Mike Sisimolu has become the first student to complete MAF Flight Training Centre’s course for PNG pilots.
As a little boy, Mike Sisimolu would excitedly run to the local airstrip whenever a plane arrived near the village where he grew up in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
For their safety, kids were told they could look but not touch, which just motivated young Mike to dream of a career where he could one day work up close with aircraft.
After achieving that dream by becoming an aircraft maintenance engineer, Mike is now ready to soar even higher after completing his pilot training with MAF’s Flight Training Centre in Mareeba, Australia.
“Back home, the only access was by aeroplane and these guys, MAF, used to have small aeroplanes that did most of the servicing,” he said. “My grandfather used to own a shop so he would charter an aeroplane from the next town. The airstrip is 10km away and we would often run down when we heard the engines, we knew the aeroplane was coming so we would run from the house to the airstrip. So, it sort of started there. The aeroplane was something very protected, kids were not allowed to touch it, the best we could do was chase it on the side of the fence, climb up just to see how it takes off and how it touches the ground."
“That challenged me, why is it so hard, why can’t they even let me touch the aeroplane. This led me to try to be a pilot and also because, where I come from, no one has ever been a pilot so I would be the first from that area. It was a challenge for me to try something that no one has ever done.”
Not only does the centre in Mareeba train potential MAF pilots, it also supports the training of external candidates who may go on to fly for other providers. Mike was chosen by his employer for the opportunity to train as a pilot and it’s a great source of pride that, after a lot of hard work, he returns to PNG with the qualifications and experience to fly planes for a living.
“It wasn’t an easy start because there were no proper training schools in PNG, it was very expensive,” he said. “Thank God I was blessed with an opportunity to work with the company that is sponsoring me now. I went there and worked as an apprentice after high school, after finishing my Year 12. I worked for maintenance and in five years, I got my licence as an aircraft maintenance engineer. After that they put an advert out in the company saying we are looking for potential candidates to sponsor. I thought OK, why not, I’ll give it a try and I was selected.”
Mike’s training in Australia has helped him reach the multi-engine instrument rating level and it’s a standard recognised in neighbouring PNG. But the journey to this point was not easy with visa requirements, medical and other paperwork to finalise.
Mike will return to Mt Hagen in PNG to work and the advice from MAF instructors, who have experience flying in that nation, has prepared him well.
“Because I haven’t been to that space yet, operating and flying in PNG, I don’t know the challenges there but these guys here they have flown there and they have been telling me in the aircraft that in PNG it’s going to be like this,” he said.
“Whatever we do in Australia, they put in the PNG context every time we do flights, so that is also preparing me for the challenges out there.”
The highlight of his training was the safari that took place in November, giving him a chance to “spread his wings” and fly independently around Queensland. He said it was a particular thrill to plan his course down to Brisbane and then back towards Mareeba via a series of outback airstrips.
“Initially it was about not being able to touch an aeroplane. Now it’s about flying, being in charge of an aeroplane and communicating with the tower,” Mike said.“The biggest highlight was taking the aeroplane around Australia for seven days when I did my safari – going to large airports with all these big jets coming in and you are respected, getting the same level of communication as a pilot. It makes me feel proud.
“When you are taking an aeroplane out for days and these guys are trusting me to do that – the fact that they let me do this and gave me the responsibility, it’s a valuable experience that I will treasure.”
Text & photo: Sean Atkins