Saving a life is a big part of being a MAF pilot. Delivering food for the hungry or airlifting the sick and dying from a jungle airstrip; the MAF pilot who takes the opportunity can make a real difference. But, these opportunities include tough decisions. Medical Evacuation (Medevac) calls are vague at best. Details about the rescue often sketchy, and when the financial cost is high, the decision to cancel a day’s flying program to divert to a place far away with no certainty of a good outcome is a heavy burden.
A recent decision caused me significant anxiety. I fly for MAF in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. This day I was flying my favourite bush plane, a Cessna Caravan. The program for the day was full. Due to recent severe weather, many people needed my help. I had departed Lumi, a remote airstrip in PNG’s coastal highlands bordering the Sepik with nine patients on-board flying to Vanimo hospital when I received a call over the radio. A teenage boy had burnt himself at Busilmin. His condition was critical. Could I help?
I asked for more information. Is the boy ready at the airstrip? How bad is he? Is his condition life threatening? What is the weather like at Busilmin? All I received back was, “Critical in Busilmin. Cannot get through on the radio. Telefomin weather is dark.”
Busilmin is near the West Papua border of PNG in the Central Highlands. Located at an altitude of 5,100ft, Busilmin has a very steep airstrip with an 11% incline. The airstrip, hidden in a cul-de-sac at the end of a blind-end valley is only visible from directly above. In bad weather, Busilmin is a strip to avoid.
Busilmin is an hour’s flight into the highlands. If I was to go ahead with this rescue, I needed more fuel. I would have to cancel the rest of the day’s flying program and make the round trip with no passengers onboard. Ideally, the plane would be full all the time, but not this flight. The problem with a medevac is that it cannot be pre-planned.
And then there was the weather. It is one thing to reach Busilmin and rescue the boy, but I would need to deliver him to Telefomin hospital where the weather was reportedly unstable. I would be heading off with no reassuring weather report and no certainty of rescuing him… or even landing. I didn’t know if the patient was prepared. I didn’t know how long I could wait when I got there. I wasn’t sure if I would get home. The stakes were high.
The first thing I did was to pray, asking God for wisdom and assurance. With God’s help, I decided to go ahead with the plan. I landed at Vanimo, offloaded my patients, filled up the fuel tanks, and set off to save this boy. I had concerns it might all be for nothing. A lot of ducks would need to line up for this trip to succeed.
And then it got worse. Thirty minutes into the flight I got the call telling me Telefomin was in heavy rain. More rain was coming in fast from the East and moving towards Busilmin. The hospital at Telefomin was not my only option; there are other hospitals. Wewak hospital, for instance, where I am based. But, Telefomin is close to Busilmin, and the weather at Telefomin gives me a good idea of what the weather is like there. Horrible was the conclusion. But, this is the tropics. The climate in the tropics can often change very quickly. So, I continued with that hope.
I approached the Highlands and saw the picture was terrible. A significant amount of cloud had built up in front of me. To the far left, I could see the vast rain clouds pouring down over Telefomin. I could not see much else, just a few breaks in the clouds below. Slowly, I descended through those breaks into the mountain passes.
The GPS system on the plane is near useless in the mountains. Flying in a straight line is not possible. I needed to navigate visually along the valleys. All around me cloud hindered my path. The clouds covered the mountaintops. But, along with the valley, I continued, descending lower and lower. I needed to find the Sepik Gorge River. Seeing this would lead me to Munbil airstrip, and from there I could navigate up the valley to Busilmin. But where was it?
I almost gave up searching for the river. Time for a quick prayer. And, as is usually the case after a quick talk with God, He shows me the way. I was so relieved when the river appeared through a small opening in the cloud below. Now, all I needed to do was follow the river and find Munbil. I continued to fly between layers of cumulous, spotting small glimpses of the river as I went. At where I thought Munbil would be I crossed over the ridge and there it was Munbil airstrip.
Munbil was my marker; I was close to Busilmin now. Busilmin airstrip is at 5,100ft. But, already I was flying below this height. I would need to climb up before landing. The Busilmin Valley looked dark as I approached it. I snuck in under the cloud at the entrance to the valley taking me even lower. I hugged the left-hand side of the valley wall keeping enough space to turn around. The canyon opened up a bit, and I was able to climb back up to just below circuit height.
Taking a step back, the flying of this valley is spectacular. It was dark, quiet, with tendrils of cloud hanging down. The purr of the gas turbine engine was hardly noticeable. The tight circuit meant I would fly close to the terrain all the way down to land on the airstrip, no room for error. Busilmin is a class D strip. The more difficult kind MAF operates. And then I saw it.
Rain. It was raining over the airstrip. Landing in the rain on a mountain strip is the worst formula for disaster. I had already decided I would not advance in heavy rain. I continued flying overhead the touchdown point and saw the airstrip was wet with a wind blowing. I stayed with the circuit and continued my approach.
I didn’t need to decide about landing until half way along final – my approach committal point. Until then, I can choose to fly away. So, the jury was still out. I had options; I was doing fine; I could tick all MAF’s safety boxes. I did not need to land if I was not completely satisfied. Safety is number one.
On the base leg, the one just before turning on final, I broke out of the rain. I was in a small shower, but the visibility through the propeller was acceptable. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about how to get out of here if I landed. The top of the airstrip is a cul-de-sac into the valley wall. If I continued, I would not be able to see up and out of the valley. But, I decided that I should try and help this boy even if it meant spending the night at his place. So, I landed right through the shower.
The landing was bumpy. There was no getting away from it. I touched down on the side of the mountain where grass hides the rock underneath. And then there’s the dog’s leg – a left-hand bend. As I landed, I had to steer the plane around the curve, and uphill. The Caravan is a four-ton plane touching down at 86 miles per hour. Busilmin strip is just 500 meters long. This plane made it look easy. It is fantastic.
I was thankful to arrive. The airstrip is so steep it is not possible to see the bottom from the top. I call this a “Disney Strip”. No need to go to California for a thrill ride. I looked down in the direction I knew the village should be, but there was no one waiting for me. My heart sank. Where was everyone? I was on an empty airstrip, a lone plane on the side of a mountain, and nothing but the sound of a massive waterfall.
Jesus answered my prayers. I heard them before I saw them. Small children began to emerge from the crest of the hill below.
The village is at the bottom of the strip. I could now see reams of people, the whole community, making their way up the steep incline. The first man to greet me was the school teacher. He was sweating profusely from the climb. Surrounding him were his students of all ages, from five to twenty.
“Please wait,” he said desperately in Tok Pisin. “He will come. He will come.”
The next person over the hill was the village leader. He was barking loudly at me in Tok Pisin. His arms waved around, and his tone was piercing and angry. At first, I thought he was going to give me a hard time. Then he said, “I thank you for coming. You have saved this boy’s life. He has a bright future ahead of him. Bless you.”
He went on to say the young boy was 18 years old. He had fallen into a fire two days ago. The boy had put his hands out to break his fall. His hands landed on the flames and hot coals. To get out of the fire he had to put his leg in, and that too was perilously burnt. Without immediate help, all wounds could lean to the point of disfigurement or even death, and as always in the jungle, open wounds were in constant danger of infection. The boy was from a nearby village. They had to carry him through the wilderness first before raising the alarm.
Confident his message was understood; the leader disappeared back over the edge of the airstrip below.
I waited for a further half-hour. By now, at the top of the hill, a great crowd had assembled. Everyone wanted to play a part in seeing the MAF plane rescue this boy. They would talk about this day for a long time to come.
And so it was; I eventually got sight of the boy. Four healthy young men carried him in a bush stretcher up the hill. They had constructed the stretcher from vines and sticks. The swathes of people parted to make a clear path to the plane. The men did not break pace; utterly focused on their mission, sweat running down their half-naked bodies which sparkled in the sun’s rays. The boy was in much physical pain. We negotiated the stretcher into the main cabin of the plane. I tried to make sure the boy was as comfortable as possible before making preparations for departure. From the corner of my eye, I could see the four stretcher-bearers laid out on the grass, chests heaving, collapsed from the sheer physical exertion of their task.
I worried about the deteriorating weather. On landing, one set of problems had gone away; I had arrived safely in spite of the clouds, rain, and high mountains. Now, I had another set of issues to work through.
I needed to fly in a way that I can immediately land should the conditions be dangerous. I could not see along the valley from the top of the strip; I didn’t know what weather was waiting for me around the corner.
I planned to take off and immediately start the landing procedure. If I could see along the valley towards Munbil, I could depart. Otherwise, an immediate landing would be necessary. A flight of one big circle called a dumbbell.
I also planned to fly along the Sepik Gorge at a low level. For this, I would need a break in the weather. The last I’d heard of Telefomin was that the rain was torrential. The storm would need to have rained-out, or I needed an exit from the highlands to Wewak. Again, another opportunity for a quick prayer.
With one last glance towards the moody mountains ahead of me, I flew the big dumbbell circle in the Busilmin valley. And there, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I was reminded of the opening words in John’s gospel, “The light shines through the darkness…”. I descended below the Busilmin airstrip then under the cloud at the exit of the valley. I was soon over Munbil. Then, a shimmer of silver snaking through the jungle, I’d found the river. The river could lead me to Wewak or my emergency exit route, but better than that, I’d worked out a way to Telefomin. And there it was, clear as day… Telefomin hospital was visible below me enjoying a brief spot of sunshine. We made it. The Lord had answered my prayers.
The MAF ground staff at Telefomin were quick to unload the patient and get him on his way to the hospital. The strip had been wet and boggy, the landing sending sprays of dirt and mud from beneath the tyres. Storms were building again around the mountains. We all knew I needed to get out of there if I was to make it home that night. The weather would not hold much longer.
I found the exit route through the clouds to Wewak I had spotted earlier. I blasted out of the dark, rainy, and gloomy highlands into the bright plains of the Sepik River. On my way home I stopped in Edwaki, a mission station on the Yellow River. Here, I got out my box of Bibles and sold several to the local tribes-people. These much-needed Bibles are in the Tok Pisin language. I charge just a few Kina each, a fraction of their cost. I sat on the tyre of the plane contemplating the afternoon’s events.
I thought of that initial decision to make an effort to save a life. It seemed like an age ago. I was amazed at the way God lined up all those problems for me to solve in faith. The pain I saw on that boy’s face as he came up the hill. The leader’s plea to save his bright future. His mother’s face as she watched her son loaded into the back of an aircraft. I remembered the boy’s father worrying about how to pay for the plane ride to Telefomin. And then of his great relief as I told him not to worry, “MAF’s supporters are paying for you today,” I said.
PNG people can sometimes show a great outpouring of generosity to MAF’s pilots. They name my plane, “Balus Bilong Mipela,” my plane, and the pilot, “Pilot Bilong Mipela,” my pilot. This day was a special day. For no particular reason other than their need to show grand appreciation, the tribes folk of Edwaki gave me a present of a Bilum (bag) for my wife. The bilum can take up to a month to weave from materials found in the jungle. It is intricately laced. They also presented me with very precious ceremonial headdress feathers, something I have never received before.
As I took off from Edwaki, I realised that I had the best job in the world. I work for God, and today I saved a life, a young life with a bright future, a life worth saving. My reward is knowing that I make a difference in people’s lives. I know my life is worth it.