By MALUM NALU
KAGAMUGA Airport in Mt Hagen is a hive of activity now as fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters fly in and out delivering relief supplies to earthquake-devastated areas of Hela, Southern Highlands, Western and Gulf provinces.
It’s an air operation of a massive scale rarely seen before in this country since World War 11.
The Royal Australian Air Force C-130 and Chinooks are there, the giant HeviLift Russian MIL, PNG Defence Force helicopters, HeliSolutions helicopters, and a motley crew of other commercial fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in the air operation.
Moro Airport along the beautiful Lake Kutubu in Southern Highlands, which I also visited, is even busier than Kagamuga at this time but that’s a different story.
Papua New Guinea is indeed aviation country.
Amidst all the activity is the Missionary Aviation Fellowship which has been flying in and out of the disaster zone on a wing-and-a-prayer, like it has been doing for more than 60 years in PNG, delivering relief supplies and taking out the injured.
The MAF was there right at the beginning when the massive 7.5 magnitude juggernaut shook the Highlands.
What they have done over the last two weeks, and will continue to do, is the stuff of legend and will be talked about in every nook and cranny of the Highlands for years to come.
Vaughan Woodward, MAF’s director of operations and logistics, is in his office at MAF’s Kagamuga hangar when I walk in.
“Last Monday (Feb 26), when we received news of the disaster, we contacted our own programme and operations here in Papua New Guinea and verified that our staff and operations were safe,” he tells me.
“And then we began to look for ways to help people who might be impacted and affected.
“On Tuesday (Feb 27), we launched an aircraft into a three-hour aerial survey flight, where we flew over the affected areas getting pictures, which have been shared with the media, so that we could gauge the scale and the size of the devastation.
“We circulated that information through to the various authorities.
“That has resulted in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Defence Force bringing up a large aircraft (C-130), which they are flying a lot of the aid up to Moro, and then the PNG Defence Force helicopters do the distribution of aid to the villages who have been affected.
“MAF’s involvement is that we’ve done some medical evacuation flights, and we’ve also done a number of cargo flights for goods that have been donated by PNG citizens and PNG business houses.
“We’ve flown those donated goods to the villages of most need.”
Woodward says the biggest contribution MAF is making towards earthquake disaster relief efforts is on-the-ground information gathering.
This information is shared with all stakeholders including the PNG Government and the Royal Australian Air Force.
“We have two partners in Western province (Australian woman Sally Lloyd and Enga-based American Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz) who are travelling to the affected villages and obtaining information of population numbers, as well as the needs that are there.
“Between that and the Christian Radio Missionary Fellowship (CRMF), or the high-frequency radio network that we partner with CRMF on, we’re gathering information about the community needs, putting that information together and distributing it to the Australian Defence force to help them prioritise their delivery.
“We’re wanting to work in with the National Disaster Management Office to make sure that aid is getting delivered through to those who need it most, and that we’re coordinating our efforts with what they are needing, based on the population demands on the ground.”
Woodward says MAF has three aircraft involved in disaster work, a Cessna Caravan operating out of Kiunga and another Cessna Caravan and Twin-Otter operating out of Kagamuga, “but the biggest impact we are having is information-gathering through on-the-ground personnel and the HF radio network, to be able to pass on that information to PNG Government departments to make sure that Australian aid, international aid and UNICEF aid being delivered are able to be prioritized.
“We will get all that information, collate it together and distribute that information based on what the community needs are in those places,” he explains.
As if the 7.5 wasn’t enough, a 6.7 aftershock – the biggest since – rocked the Highlands again in the early hours of Wednesday, March 7, and again the MAF was first into remote villages bordering Hela, Southern Highlands and Western.
“We flew aid out to Huiya and to Wagalu,” Woodward says.
“Seventh Day Adventist Aviation flew aid into Donamona.
“Aid was delivered into these places and our flight crew was able to observe that there were a lot more fresh landslides and landslips.
“There were people who were hurt and we flew three people back on a medical evacuation flight for the injuries that they’d sustained.
“There are great needs that are out in that part of the country, and because it’s so remote and there are no roads, aviation is the easiest and best way to try and reach these communities.
“There has been loss of life and that information is being coordinated by the various ward councillors and passed on to PNG Government,” he said.
“We hear the stories but we haven’t got the statistics.”
Woodward, like other MAF staff, has a heart for PNG.
He is originally from New Zealand but now lives in Australia.
Woodward, 49, has a pilot’s license but now works on the ground specialising in operations and logistics
“I’ve lived and worked here for five years,” he says.
“I’ve been to many of the places that have been impacted.
“I want to see these remote people physically and spiritually transformed.
“The delivery that MAF is doing in the name of Christ is one way that we can tangibly show people that they are not forgotten, and that they are valued.
“In the name of Christ we want to do what we can to help them. “MAF has been in the country for over 60 years.
“We exist in the country to show the light of Christ and to bring services to isolated people in remote areas.
“Between our aircraft and the radio network, CRMF, we’re able to reach isolated people in remote communities.
“We feel that we have tools that can be used to help PNG in this time of need.”
As I walk out of Woodward’s office, through the hangar, I marvel at the people and aircraft around me.
The Missionary Aviation Fellowship is certainly shining a light on us in this time of need.
By MALUM NALU