Work first began in Wetap in 2016. Six years later, following an airstrip extension, two years of travel restrictions, several aerial surveys, ground inspections and a test flight, Wetap Airstrip is finally open for business. MAF’s Mandy Glass reveals just what it takes to reach this momentous moment and why this new airstrip will transform lives in future…
On Friday 17 June, pilots Richie Axon and Wilfred Knigge set off from Tabubil and landed a MAF aircraft on Wetap Airstrip for the first time – a remote bush airstrip in Sandaun Province in northern Papua New Guinea.
The test flight took an hour including various circuits and approaches to determine the safest possible route and landing.
It was Wilfred’s first ever test flight to a new airstrip. For safety reasons, test flights do not carry cargo or passengers.
Landing on a short 411 metre airstrip that’s 11% steep can be a dangerous business explains MAF co-pilot Richie Axon:
‘If we weren’t happy with anything, we’d simply abort the landing. No new airstrip or first landing is worth having an accident over!
‘Fortunately, it was really nice weather. The wind wasn’t too strong and the air was clear. There were no clouds in the area, which gave us an opportunity to fly over the airstrip a few times from both the left and from the right. This assessment determines the best circuit that all future pilots should take in in order to land here.
‘Once we had satisfied ourselves that we could approach the airstrip safely, we did a low-level inspection pass, which enabled us to get a really good picture of the ground, which helped us set up the plane for the first landing.’
A phenomenal reception
Shortly after landing, local people came running and cheering as Richie and Wilfred disembarked from the plane.
For many people, it was the first time they had met someone from outside their community. Richie describes their phenomenal reception:
‘It’s a pretty exciting day for the people – they really appreciated us coming. When we landed, they came rushing over!
‘When Wilfred was assembling the wheel chocks (equipment to prevent the wheels from moving), they nearly tackled him! He was surrounded by about 20 people jumping up and down watched by loads of other people standing further away. Then they noticed me, came running over and nearly knocked me over too!’
After Richie and Wilfred spent some time with the locals, they inspected the airstrip by foot.
Since the last survey and in preparation of MAF’s test flight, the community had improved the surface by digging drainage ditches to prevent the ground from becoming too soft from heavy rain.
Short grass and an airstrip free from erosion and any obstacles – like large rocks or stray dogs! – are also imperative for landing.
MAF – a vital connection to the outside world
Wetap Village has no roads and consists of a few basic ‘buildings’ topped with corrugated iron to keep out the elements.
Richie sums up the enormous challenge of travelling to and from Wetap without MAF:
‘Just to travel overground is such hard work! MAF will be a blessing to this community – a lifeline!’
Richie Axon, MAF pilot in PNG
Before MAF, the locals carried building materials on foot. It takes at least eight hours to bring supplies from Oksapmin with an overnight stay at Gawa before continuing to hike another three miles to Wetap.
Only the strongest of residents are able to traverse the terrain carrying heavy supplies.
Such is the remoteness of Wetap, residents must hike to a mountain in order to receive a mobile phone signal.
Following years of hiking and boating for days to reach surrounding villages, people finally have fast, safe and convenient transport of their own – MAF!
MAF medevacs will now fly patients to hospital.
If local produce is lacking, a range of nutritious food can be flown in by MAF offering a more balanced diet. Conversely, when local produce is abundant, MAF can transport it to market to sell or deliver it to others in need.
Students will be able to further their education when MAF flies them to the nearest boarding schools in Oksapmin and Telefomin.
Thanks to MAF, medics and missionaries will be able to access Wetap to support and develop the local community.
The people of Wetap will no longer have to trek for hours to reach their nearest remote airstrip nor will they have to carry heavy building materials with their own bare hands for hours on end.
Finally, they have connection to the outside world!
‘I shed tears and my heart filled with joy’
Shortly after MAF’s test flight, Wetap community leader Shedric Bisapen shared his heartfelt thanks with MAF.
‘I received a call today and in the background I heard the noise of MAF’s aircraft and people dancing and celebrating.
‘I shed tears and my heart filled with joy. I felt satisfied that all our hard work had finally paid off! The day has come for my people to enjoy this important service and connect to the outside world.
‘MAF has been so helpful – that’s why I have a reason to smile. You have given hope to these rural villagers who have struggled over the years.
‘You all worked for the good of my people. Congratulations to captains Richie Axon and Wilfred Knigge who flew into Wetap – you make me proud. Well done.
‘On behalf of my humble community, I praise God for answered prayers. I can’t wait to fly home!
‘May God continue to bless MAF.’
In the coming weeks, MAF will conduct its first operational flight into Wetap carrying cargo and / or passengers.
The flight path and safest approach for landing – set by Wilfred and Richie – will be followed.