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Knigge - We quickly leave the bad weather behind us in Mt Hagen.
Wilfred Knigge - "As we set course for Wewak, Hagen township was already swallowed by rain"

| MAF PNG Facebook

WEWAK - It's Tuesday afternoon and I've landing at Mount Hagen. Andy, a colleague pilot from Wewak, tells me something is going on around a missing boat near the East Sepik capital.

We quickly walk to the operations manager’s office for some clarity. There are hardly any details. All we know is that a boat went from Wuvulu Island to Wewak, but failed to arrive there at the agreed time.

The previous day, Monday, I’d been on Wuvulu. I’d loaded the maximum number of people and cargo, but couldn't take two passengers because they would have exceeded the maximum take-off weight.

The two had found that a bit annoying, of course, but luckily a boat was leaving later that day. They could travel that way.

Family Knigge
Wilfred and Harriëtte Knigge and their sons, Micah and Ruben - MAF pilots and their families make great sacrifices to perform a great service to PNG

I realised that the two passengers I left behind were on the missing boat. They weren't strictly my passengers, but that's it felt like they were. In fact, I felt very involved, partly because of my role in it.

We quickly left Hagen. The clouds were getting darker and as we set course Hagen town already had been swallowed by the rain.

Fortunately the Sepik, where we were heading, was only slightly cloudy with a lot of blue sky. We left the bad behind and flew into some beautiful weather.

That evening we were told the search would continue tomorrow. There was still no concrete information, but we knew where the boat departed from and where it was going.

The plan was to leave early in the morning, but not so early it is was still dark. We called the company that provides fuel at the airport and asked if they could be there extra early.

Everyone goes the extra mile to ensure a good outcome of the search. My day off is going in the trash, but that can be stolen from me right now. We are here: to help.

Andy has experience in flying patrol and search operations. That's a huge asset to MAF PNG. And Wewak is the best place to have him stationed, the only base we have on the sea.

On Wednesday morning we come up with a plan and gather as much data from as many sources as possible: wind and ocean currents; time of disappearance; how long have they’ve been drifting. We try to calculate and reason everything.

Knigge - Day 1 the pattern on the left  day 2 the pattern on the right.
At left, the search pattern flown on Day 1; at right, he pattern on Day 2 (Wilfred Knigge)

But at the same time we find that we are not equipped for this kind of mission: MAF PNG is not really experienced for this kind of task.

It's my first time and Andy does have experience but with different resources and different circumstances. He tells me much more data on wind and currents is available in Europe.

We take off from Wewak and begin the search almost immediately. We all have put on life jackets because we plan to fly up to 200 km from the coast. Initially we planned to fly at 600 meters, but clouds make it impossible to search well, so we drop to 300 meters.

After almost six hours of flying on reduced power for maximum flight time, we land at Wewak again. Unfortunately with no result.

It's unclear if the search will resume the next day, so we prepare as much as we can, just in case.

In the evening it becomes clear that we will resume searching the next day. We now have two extra men as observers. One of them left on a boat from a neighbouring island on the same day as the missing boat.

He has a good idea of the wind and currents at the time and, together with him, we decide on a new plan of which area to search.

We take off again early Thursday morning and do the same as the day before: life jackets on, low over the water, flying a cartridge for six hours in a row and continuously looking out in the hope of finding the missing boat.

Unfortunately also not found on this day. I am frustrated and disappointed. We should have been able to find them. Is the lack of data a bigger problem than estimated? It sucks, but there's nothing we can do.

That evening it the search is discontinued. The boat has been missing for more than 80 hours and the search area expands every hour.

And the weather models are contradictory, one indicating an easterly flow and another a westerly flow. Where will we look then?

Over the following days the search haunts my mind. Every time I see the sea, I think of them. I want to go out to sea again, search further. But right now it would be just foolish to continue. The boat may have drifted more than 300 km from its original location. Impossible!

It's become clear to me that this action is affecting me more than I care to admit. I don't say too much about it and my wife Harriëtte doesn't pick up the sporadic signals either.

I am tired from the many flying hours and need rest. I do nothing all Saturday, but the thoughts remain.

On Sunday we have a joint service with other mission organisations on the hill overlooking the sea near Wewak.

I stand outside on the hill looking at the sea, looking for a white boat bobbing around. They must be somewhere.

It is clear to me now that I have to process this and talk about it. I know we did everything we could, but it feels like failure. We didn't find them.

The hill where I look for the boat
Wilfred Knigge - "I stand outside on the hill looking at the sea, looking for a white boat bobbing around. They must be somewhere"

At the end of the church service, I look out over the water again. I spot a white boat is bobbing up and down.

For a moment I think, 'What if…?' but it's impossible. There are many other boats around and no one is heading for this boat. It must be someone fishing.

Several people hear the story and Harriëtte shares it with someone. We go home.

Half an hour later the phone rings. It’s the person Harriette spoke to. He has a guard from Wuvulu at his compound who knew about the missing boat.

The guard said a call had come from Jayapura just that morning. The missing boat washed up there and all the occupants are alive.

They had drifted at sea for almost six days, without paddles, sails and without means of communication.

What a huge relief. No more worries; no more asking if we could have done better.

Joy and gratitude. And next time, we'll find them....


Knigge - Home Front Committee
The home front committee back in the Netherlands - it provides the support to keep the Knigge Family flying for MAF in PNG


Netherlands couple Wilfred and Harriëtte Knigge (they have two young sons, Micah and Ruben) were selected by MAF International in August 2016 to fly for MAF as a pilot family. Initially, they were posted to Ramingining in Arnhem Land, 560 km east of Darwin, in January 2017 and then in July 2018 transferred to Papua New Guinea to work for MAF from Wewak.

Wilfred has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and developed IT hardware and software for some years after university. From an early age he had heard stories about the MAF in Papua from his missionary father and grandparents. In 2011, Wilfred started flying training and in 2015 obtained his instrument rating.

Back in the Netherlands, the Knigge home front committee supports Wilfred and Harriëtte and the boys, maintaining close contact with them, fundraising and delivering presentations to associations, clubs and schools, and providing pastoral and social care. Wilfred and Harriëtte could not be deployed to PNG without this support.

Read more about the Knigge Family on Facebook here


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