a newborn baby snuggled up in a bilum
Photo by Mandy Glass
In a time-critical emergency, a pilot's prompt response and precise actions ensure three infants receive urgent medical care, demonstrating the importance of timely intervention.
Story by Tim Neufeld 

How critical is it? We have a cell phone at our base in Goroka, and depending on the person calling, that cell phone can be a customer service line, bookings call centre, a weather reporting service, or sometimes, an emergency response line. On a recent Monday afternoon, it was the equivalent to a 9-1-1 call. 

I had a relatively quiet day up to that point and was thinking it was time to wrap up for the day, but Misek, our programmer in Goroka, asked if I could do one more flight to Nomane, just a quick 15-minute flight. The aid post worker in that community had a small baby struggling to breathe, and he had no oxygen supply or anything else to use to help the child.

Was twenty minutes of flying all that stood between them and a different fate?
Tim Neufeld, MAF Pilot

Normally they could catch a public van to the nearest centre, but recent heavy rains had caused several landslides, cutting off this option. I knew the weather was surprisingly good, and with the plane empty for landing, he would satisfy the performance requirements despite any afternoon winds. In addition to that, the airstrip hadn’t had recent rain, so he pumped some extra fuel and headed to Nomane. 

Clear communication is always challenging, so I didn’t really know exactly what would be waiting for him when he landed.

The first thing I remember noticing in Nomane was that the airstrip was in surprisingly good condition; the grass was short, the windsock was new, it was looking good. That hasn’t historically been the case for this airstrip. 

Tim Neufeld behind the controls of the Cessna Caravan
Photo by Mandy Glass

I landed with no issues and parked the plane near the gathering of people who had been waiting for me. I asked who had called our base and a young man put up his hand. A young couple emerged from the back of the crowd, holding their son; I guessed 7 months old. I could hear the baby’s lungs struggling to fill with air, and I knew this was a critically important flight! The aid post worker had asked if another young girl and her baby could join the flight to the hospital, and so I wrote them down on the load manifest.

And then a third young father said, “Please, my wife is in the aid post with our baby. They need a doctor also!” I confirmed with the aid post worker and told this young man to go as quickly as he could to bring them. “Just a couple minutes,” he insisted, and went running off. 

Now I had three babies heading to town. One was barely breathing, and I was not sure what the medical needs of the other two were. The weather was still fine. I was happy to give a few minutes for the folks to get to the plane when suddenly things got serious!

Tim Neufeld doing paperwork for the next flight using the cabin floor as a desk
Photo by Mandy Glass

The first baby, who couldn’t breathe, was turning blue. His eyes rolled to the back of his head and his young father was giving him CPR-like breaths. This had turned into a time-critical emergency. As I looked across the valley, I could see the other guy hustling to get back to the airstrip. People were saying, “Leave them. Go with just these folks.” I felt stuck in the middle, but I knew I only needed three more minutes. That would give me enough time to get the people into the plane buckled and briefed. I did everything I could in preparation for departure, and after what felt like much longer that it probably actually was, this third pair came panting and staggering up to the plane. They had been running as fast as they could over the hilly terrain. I got them in the plane, buckled and briefed as fast as I safely could, then finished up closing the plane.

A wise pilot once said, “When I’m rushing, that’s when I know I need to slow down.” I knew this was the moment for this advice, so I slowed down and worked my checklists as promptly yet meticulously as I could. I soon had my Caravan fully ready, myself briefed, and everything ready to go.

Originally, the plan was to take these folks all to Goroka, back to our base, and they’d finish their journey by road to their provincial capital of Kundiawa (about two hours on the Highlands Highway from Goroka). As soon as I saw the small baby lapsing in and out of consciousness, I knew I would need to go straight to Kundiawa, a minor diversion for my airplane. 

Photo of another medevac which Tim Neufeld helped earlier

After twenty minutes of flying low through valleys and around terrain (climbing higher than needed could cause extra stress on the baby’s lungs) I was on the ground in Kundiawa. I parked the airplane as close as I could to the roadside gate. The airport attendant came over to see what was happening and I told him we needed transport to the hospital ASAP! 

A s the trio of families came off the plane, a small crowd gathered to see what the commotion was, and a taxi van was flagged down. There were some animated conversations as some folks were “encouraged” to give up their seats and the driver was told to get to the hospital as quickly as he could. Everything happened so quickly, it all felt like a blur.

As I watched that taxi van drive away, I felt the surge of adrenaline ease in my body. I had done my part, as best as I could. I wondered if that baby would make it through the night. I wondered what stories those three babies would be told one day about the MAF plane that whisked them away. Was twenty minutes of flying all that stood between them and a different fate?

The crowd left, and the airport attendant went back to his small house near the parking area. I walked around the plane slowly, worked the checklists as I have thousands of times, and enjoyed a short flight back to Goroka. I had an uneventful return to Goroka, alone with my thoughts, the reassuring drone of a PT6 engine, and the mountains of Papua New Guinea to keep me company.