MAJOR Albert Tagua is no stranger to Papua New Guinea’s rough terrain, its ever shifting weather patterns and the hundreds of grassy knolls with white markers to indicate landing fields.
For the last 15 years, the Southern Highlander has been flying Defence Force fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to all parts of the country, ferrying men, machines, medicines and agricultural produce.
On Monday, Major Tagua was joined in the cockpit of the Israeli-built Defence Force Arava aircraft by Lt Nancy Wii as his co-pilot, to do one more mercy flight carrying medicines and medical personnel into remote Menyamya in Morobe province to battle the flu and dysentery epidemics there.
The flight was uneventful and coming into Menyamya airstrip at tree top level was routine.
It was while they were taxing up the grassy field that the front landing gear gave way and the aircraft had to plough a further 20 metres on its belly, giving the serious and life-threatening situation a comical aspect as if the metaphorical ostrich was literally struggling with its head buried in the grass.
Everybody was shaken but unhurt and the medicines were safe but the poor, reliable work horse of the PNGDF for the last 30 years was left in the care of Menyamya police chief Sgt Ben Miyai and assistant Cpl Kisa Arnold.
Major Tagua has told The National that the plane suffered structural failure. It was not navigational or pilot error.
While Major Tagua’s comment might or might not be confirmed by investigations, he has a right to express that view for a very special reason.
We can fully appreciate what he is saying because we, too, have been informed of what goes on, even if the PNGDF command, the Defence Council and the Finance Department will not.
For a time now, something very unusual in modern aviation and perhaps even more than a little dangerous has been happening at the PNGDF air element. Defence aircraft engineers have been cannibalising parts of their own aircraft.
They would take parts of grounded aircraft to keep others flying. As far as we can tell, they have been doing this to the Iroquis helicopters, the Arava and the Casa aircraft.
The air element is forced to do this because it is not given sufficient funds for service, maintenance and parts.
Yet the call upon this unit by the National Government is constant and unrelenting.
When a lawyer in custody had to be spirited out of the country on a clandestine mission to the Solomon Islands, it was the Casa that was called upon to fly under cover of darkness carrying Julian Moti, without regard for whether the plane had been adequately serviced or not and for the international furore that might unfold if the foreign citizen smuggled on board were to meet with a mishap.
It was the Casa and the Aravas that were called to give meaning to the Government’s green revolution in freighting agricultural produce from remote areas to markets. It was the boys in green too who have flown the Finance and Treasury team to all parts of the country for the Treasury roll-out programme.
Now it is the health disaster in the Morobe, Eastern Highlands and Gulf provinces.
Tomorrow it might be some other work of Government.
What is amazing is that there is no shortage of money for fuel for the aircraft when it comes to Government programmes, clandestine or otherwise. Each Government department is willing to pay.
When it comes to money for maintenance or for parts or even to re-fleet, the Government turns its back on the air element. Its priorities are elsewhere. It will even buy a K100 million luxury Falcon which can only fly to a handful of airports in PNG and mostly abroad.
What the air element personnel could do with K100 million!
The Menyamya incident was an accident waiting to happen. It was a matter of time. We thank God that it happened on the ground and without injury or loss of life.
It is a wake-up call.
The efforts put in by the air element as well as the equally suffering sea element for the force are monumental and much needed. The huge land and sea borders of the country need adequate policing to stop poachers and illegal entry into the country by aliens.
It is time the Government stopped turning a blind eye to this very important area of need. It is a priority area and must be given urgent funding.