As MAF’s airstrip review in Papua New Guinea continues, 25% have since reopened

Published: 16 Sep 2020

Koinambe Village Airstrip in northern Papua New Guinea with MAF plane on left

In a bid to improve the safety of rural landings across Papua New Guinea, MAF is currently conducting a review of all 209 airstrips where they serve. A quarter of the airstrips (55) have successfully reopened following their surveys. MAF Pilot and Lead Surveyor, Andy Symmonds, explains what this essential work entails…

‘Following some incidents, which lead to concerns over the condition of some of Papua New Guinea’s airstrips, all the bush strips were closed to MAF operations, pending a survey, risk assessment and review. This is now well underway, which involves every MAF base in the country.

Surveys are a hot and labour-intensive business!

‘My fellow Wewak based pilot, Wilfred Knigge and I, received training in May on how to carry out surveys. Wilfred plans which airstrips we will visit in each survey, and permission is granted for the flight into each of the 'closed' airstrips.

We can’t carry passengers on these flights, but we’ve been able to take small amounts of important supplies to airstrip communities who’ve been without their lifeline for months.

We survey two strips in one day. Each strip is measured (length, width and slope), photographed and surface strength tested. The clearway and ‘Obstacle Free Gradient’ (OFG) are also assessed for any infringing obstacles.

The OFG is an imaginary slope which must be free from trees, bushes, huts etc, ensuring that the aircraft has a clear path for approach and climb out.

Our small team consists of myself, Wilfred and some others from the ‘Rural Airstrips Agency’ (RAA) and ‘Christian Radio Missionary Fellowship’ (CRMF), which is owned by MAF.

The RAA carries out surface tests and community liaison, while CRMF perform high frequency radio repairs and maintenance. I am the Lead Surveyor, which basically means I carry the equipment!

We also enlist community volunteers to assist with the survey measurements. It's very hot work, walking up and down the airstrip in the sun, and the locals are amused when we liberally apply 'marasin bilong waitman', a.k.a sunscreen!

MAF staff (Andy Symmonds on right) conducting an airstrip survey in the Sepik region

Half of the airstrips have now been surveyed

Following each week of surveys, I produce risk assessments using the data we have gathered. This process can take longer than the survey itself!

The risk assessments are then reviewed by management who decide whether the airstrip can be reopened, or if remedial work needs to be done before it’s reopened.

So far, we have surveyed around half of the rural airstrips that MAF serve in PNG. Although many have been opened, a large number still require work.

Very few airstrips need no work. Most need minor attention, such as trees removing or drains clearing. Some airstrips however, need major work involving significant tree felling, landslide damage repair or extensive surface strengthening.

Community volunteers cutting grass on Tumolbil airstrip in Papua New Guinea

Airstrip maintenance is down to the local community

We need to operate safely, but during the closure of some airstrips, some communities are in danger of not being served by MAF.

Please pray that God will provide the means and ability for communities to restore their airstrips as quickly as possible.’

In order for an airstrip to successfully reopen, each community needs to act on MAF’s recommendations. PNG rural communities need to play their part to help restore and maintain their own airstrips.

MAF PNG Country Director, Todd Aebischer, issued the following statement to PNG’s rural communities over the summer: 

‘We would like to thank you for your patience as we have been working through the challenges of coronavirus along with our own safety review.

The condition of the rural airstrips plays a significant role in limiting our flight operations. MAF is committed to surveying every airstrip where we operate and completing a risk assessment. These risk assessments will deter whether we can provide service to a particular airstrip.

The communities will be updated on what actions need to be taken should their airstrip not meet MAF’s standards.  

It is ultimately the responsibility of the community to ensure that their airstrip is properly maintained including mowing the grass and keeping the clearways free from obstruction (trees and brush).’

 

Yapsie Airstrip in Papua New Guinea

Andrew’s instructor training delayed by Covid-19

Andrew had hoped to finish his flight instructor training, but coronavirus has scuppered his plans:

‘Although there is currently a severe shortage of instructor pilots in PNG, there are no immediate plans to resume my instructor pilot training. Coronavirus restrictions have made travel very difficult and unpredictable.

We hope that my training will resume in November, but in the meantime, the airstrip surveys will continue.

I’m also a Base Liaison Pilot, which means I oversee the efficiency and accountability of our base operations. I act as first point of contact for matters raised by MAF headquarters in Mount Hagen. Aviation is a very expensive business and we always want to make the best use ofGod given resources to reach as many people as possible.

'Nothing surprises God and his purposes will not be thwarted’

MAF Pilot, Andy Symmonds

Andy Symmonds and family

God still works during uncertainty

We all continue to adjust to living with changes, great or small, brought about by coronavirus. I have experienced many challenges and highlights in the last 12 months.

The situation has changed beyond imagination, but nothing surprises God and his purposes will not be thwarted. Whilst I am not serving in exactly the way I anticipated, I want God to use me in his service, whatever form that may take.

Whilst I find myself serving MAF in another capacity I didn’t expect, with uncertainty about the future, I’m reminded that God has his purpose and sees the bigger picture.

Please pray for wisdom and guidance for the PNG government as they try to lead the country through this time, and for MAF leadership as we seek to operate safely and effectively.’

MAF hopes all 209 airstrips will be fully evaluated and reopened early next year.