A heartbreaking plea for the urgent medevac of a sick little girl in the highlands of Papua New Guinea emphasised the importance of MAF planes being able to reach isolated communities.
Pastor Joe’s daughter Julie was unconscious and in need of medical care when a call was made to MAF PNG’s Mt Hagen-based pilot Mathias Glass for help late on Saturday afternoon.
The caller asked: “Is MAF flying to Mt Aue? The daughter of our pastor is unconscious, and the parents are very worried about losing her.”
Mathias Glass told the caller that he’s checked out to land at the airstrip but that the airstrip was closed for MAF’s operation at present. He encouraged the caller to check with Flight Operations Manager Brad Venter to see if authorisation could be granted. Unfortunately, the overgrown and poorly maintained state of the rural airstrip meant a flight would be too unsafe.
“I had to make the hard decision at the time that a landing in Mt Aue was not acceptable,” Brad said.
A 3-days trek instead of a 25-minutes flight
Without access to a MAF flight, the family set out on a long walk for treatment, but miraculously Julie’s condition improved during the arduous trek.
The airstrip at Mt Aue was in poor condition, with very little maintenance being done in many years. It is overgrown, the drains are hardly visible, and the clearway is not cut. Maintaining rural airstrips is difficult, particularly as the tropical environment and high rainfall result in the rapid growth of grass and soft soil that forms ruts when aircraft land on the surface. All the work has to be done by hand with access to only basic tools such as machetes and shovels.
Julie is the daughter of Pastor Joe and his wife Dora, who are pastoring the congregation of the Evangelical Brotherhood Church (EBC) at Mt Aue, and his friend and missionary Ruedi Meier described the miracle that happened when MAF was unable to reach the community.
A miracle on the way
“There is a bush airstrip in Mt Aue, but it has been closed for several years because no one seems to take ownership of its upkeep. The access road from Kundiawa to the vicinity of Mt Aue was also not usable, so the family had no choice but to make the long walk to Tsigmil, the nearest health centre. The family had to spend three nights in the deep bush until they finally arrived in Tsigmil,” he said in his newsletter.
“Their eight-year-old daughter Julie had to be carried at the beginning because she could hardly breathe. During the three-day walk, however, God performed a miracle on Julie. She regained her strength and was able to carry herself over the mountains.”
When the missionary hosted the family the week after the desperate plea for a medevac, he said, “You could hardly tell Julie was sick. We were so thankful to God that Julie is alive. God is still doing miracles today!”
Impact on other services if there’s no MAF plane
When the MAF plane cannot come, it also affects other services for the community, such as health and education.
Ruedi explains this impact in his newsletter.
“There is a health post in Mt Aue, but because the airstrip is closed and the access road is impassable, there is hardly any medicine to help the patients, according to our pastors,” he wrote.
“Pastor Joe also told us that he might be forced to send all his school-age children from Mt Aue to the Tsigmil region to stay with his relatives so that they could then go to school. (In 2022), the teachers at this primary school just taught the children from March to May. Then they went back to the town or their villages, so at the moment all the children of Mt Au cannot go to school.
“It is a huge stress for our pastor families in remote areas to do their ministry when at the same time their children are growing up far away from them so they can go to school.”
Will the airstrip ever be re-opened?
Since MAF’s last survey of the airstrip in 2021, there are new techniques for assessing soil conditions and surface strength, which may change the results in Mt Aue and allow a landing with some safety mitigations.
“But the fact is, that it is still a poor airstrip with a history of bogging and no effort, commitment, or buy-in from the community in terms of improving it,” Brad said.
It’s the responsibility of the communities to look after their airstrips. MAF and the Rural Airstrip Agency (RAA) are there to help. RAA will give guidance and even supply men power and tools to communities to look after their airstrips. But it’s the community who has the responsibility and who will have to commit to doing the hard work it takes. For Mt Aue, this means a significant amount of work to improve the subsurface strength of the runway and its drainages.
According to Ruedi, there is some hope to improve the infrastructure for Mt Aue.
“The new governor of Chimbu Province has made it a priority to finish the road to Mt Aue. I have confidence in this man that he could do it. He was governor before and did a great job." Despite his confidence, Ruedi states, that "we would like to see the airstrip open again.”