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.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Student solos

All three of our new students went solo this week. Two of them had flown before coming to us, so it was really their second 'first solo', but for one it was his very first time flying the plane by himself - a memorable occasion for every pilot!

All smiles for Jacob, Joe and Ethan
(pictured with instructors me and Hans)

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Windin Falls

On Saturday I went on a new (for me) bush walk to Windin Falls. It's about an hour's drive from Mareeba and then an hour and a half walk to the falls.

Nice big sign to say you've made it to the car park

Nice wide track (muddy in places)

Top of the falls

A vertical cliff

Since it's difficult to capture just how spectacular the falls are in a single photo, I took a panoramic video as well.

This walk also marked my first encounter with leeches

Friday, 29 January 2021

Contemplating MIQ

I think we can all agree that the last year has been pretty crazy. International travel as we know it has changed for the foreseeable future. It feels like a very distant memory where you could take a trip across the Tasman for a long weekend. Now any such trip requires a minimum of 14 days' quarantine in a facility of the respective government's choosing.

I am due to return to New Zealand at some point this year for home assignment. This is a time to catch up with existing supporters and make contact with new ones, as well as taking some hard-earned annual leave.

When I joined MAF and moved overseas, it was to follow the call that God had impressed upon me. I took a significant pay cut (almost 50%) from my previous job, took the risk of renting out my house, and said goodbye to friends and family. More recently I spent time in Timor-Leste - again, taking up an opportunity to help disadvantaged people living in remote communities, at the expense of my personal comfort and stress levels. After home assignment I'll be moving to Papua New Guinea, where more of the same will await me (along with a disturbingly high crime rate).

So it pains me deeply to read comments online like the following:

“Have enough returnees back in the country..They knew the consequences before they left to go Abroad..”

“Seeing your travel is not to actually return to live in Nz it’s best if the MIQ spot goes to someone who actually needs it.”

“But why are they so desperate to come back all of a sudden? They left for "greener pastures" however many years ago... why can't people just ride it out where they are? Why should those of us that have been here all along fork out millions of dollars for others who now want to run home to mummy?”

“Yes, it is time to reduce MIQ. Spaces.  A year is plenty of time for ‘kindness’ to those domiciled overseas.  How about some kindness for the team of 5 million.  None of us want to go through lockdowns again just because someone misses the family.”

most will just be a burden on the tax payer until they find another job overseas then they are gone without paying a cent”

“If you haven't LIVED here for 3 years, you don't get in. Easy.”

These are actual comments on NZ news items about people having difficulty getting into NZ through the managed quarantine system (which is now booked solid for the next four months - until the end of May).

MIQ (un)availability today...

If I could respond to these it would be to say:

When I departed NZ in April 2019, there was no such thing as Covid. No-one could have predicted that we would be in this situation now.

Where I've been, and where I'm going in the future, are hardly 'greener pastures'. Returning to NZ for a couple of months every two years is (a) part of my role as a missionary and (b) necessary to restore my stress levels to something approaching normal. Just living in a developing country is hard work... in ways that someone who has never done this can't fully comprehend.

I am still paying tax in NZ (not just on the rental income from my house, but also for part of my MAF salary, since the tax rate in Australia is lower than NZ) but not receiving any benefit from that. In addition, I'm having to shell out even more money on improvements to my house, thanks to the government's new regulations concerning rental properties - which again, I'm not getting any personal benefit from.

It hurts to be made to feel like a second-class citizen, an outsider, a pariah... when my reason for going overseas was to follow God's call and serve other people less fortunate than me, at significant personal sacrifice and little tangible benefit. (Eternal rewards are a different story.)

To be frank, the thought of going through MIQ in its current form scares me. The possible lack of segregation of people from different countries of origin - most of whom are much higher risk than Australia, along with recent news reports of multiple people contracting Covid while in MIQ... Give me Howard Springs any day!

I guess all I can do is keep watching this space. And trusting God to bring things to pass in His timing. And praying that this includes two-way 'green zone' flights across the Tasman later in the year...

I have been monitoring Covid case numbers in NZ and each of the Australian states since March last year. Since October the sources I've been using (NZ Ministry of Health and have distinguished community vs. imported cases. Here are some facts:

- In mid-December, Australia actually had lower active case numbers than NZ (Aus 48, NZ 56 on 14 Dec). All of these, in both countries, were in managed isolation facilities.

- Queensland has had significantly lower totals than NZ: 1309 cases (NZ: 2305), 6 deaths (NZ: 25). The total populations are similar (5 million people).

- The last positive Covid case recorded in MIQ in NZ for someone travelling from Australia was 14 November 2020, i.e. 76 days ago.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Cyclone season

November to April is the time of year when we're most likely to get tropical cyclones forming that can affect Far North Queensland. Last week tropical cyclone Kimi formed off the coast of Cooktown and was initially making a beeline for Cairns.

Predicted track of TC Kimi on Sunday evening

On the afternoon of Sunday 17th I went to the airport with a few other MAFers to help secure the aircraft.

The following day I had to drive to Cairns for my aviation medical checkup. By that stage the cyclone was predicted to track south of Cairns before making landfall.

Road warning signs in Cairns

Rain radar on Monday morning. The 'hook' of yellow shows the position of the eye.

The cyclone tracked southeast along the coast, then reversed direction and tracked northwest before weakening. We had a little bit of rain in Mareeba but nothing like what was predicted, for which I am thankful.

TC Kimi reversing direction and weakening to a tropical low

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!