Story by Satish Moka. Photos by Satish Moka and Mathias Glass.
Satish Moka, a pilot with MAF in Papua New Guinea (PNG), highlights some of the heartbreaking challenges of his journey as an MAF pilot. He explains his thoughts through his experience of flying one of MAF's Cessna Caravans on a scheduled route on a Monday, not too long ago.
MAF’s Core Values
One of our values at MAF is Impact. Another one is Excellence and considering the nature of our resources, Stewardship is pretty high up there. So for the men on the ground, this boils down to "efficiency" and since the start of this year, we have been on a drive to maximise our flying days. More flights mean that more people can be served and more impact on an individual and community basis. Out of our Mt Hagen base, we have been having early starts and our results have bolstered us further, to aim for even more efficiency. As we do this we also Care, keeping our Witness and Partnership with teams across PNG. We try to balance and maintain all our values.
Mondays at Mt Hagen normally are days dedicated for charters. As the needs for transportation within PNG always outweigh our ability to provide air services, our programmers have a weekly schedule to cater for various regions and organisations.
One Monday recently, the Mt Hagen based Cessna Caravan P2-MAG was dedicated for our partner organisation, the Rural Airstrips Agency (RAA), which does a wonderful and important job in trying to maintain remote airstrips across PNG. We were to transport two lawn mowers from Mt Hagen to bush strips in the Western Province (WP). These would be used for cutting grass regularly, which grows rather fast and makes it unsafe and slippery for landing. These mowers would also mean a requirement of a regular supply of fuel, which has to be flown in too. So the plan was to ferry fuel drums from Kawito (WP), which was to receive these drums by river. The planning for this flight was done weeks in advance. RAA was assured of the fuel being delivered to Kawito on time.
We departed Mt Hagen early and reached Kawito well ahead of schedule. We juggled with our loading and with one lawnmower and two drums headed out into the bush strips. There was overnight rain and we were cautious, having a good look from the air before we attempted to land. It is not infrequent for aircraft to get bogged down in bush strips, which can lead from just plane delays to at times even major losses. It is with a heavy heart, a pilot sometimes has to take the decision to 'give away' a landing, if he considers the airstrip to be 'too wet'. The fact that there are passengers who are so close to home and need to land (and may not get another flight for a week at least), there are needy people on ground, the fact that we have come all the way (spent so much fuel) and the very act of 'letting go' (convincing oneself that I can't land) - all weigh heavy on any pilot's heart. Our threat and error management (TEM) techniques, extensive training and sheer personal experience (learnt from own or other pilot's stories) helps us make meaningful and safe decisions.
The airstrip at Dewara looked good and safe for landing. We made a smooth touch down and the surface felt good as we decelerated to a stop. As we tried turning the aircraft around to taxi towards the parking bay, we realised that we were stuck in the ground. Having been in similar situations before, we quickly shut down the aircraft and unloaded the cargo - to the relish of the community, proud owners of a brand new lawnmower. Our left wheel was an inch into the soft ground and some quick shovel work helped us get out of the soft ground - with some delay woven into our schedule. We made it up with quick turnarounds in the next two communities. We were looking forward to completing out next two deliveries and eventually head back to Mt Hagen, before the notorious highland weather starts posing problems.
On returning to Kawito, we were welcomed with the news that the promised fuel drums haven't arrived yet. The likely arrival times were also fairly fuzzy - not unexpected 'in the land of the unexpected'. A total rehash by the RAA, based on priorities, meant, after one hour of waiting, we were heading to Wasua with two drums of fuel. The nature of this airstrip meant heavy penalties (limitations on landing and takeoff weights) and we were flying in with minimum fuel onboard to reduce our weight. We needed to return to Kawito for topping up prior to our departure to Mt Hagen, and our plans to beat the Mt Hagen weather were soon closing down. However, we just had to dump the load at Wasua and rush back, an assured quick turnaround.
There were showers in the vicinity, so we had a good look at the Wasua airstrip and proceeded to land. As we unloaded our cargo and were preparing for our departure, a community member informed us of a patient - a lady who had been suffering for weeks and needed to be transported to the hospital at Balimo. We worked out the fuel and flight plan and the 'medevac' seemed feasible. We quickly made queries and realised that it would take twenty minutes to get her to the airstrip. With our minds still focussed on our return trip, we promised to wait for a maximum of thirty minutes and no more.
We decided to make good use of the time by inspecting the airstrip and chatting with the community members. Apparently, Wasua was one of MAF’s earliest bases in PNGs Western Province. I was talking to the older members who were talking of the good old days when they were at the centre of MAF’s activities. We had shifted our operations since and our present landing was one of the first landings at Wasua in a long time, as the airstrip remained non-operational for years.
The time was ticking, and we were growing uneasy, as the concept of time in PNG can be very flexible and not factual in the 'western' sense. It was decision time - do we wait or leave. Finally, I could perceive some activity as noises emerged from the bush path behind the tall grass and trees. As I waited impatiently, all I could see was a small person perched on shoulders of someone and a number of heads following in the distance. And then all of a sudden, the movement stopped, near a tree. I was growing restless as I waited - do they really have to take rest, now. Can't they hurry up. Don't they know we have a schedule. All these thoughts were bursting onto my mind - my mind so filled of me and my schedule.
Finally to my relief, the procession started moving. And I finally got a glimpse - of the frail woman perched on the shoulders of a man. A man who was having beads of sweat streaming down his face. Maybe tears too, I don't know.
As I watched the man finally put his wife on the floor of the airplane, all I could see was a stoic face. Lots of perspiration from the heat and humidity of the lowlands, and the blank face of a man. A man who must have been working in his garden, when someone scrambled screaming - the 'balus' (plane) has come and the pilots are willing to take your wife. A wife who had been lying helpless, maybe even hopeless. Wasting away, knowing very well the final outcome of her sickness, unable to weather the walk to the hospital at Balimo, which would take a couple of days, maybe.
And then all of a sudden, the scream of 'balus'. The shout of hope. It must have been well under five minutes (the bush people know of our western obsession with time) - dropping everything he was doing, he would have been off, walking with his wife on his shoulders. No thoughts, no plans, no packing, no preparations. Just moving, towards the 'balus', towards hospital, towards 'Hope'. Hope has wings. Indeed.
I saw the man finally catching his breath. Someone from the community thrust a few Kina (PNG currency) into his hands. Someone else gave him a plastic bag. It didn't seem to matter. We managed to seat the passengers and went through the routines of briefing on the safety features. I couldn't take my eyes off the man - clutching tightly onto the battered health card, not knowing what lays ahead.
We quickly got into our procedures of starting up the aircraft and heading towards Balimo. A quick radio call was made to our Kawito base, to coordinate for an ambulance at Balimo airstrip.
We landed at Balimo which was desolate except for two construction workers, building what would be a small terminal in the future - a shelter, not unlike a bus stop. The man carried his wife to the makeshift shelter of the construction workers. I carried the small plastic bag, probably holding a sago cake or two, and a pair of worn out slippers, to the man who was trying to make his wife comfortable.
We were hoping the ambulance would come, if there was one and serviceable. We asked the workers to help the couple. We had to go. We had a program ahead. As I was leaving, the man walked up to me. With an expression that betrayed gratitude, he uttered 'thank you'. Man to man - lot more was communicated than was said. My heart crumpled inwards. I turned back towards the 'balus'. Another life saved. Maybe. Hopefully.
As I stared at the vast expanse of blue ahead of me on our return trip, I was haunted by the fact that I was so close to leaving the airstrip without the man, and his ailing wife. For being 'efficient'? I tried looking inwards, into my daily life. Let alone with strangers, in my exchanges with ones close to me. My interactions with my dear wife (do I really listen to her or just offer solutions to perceived problems), my teenage son (do I appreciate his passion for computing or just bark instructions – list of don’ts), with my colleagues (do I at least smile and have time for a chat or just utter a morning pleasantry) and our passengers whether in the bush or in the plane (do I just pass on instructions or am I really concerned for their comfort). As the blue started to turn grey in the distance, I was back to the task on hand – radar, weather, terrain, navigation and safety.
But the thought remains. Does my drive for efficiency overwhelm my ability to empathise? Do I really have the space and time, to be 'mindful of others needs'? Or is it just me, my work, my schedule and my life? In my penchant for being effective and efficient, am I too busy - to CARE?!