ANDREW ALPHONSE does an aerial interview with a helicopter pilot from the Southern Highlands province
YOUNG Kagua children made a mad dash to the spot where the helicopter had just landed.
It was 3.44pm on Independence Day last month, when Capt Eric Aliawi landed his Helifix Bell 206 Long Ranger helicopter at the western end of the old Kagua airstrip in the Southern Highlands province.
I was accompanying him on the trip to cover the Independence revelries in the province. The children’s eyes widened with excitement as they marvelled at both the aircraft and the Papua New Guinean pilot. Among those who gathered was former Kagua Erave MP Charles Miru Luta.
Capt Aliawi stopped over at Kagua to refuel and to take some people to Marorogo in Erave.
We had departed Mt Hagen earlier to drop off Kagua Erave MP Aiya James Lagea at Marorogo for the MP to spend Independence Day with his “bush people” there.
Mr Luta told the children who gathered that they only saw helicopters on television or in war movies, adding that others had seen helicopters of all different types hovering over their far-flung villages of the resource-rich Southern Highlands.
He said most of these aircraft, flown mostly by expatriates, were engaged in the heavy mineral and resource explorations activities in the area and were a frequent sight for the children.
However, pointing to Capt Aliawi, Mr Luta said slowly, many Papua New Guineans like him (Capt Aliawi) were now flying helicopters.
Mr Luta was celebrating the country’s 34th Independence Day anniversary at Kagua station when we landed.
Even before Capt Aliawi stopped the engine and stepped out, hundreds of school-aged children had already converged around the chopper.
Mr Luta told the curious children that as our country celebrated 34 years of independence, the country also witnessed a lot of changes, developments and progress.
He told them that some years ago, they only saw “white men” or expatriates flying helicopters but today, Papua New Guineans were in the cockpit, which made us proud as a young nation.
He encouraged the children that if they wanted to fly and become a pilot like Capt Aliawi, they must always go to school and work hard in classes.
The children were really surprised when Mr Luta said Capt Aliawi was also a Southern Highlander and used to be a PNG Defence Force pilot.
The children marvelled when they learned that Capt Aliawi was one of their own tribesmen flying the machine.
After a 20-minute stopover, we were airborne heading again to Marorogo and onto Tari. As we hovered over villages, rugged terrain and broken bottle-edge like mountain ranges, I interviewed Capt Aliawi about his amazing career through the aircraft’s intercom.
The 41-year-old hails from Fugwa village in the Koroba district and started his primary education at Taguru Community School in Pangia in 1975, when his father was also attending the Wesleyan Bible College there to train as a pastor.
Two years later, he continued his primary education at Mt Hagen T School before finishing Grade Six at Fugwa in 1980.
His early high school education was in Koroba from 1981 till 1982 before transferring to complete Grades Nine and 10 at the new Pangia High School. He was among the pioneer Grade 10s to graduate from there.
His hard work and perseverance yielded early dividends when he was selected to Sogeri National High School in Port Moresby where he completed Grade 12 in 1986.
His desire to become an army pilot saw him join the PNGDF as a pilot cadet officer in 1987. That year, he went to attend the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) No 1 Flying Training School at Point Cook in Victoria, Australia where he underwent nine months of training in flying fixed-wing aircraft.
In 1988, Capt Aliawi was among five Papua New Guineans who underwent further training to fly Nomad, fixed-wing and twin-engine aircraft at Army Aviation Centre at Okey, Queensland. He graduated with a “Flying Wing” as a fully qualified pilot in September of that year.
Upon returning to PNG, Capt Aliawi was posted at PNGDF’s Igam Barracks in Lae, Morobe province, where he was attached to the Air Transport Wing (ATW) as a First Officer flying Nomad aircraft.
It was during the time of the Bougainville crisis that Capt Aliawi recalled his first real military experience when he was heavily engaged in flying troops and supplies in the Bougainville operations.
It was while there on active duty in Bougainville when Capt Aliawi decided to switch from flying airplanes to helicopters.
The opportunity came in 1989 when the Australian government gave four Iroquois helicopters to PNGDF for the Bougainville operations. Capt Aliawi’s desire to fly the Iroquois saw him undergo training at RAAF’s Helicopter Flying School in Fairbairn, Australia.
At the end of 1990, Capt Aliawi, along with another Papua New Guinean, Capt John Imaka, the current PNGDF commanding officer of the Air Transport Wing in Port Moresby, were the first two Papua New Guineans to graduate to flying the Iroquois helicopters.
Soon after training at Fairbairn, Capt Aliawi was sent to 171 Command and Liaison Squadron of the Army Aviation Center at Oakey, Queensland in Australia where he was posted as line pilot, flying the Iroquois helicopter for the Australian Army Aviation for a year down under.
In 1992, Capt Aliawi returned to PNG and was flying the Iroquois helicopters again during the Bougainville crisis carrying out PNGDF operations.
In 2005, he went to Surabaya, Indonesian, to undertake a Civil Aviation Safety Authority conversion course for a month to brush up his skills in flying fixed-wing aircraft again.
When he returned, between 2005 and 2007, Capt Aliawi flew the PNGDF CASA aircraft and participated in all PNGDF sanctioned operations like the 2006 State of Emergency (SOE) operations in the Southern Highlands, the 2007 national elections and other regular and routine tasks assigned by the PNGDF headquarters.
After 21 year of being in the cockpit, Capt Aliawi resigned from the PNGDF in February 2007 for personal reasons. Basically, he had reached his 21-year pension eligibility date in the military.
He said another factor why he made his last-minute decision to resign was because he saw that the unit (PNGDF’s ATW) was going nowhere with inadequate funding and support from the National Government, adding that without proper funding, ATW’s operations were crippled.
Capt Aliawi said he was among the last of the PNGDF pilots and aircraft engineers who walked out because of the lack of funding affecting the unit.
Retired from the force, he joined Helifix, as did his other colleagues and former PNGDF pilots, to fly their helicopters.
Despite leaving the PNGDF and a long fruitful career, Capt Aliawi said it was the catchphrase of Helifix that “we are doing our bit for nation building”.