Shortly after the aircraft rolled to a stop on a spot on the edge of the Sepik lowlands and Sebastian Kurz opened the door, about 30 enthusiastic and exited people from the community pulled him away from the plane and lifted him onto their shoulders.
He felt something cold and slippery being wiped on him – a traditional celebratory slathering of mud - and all the eyes watching him were filled with laughter. The people surrounding at this new airstrip could not have been happier.
The story - from marking out this airstrip to its first landing on this day - had taken 15 years of back-breaking toil for the Lutz family and every member of the community.
The late Dr Steve Lutz, Wapenamanda-based Gutnius Lutheran missionary, marked the centre line with his family back in 2000. He sadly never got to see the finished result so for his wife Julie and son Anton this was an emotional moment on 10 February 2015.
'It's been a good journey,' said Anton, 'I'd happily do it all over again.' Anton also happens to be a Rural Airstrip Agency advisor. The RAA is an organisation founded at MAF's instigation and funded by the PNG government. The mandate is to improve the condition of rural airstrips by helping with maintenance.
Trusting Anton's word and intimate knowledge of the airstrip structure, MAF PNG's Flight Operations Manager Michael Duncalfe approved an airstrip survey and test landing by Airvan pilot Mathias Glass on the same day.
I knew that it was special for the people in Kaiam to see a fixed wing aeroplane landing for the first time, but I hadn't any idea how extraordinarily special it was for them.
Sebastian Kurz, MAF pilot
Pilot Sebastian Kurz, currently being checked into different routes and airstrips, was on board as well. He gained valuable experience and first-hand knowledge on how to prepare for a first landing and conducting an airstrip survey at a newly built airstrip, with the bonus of being greeted by an excited crowd of people who had helped to build it.
A precious lifeline
Sebastian said: 'I was very thankful I had the privilege to be part of such an event. Mathias has been waiting eight years to open a new strip whereas I have not been five months in the country and have already experienced this wonderful event. I knew that it was special for the people in Kaiam to see a fixed wing aeroplane landing for the first time, but I hadn't any idea how extraordinarily special it was for them. I have been there several times now and only slowly do I get a glimpse of what it means for those people to have access to the outside world through this airstrip.'
This new link with MAF is precious to the Kaiam community as Sebastian continued: 'They were totally excited and tried to explain bits and pieces of history. They apparently had to travel down the Karawari River if they wanted to go to the next airstrip at Munduku. This journey took them two days and was very exhausting. It was especially critical in medical emergencies. If they wanted to evacuate somebody they had to charter a chopper, which cost them a fortune.'
The pilot's perspective
While landing at Kaiam, Mathias's main focus was to do a safe approach and landing at an airstrip that has never been used before. 'I had to think of establishing a safe circuit, which was not easy because of the close terrain,' he explained. 'The first approach was too close and too high and therefore I had to conduct a go-around. Everything was done with estimation because there were not many figures available. For example, I had to estimate the distance and altitude of the airstrip.
'On normal airstrip operations I have the help of the GPS, but not this time at Kaiam. I knew the rough elevation of the strip from Anton's explanations and some pictures he showed me before our departure at Mt Hagen. For the second approach, I flew a left hand circuit. I was surprised by the short base leg, but had adjusted the height with a higher than normal descent rate. The subsequent landing was satisfactory.'
Sebastian reflected, 'When we approached the strip, Mathias circled and thought about the airstrip vicinity and the surrounding terrain. He flew a right and a left circuit and chose between them afterwards. He told the people straight away that they need to cut down a tree and lots of bushes in the very short final approach of the runway. He made it clear that he had to shorten the runway by 160m because of the obscured final approach.'
Sebastian had the advantage that day of completing a first landing by observation, watching all the preparation done by an experienced pilot. That also included learning how to complete an airstrip survey to gather essential information so that other pilots have the necessary data available to fly into Kaiam. Sebastian observed that Mathias was very conscientious and planned the survey very thoroughly. He took a few hours to do it and he made time to speak with the people without any time pressure.
'The people told me how hard it was to build their airstrip and explained to me how they put the stones on the centre-line and carefully marked both sides of the gravel area from the centre line,' Mathias continued. 'They reassured me that both sides, left and right of the centre, are strong. Their hope is to get more medicine and services to help the small population of the village.
'After shutting down the engine I realised what this landing meant to the local people. They were happily jumping and shouting. There was some kind of singing as well, so I had the privilege to witness their joy as the first MAF pilot landing at Kaiam - including being covered in mud all over my body and uniform.'
The Kaiam people painted themselves, the pilots and even the plane with mud as an expression of their happiness.
Flight against measles
Areas in the rural highlands of PNG are currently facing a measles outbreak with many children and adults dying because of a lack of immunisation. The measles epidemic has been reported as having already reached Malaumanda, which is only a 15 minute flight away. Being a small community, a measles outbreak would have devastating consequences.
The opening of the airstrip happened just in time. Anton prepared several loads of freight to fight a measles outbreak in Kaiam, beginning with the test landing. On the first flight, the plane was loaded with 190kg of solar batteries. The following day, the plane was loaded with a fridge and solar panels in preparation for the delivery of the measles vaccines.
The flights into Kaiam continued. Sebastian reported: 'I have been there again [soon after] and took in two community workers and a woman with an infant. The men will finalise the set-up of the solar powered vaccine fridge and the woman with the little one went home after they were rescued out of Kaiam by a chopper a couple of weeks ago. The welcome at Kaiam was even crazier than the first landing last week. There were nearly three times more people there and almost everybody was wearing coloured traditional dress.
'I and the two community workers were carried on shoulders and beaten with palm branches and given heaps of "bilas" (traditional decoration) for our necks.
'I will do another trip this week to take in some building materials to set up a proper windsock and as soon as the vaccine fridge is running I will fly in the measles vaccines!"
Reflecting on these first flights into Kaiam, Sebastian acknowledges: 'They live in another world totally and rejoice at the new access available to education, food, medical support. These things are commonplace to us and these so-called essentials don't excite us, neither do we think about them as blessings anymore.'
How you can pray
- Please pray that blessing and community development comes from the past 15 years of hard work and that the vaccines stop the measles epidemic.
- Pray that this airstrip will be a lifeline to physical and spiritual transformation and wellbeing for the Kaiam people.
Before and after: the challenge of building the airstrip at Kaiam becomes clear