The life-saving beach runway on Atauro Island

The life-saving beach runway on Atauro Island

A beach runway has reopened on Timor-Leste’s Atauro island, allowing MAF to be a lifeline to its residents

The benefits of reopening the beach airstrip on Timor-Leste’s Atauro Island became clear just hours later when we did our first medevac flight.

An 18-year-old woman suffering from severe anaemia and a stroke was flown to the capital, Dili for urgent medical attention.

The flight took 14 minutes. Before, a lengthy boat trip to the mainland was the only option - if the weather permits.

It has taken eight months of hard work by the island community, clearing trees and levelling the ground to restore the disused airstrip, last used in the 1970s.

Our pilot Michael Bottrell travelled by sea taxi to survey the work. MAF pilot and country director Jonathan Lowe carried out a number of test circuits overhead before the country’s Civil Aviation Division gave its approval. It was then a momentous occasion when the MAF aircraft, now able to provide a lifeline to these isolated people, threw up the dust as its wheels touched down for the inaugural landing.

The tropical island, north of Dili, is connected by a ferry service just once a week. This two- to three-hour trip over a very deep strait of water isn’t guaranteed in bad weather. On the island is just one road connecting two communities along the east coast.

Barry Hinton, who lives and works in Atauro, said the medical evacuation capability was crucial. He shared about a pregnant woman who died in labour, suffering with pre-eclampsia. 'There were no medevac capabilities at the time. She needed a Caesarean and you can’t do that here.’

In October 2013, Mr Hinton and others from the community started lobbying any government minister who came through Atauro that rebuilding the airstrip was necessary and possible.

'It was just timing. Life is timing and it was all good timing,' Mr Hinton added. 'It happened very quickly and whoever made those decisions, thank you very much.'