My journey with Rural Airstrips Agency

The author (left) with local youths who assisted with a survey at Bili airstrip in Pomio, East New Britain in March 2020.

WHEN I applied for this job with the RAA, I really didn’t know what to expect.
I had never heard of the RAA before and didn’t really understand what they did. After being with the organisation now for the past three years and having visited numerous rural airstrips in over 21 provinces, I can say that my journey has been nothing short of amazing.
As a GIS specialist/airstrip surveyor, I go to an airstrip to undertake a survey and assessment. I do tests to assess the sub-surface strength of the runway, measure the dimensions of the airstrip, take drone footage and photos for processing, observe the amount of vegetation that needs to be cleared and structures that are in the Obstacle Limitation Surfaces (OLS) or path of oncoming airplanes that need to be removed. After I gather all my survey data, I head back to the Goroka operations office and compile my survey reports and work plans for restoration. I do this before we start working on restoring an airstrip and after it has been restored and is ready for a test landing and opening.
I also conduct airstrip inspections as part of our maintenance runs on other operational airstrips throughout the year. Surveys on airstrips are done in compliance with the PNG Civil Aviation Safety Authority Advisory Circular 139-6 and other standards for third level airline operators such as Mission Aviation Fellowship of MAF.

Access for rual communities
I can say that I work for an organisation that has our rural people at heart. Its entire mission, vision and values revolve around providing access for rural communities and improving their livelihoods through the restoration and maintenance of rural airstrips. In the absence of available roads, bridges, wharves or airports, these rural airstrips allow our disadvantaged rural people access to education including the transportation of teachers and teaching materials, health services such as the transport of health workers, doctors, medical equipment and supplies, medicines, vaccination and medical evacuations.
It also allows for government services and administration to be flow in, law and justice and the implementation of rural development projects and programs either by the national or provincial governments, churches, non-governmental organisations or others. Rural airstrips also allow for business opportunities in the export of agricultural produce, cash crops such as coffee, inflow of tourism, the growth of local SMEs and access to markets.
I have been blessed with the privilege of travelling the length and breadth of our country. I have flown on our national flag carrier and the small third level airlines. I have flown in helicopters and have driven from one end of our highland’s highway to the other. I have gone on many district and rural roads. I have travelled via boats and dinghies across seas, rivers and lakes. I have walked for days through mountains, valleys, rainforests, savanna grassland, swamps, crossed traditional rope bridges and trees cut across rivers and ridges. I have even swam across rivers when I had to.

Blisters, hunger and thirst
I have been tired, thirsty and hungry. I have had blisters on my legs, bumps, bruises, cuts and aches throughout my body. I have been burnt by the sun, drenched in the rain, found myself shivering in the cold misty mountains. I have been bitten by mosquitoes, creepy crawlers and other insects.
Sometimes I sit in a small grass hut around a crackling fire trying to keep warm, sometimes I sit under a moonless night staring up into the stars and sometimes I lie in clean sheets after a warm shower and a hot meal in a modern cozy hotel room.
I have placed my life in the hands of God and so many amazing rural Papua New Guineans who serve as local guides.
Yes, at 27 years of age, I can say that I have just about travelled the length and breadth of our beautiful country and experienced our many cultures and traditions.
I have seen the two sides of our country, the best and the worst, our major centers with their luxuries, paved roads, lights, hospitals, well dressed workers, schools and students in uniforms, public transport and many cars going about, housing, running water and tall high-rise buildings. I have also seen the other extreme of our people having absolutely nothing but their family, community, grass huts, gardens and natural environment. I have seen our people fending for themselves and living as they did generations ago with very little signs of services.
Despite the contrasts, the people I meet on my many travels into our very rural centers, communities and villages share the same common traits. They are all welcoming. Some smile openly, some smile with their eyes and in their hearts. They share their stories, their day to day activities, their village and clan make up, history and their land boundaries. They always talk about their struggles, burdens and pain at the lack of very basic services such as health, education and transport.
All cry out for services and any development that will improve their livelihoods. They always express hope that through us and the re-opening of their airstrips, services will again reach them and improve their future and the future of their children.

God’s plans
It reminds me of God’s word in Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future”.
They listen eagerly as we talk to them about recent events, news and stories from Port Moresby and around the country. For most it is a world far-removed from their daily reality. They pay full attention when we speak of the importance of restoring and opening up their rural airstrips to allow much needed service in. We talk about the importance of community participation, ownership, engagement and the use of the airstrip land. In most cases they readily agree to work with us, to provide support and labor.
I have seen tears of joy and hope when the first plane lands on an airstrip we have just restored. Sometimes it’s the first plane to land in an area after a generation. The whole community and the surrounding catchment area are there to witness these events. It’s always a celebration, the joy and emotions of the people are expressed through their singing, dancing and tears.
The old people talk of the days when planes landed multiple times a week on their airstrips. Children dash to and from, between the adults, eyes wide with excitement, chatting at fever pitch in their local languages. For almost all of them, it’s their first time to see a plane up close and personal.
I watch as they curiously reach out with nervous fingers to touch the shiny planes that have come to visit them. They jolt their hands back with a frightful scream at the first sensation of the planes metal against their fingers. They run back and giggle as if it would roar to life and swallow them. As the nerves settle, they get more confident and bolder with their inspection of the plane. Their small faces filled with awe, fascination and wonder as they continue to explore the strange machine that has paid them a visit carrying other people as well.
As I look on their small, innocent faces, sometimes smudged with dirt and full of life, it dawns on me that these children are the future and backbone of our country. They deserve the same opportunities as those in our towns and cities. They have an equal right to education and health and to benefit from our country’s resources and wealth.
I look at them with so much hope, but also with a heavy heart and despair knowing the harsh realities of rural Papua New Guinean. A few will go on to be nation builders, some will die of preventable illnesses and diseases before they reach adulthood due to a lack of medication and health services, while most will fade into history as our forgotten and underprivileged rural folk. In my heart, I say a silent prayer for their future and the future of our beautiful country.
I have seen these emotions and reactions play out at all our airstrips. It’s always the same. Our people are united in the joy of a rural airstrip receiving its first aircraft. They understand the significance of it to their community and the hope it brings of a better tomorrow. I have seen the massive difference an airstrip makes to the lives of our rural people. For many, it is a matter of life and death. It is so critical in times of disasters and during medical emergencies. Medical evacuations at rural airstrips have saved countless lives throughout our country.
I am also deeply troubled in spirit and confused as to why or how our decision makers don’t see the importance of rural airstrips or rural aviation in general. It serves the bulk of our rural population who are currently unconnected by roads or other means of transportation. It is their lifeline.
I strongly believe that rural aviation should be given more prominence as a viable alternative to connecting our people. Sustainable funding support from government is very critical to ensuring that we at RAA are able to continue the good work we do in serving our people. I also think that we should actively partner with NGOs and foundations that serve rural communities.
This would be a win-win for all. I also think that we can work effectively with all the international development partners that are out there to serve our rural people. I don’t know why we don’t have any such arrangements in place at the moment but I see a huge opportunity there.

Funding needed
Our organisation currently needs funding support. I understand that funding for the RAA was removed in 2019 and 2020. I also understand that in 2021 RAA was not provided a lot of funding to do its work. This will effectively result in the death of people in our rural areas. We have had our pays cut and some of our entitlements put off because of these funding issues. While it affects all of us, and is a strain on our families, we continue to turn up to work to serve our people.
The beauty of our land, the strength and warmth of our people, the fear of the unknown, the challenges of rural service delivery and the joy and heartache of our disadvantaged rural majority is stuck with me. It is engraved in my heart and mind and I don’t think I can ever do anything else as meaningful as what I am doing right now for my fellow Papua New Guineans.
I encourage our young people to go rural, there you will find true satisfaction and meaning in life and in your jobs. I am truly blessed and thank God for this opportunity to contribute to my nation’s development through the Rural Airstrips Agency.