wardell in a Skymaster.

It was a fuel charter in 1970 I had organised due to the road to Gumine being out.

After that particular airstrip experience, I elected to travel on no more fuel charters.

Terence Kelliher

The aircraft is a GippsAero G8 Airvan which is a specifically designed STOL bush airstrip capable 'plane.

Operated all over the world by MAF and others - designed and constructed in Australia.

Robert Forster

Dave’s analysis is interesting. I think the airstrip in his picture is Tapini.

One morning in 1974 I was standing outside Tapini’s trade store, which was to the right of the plane pictured, when a Norman Islander aborted its landing and throttled desperately in an effort to avoid hitting the Sub-District office at the top end of the strip.

It was the noise that attracted my attention so I cannot be sure when the pilot gave up on his landing. However it must have been be well beyond the spot indicated by Dave in his article.

The plane’s "escape" was made all the more dramatic because it had to bank to port at the same time to avoid the hill behind Tapini as well. The engines were howling, the ascent was laboured and the passengers were horrified.

Mouths were wide open as they stared down at what was happening below and one gave the impression that if she could have prised open the window she would have jumped out.

Needless to say the Islander circled, then re-approached, and landed safely. As I recall not much was said while passengers got out and the plane was unloaded.

It was just another day at the office.

Chris Overland

My guess is that the plane depicted in the photos is a Cessna 206 or 207.

This aircraft was and, so far as I know, still is the workhorse of the MAF although they probably have some turboprops now as well.

From the shape of the nose, I'd guess the plane shown to be rather more modern than the aircraft I flew in during the early 70's. I certainly hope so.

Philip Fitzpatrick

There was an airstrip at Omkalai in Simbu which also had a steep slope and a pad at the top to park an aeroplane.

Upon landing it was necessary to speed up to the pad to prevent the aeroplane rolling backwards and into a valley several thousand feet deep.

As Graham Hardy reported one pilot told him that it was one airstrip "where you could take off in a four-bedroom brick house and still become airborne."

Chris Overland

This is a nice explanation of what a pilot needs to be thinking about on even a routine take off or landing.

Most kiaps will be able to recall some fairly hairy take offs or landings in PNG, especially from strips that featured unusually tricky locations or approaches.

In the Gulf Province, landings and take offs from Kaintiba could be rather fraught due to the slope of the strip and an approach where the point of committal was quite a long way from the strip.

This was because the surrounding mountains were too high to allow any plane (except, perhaps, a Pilatus Porter) to climb out of the valley if something went wrong.

Upon landing, the pilot had to immediately open the throttle in order to power up the slope to the top of the strip where he had to abruptly cut the throttle again to avoid overshooting the parking area and ploughing into the bush.

The take off was something of a kamikaze manoeuvre because the down hill slope was such that an aborted take off was out of the question.

As I recall, there was a wrecked plane at the bottom of the strip just to drive home the point that once committed there was no turning back.

Anyway, I survived a couple of visits to Kaintiba (in a Britten Norman Islander) without mishap and, as far as I know, the strip never saw any major prangs except for the one aircraft lying forlornly at the end of it.

I had a few exciting moments while flying in PNG but not enough to put me off the sheer joy of flying over such marvellous and beautiful country.

Garry Roche

Curiosity - what model plane is in the photo, and what airstrip (or airstrips) feature in the photos.

I am not a pilot but as a passenger I have landed at airstrips in the Jimi and also at Bundi and Keglsugl. Some of these landings were good for the prayerlife!

I believe that currently many of these remote communities can only depend on MAF for service. Some of the airstrips I was familiar with are probably now closed, e.g. Tabibuga.

Perhaps some readers can help identify the aircraft and the strips, Garry - KJ

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