Follow my journey as I serve as a pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship in Papua New Guinea.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Flying a group of missionaries

Last week I flew some missionaries from Malaumanda airstrip to Hewa airstrip.

That might not sound particularly unusual, but let me tell you who they were, and why it was such a privilege to fly them.

The group, led by pastor Jim Balus, are locals from Malaumanda who will spend the next 2-4 months at a village two days' walk from Hewa airstrip, running a literacy school in the local language (i.e. teaching people how to read in their own language) and follow-up courses teaching people the gospel and the Bible.

Jim explained: "We are going to the Hewa tribe in a small village, it’s called Minim. But God’s word has not come there. So they asked us to come up. Last year in January, from January to March or April we finished course 1 and course 2. Now this year, it’s a new year, we want to go again and continue to course 3 and course 4, plus a tok ples [local dialect] literacy school. Once they can read in their tok ples, they can fully understand God’s word. We are helping the New Tribes missionaries by going up to help with the Bible course.

"Please pray for the tok ples literacy school and the Bible course 3 and course 4, that the people in Minim would hear God's word and learn well. Pray that they can appoint their own leaders in the church and be strong."

Please pray also for the group while they are away from home for such a long time.

Jim Balus (r) with members of the group, at Malaumanda

The group after landing at Hewa airstrip. Minim village is beyond
the hill behind them.

On a map, Malaumanda and Hewa airstrips are only 37 km apart, but there is a 13,000' mountain range between them. Jim explained it would take them over a week of hard walking to get there, if they couldn't fly. Although I couldn't fly in a straight line either (due to the aforementioned mountain), it took much less than a week - 25 minutes, to be precise.

Later that day as I was praying for Jim and his group, I marvelled at their dedication and how it far surpassed my own. They didn't take a lot of cargo - a big tarpaulin, one small bag of personal belongings each, a small amount of food, and two boxes of Bibles. They are relying on God to provide for them through the generosity of others, from a different tribe. They are undertaking a mission to bring the word of God to people who had never heard it. They will certainly face opposition for doing so... and will be richly rewarded in heaven.

Wednesday 29 May 2024

Unusual cargo

Over the last couple of years, I've transported some pretty unusual cargo... Here are some pictures!

Water tanks

A plane full of Coca-Cola and 2-minute noodles
(sadly, this is very common for cargo flights)

Twenty boxes of day-old-chicks (and old tyres for a construction project)

Metal posts for a solar installation project

Adult cassowaries (used for important ceremonies)

Other things I have taken include:
- a full size whiteboard
- solar panels
- coffins (both empty and occupied...)

Friday 24 May 2024

Another week in Telefomin

Following my week with Glenys in April, I had another week in Telefomin with Mathias in May. The purpose was threefold:
- continue checking me into new areas and new airstrips
- finalise my advanced airstrip check
- annual VFR proficiency line check

This was quite an ambitious plan, but we made it work!

I also stayed on for the weekend and another couple of days to consolidate before heading back to Hagen.

With Mathias at Telefomin

Flying low level through the Strickland gorge
(video here)

Training at steep airstrips
(video of Busilmin take-off and landing here)

Sorting out cargo and paperwork at a bush airstrip

A vegetable gift I was given at Miyanmin... Snake bean!

Sunday 28 April 2024

A week in Telefomin

I recently spent a week in Telefomin with Glenys for area and airstrip checks. For the area checks, we took the opportunity on certain flights to 'take the scenic route' in order to see key landmarks. By the end of the week we had completed three areas and five additional airstrips.

A beautiful day in Telefomin


The obligatory pilot selfie

A wet morning in Telefomin

Munbil airstrip

Ok Isai airstrip

'The Vee gap'

Hindenburg wall

Sorting out paperwork with the agent at Oksapmin

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Taskmaster challenge

Around Easter time, Fraser came to see me. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you about,” he said.

I was intrigued. Fraser is the finance manager, and also one of my compound neighbours. I doubted his question was work-related. Nor did it seem likely that it concerned the informal ballet lessons I had been giving his 6-year-old daughter over the last few months. 

“I think it would be a great idea to do a Taskmaster-style challenge, but I need someone to be the Taskmaster, and I thought you would be the ideal person. Are you interested?”

He handed me a book of ‘tasks for ordinary people’ and explained the concept behind the TV show (which I hadn’t seen). My brain immediately jumped into action and over the next few weeks we planned how the event might work and what tasks we could give our contestants to do.

We decided to assign people to teams, and have a variety of tasks - on site, off site, teams working together, and tasks for individuals representing their team. Everyone seemed to have fun (apart from one of the kids, who was given the task of ‘Eat a mint as slowly as possible’ and couldn’t stand the taste of it in her mouth). In fact one person even told me, “I wasn’t expecting to enjoy today, but I did.” I took that as a compliment!

Even though Mount Hagen is the third largest town in Papua New Guinea, there are very few entertainment options. Thinking about youth group events I used to organise in Lower Hutt, where we had the choice of ten-pin bowling, laser strike, cinemas, inflatable fun zone, indoor sports, trampoline park, paintball, go-karting, rock climbing, ice skating rink... Here, there is obviously none of that. You have to make your own entertainment, and it generally needs to be within the confines of your compound. The Taskmaster challenge was an attempt (and, it seems, a successful one) to break out of the mould of movie night after movie night, or sitting around a dinner/BBQ/bonfire chatting.

I think it’s safe to say there will be a sequel!

Taskmaster and assistant

The contestants

'Turn the most unanticipated thing upside down'

Holding a glass of water at arm's length without spilling

The next three photos were from the 'off-site' task:

"Purchase clothing items from a second hand store to dress your team to represent a movie. Your maximum total spend is K20. Your team will score ten points if the Taskmaster correctly guesses which movie is represented."

Team Glass-in-bury

Team Miles of Enge-duros

Team St Roger

The overall winners!

Friday 5 April 2024

IFR training

I didn't write about this at the time, but at the end of May last year I was struggling so much with the weather trying to fly in the Western Province that I had to ask for a break from flying in that area. The wet season, which begins around April and continues through to August (plus or minus a month depending on El Nino / La Nina) produces extensive cloud, and especially in the afternoons it can be difficult or impossible to get back to Hagen flying under VFR (visual flight rules).

To their credit, MAF PNG management took my plea seriously, bringing in the crew training manager, flight operations manager, member care etc. (I think they were worried I was going to quit!) Plans were put in place to spread the load of which pilots were being rostered to fly in the Western Province (I had been flying more than twice as often as the next pilot), have me fly in the Hagen area (this had the additional benefit of allowing me to consolidate my D-strip landings following AAT), set up some mentoring/counselling sessions with member care, and recommend that I be nominated as one of the next pilots to go through the IFR training course.

Flying under IFR (instrument flight rules) allows you to fly through weather where you can't see, i.e. clouds, poor visibility. MAF PNG was authorised to conduct single-engine IFR operations in Nov 2022, and pilots were subsequently trained two at a time, starting with those who had in-country IFR experience, and then moving down the list in order of seniority.

IFR is based on being able to maintain terrain clearance at all times. MAF PNG has set up an IFR route structure, which covers most of our operations around the country. These routes go between fixed points and have minimum altitudes we need to fly at.

IFR has some advantages over VFR:

- If the weather at your point of departure and your destination are ok, you can almost always get through.
- Since you can almost always get through, you don't need to carry as much contingency fuel. For example, when flying VFR from Balimo to Hagen, I would plan to land in Hagen with about 800 lb - just in case I got to the last ridge and had to turn around and fly all the way back. Under IFR, the fuel requirements is to land in Hagen with 2 hrs of fuel, or 660 lb. This means I can carry an extra 140 lb of payload on that route.
- In a similar vein, the flight time is more predictable as you can fly in a straight line through the clouds instead of zig-zagging around them. Overall, it's more efficient.
- Similarly, because the flight routing is more predictable, it's less stressful for the pilot (me!)

There are some disadvantages:

- In the highlands, some of the minimum route altitudes are ridiculously high (since the terrain can be over 13,000 ft and for IFR we need to be 2000 ft above the highest point).
- In the Western Province, it's common during the wet season for the cloud base to not get above 1000 ft all day. Under our IFR procedures, although you could take off and fly through the cloud, unless the airstrip has an instrument approach (i.e. Kiunga, Daru, Kikori) with a relatively low minimum descent altitude, the minimum altitude we can go to is higher than 1000 ft so you might not be able to land.
- When carrying passengers, we are generally limited to the MAF routes (since they have been approved by CASA) and can only deviate up to 2.5 nautical miles either side of track. If you have a big CB sitting on your track, you may not be able to fly around it (unless there are other routes you can use instead).


I was told in August that I would be on one of the IFR courses in early 2024. The schedule was:

- 2 weeks refresher in Mareeba (mid Jan / mid Feb)
- 2 weeks MAF IFR standardisation in Hagen (early Feb / early Mar)
- 3 weeks MAF IFR LOFT (mid Feb-early Mar / mid Mar-early Apr)
- 2-4 weeks MAF IFR supervised experience (mid Mar-early Apr / mid Apr-early May)

We would also have to complete the PNG IR Air Law exam and an online PBN (performance based navigation) course. Since the exams are only offered in Hagen every 2 months, and the same company administers exams in NZ, I made enquiries and was able to sit the exam in NZ during my home assignment.

The other pilot who was scheduled to do the training with me had to pull out due to a medical issue, so I went through it on my own. It worked out pretty well as it gave the trainer extra time to attend to other things that he was working on.


Mareeba refresher training

The two weeks of refresher training in Mareeba went well although there were some frustrations with aircraft availability. I had six simulator sessions and three flights, including the flight test. It was also good to catch up with people I knew at MAF and at Tablelands Presbyterian.

Training flight 'under the hood' so I can only see the instrument panel

MAF IFR standardisation

I was the guinea pig, being the first MAF PNG pilot to do the refresher training in Mareeba prior to standardisation - pilots on the two previous standardisation courses, who hadn't flown IFR for several years, found it pretty tough going. However, since the first part of standardisation is refresher, six sessions were removed from my training schedule! I felt like the learning/recall path in Mareeba was pretty steep, and then I realised that even though I had passed the flight test, it wasn't going to let up. I steeled myself for the challenge and took every opportunity to prepare and learn, and it paid off. At the end of the course, I could look back and say, I truly enjoyed it. MAF uses 'scenario based training' and it was satisfying to work out the problems that presented themselves in each scenario. I received really good feedback on my performance too.

IFR standardisation flight - Volkher takes time to
admire the view while I am busy!

IFR LOFT (line-oriented flight training)

This stage of training was done with the crew training manager, Markus. Since the IFR standardisation training is not PNG-specific, during this phase the flights were focused on the MAF PNG routes and procedures. We flew in several different parts of the country - Hagen, Balimo, Kiunga, Tari, Wewak, Telefomin, Vanimo. By the end of it I had managed to get my head around what I could do when I had passengers on board, and the extra flexibility I have when I am only flying cargo or an empty plane.

I also passed 2000 flight hours during our Telefomin tour!

With Markus at Telefomin during IFR LOFT

This kind of weather is great for IFR training, and
incredibly stressful for flying VFR!

IFR supervised experience

The last stage is consolidation of LOFT, although I did continue to learn new things. CASA regulations specify certain minimum instrument flight time experience to fly IFR as pilot-in-command, so for some of the pilots (who did their instrument rating training in flight school and haven't touched it since) their LOFT and supervised experience was a bit longer so that they could build up the necessary hours. Since I had actually used my instrument rating in NZ for a year after gaining it, I already met the minimum requirements, so it was simply a matter of demonstrating proficiency. It also meant that I didn't have to fly under the hood the whole time!

Aircraft instrumentation showing a 54 kt crosswind approaching 9000 ft on climb!

Saturday 27 January 2024

Barron Falls

This past month I spent two weeks in Mareeba for some training, and took the time while I was there to visit the Barron Falls, near Kuranda.

Here's what they normally look like in the dry season (picture taken September 2019):

Here's what they look like in the wet season (picture taken when I first arrived in Mareeba, April 2019):

Here's what they looked like last week:

This was nearly a month after Tropical Cyclone Jasper!