Story by Satish Moka. Photos by Satish Moka and Luke Newell.
Satish, a pilot with MAF and husband of MAF Papua New Guinea’s new HR Manager Sonali, joined his wife and sons in Papua New Guinea at the end of June. While he was enjoying a day at home with his sons, he received a phone call which set him to be part of a very unique double rescue mission - one being a technical one and one being a lifesaving one; but also acknowledging to have an MAF double in the rescue: the aircraft registered as P2-MAF which was involved in the rescue, and our organisation MAF.
An Unexpected Opportunity
Two weeks in the country and just when I thought nothing unusual was happening in the land of the unexpected, which Papua New Guinea is often referred to (or promoted as), a call from Reji Yosuvaraj, Flight Scheduler and Logistics Officer at the Mt Hagen Base, set me scrambling to the base. There was an opportunity to jump on a plane for a flight which involved a double rescue act. The flight would carry on board an engineer to rescue a stranded MAF aircraft at Tsendiap and handle a medical evacuation from Tamo, the latter about 120 km north of Mt Hagen.
The well-oiled machinery of MAF had already swung into action. Pilot Steven Eatwell was getting the Cessna Caravan P2-MAF ready for the flight. Maintenance Controller Clay Walter was galvanising the engineering team for addressing the tyre change on the GA8 Airvan stranded at Tsendiap. The ground team coordinated the loose ends and within a few minutes, the Caravan was airborne from Mt Hagen with engineer Lazarus Nuleya and myself as an observer. Pilot Steven was soon negotiating the typical highland clouds that filled the Hagen valley and skilfully wove his way through the gaps and past the mountains into the valley, where the small grassy strip of Tsendiap was nestled.
Rescue of the stranded Airvan P2-MFM
Pilot Luke Newell, flying the Airvan P2-MFM on its last operational day and finishing it off with a service flight to Tsendiap, had experienced a tyre burst on landing. Luke managed to save the day with his expert handling of the situation and the Airvan was parked in the clearing. The airstrip being a narrow one needed all the skill of an experienced MAF pilot, as Steven brought the Caravan to a stop well clear of the aircraft already there on the ground.
No sooner the engine was shut down; Lazarus was ready with his kit and was soon busy getting MFM back on its wheels for its last trip to Mt Hagen. We enquired briefly about the incident but soon had to depart for the medevac.
Rescue of a patient at Tamo
We were back navigating around the grey clouds in search for the patches of blue to make our way, as the endless evergreen forests stretched below us, interrupted only by the fast flowing mountain rivers. As we negotiated around the last mountain range, it was a delightful sight to see a vast flat forested plain extending into the horizon.
Amidst the thick mass of dark green, was a small patch of light green which we could make out from about a good ten miles away. Steven made the necessary radio calls and positioned the aircraft for a smooth touchdown on the grassy strip at Tamo.
The people, to my astonishment, stood well clear and in a disciplined row, but soon thronged around the aircraft after the pilot shut down the engine. The patient who fractured his shin bone was carried to the aircraft on a makeshift stretcher. After briefing the people about how to best and most comfortably transport the patient, Steven was busy preparing the aircraft. He dismantled two seats to make space, brought the stretcher out from the cargo pod and fixed the mattress onto the cabin floor using the harnesses.
Under the wing of the aircraft, the patient was transferred carefully onto the stretcher and Steven supervised the positioning into the cabin. The stretcher was secured to the cabin floor.
As this drama unfolded, it was time for the children of the village to inspect the ‘balus’ (Tok Pisin for aircraft) and of course, the pilot and his new accomplice. As I was not yet acquainted with ‘Tok Pisin’, the local trade language, my communication was restricted to broad smiles and shaking hands in abundance. The importance of knowing ‘Tok Pisin’ dawned on me as I saw Steven fluently passing instructions to the men who were helping him in the task. He chatted with the villagers and soon prepared the aircraft for its return trip to Mt Hagen.
As Steven manned the aircraft, the well-tuned discipline of the villagers was again seen in action as they cleared the area and stood behind the fence in a neat line. The late afternoon weather was ready to pose further challenges to the returning aircraft. It was indeed a great opportunity for me to see the decision making in weather avoidance first hand as I prepare for my flying which will commence soon.
As we found a hole of blue above the green pointed ridge line, we squeezed in through the pass and back to the Hagen valley. Extending our downwind leg to cater for an Air Niugini flight, we finally landed at Mt Hagen and trusted the patient into the hands of our ground staff who were ready for our patient.
It was a joy to see Luke and the Airvan P2-MFM already on the ground back at Mt Hagen.
Amidst the clouds that seemed to flood the valley and as I was watching our Rumginae-based pilot Steven supervise fueling the aircraft for its next flight, I pondered on my first-hand experience realising that it was just another day in the life of MAF at Papua New Guinea – where we are indeed ‘Flying for Life’!