(Interviewed by Mareeba Communications Officer Katherine Williams. Photographs taken by Bridget Ingham.)
Bridget Ingham was employed to work for the first 2 years of her MAF career as a Pilot Instructor in the Mareeba Flight Training Centre. However, as the Centre was quieter than usual due to covid, she was given the opportunity to become a relief pilot in Timor-Leste for 6 months. This interview is carried out approximately three months after Bridget left for Timor.
Katherine Williams: Hi Bridget, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. So tell me first of all, how long have you been in Timor?
Bridget Ingham: I completed my line training on the 23rd July 2020, which means that I've been flying for about two and a half months now, but total time in Timor is about three and a half months.
Katherine Williams: So that first month, what did you do?
Bridget Ingham: The first month was training, well the first two or three weeks really, by the time we arrived.
Katherine Williams: So was going to Timor, a real culture shock after being in Australia and before that New Zealand?
Bridget Ingham: Of course it was yes. So one of the things that I realized very early on when I arrived was that I had to keep my expectations of what I could personally achieve in a day very low and just expect everything to take longer and be harder. And especially when it involves communicating with people, because if you can't speak the local language, and you're limited to pointing and just saying please and thank you, Favor Ida or Obrigada, please, thank you. It can be quite difficult to even just do grocery shopping, it becomes so much harder than at your local Coles.
Katherine Williams: What do you love about the country so far that you've seen?
Bridget Ingham: Just the scenery overall really is probably the thing that I like the best. Obviously, we get to fly past a lot of it, almost on a daily basis, it's got very steep mountains and forested areas and those two things together remind me a lot of New Zealand and flying around New Zealand, with the additional benefit here that you can fly over coral reefs and see the beauty in the sea as well. So, yes, it's a fantastic place to be flying around in terms of the scenery, from one end of the country to the other. It's very different, all the way along. There's always something to look at out of the window, as opposed to some of the flights that I've done in Australia, which has been very, very flat and very, very the same for hours at a time. It's really not like that in Timor at all. So, every time I get to fly down, especially the eastern end of the country. So to Viqueque or Los Palos, I'm never going to get tired of doing those sorts of flights.
Katherine Williams: That sounds lovely!
Bridget Ingham: And another thing is just the vibrancy of the country really, so I've been going for bike rides with an Australian couple. They're expats who've been here for about 18 years. So they really know their way around and they've actually biked all the way around Timor a couple of times, which is amazing to think. This is the thing, you go for a bike ride and you go through a village with like five houses. But everywhere you stop, somebody will come and talk to you. And, they'll have these conversations with people and it'll turn out they know somebody, who knows somebody who knows them and so, there are not very many degrees of separation. And it's the same thing, some of the airstrips where we go, especially the more basic airstrips, there'll be lots of people that come out to have a look every time the plane comes in and you have a whole bunch of excited kids around the plane and they'll eye you up initially but then when you start talking to them, you just know that you've made their day - oh the pilot talked to me. And so that's really cool, especially in the light of Timor's recent history.
It's just fascinating to think how people, the resilience that they have, and the vibrancy and the hope for the future. You can see it.
Katherine Williams: Great! And what would you say has been the hardest part about moving to Timor?
Bridget Ingham: Two things really. The first thing which I'm still getting used to and every day it surprises me is the driving. As far as I can tell and I've tried to figure out what the road rules are, is there only appears to be one road rule, which is don't hit anybody. Apart from that, anything goes so you'll have taxis and mikrolets, which are like little shuttle buses that run on particular routes around Dili. They will be driving along, on the right hand side of a two lane road. I won't say they're driving in the right hand lane because they'll just sort of veer from one lane to the other as they feel like it. But then all of a sudden they'll see a passenger or potential passenger to pick up on the side of the road and they'll just go right from the right side of the road, right across to the left, to the curb, right in front of you. So it sort of seems like whoever's is in front is his/her right of way and anybody behind just has to stop or be prepared. So every day I have to resist calling somebody an idiot or a moron and just realize that it's just the way it is here. So yes driving has definitely been a challenge. And I remember one of the expats here said to me they had a trip back to Australia and thought, wow, it's really boring driving here. And then they realized that they had adjusted to Timor. That was their moment they realised that they'd actually adjusted to Timor, so that's been pretty hard to get used to.
And the other thing is just house issues. I had issues with the water pump not working, every house has a water pump, that pulls water out of the bore and feeds it to the house. But it doesn't always work. Sometimes that's because the water pump itself won't work and other times that's because the power's gone out. And you have no idea when it's going to come back on. But that's routine to happen a couple of times a week. I also had one day that I was trying to cook dinner and I had my rice in a pot and turned the stove on and the gas bottle ran out. I was like, OK, well, I can't cook that. What else can I do?
So anyway, thankfully, I've only had a maximum of two of those things. The water, the electricity or the gas run out at the same time. And that's one of those things, as I said before, about things just being harder. If you want to have a shower but the water's not working, you have to plan for that in advance by going down to work and putting water in buckets and taking it home. And I was doing that for about two weeks while we're waiting for the water pump to get fixed. And in the end, I just ended up moving to one of the other houses because it was just getting too hard. And I needed to look after myself to be able to do my job in terms of flying the plane. So there's always ways around things, but they can take a while to get sorted out.
Katherine Williams: You've got to think outside of the box.
Bridget Ingham: You do and just be prepared for anything. I remember back to something I heard at church once, which was 'Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken'.
Katherine Williams: Yes, very apt. So has the flying been mostly medevacs as you thought initially?
Bridget Ingham: Yes it has. I did some numbers the other day actually and about seventy five percent of the flights that I've done have been medevacs. Just during my line training alone, we did eight medevacs out of about 12 flights. That was just the flights that came up and so we thought, we might as well do the medevacs and use that as a training exercise at the same time. So yes it has been.
Katherine Williams: What other flights have there been as well as medevacs?
Bridget Ingham: The other flights would be classed as charters and they'll be for various groups. They might be for families of expats who want to have a holiday to Atauro island. And so we'll fly them over there at a full commercial rate. And then they spend the weekend and either come back with us or take the boat. Or it might be a church group that's doing some ministry work somewhere or might be an NGO or government department that needs transferring. Both Andy & I have flown various government ministers to different places for meetings. There's always a big entourage and lots of people when they get out of the plane at the other end.
Katherine Williams: Excellent. Could you tell me a little bit about perhaps some specific flights that are memorable to you?
Bridget Ingham: Yes, there's quite a few to choose from and so I have been thinking about that. I have a blog and I've written a little bit about some of these on there. But just to summarize really, the first flight that I think I will remember for the rest of my life is the first medevac that I ever did, which was with Marcus Grey, Chief Pilot for Timor. I'm not sure if you were aware of what happened on that. I know Divyan is preparing a story. We were at Los Palos for a training flight and got a medevac call for a patient needing to go to Dili from Los Palos. So since we were already there, we decided to wait and to cut a long story short. The man arrived and we took him and a nurse from Los Palos, nurse or medic, they call them nurses, but they're really sort of paramedics and a family member, which I presume was the man's son. So we're bringing them back. And it's about 50 minutes flight time from Los Palos to Dili, but about 10 minutes out because the man was having breathing difficulties the whole way. And we carry oxygen in the back of the plane, but it's only a small bottle and it doesn't last for ever. So about ten minutes out from Dili, the man stopped breathing and stopped moving and so by the time we arrived, he passed away. So that's obviously quite memorable and especially for your first ever medevac to have that happen. I mean, I'd been kind of given a heads up that that does happen from time to time. And when I had that conversation with the person saying it can happen, I thought, oh, I wonder how I'd cope with that, if that happened, if someone should die in the plane. And I thought, I don't know how I'd cope with that. I don't know how I would feel. And then when it happened, I was like, this is what it feels like. So everybody copes with it differently, and I sort of feel like there was nothing that Marcus or I did that caused it first of all, it wasn't our fault, and we gave him the best chance that he had. If he had to travel by ambulance on the road from Los Palos to Dili he wouldn't have made it, so I know that, so the flight was his best chance at surviving. And that's just the way it happens. I felt really sorry for the family, for the young man with him because, trying to negotiate the coroner system here and taking the body back to Los Palos, because funerals are very, very important in the culture here, for him to be having to deal with all that on his own while he himself is grieving, that's got to be so hard. So I wrote a little bit about that on my blog. And as I said, Divyan (Communications Officer in Arnhem Land) is preparing a story based on that.
So another one was a medevac flight during my training with Marcus and we were asked if we could transfer two patients from Viqueque. So Viqueque’s about thirty five minutes flight time from Dili on the south coast. So we got there and the first patient was an old man on a stretcher lying down and the other one was a young boy, so maybe three or four years old. And he was being held by this older lady and as I got them onto the plane and I showed her which seat to sit on and I had to put seat belts on both of them. And as I touched his arm, because he was basically wearing a pair of shorts and that he was very, very, very hot and just really floppy and not really aware of what's going on around. Later on, the hospital notes that we read said that the doctors there suspected meningitis. So we had the old man on a stretcher, a family member with him. We had this lady with the boy on her lap. And then we always have to have a medic on board as well. And so that was a full plane because with Marcus in the front seat and you've got the stretcher. So that was full. On solo pilot ops, that front seat would be vacant, and so you can normally take one seated family member per patient and so there was this other lady who was obviously the boy's mother, and she was trying to get into the airplane. And we're like, no, no, no, there's no room. And so we had to explain to the medic and he had to explain to her that she wasn't able to come. And just the look of shock on her face. And she's just sort of standing there just shaking her head very slowly and just not saying anything. And so that was really, really hard, knowing that she's left behind. And so after we took off, I said to Marcus, you know what? I just want to pray for that lady. I just prayed that she would get the help that she needs to get the bus to Dili or something similar, to be with her son. And so we prayed for both of the patients on the plane. We prayed for their families. We never find out what happens to the patients unless they choose to contact us. But I hope that he recovered and that she was able to be with him.
Another memorable flight about six weeks ago I think; we got a phone call saying, can you do a medevac flight for two stretcher patients? And we said no, we can only do one patient at a time. We can do a stretcher patient and a sitting patient, but we can’t do two stretchers. And they said, ok the reason is, again, coming from Viqueque, there were two young men who'd been involved in a motorcycle accident. And so we said, well, we can only do one at a time, but we can do it as two flights. And so they said, OK, we'll get back to you. And I went and got the plane ready and they called back about 10 minutes later and they said, okay, yes, but we only need one flight now because one of them has died. So that was that, in between that call coming through and ten minutes later, it's like only one. I left straightaway and so the guy that I was taking was obviously the least critical of the two, but he was in a lot of pain. And yes, I tried to do the turn around as quickly as we could. So we get him into the plane, family member, medic, take off. And it was a 30 minute flight and in the last 10 minutes or so I was we're coming in to Dili, he was just yelling and calling out basically constantly. And I just knew I had to concentrate on flying the airplane and landing as smoothly as I could. As soon as we arrived, the ambulance was already here, so they got him out of the plane, into the ambulance and took him away to the National Hospital in Dili. And we figured out it was probably about two and a half hours after the accident happened, that he was in the hospital here so I feel really stoked that we were able to make that happen for him, that he wasn't sitting in Viqueque for hours and hours and days and days before he could get to the hospital.
Katherine Williams: That must have been hard!
Bridget Ingham: Yes, you just sort of try and compartmentalize things, like all this noise is going on behind, but I've got a job to do in flying the plane.
And the last one and all these stories sound really tragic. And this is the thing, they're the memorable ones, aren't they? This was another medevac from Baucau, which is on the north coast and also about 30 minutes flight time from Dili. So that was a young guy in his 20s. He had a head injury. So that much I could read from the medical notes before we left. And when I arrived, he was practically unconscious, with sort of eyes rolled back in his head and lying there on the stretcher. But he was trying to pull out the IV line they put in his arm, and the oxygen line in his nose. And the medics had actually physically tied him onto the stretcher by his wrists and his ankles using bandages. And to get him onto our stretcher, they had to untie him from that and then tie him onto our stretcher and then load him into the airplane. And that was just so hard to watch, to see him struggling with this force from inside him that he wasn't in control of. They had one person on each limb, sort of holding him down as they tied him on. And then, of course, when we arrived in Dili, we had to reverse the process to get him into the ambulance. The special thing about that flight was there was an older lady, I presume, the guy's mother. And when we arrived in Dili and we got out of the plane and she came over to me and she took my hand and pressed her nose to it like that, which in Timorese culture is a sign of very, very deep respect and gratitude, something that normally children would do towards their parents or their grandparents or a good friend of their parents or for people greeting an important person, especially like in a religious sense, like the Pope or a Bishop or something like that, you'll see people taking their hand and pressing their nose to it. And she did that to me, which was really touching, that she appreciated what we had done to bring her and her son here so that he could get some medical treatment. So that was really special!
Katherine Williams: Absolutely. They're all really powerful stories. Quite an experience for you Bridget. Ok, so have there been any particularly interesting passengers?
Bridget Ingham: Yes. So I've got three that I can think of. One is the president of the Oecusse, who is a man called Senhor Bano. So I've actually had the privilege of flying him three times from Oecusse to Dili and vice versa. In fact the first time they presented me with this tais wrap pictured above. There's some pictures of me wearing that on my blog, but yes, so this is a traditional Oecusse design and colors and everything. So that was really quite special to be given that when I was transporting him.
Another interesting flight was getting to take the New Zealand ambassador and his wife for a scenic flight around Dili. Since Andrew (other MAF pilot in Timor) and I are both New Zealanders, so we thought we'd reach out to the New Zealand embassy here. They have two roles in Timor. So one is helping New Zealanders who are living in Timor, but another is to sustain local Timorese people and organizations through grants from the New Zealand government. And we thought we'd invite them around to see the work that we're doing at MAF and just talk a little bit more about how we are helping Timorese communities through medevacs and providing charters. So you never know where these things might lead in the future. So that was kind of cool to take them for a flight.
And then the last one was a medevac flight with a patient from Los Palos, so Los Palos is the furthest west that we fly to, so we had a call come in one day and part of the notes that we were given was that they were a veteranus, which is the title given to people who were essentially freedom fighters during the Indonesian occupation days. From 1975 - 1999. And I didn't quite appreciate what that meant and what it would entail. But basically when I arrived and picked him up, there was a huge crowd of people. I mean the airstrip at Los Palos is quite a distance away from the town. And when you usually go there, there'll be the ambulance and maybe 10 or 20 people, depending on how many people are accompanying the patient, who want to see them off. This time there were about 200. It was a huge crowd of people. And as soon as I arrived and opened the plane, there were people jumping in and they had blankets and were lying them on top of the stretcher. And I was standing there going, I've got to strap the guy in somehow, you can't put blankets over all the seatbelt restraints. And so he was able to get in by himself and lie down. And I put the restraints on and all these people just crowded around and you could just tell he was very, very well respected by the community there. And I try to fly my best for every single patient because I know that they're all precious in God's sight. But I was aware of how much he was respected by the community there, and so I tried to show that same respect through the flight by doing my best job.
When we arrived in Dili, there were also people here to meet him as well as see him into the ambulance. So, I found out about a month ago or so that he actually died in hospital in Dili about a week later, he had a heart attack. It was a sad end to that story, but again we did the best that we could for him. But part of that insight into the Timorese culture, and in recent history, the things that people would have seen out in the districts and, people over the age of this man and what they would have seen and endured and had done to them and things like that. So that's quite incredible and very humbling to be able to help people.
Katherine Williams: I'm sure. So covid-19, how has that affected the Flying in Timor?
Bridget Ingham: At the moment, so let me back up, before I arrived they had country wide lockdowns and there were issues at that point in time. But since I arrived in July, things inside Timor have basically been operating pretty much at normal. I think about the differences that we've had is that there's not as much charter flying for NGOs and that because they sent most of their expat staff out of the country as we did. So, the NGOs have been operating at a lower activity level, so we haven't had as much charter flying for them. But other than that, it's been pretty much normal, in terms of the numbers of medevacs and things like that. On the flip side, we may have been receiving more charter enquiries for trips to Oecusse, so Oecusse is a little enclave that's surrounded by Indonesia on the north coast, sort of south west of Dili. And the reason why we're getting more charter enquiries to go there, is because there's another operator that runs a regular flight, but the pilot returned home because of covid, so MAF is the only local operator in country that's actually flying at the moment. So those flights, the flights where people normally would have gone on, the other Oecusse shuttle, they're not able to do because they're not flying. So they come to us and say, can you fly us there? And, so we had quite a few flight charter requests to go to Oecusse.
Katherine Williams: Yes. That's a nice name - Oecusse. So would you say you're enjoying your role in Timor?
Bridget Ingham: Yes. I mean the flying is just so rewarding and knowing that you're making a very real difference in people's lives is just so rewarding. I mean, obviously, there's aspects that I'm not enjoying, like, not knowing if the water's going to be working when I get home or whatever. But those are minor compared to the opportunity that I've got to make a difference here.
Katherine Williams: Yes, absolutely. Is it as you expected generally?
Bridget Ingham: Well, to be honest, I don't really know what I was expecting. I mean, it has been a great experience and I do feel like my own flying skills have really improved just by being able to concentrate on doing the one thing, which is flying planes.
Katherine Williams: Do you still leave in January? Is that still the plan?
Bridget Ingham: That is still the plan. I'm not entirely up to date on what the plan is in terms of the other kind of regular pilot families coming back in, but my understanding is that they're hoping to be back in December, which would mean leaving in January. I'm keen to get involved with the January intake of students at the Mareeba Flight Training Centre. So I'm still keen to come back for that.
Katherine Williams: And do you think that the experience in Timor will change the way that you teach in your instructor pilot role?
Bridget Ingham: Definitely yes. I mean, now that I've seen how MAF operates in a programme, it will help me to have that picture in my mind as the end goal of what we want our students to be able to do, even if they're not flying for MAF, if they're flying for an operator that's doing the kind of work that we're doing, landing on bush airstrips and things like that. There are some things that are really critical for them to learn and not just on a technical flying sense of physical Hands-On but also their decision making, and what we call the soft skills. I mean, some of the examples I thought of where my own flying has improved is things like the checks on the ground prior to take off. During line standardization training at Mareeba when I first arrived, it was taking me about 15 minutes to go through the entire checklist before taking off. And now I can do it in about, between four and six minutes, depending on how far I have to taxi. So from turning the airplane on to taking off, four to six minutes now instead of 15 minutes. I feel almost embarrassed to say, oh that took me 15 minutes back in the day, but it can be done and without rushing, you can do it thoroughly and quickly.
And the other area, as I already mentioned, was the short airstrip operations. So to actually have the experience of flying into an airstrip that's six hundred and forty meters long, you don't have a lot of margin. The technique that you use to do that and the decision making that you go through is critical. There's a lot of important factors to think about. You think about the wind. You think about the length. You think about the altitude, the slope. Is it uphill or downhill that you're landing, the surface? Is it grass or gravel? Is it sealed? Any obstacles near the airstrip or that you have to fly around to get in. So for instance, a couple of the airstrips here almost always have a 90 degree crosswind, so when the wind is coming completely across the runway, you can land, you can choose to land in either direction because you'd get no assistance from the wind on your landing. But there will always be a preferred direction for landing because of all of those other factors.
Katherine Williams: Yes, that's a lot to think about. It is.
Bridget Ingham: Yes. But that's because it's the standard kind of landing that we do. You're doing it all the time. So again, it's the sort of thing that you know what to look for and assess and say, OK, that's a one per cent slope. Is that significant? Well, no, it's not because I've got a ten knot headwind. Whereas on another day where you've got no wind at all, then that one per cent slope starts to become more important. And just things like, as I mentioned before, about the soft skills. So there's a whole raft of them, but some of them that people might be aware of are things like situational awareness, so what's going on around you. Decision making, threat and area management is a big area that's recently been recognised and people are becoming more aware.
MAF pilots have a pilot saying NUTA, which stands for notice, understand and think ahead. And that's if you're flying through a mountain pass and there's cloud, I notice there's cloud and it's quite close to the terrain. Understand. What does that mean? Well, I might have to go underneath the cloud and then think ahead. Well, what could happen? What's causing that cloud? Is there going to be more on the other side? And then you can start making a plan so that you don't just sort of fly in that direction and then suddenly paint yourself into a corner and say, oh, what do I do now? It's all about that, having an escape route and choosing the options that have the greatest margin. So I now have a few more real world scenarios that I can draw on with the students and say, okay, in that direction you've got such and such cloud and in this direction you've got this happening. And give them a chance to sort of think about, OK, which is the better way to go.
And I think just because I've been doing the hands on flying for three months now, I hope that my demonstrations of things in the airplane will be a bit tighter as well. So things like maintaining a stated altitude or an approach speed. And if I'm honest, I was a little bit sloppy before on some of those things. But being able to just be more disciplined about it has really helped, and I hope that that will carry over into my instructing when I come back.
Katherine Williams: Brilliant. So is there anything that we haven't covered that you'd like to talk about before we end the interview?
Bridget Ingham: No, I can't really think of anything. I mean, I've talked about the types of flights that we've done and the passengers you're interacting with, and the difference it is making here. Yes it's been a real privilege to have been able to come here for a short stint and get a taste of what it's like flying here.
Katherine Williams: Yes, that's great. Thank you ever so much for talking to us Bridget.
This is the link to Bridget’s blog, mentioned in the story: https://bridgetsmafjourney.blogspot.com/