Lawn-mowing the airstrips; scary, but very important

Lawn-mowing the airstrips; scary, but very important

Maintaining the airstrips is just as important as maintaining the aircraft to ensure safe landings.

‘I’ve been to five airstrips in Enga yesterday, and now I am going to Jiwaka airstrips. I’ve been to two already and now my pilot will take me to another three.' For Joseph, an elderly man with a big smile shining through his big grey beard, this makes a total of 10 landings at different airstrips in two days.

He admits that ‘sometimes it is scary. The clouds, you know, we can’t see the trees when we fly over the white clouds. I know the pilots can make it down there. They know how to do it.’

Risky cargo on board

Lewis and Nawi Mabo securing the jerry cans in the aircraft (MG)

On board those flights with Joseph were 1,003kg of fuel in total, which come under the International Dangerous Goods (DG) Regulations. On each round, the plane normally stops at two to three airstrips and drops five jerry cans (100 litres) in each of those villages. Isn’t that even more scary, having up to 300kg extra fuel in the cabin of an aircraft?

Joseph Kauwagai works for the Rural Airstrip Agency (RAA), which comes under the umbrella of ATprojects, based at Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province, but works throughout Papua New Guinea (PNG). ATprojects’ aim is ‘to enable rural people to use appropriate technologies which give them more control over their lives and which contribute to the sustainable development of their communities.’

Mandy Glass, wife of MAF Pilot Mathias Glass and a communications officer based in PNG, met Joseph and Janet Rowaro at the container storage area of the Mt Hagen MAF Base. Janet works for ATprojects and oversees the RAA program.

With two more colleagues and under the supervising eyes of MAF Senior Cargo Officer John Yark and Senior Traffic Officer Lewis Phalanger, they just finished refilling 10 bright red jerry cans each with 20 litres of fuel to go on the last round of one of their quarterly iRAMP fuel and maintenance trips (iRAMP: innovative Rural Airstrip Maintenance Program).

Joseph Kauwagai (Left) and Janet Rawaro (Right)

'Today I went to Ambuluwa and Kol, and now I go to Tsendiap, Koinambe and Junkaral’, explained Joseph to Mandy. The day before he went to Iropena, Yenkisa, Maramuni, Eleme and Lapalama.

'I go there to see the situation of the airstrip, the drainage, the lawn, the runway. I check the lawn mowers for maintenance if they need parts or oil or grease and all this. If the machine is not working there I take it back, like yesterday when I brought one from Eleme, and take it back to Goroka. There I do a maintenance audit and then we bring it back and deliver it to the airstrips.’

‘...there are no road links and the only way is by plane. This is why we tell them to maintain the airstrips so they can get service, fly the teachers in or medical officers...’

Long grass and broken mowers

Pilot Markus Bischoff supervising locals loading the lawn mower at Eleme (RvW)

‘At Eleme, the grass on the strip was already knee high and they didn’t cut it,’ confirmed Remi van Wermeskerken, Joseph’s pilot for those two days, reflecting on some of his encounters during those iRAMP charter flights.

‘The lawn mower was broken and a rock or log sheared something inside the engine. At several other airstrips Joseph had to give out parts like the pull starter ropes, spark plugs or files to sharpen the blades. He brings a spare part kit with him so the communities get the parts they need to continue the work.'

ATprojects looks after 11 airstrips in the Enga and Jiwaka Provinces and 13 in Western Province. ‘We normally come from Goroka to Mt Hagen with our truck to do the fuel runs for the Enga and Jiwaka Provinces', explains Janet. ‘For the Western Provinces we take commercial (non MAF) flights to Kiunga.’

Out of Mt Hagen and Kiunga they use our MAF aircraft, ‘because most airstrips are the smaller airstrips’, continues Janet, ‘those are the ones MAF lands. So we choose MAF because they can land anywhere in the country, especially on the smaller airstrips.’

It must be a fairly difficult task to persuade a community to really take ownership of their airstrip, faithfully maintaining it and realising that not only the two appointed RAA Airstrip Maintenance Volunteers (AMV) are the only ones responsible.

Janet confirms that ‘it is quite a challenge to try and convince the community to help the AMVs on the ground. Most of the time we really have to push them and tell them it is their airstrip and they have to maintain it regularly and not wait for us to come and issue them lawn mowers, because delivering and chartering flights on different schedules is very expensive. We always tell them to look for other options like using bush knifes to maintain the airstrip when they wait for us to bring the lawn mower part to them.’

Janet explained, that the AMVs in the remote places initially get training on the technical side of handling the lawn mower and learn to be able to identify faults. As ATprojects provides their AMVs with CUG phones (Closed User Group), Joseph or another mechanic can instruct the AMV on the phone and help them to find faults and get minor ones repaired without having the lawn mower flown out.

Remi told me that every stop takes about 45 minutes to transfer the fuel into the local jerry cans and for the RAA staff to check the airstrip and lawn mower, to ask how things are going and to give some advice to the community. Usually the iRamp charters allow for some extra weight allowance to take mail and letters to the communities in addition to some store goods to those strips.

Transferring the lawn mower fuel into the local jerry cans at Iropena (RvW)

Poor airstrip means poor service

Joseph now lives in Goroka, where there is fairly good infrastructure, but he knows the importance of a well maintained airstrip, ‘because there are no road links and the only way is by plane. This is why we tell them to maintain the airstrips so they can get service, fly the teachers in or medical officers and maybe food or whatever.’

‘When the airstrips are open’, verifies Janet, ‘people get to have basic services like health and education. The airstrip is the only gateway for people to have access to town. In most cases there are mothers who are having complications. The airstrip has to be maintained because of cases like that. In the rural areas there are no health services, well, I mean there are, but they don’t have the equipment to safely deliver babies. So that’s where we fill in the gap when it comes to that, because maintaining the airstrips means that planes are able to land for those type of services to take place.’

Remi felt that need first-hand when they were on the ground at Maramuni for the fuel and maintenance stop. ‘The agent was begging me to take his daughter out as she was close to delivering. The little clinic they have there is totally run down so they don’t want anyone to get helped there. But the pressure it puts on the pilot to say no after he is asked about 10 times makes you emotionally tired during the day. Air traffic law forbids taking passengers when we carry dangerous goods, only the so called “person accompanying a consignment” is allowed to be on the flight. The only option then is to talk to the programmers to check when they can send another flight out to take care of the medical needs.’

When our Operations Programmer Matilda Tutul Aikio radioed the agent the very next day, she got the report that the agent’s daughter was okay and not any longer in need of a medevac – praise the Lord!

‘Scary’ was the word Joseph used describing his perspective on travelling on a small plane to remote communities to fulfill his tasks in supplying fuel and maintenance assistance for the lawn movers and educating the community to look after their airstrips.

‘Scary’ and ‘dangerous’ might be the words to use if Joseph was to not take his job seriously and if our planes would be forced to land on a not well maintained airstrip.

We in MAF are so appreciative of the work that RAA does under the umbrella of ATprojects, to help the communities to care for their airstrips. It is a great example of how we all need to work together to continue to provide a lifeline for remote communities.

Story: Mandy Glass. Photos: Markus Bischoff, Remi Van Wermeskerken and Mandy Glass