Follow my journey as I serve as a pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship. I am currently re-settling into life as a flight instructor at the Mareeba flight training centre, after working in Timor-Leste from Jul-Dec 2020.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Back to instructing

 After two weeks of quarantine in Darwin and a week and a half settling back into life in Mareeba, I hit the ground running (well, maybe not moving that quickly) last week to get ready for my flight instructor rating renewal check flight. The plan was also for me to get the 'design feature training endorsement' added to the rating, which entailed putting together an hour-long briefing on manual propeller pitch control and then delivering a flight lesson in an aircraft equipped with said design feature.

I had the flight check/test on Tuesday and thought it went pretty well, all things considered! I definitely felt a bit rusty on several levels: flying from the right hand seat, flying the C182 - not surprising since for the last six months I've been flying an Airvan from the left hand seat - and giving instruction at the same time. So there is room for improvement :)

With examiner Marcus Grey after completing the flight

Our new students will be on site for orientation/induction on Friday 22 January, so from that point on I'll be pretty busy. I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, 28 December 2020

Summing up my time in Timor-Leste

Now that I've had a couple of weeks to 'decompress', I'm able to look back on my time in Timor-Leste with some fondness. Although it was quite stressful for the last month or so as we were running around trying to arrange for engineers and aircraft to come and fix our aircraft that was grounded in mid-October, I've been able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.


The Highlights

1. Flying experience

The reason that I went to Timor was to fill a relief pilot role, and I'm grateful for the opportunity. Not only was it 192 hrs for my logbook, but this was my first experience of 'proper' commercial flying. That means organising yourself around your client rather than your own preferences (e.g. what time you set your alarm in the morning). The flights varied from medevacs to NGO charters, to private charters for families wanting to go to Atauro Island for the weekend, to government charters for ministers and even the President of Oecusse.

Flying the President of Oecusse and other ministers

I also gained invaluable experience taking off and landing on 'proper' short airstrips, and also having to contend with some serious weather.

All of these will be useful when it comes to developing flight training scenarios, as I'll have personal experience to draw on!


2. Medevacs - making a difference

During my debrief the interviewers asked how the medevacs had affected me, and they seemed surprised when I said they hadn't - even though there had been some that were quite severe. I guess I have an ability to compartmentalise things, and to be able to focus on my task of flying the aircraft even when there is a critically ill person on board calling out in pain, or a woman in labour, or when the front seat passenger is vomiting into a sick bag on finals (yes, that happened - more than once). It's not that I don't care about the person, or that every medevac starts to feel the same and it gets mundane - far from it. I took great satisfaction in seeing each one transferred to the ambulance in Dili and taken to hospital.

All up I flew 91 medevacs, accounting for 111 patients; the most in a single day being 4 flights with 7 patients. It was an honour to be able to make a difference in their lives.

Preparing medevac passengers for a flight to Dili

3. Being a role model

The first couple of times I went to Viqueque, there were murmurings in the crowd that I knew were about me: the pilotu (pilot) feto (woman). I asked Aldo what they were saying (since I had to take him or Ameu along for the first 10 medevacs) and he replied, 'They said they would be too scared to fly with the lady pilot!'

However, over time, they must have figured out that the pilotu feto couldn't be too bad, because she and the aeroplane kept coming back. After a month or so people started approaching me to have their photo taken with me - mostly women, but often men as well. By the time I left this was a very regular occurrence!

One of many photos taken with trainee nurses at Baucau

In my previous career as a research physicist, I was aware that I was operating in a male-dominated environment - and in aviation, it is even more so. Consider that among physics PhD holders the female representation is around 20%, while amongst commercial pilots it is around 6%. If in our western thinking 'scientist' and 'pilot' are considered as male occupations, how much more so in a country like Timor-Leste! I hope that me just being there and interacting with people, could be an inspiration for young women, and for parents of girls, that being a girl needn't be a limitation to a person's dreams and aspirations.

4. Exploring

I am especially grateful that I was able to go for bike rides with Rob and Catharina almost every weekend. This provided exercise, friendship, and many opportunities to learn more about the people and places in and around Dili, and how the events of the last 20 years had affected people and shaped the nation. We had a couple of trips to Liquica and Maubara, a couple to Gleno, some shorter rides to Dare, a bike race involving the Hera loop.

Then there was the overnight bike trip to Letefoho, which although it was so hard I don't know that I'd do it again, I was very glad to have done.

Last bike ride before leaving Dili - flying the flag on Proclamation of Independence Day

Our long weekend trip to Mt Ramelau was fantastic. Another highlight was my road trip to Suai with Aldo.

The Lowlights

1. Daily life issues

Traffic, house problems, water pump issues... Some days I was able to deal with these ok. Other days I was not. This was one of those times when being single is really hard, because there's nobody else in the house to call on for help or comfort. But I came to realise that when it comes to these kinds of issues, there are always multiple ways to solve a problem.

2. Isolation

This was my first experience living in a country (as opposed to visiting) where English was not the primary language. In Timor-Leste, the official languages are Portuguese and Tetun. In addition, many people speak Bahasa (Indonesian), and there are numerous local languages and dialects. Estimates of how many people speak English ranges from 5-20% of the population. Since my relief stint was only 6 months and I needed to get up to speed on flying the aircraft in and out of all the routes and airstrips as soon as possible, there was no time available for attending language classes that would normally happen for a new staff member arriving in a programme. As a result, even though I was living in Dili (population 220,000), my inability to communicate meant that my social circle was limited to my workmates and Rob and Catharina. I was thankful that I could keep in touch with friends and family back in NZ - even if it meant that I had to go for a short drive to get a decent mobile signal.

Another aspect that made things hard was only having a skeleton crew in country - two relief pilots, with limited external support from the wider MAF management. At times it felt like we were invisible to them. But I remember one flight where I was lamenting to God about this, and He told me, 'Don't worry; I know where you are.'

Both of these aspects have shown me that being a single person in a small MAF programme would probably be too hard for me, which is useful when it comes time to apply for future positions.

3. Uncertainty

2020 has been a difficult year for everyone, with the chronic uncertainty caused by Covid affecting all of us. My contract amendment letter had said that I would spend 'up to six months' in Timor-Leste, yet towards the end of that time there was a lot of uncertainty as to when other pilots could arrive, which naturally affected when we could leave. This was very frustrating as it was something that could - and should - have been arranged much earlier. In the end our departure was a hurried affair. I have come to realise and accept that we had little choice under the circumstances. But it did leave a bitter taste on my first MAF programme placement.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

A happy Christmas

On Christmas day we were treated to a special breakfast for our last meal in quarantine.

Shortly afterwards, we were escorted out of the facility and given our freedom (along with a certificate).

Andy and I were picked up by a friend of pastor Lindsay's sister who lives in Darwin. We were able to join in their church service and then joined her for a lunch which she was hosting for a number of people who didn't have family nearby.

The following morning we flew back to Cairns (after a 2.5 hr delay departing Darwin due to maintenance issues with the aircraft). I'm now house-sitting for a month or so. It's good to be back!

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Quarantine, days 10-12

Day 10: Rain

Being in the tropics in the wet season means we are getting rain - and sometimes lots of it.

Sometimes with the rain there is thunder too, which means that any time it rains the pool sessions are cancelled - as happened today, much to my disappointment.

A good day to stay inside and get some more work done on lesson plan preparation.

Day 11: More rain

Pretty much the same story as yesterday, except there wasn't a pool session scheduled to be cancelled. I also had my second Covid test and played the piano for a bit. The mosquitoes are loving the wet, and I'm not loving being eaten by them, so I spent as little time outside as possible.

Day 12: Laundry

In addition to a surprise pool session (I found out at breakfast time that it was on) I also did some laundry today... The machine I chose did not do a very good job on its spin cycle, so the clothes were still quite wet when I took them out and they took a long time to dry. But I am thankful for the relative freedom to do my own laundry, using a machine...

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Quarantine, days 7-9

Day 7: Cricket

A little bit of google searching enabled me to find online radio coverage of the first Black Caps T20 match against Pakistan. Ah, the sound of summer!

Online cricket coverage - Magic Talk and Cricinfo

Day 8: Pool

After waiting a whole week (yes folks, that means I'm past the halfway point!) everyone on my flight from Dili who has ended up at Howard Springs was allocated a pool session at 9:30 am. I'm not a keen swimmer but since the opportunity was there for a supervised change of scenery, I took it. As it turned out I was the only one who turned up, so I had the entire pool (complete with a lifeguard, and two nurses) to myself for 45 minutes. We have another session scheduled on day 10.

Private pool session

Day 9: Puppet

One of my 'one-off' tasks to do during quarantine was to provide a kids' talk for the Christmas services at Tablelands Presbyterian. I decided to make my puppet Gruffy sing a Christmas song, with the green tais I was given as a backdrop. It required a bit of creativity but I was really happy with the end result.

Getting creative for a Christmas service kids' talk

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Quarantine, days 4-6

Day 4: Cards

I spent most of the day continuing to work on my feedback document, which I was able to finish and send off by the afternoon. In the evening Rob and Catharina invited us over to their section to play cards. This was made possible by playing on our phones using a 'private table' on a games site. It was their last night in quarantine, which gives us hope that it does actually come to an end eventually!

Playing cards with appropriate physical distancing

Day 5: Rhythm

Another half-day of work on lesson plans for the FTC, and a fair bit of time playing my piano. I am thankful that I was allowed to bring it to my room, since other 'large recreational equipment' such as bikes are kept in storage until you leave. I guess a piano is less of a safety issue. Anyway, it's good to be able to retreat to my happy space.

Piano in quarantine

Day 6: Moving

We each received a phone call yesterday saying that we would all be moved to new rooms today 'due to maintenance'. It was originally scheduled for 9:45 but then was shifted to 2:00. This mucked up my day a little bit as I had arranged a couple of video calls, but eventually the time came for us to be escorted to our new homes.

My new room is a mirror image of the previous one, although instead of the cabinetry being a calming royal blue, it is vibrant orange. Hopefully it doesn't keep me awake!

Moving day

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Quarantine, days 0-3

Day 0: Arrival

We arrived at Howard Springs at about 7 pm. After everyone had been processed (including filling out forms and having our temperatures taken) we were escorted to our rooms and given dinner. I decided to only unpack what I needed to for now, to give me something to do the next day.

View of Darwin

Day 1: Settling in

Breakfast arrived on schedule at 8:00, followed by another temperature check. I unpacked the things I was anticipating using during quarantine and re-packed the rest. The room isn't overly large, and the amount of stuff I have is sufficient for a 6-month stay, including my keyboard. Thankfully I was allowed to bring it to the room.

Rob and Catharina had flown out from Dili on 2 Dec, so they were on day 10 of their quarantine. We had a good time catching up, and somehow they managed to rope us into a pairs running challenge, making the most of the exercise opportunities that are on offer. They had measured out a loop that was 330 m, which we would each run with our partner in a relay for 16 laps (to make 5 km each).

Runners at the ready

Day 2: Sunday for rest

I had made a plan for how I would spend my quarantine time, in the light of the annual leave I had applied for. Days 1 & 2 were Saturday and Sunday, so I would use those as a break before taking a leisurely approach to working Mon-Fri. I started out with some puzzles, playing two-pack solitaire, and logging in to Tablelands Presbyterian's live stream service as usual. Two more weeks and I will be back in person!

We were also all subject to the first of two Covid tests (the second will be conducted on day 10 or 11). Although it was uncomfortable, it was over quickly and was not as bad as the one I had in Mareeba prior to going to Timor.

In the evening I was able to carry my keyboard to a picnic area where there was an outdoor power outlet, and we had an impromptu carol singing session!

Covid test...

Day 3: Working

I managed to make quite a bit of progress on some work-related things today, which I was mildly surprised about. The first was preparing some lesson plans for the flight radio sessions that are part of the RPL course. The second was putting together my feedback about my time in Timor-Leste (which also included about 4 hours of video calls with various people)...

In the evening I joined Rob and Catharina for their daily exercise - just walking this time.

Bedroom by night, office by day
To be continued...