Magnificent men & their flying machine stories
03 September 2020
COMPILED BY KEITH JACKSON
NOOSA – MAF pilot Dave Rogers’ recent yarn about the skills required to land on and take off from some of Papua New Guinea’s many preposterously difficult airstrips attracted much commentary and many war stories from our readers.
I’ve curated a few here, but first one of mine.
I had just become engaged to my first wife, Sue, at a grand party we had at my remote highlands school 10 or so kilometres from Kerowagi and Sue was on her way back home to Sydney to explain it all to her mother.
The Cessna 185 on the Kerowagi strip was packed to the gunnels with bags of kaukau and other fresh vegetables as well as a few cages of chickens, leaving two narrow seats at the rear for Sue and I.
The 185 hurtled down the flat Kerowagi strip with no sign of becoming airborne until finally applying whatever resources were at hand to avoid the embarrassing denouement of being capset in the perimeter baret.
“We’ll have another go and get her up this time,” the pilot said with a confidence we at the rear did not share.
Then he told us that, en route to Goroka, he had some mail to drop off at Omkolai for John Biltris and the other good folks at Gumine. My heart sank. Omkolai was the steepest strip in the southern hemisphere and had an apron the size of a pocket handkerchief at the top. It was a notorious landing ground.
Anyway, old Two Goes the pilot guided us to a neat uphill landing, gunning the motor violently doon after touchdown to power the aircraft to the small apron.
Take-off was a doddle, the 185 moving forward a few paces with the airstrip and then the valley plunging away beneath us.
Sue got home to Sydney all right. Nothing much could frighten you after a morning like that.
PHILIP KAI MORRE
As far as I know, Keglsugl was the first airstrip built in Simbu in 1937 by Fr John Nilles and it was followed by Mingende, Kup, Koge, Derima, and Yombai.
The airstrips were used mostly by SVD missionaries and some of whom lost their lives. Kerowagi, Omkolai and Kundiawa were built by kiaps; the most dangerous being Omkolai, most times you pray for safety.
FR GARRY ROCHE
Many remote communities depend only on MAF for service. As a passenger I’ve landed at airstrips in the Jimi and also at Bundi and Keglsugl. Some of these landings were good for the prayer life.
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 and rear of the cabin. It was often considered a cheap option to get twin engine 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 was so in those days with her best assets on display. It was all I could do to keep my eyes forward to observe what the pilots were doing and saying.
The plane was apparently an interesting model to fly and it appeared to me that we seemed to fly alternately with one wing tip forward and then the other as the young pilot adjusted pitch and trim.
Finally we turned on to the ‘short final’ approach path 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 sideways.
Suddenly a hand gripped my forearm and I looked sideways into the fear-ridden eyes of the young woman beside me. Then both arms wrapped around my upper arm and her head was against my shoulder. At that point I appeared to have gained a girlfriend.
In what seemed like seconds before touchdown, the plane was flicked into a straight line ahead and we landed. About halfway up this steep 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. My travelling companion took off like a startled rabbit as soon as the doors were opened.
I’ve flown into some spectacular strips - Tapini, Aseki and TepTep - and none was as fearsome as Omkalai.
Yes, Omkalai. My last trip there was in 1970 with Talair pilot Alan Wardell in a Skymaster. It was a fuel charter 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.
Omkalai in Simbu has a steep slope and a pad at the top to park an aeroplane. Upon landing it is necessary to speed up to the pad to prevent the aeroplane rolling backwards and into a valley several thousand feet deep.
Kiap Graham Hardy told of a pilot saying to him that it was an airstrip "where you could take off in a four-bedroom brick house and still become airborne."
My only frightening experience occurred when a few of us were travelling in one of Bobby Gibbes' three-engined Junkers from Goroka to Lae.
Halfway down the Markham valley an engine conked out and I called out to Bobby, "Hey Bobby you just lost your port engine." He called back, "Don't worry, we still have two more."
We were terrified, thinking that if one engine conked out maybe the other two would follow. But we landed safely on two engines.
Peter Whitehead, the officer in charge at Taskul government station, had to find something useful for me to do in my first week as a new kiap.
So he sent me - an ex-bank clerk and teacher - to supervise a labour line working on an airstrip at the eastern boundary of the station. The line was busy planting kangaroo-grass, which provides quick cover for the landing strip. Others were constructing the perimeter fencing.
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 in the 1970s.
When I last saw it in 2007 the SDA church had and it looked as if there were vegetable gardens on what had been the landing strip.
I was transferred to Tari and given the Air Niugini and Talair agencies after the local council had been unable to provide an efficient service. One task I had to get to grapple with was to handle corpses arriving from other airports.
The first one I had to manage saw me caught up in a wailing crowd that rushed the plane to get their wantok from the rear cargo hold of the Dash-7. I had to get my workers to hold them back to stop anyone being struck by one of the rotating propellers.
There was also a scrimmage as two groups of relatives had brought trucks to collect the corpse and were eager to fight for the body, which was wrapped in thick transparent plastic, enough to make out the corpse’s frozen features.
The Koroba Kopiago airport workers wouldn’t have a bar of handling this gruesome package and happily allowed the scrum of relatives to manhandle it out of the plane and eventually onto one of the trucks.
In my time I have flown into many remote airstrips, some of which are restricted to licenced mission planes and can be quite hair-raising.
One of the best to experience for a first timer is the Episcopal Church’s mission at Pangoa in the middle of Lake Murray (I think now closed). The landing is at breakneck speed uphill from the lake to a quick throttle back at the flat top apron on the strip.
On the other hand, take-off is like a fairground ride as the aircraft hurtles at gathering pace down the slope heading straight for the water before a surge of power lifts it off and up and over the lake.
But my scariest moment, not improved by the site of a pranged plane near the strip, was the descent into Oksapmin. Apparently there are unpredictable air currents and wind sheers that must bd mastered to land safely.
I enjoyed sitting alongside some of the aviators of PNG and have admiration for all who ply their trade amongst its mountains and deep valleys.
When I was a young didiman posted to Usino Patrol Post in 1973 there was a serious locust plague in the Ramu Valley and the agriculture department had vehicles chasing and spraying the swarms from Gusap to Dumpu.
My role was as a spotter for these vehicles in a chartered Talair 207, my task being to locate the swarms along the valley and to have the aircraft chase them up ravines and small valleys.
It was hair raising stuff but I suspect the pilot revelled in the normally illegal flying he was being paid to carry out.
At the end of it all I asked how anyone could enjoy flying with that continuous horn blaring in the background. I was then told this was a stall warning that indicated the plane was ready to fall out of the sky. Ah, the innocence of youth!
Still to this day I can recall those close-up views of waving fields of kunai on the valley walls and beside the fast flowing creeks as we swooped mere feet from it all. Absolutely the best years of my life!
One morning in 1974 I was standing outside Tapini’s trade store 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 usual point of no return.
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. The engines were howling, the ascent was laboured and the passengers were horrified, mouths wide open as they stared down at what was happening below.
One gave the impression that if she could have prised open the window she would have jumped out.
Needless to say the Islander circled, 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.
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 apron and ploughing into the bush.
The take-off was something of a kamikaze manoeuvre because the downhill 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 that 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.
That book: "And Then the Engines Stopped: Flying in Papua New Guinea", edited by Susan Serjeantson and Ward Gerard is available as a download pdf from the ANU's Pacific Institute Resources (several Pandanus books there):
Posted by: Robin Hide | 05 September 2020 at 05:45 PM
In 1970 I was returning to Vanimo from Wutung, which had a short airstrip with a hill ahead encountered soon after take-off.
It was a hot, still day with the heat shimmering off the strip and I was the only passenger sitting upfront with an inexperienced NZ pilot in the small Cessna.
When we were about to take off, the schoolteacher, Eddie McCormack, ran up and asked if he could come as he had severe toothache.
He hopped in the back and we proceeded down the strip with no sign of liftoff even at about three quarters of its length.
The pilot shut down and taxied back, saying we'll give it another go.
Eddie opened the door and jumped out saying the toothache wasn't that bad.
My heart rate elevated on the second attempt but we took off OK. As the plane banked over the sea and then the station, I looked down and saw Eddie running back to the station from the airstrip.
Posted by: Tony Wright | 03 September 2020 at 07:43 PM
I flew four or five times in and out of Amazon Bay airstrip in the far east of the Central Province in 1970.
Being a coastal strip there weren't many mountain range threats or steeply inclined strips to negotiate.
But I do recall about halfway through that year, on one trip into Moresby, the StolAir pilot had to land at a plantation airstrip about halfway to Jackson's Airport..
I think a looming severe thunderstorm was on the way. My recollection is that the plantation owners were excellent hosts.
I daresay we passengers left a few kina with them for the meals and drinks consumed, but perhaps StolAir itself had to fork out for the actual accommodation charges.
Incidentally, former kiap and politician John Stuntz passed through Amazon Bay quite a bit on his way home to the Milne Bay plantation (s) he owned.
Posted by: Richard Jones | 03 September 2020 at 04:58 PM
There's a small paperback called "And Then the Engines Stopped: Flying in Papua New Guinea", edited by Susan Serjeantson and Ward Gerard published by Pandanus Books (ANU) in 2002 worth reading if this article interests you.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 03 September 2020 at 08:15 AM