Story and photos by Divyan Ahimaz, Area Communications Officer- Asia Pacific Region.
MAF’s work in Arnhem Land provides Aboriginal homelands and communities with access to healthcare, education and development opportunities. In addition, MAF flights support the local church.
As I got comfortable in the right-hand seat, the smell of the aircraft took me to my yesteryears of flying. Andrew Macdonald was the pilot today and the plane took-off right after all the checks were done. It was a relatively cool morning with strong winds and I particularly loved flying during days like these – they were so intense!
The day begins
Our passengers today were two lay church leaders who were heading back home after a successful training session by the Pioneers, in Gove.
Andrew and I had four legs to fly today. The first stop was at the homeland of Garrthalala, where the two passengers would disembark. The second stop at Elcho Island and the third at Gawa, before we head home to Gove.
Andrew did his daily checks on the aircraft, briefed the passengers and taxied to the runway. It wasn’t long before the aircraft was airborne and en route to Garrthalala. I could barely contain the excitement of my first flight in Arnhem Land!
Cruising below broken clouds that were scattered in random, I looked down at the land beneath us. It was harsh and impassable – mostly covered by dense forests, rivers and swamps that crisscrossed in beautiful patterns. I wrapped my head around the difference an aircraft could make in such remoteness especially in the case of an emergency. Thirty minutes in and the first runway was in sight with the homeland just a few feet away.
After landing, Andrew helped the passengers get off the aircraft while I took shade under the wing and looked around. The homeland was nothing bigger than a two-minute walk.
Soon after, we were off to Elcho Island.
An hour into the flight, a small colony of houses dotted the terrain up ahead. Unlike a traditional homeland, Elcho Island is a community of different Yolngu clans from different homelands. It has a domestic airport with a paved runway, and a few small operators fly in and out daily. While 45 years ago, this was just a dirt runway strip from where MAF first started its mission. This was the base from where missionaries were sent out into the homelands!
MAF allocates a significant amount of time towards educational flights here. By providing transport in and out of homelands, the Yolngu children are given the opportunity to attend school – something that is becoming increasingly difficult in the remote homelands. Teachers and school staff are also flown in regularly to teach in different communities.
We walked to the MAF office in the terminal and settled for a break while waiting for our passenger; the school team member was expected to check-in in 20 minutes. She was heading back from Darwin to Gawa and Elcho Island was her place of transit. A fair bit of time went by before the operations team told us that the flight in from Darwin was cancelled.
The operations team is vital for the smooth functioning of the programme. This team keeps track of available pilots and engineers while making customer bookings and scheduling aircraft for maintenance. Their actions help run the programme in an efficient manner – even if it means to hold an aircraft overnight at a certain base, as was the case today.
Andrew got off the phone with operations and told me that we might end up staying overnight. I heard my stomach rumble from having missed lunch. I have never been a fan of unplanned experiences and I dreaded the fact that I didn’t have spare clothes. I understood that it is recommended for pilots to carry an overnight kit for unscheduled events such as this!
This trip had given me insight into what it takes to operate in this remote long. I realised that in such a place, uncertainty is normal, and schedules are bound to break. Most often the only option is to adapt to the change as you rarely have the luxury of options.
The operations team would update us every 20 minutes for the next two hours till we learnt that another plane had flown into Elcho Island and ours was needed for booked flights from Gove the next day! We scrambled to the aircraft and flew straight to Gove.
This event might sound small, but it did affect everyone in the programme -- from the pilot to the operations team to the passengers who MAF had committed to fly around. The Arnhem Land programme is an embodiment of teamwork and it stands out to prove that it takes more than a pilot to fly an aircraft. This normal day in Arnhem Land was a beautiful ‘organised chaos.’
When I narrated the course of my day to the Flight Operations Manager, he smiled at me and said, “Welcome to Arnhem Land!”