New Guinea, 1965: Machines, men & landing places
08 April 2022
NOOSA – This photograph and the one below emerged on Facebook not so long ago.
They brought back many memories of a time now long gone in a place dear to our hearts.
Omkolai airstrip is about 20 km south of Kundiawa. It doesn’t sound that far now. But the road from Kundiawa – precipitous and riven with landslides – always made it seem much, much further than that. Still does, I hear.
The strip had a 13.4 degree slope (one in seven gradient) and was a mile, about 1,600 metres, above sea level.
Back then, in the 1960s, when I was a denizen of Chimbu, it was said to be the steepest airstrip in the southern hemisphere.
That’s a very Australian thing to say, our culture needs biggest and fastests and - given the number of tiny strips dotted about all manner of remote and mountainous places in the southern hemisphere - I suppose it’s possible that it was the steepest.
It was constructed in 1952, when there was no road access to Chimbu’s southern tribes – dug out from the side of a hill by hundreds of men and boys using the most basic implements.
This masterpiece of civil engineering is variously claimed to have been under the supervision of an American Lutheran missionary, the Rev Roland Brandt (known to the locals as Bilande), or achieved because of the willpower of a kiap.
I would guess it was most likely the latter, although the story of the missionary family is more romantic.
Rev Brandt and his family lived in a German-style residence built for them nearby.
This was soon followed, in the order of things, by a church and a school for the people of Omkolai and other adjacent villages.
Not long after, there was a report in a church newsletter that the Brandt missionary family “lived a happy life and people visited them providing local food.
“Every Sunday, everyone goes to church to listen to the white man’s voice and to see their little [white] children playing.”
Around August 1966, Sue Flatt, who became my first wife and who was completing her teacher training in New South Wales, flew from Sydney to Goroka, where I met her at the airport.
We drove over the Daulo Pass to Chuave, where we overnighted with my dear friends, teachers Murray and Joan Bladwell.
The next morning we motored on to my school at Gagl, up in the clouds maybe 6 km east of Kerowagi and 20 km north of Kundiawa in a straight line. This in a topography which, you understand, knows no straight line.
To find Gagl you drive west along the Highlands Highway so-called and, upon arriving at the famous Mingende Mission, turn right on to the unsigned goat track leading to Gagl, another 15-20 minutes’ of jarring all going well.
Anyway, enough of time and distance. During Sue’s visit to my remote school with its breathtaking view across the Wahgi Valley to the Kubor Range, she agreed to marry me.
A week later we had the biggest and only engagement party Gagl has ever seen. A dozen vehicles, mainly LandRovers and battered coffee utes hazarded the bush track. The only one to do in a sump was a the Volkswagen; totally unsuited to these wannabe roads.
The next day Sue and I travelled to Kerowagi to return to Goroka, this time by air.
We would say goodbye in Goroka and Sue would fly back to Sydney and try to explain the surprise engagement to her mother.
The Cessna 185 on the strip at Kerowagi was packed to the gunnels with bags of kaukau and other vegetables, a couple of sacks of rice as well as a box of chickens, leaving two narrow seats at the rear for Sue and me.
The aircraft hurtled down the Kerowagi strip seemingly glued to the grass and showing no sign of becoming airborne until eventually the pilot gave up and throttled back, the aircraft slowing enough to wheel around just before reaching a deep stormwater baret inside the airfield perimeter.
“We’ll have another go, I’ll get her up this time,” the pilot yelled with a confidence we hidden at the rear did not share.
This time with an immense roar and amidst clouds of grass and dust, the aircraft lifted off and I could just hear Two Goes shouting through the kaukau and other cargo that we would stop briefly at Omkolai to drop off mail for John Biltris, the kiap at Gumine.
My heart sank. I’d never flown in or out of Omkolai but its notoriety preceded it.
it was a regular topic of conversation in the Chimbu Club after the two most popular subjects – whether the Highlands Highway was open and when the next beer shipment was due.
The steepest strip in the southern hemisphere (maybe the world, I was now thinking) was just 550 metres long and dug out of the side of a mountain surrounded by other mountains.
It was a one-way strip, approached from a narrow valley and ending at an unforgiving ridge-line. On one side it dropped precipitously 450 metres to the Wahgi River.
At the top of the runway was a small flat square of apron, the only level ground in the Gumine Sub-District it seemed, where the aircraft would dock.
Anyway, young Two Goes was better at landings, especially uphill where physics took over bringing the Cessna to an abrupt stop, causing him to gun the motor violently to gain enough motive power to get the aircraft up to the small apron.
Biltris wasn’t there to greet us so we gave the mail and a couple of boxes of tinmit to a bloke who assured us that ‘kiap i salim mi long kisim ol samting’.
Take-off was a doddle, the 185 moved forward a metre or two from the apron before it rapidly gathered speed and, halfway down the strip, had the ground plunge away beneath it, The now not quite so-overloaded plane took to the air like a bird.
This leg to Goroka passed without event and I saw Sue off in the DC3 to Lae and Moresby and made my way home to my school in the clouds, lonely to be without Sue, excited by the promise of marriage and daunted with the prospect of having to face Sue’s mother when I went on leave in three months.
As for Omkolai, Philip Kaupa told PNG Attitude in 2014 that this “once beautiful and most challenging airstrip is no more to be seen. Today it is another gardening field of kaukau mounds.”
But I’m still able to say, and so is my first wife, Sue, that we once landed on the steepest airfield in the southern hemisphere and, just maybe, the world.
Jim Moore mentioned some of the airstrips in the Jimi Valley, including Tabibuga, Kol and Koinambe. I remember flying out of Tabibuga in a Cessna, as a passenger, - I’m no pilot. I also remember walking from Tabibuga to Koinambe and also I have walked from Karap to Kol. These airstrips provided a vital service in those times.
The time I flew out of Tabibuga the pilot told me that on our way to Madang the next stop was Keglsugl airstrip in Upper Simbu. When we were coming close I was looking out a window and could not see any airstrip. The pilot told me not to be looking down but look up ! And sure enough there was Keglsugl airstrip up on the mountain ahead of us.
I also remember flying in and out of Ambullua, and I have been informed that the airstrip there is still in use in 2022, but only used by charter planes. I presume that means that there is no regular service, but if someone has enough cargo to go in or out that they can charter a plane. Maybe health emergencies are also possible.
For more on ambullua see: https://www.pngattitude.com/2016/08/the-red-hole-of-ambullua-airstrip-a-story-of-admirable-self-reliance.html
Posted by: Garrett Roche | 15 April 2022 at 08:24 PM
You can download a free PDF of the book 'And Then the Engine Stopped: Flying in Papua New Guinea'. It is part of the Pandanus Books collection now made available by the Australian National University. Lot's of interesting other books on PNG available too. The link to the PDF of the book is here:
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 14 April 2022 at 03:22 PM
"As for Omkolai, Philip Kaupa told PNG Attitude in 2014 that this “once beautiful and most challenging airstrip is no more to be seen. Today it is another gardening field of kaukau mounds.”
Tabibuga suffered the same fate. I overflew it in 1998, and it was no longer useable, being covered in low bush that was quickly taking over.
I assumed that the Anglican Mission strip at Koinambe was the same although I didn't see it.
Koinambe was in some respects even more dangerous than Tabiguga because it was the same length but quite level, so no slope to slow the plane on landing.
Kol strip in the Upper Jimi was still operating in 1998.
Whether these strips closed because there were no airlines left willing or able to fly into them, or because the will and resources necessary to maintain them were not there, I was not able to find out.
I wondered about the effect those closures had on government services of all kinds including health, education, policing, postal services and so on.
The road into the Jimi from Banz was pretty so-so at the best of times, subject to the vagaries of weather, landslides etc, so things like emergency medical evacuations to Hagen were a thing of the past.
Posted by: Jim Moore | 14 April 2022 at 01:57 PM
Great story, Keith. As with so many things associated with Papua New Guinea, it is very difficult to explain to an outsider what processes like flying in pre-GPS Cessnas in a physical environment like PNG's meant to the people experiencing those things.
The strip at Tabibuga in the Jimi River, only about an 8-9 degrees slope, was 1,200 feet long and surrounded by cliffs on three sides, and a sheer drop into a gully at the bottom.
Like Omkalai, the pilot had to put on full throttle to get to the top if he touched down even about a third the way along. Taking off, a Cessna would usually be airborne after running about 400 feet downhill.
I remember one day watching a Cessna take off. It stayed on the ground all the way down the strip, and dropped out of sight, over the end into the gully. We raced down to the bottom, expecting to see smoke arising from the wreck, only to see the plane following the valley down and slowly climbing on the way back to Hagen.
We asked the pilot next time he flew in, "What happened, we were sure you were gone for all money?"
He replied, "I just wanted to see what would happen if I stayed on the ground all the way down to the bottom!"
Flying was often a tragic business, I knew four people who died in various crashes, and three times came within a hairbreadth of joining them myself.
Sometimes, it's probably a good thing to not think too much about the past, even though those memories are very precious.
Posted by: Jim Moore | 12 April 2022 at 04:07 PM
Great read! I flew into Omkalai a few times to pick up and drop off a fellow boarding school (KLS at Wau) mate and his sister.
Loved the approach, seemingly flying down in the river gorge that formed a semi-circle at the bottom of the airport.
One correction: the American missionary was Roland Brandt.
My mate was his youngest son (Sam). An older brother (Tom Brandt) was in PNG as an adult, represented the country at the 1971 South Pacific Games (silver in the marathon and bronze in the 10K), and coached in Goroka in the 1980s.
Posted by: Jon Davis | 12 April 2022 at 08:40 AM
The Tapini strip features as an oddity in my PNG service - and not because of its significant gradient - but, in this case, because it had a completely grassed surface.
In 1962, Glen Thompson was the head teacher at the Tapini school and also a good friend of mine. I was an English teacher at the Iduabada Technical School in Moresby.
When Easter neared I booked a Good Friday flight to Tapini on Patair and subsequently flew in the quite extraordinary Piaggo aircraft that did the regular trip. I was booked to fly back to Moresby on the Easter Monday
Not long after we landed (and the plane had departed) the rain started to fall - and kept falling.
The next morning we were informed that, as the strip had a DCA imposed 24 point/24hour closure rule, there would be no flights for some days. It turned out to be eight days if I remember correctly.
On the Tuesday I called the District Education Office on the radio sched and explained my dilemma. I was given permission to help at the school until I could get back to Moresby.
I had, however, awoken the authorities to my existence as a primary trained teacher in a secondary trained position. A rather drastic chain reaction then eventuated.
Roger Hunter was at Tubusereia school but was a married man living in a Dowsett aluminium single officers' quarters some 20 foot square.
There was a married quarters available at Tapini occupied by the unmarried Thompson.
John (?) Powell the head teacher at Aroma school (west of Kupiano at Marshall Lagoon) was single and had asked for an urgent transfer.
The simple solution would have been straight swaps of Thompson/Hunter and Robertson/Powell.
But I, Robertson, had a vehicle which could not be transported to Aroma and apparently the Administration would be up for compensation if I was forced to sell it. A strange and largely unknown rule.
Result - Hunter to Tapini, Powell to Iduabada, Thompson to Aroma and me to Tubusereia.
The bloke who came out with the short straw was Glen Thompson - all because of the Tapini strip and a rather bizarre vehicle rule.
He did eventually forgive me and remains a very good friend to this day.
With another Easter now upon us I might just remind him of our fateful catch-up 60 years ago.
Posted by: Ian Robertson | 11 April 2022 at 05:51 PM
Cannot brag about landing strips, but recall a very close call out of Kokoda.
Had finished three day walk of The Track from Ower's Corner and waiting, weather bound, for scheduled flight back to Moresby.
Time got away and several plane loads of people had gathered at the strip, watching the Australian Army survey aircraft operate, where civilian airliners would not. The Gap was closed by cloud.
Talking amongst ourselves, we drew straws to see who would take available seats on the first Twin Otter to make it into Kokoda, based on a need for high priority over existing bookings.
A fellow Tasmanian, who was doing river stream gauging in the area, took my seat and those also losing the ballot waited in the mud for the next available aircraft to chance getting in and out.
We waved them off and were soon to learn that our scheduled flight crashed in the Gap, killing all passengers.
Sometimes it is lucky not to win the short straw.
I still have fond memories of the Bladwells.
Posted by: Henry Sims | 11 April 2022 at 02:47 PM
The old airstrip at Bolivip was a ripper. It had a 1 in 11 slope and a bloody great cliff at the end with no room to turn around if the landing had to be aborted. Bit like the strip at Olsobip.
The bridge off the airstrip made out of a crashed Islander's wings was a reminder of how deadly landings could be. The chooks using the body of the plane as a house remained unperturbed.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 10 April 2022 at 12:38 PM
Good story. Keith. Thank you. And thank you also Chris for your commentary.
I think we all experienced similar hair raising flights during our time in PNG. But spare a thought for the pilots of Susi Air.
This is a small airline which specialises in servicing remote parts of Indonesian Papua (not to be confused with what we know as Papua).
Susi Air is so named because it is operated by an Indonesian lady named Susi and she sends her pilots (mostly young Brits) into areas so remote as to have no road access.
To get trade and passengers in and exports out the people have to build their own airstrips. No DCA approval there and no kiaps to help, so the people who have never flown before have to guess how to build an airstrip. So what passes for these bush airstrips is at some variance to what a normal pilot would expect.
A few years ago there was a TV series on Susi Air with astonishing footage of some of their more hazardous landings. Some airstrips had impossible grades, dogleg approaches, dangerous clearances and insufficient drainage, and so on as you could imagine.
One pilot said that with no local expertise on the safety of a strip, the pilots had to judge for themselves. He said they would overfly a new airstrip a few times from different angles, compare the visuals, and if it looked safe enough they would attempt a landing.
He said they mostly got it right, but a few pranged planes beside a few airstrips indicated when they didn't get it right.
When asked why they flew is such atrocious conditions one pilot said, "If you can survive a few years flying Susi Air it is such a good qualification you could easily get a job with any other airline anywhere in the world."
At least we had DCA to keep us safe, even though some of our airstrips were nearly as bad.
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 10 April 2022 at 11:12 AM
From memory, the touchdown area at Kaintiba was 11% then steepened to a maximum 16.4%. On landing the pilot had to give full power to get to the top. On take off, just like a roller coaster.
Posted by: Ray Weber | 10 April 2022 at 09:24 AM
I lived in Mingende when my dad was the milkman for the missionaries and teachers at the station before self-government.
I was pre-school age then but with this story somewhere in my memory I vaguely recall that there may have been an airstrip at Mingende.
Enjoyed fresh milk daily before the missionaries and teachers got theirs
I even recall Brother Theo buying me my first ice cream from an ice cream van.
There was a lot fun in those days.
Posted by: Kindin Ongugo | 09 April 2022 at 08:51 AM
Thanks for this great story, Keith. Your experience landing and taking off at Omkolai will resonate powerfully with those of us who had the sometimes alarming privilege of flying around PNG.
I am not sure if Omkolai was the steepest airstrip in PNG although with a gradient of over 13% it must have been well in the running.
In the Gulf Province the steepest strip was that at Kaintiba. Like Omkalai, it featured a 'death or glory' approach and departure once the aircraft was fully committed to landing or take off.
Plainly visible at the bottom of the strip was the wreckage of a DC3 which had failed to achieve flight at some time in the past.
This tended to raise anxiety levels for passengers in the small aircraft used to service Kaintiba.
In a somewhat similar way the airstrip at Tufi required nerves of steel owing both to a relatively steep gradient (but not in Omkolai's class) and having to land and depart where the strip met the sea.
While I never flew there, I am told that the landing and take off at Tapini is quite hair raising because the bottom of the strip ended at a cliff face, so any misjudgement by the pilot would have catastrophic consequences.
I would guess that there were a few more strips like this scattered around PNG.
For those interested, YouTube provides many examples of planes landing and taking off on some of PNG's more dodgy airstrips, including Kaintiba.
I watch them and just shake my head, wondering how on earth we survived some of our airborne expeditions in a country that sets so many traps for the unwary or just plain unlucky aviator.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 08 April 2022 at 05:45 PM