“ The only mode of transport is by sea, but due to high level of piracy, it has affected our people, these flight will open a new chapter for development for Goodenough island.”
By PETER ESILA
THE Vivigani airstrip on Goodenough Island in Milne Bay is one of the best and well-kept in the country.
The 2.2 km sealed runway was built and used during World War II by the Allied forces, only to be left behind and is still good enough for use.
Talair last serviced the airstrip until it ceased operations in Papua New Guinea in 1993.
For the first time after 30 years, thanks to the local Vivigani landowners who have made every effort to clean the airstrip many times over the years, airline company Tropicair will now resume weekly flights into Goodenough Island.
Last Wednesday, on the eve of the country’s 46th Independence anniversary, I accompanied Kiriwina-Goodenough MP Douglas Tomuriesa and Tropicair general manager Matthew Brutnall for the inaugural flight into the legendary airstrip.
Tropicair pilots Captain Patrick Kabaraka and Captain Cameron Baker made sure that the 340km journey from Port Moresby was smooth.
Flying over from the mainland north coast of Milne Bay with a clear sight of Cape Vogel, you could see white strips on the sea, clearly indicating rough seas.
Just last year, about 50 dinghies were lost at seas in the Goodenough Island area. Every day 15 dinghies leave Goodenough for Alotau, mainland Milne Bay or other islands.
The added issue of sea piracy which is now common in the area makes the long sea voyage a lot more dangerous. Sea transportation has always been the only mode for the islanders.
During the flight the wind was so strong, call it a turbulence.
Much help came from the Vivigani locals who set up cones and windsocks making the job much easier for Kabaraka and Baker.
The inaugural flight was a good Independence gift to the 30,000 inhabitants of the island.
“You have a lot of people waiting Douglas,” Brutnall said as the nine-seater Cessna Caravan single engine flew over Vivigani first, as the pilots assessed the runway before landing.
The aircraft finally glides to land after the one hour, 15-minute flight from Jacksons Airport in Port Moresby.
The Vivigani journey began a couple years back. Last year and early this year several promises were made to reopen the airstrip. The adamant locals’ job was to clean the area, cut grasses, remove weeds and clear the runway of any obstacles.
It was until last month, when the conversation started again.
“We knocked on other airlines’ door but they did not make it happen, now Tropicair is with us. We will look after them as they look after us and make certain that this service must continue, it must not stop,” Tomuriesa told the locals who gathered at Vivigani.
“Thank God and the Tropicair management, about a month they called me up and they said Douglas, are you interested in Tropiair serving Vivigani, the Goodenough people? And so I went in for a short meeting and I said we are interested.
“We have seen the result of hard work and patience, and now we see the first plane to land here.”
The Kiriwina-Goodenough District Development Authority made a K150,000 payment to Tropicair to establish the flights. A further K50,000 will be paid to subsidise freight costs.
“Vivigani could be one of the only airstrips that is sealed in PNG, you go to Kiriwina it is not sealed, Misima, Woodlark, I have been to other airstrips in PNG. So thank God that your airstrip is sealed,” Tomuriesa told the people.
“Please look after it and make sure that the aircrafts and the pilots are safe, in that way the plane will come and come,”
“It has taken us a long time for the plane to arrive in Goodenough but sometimes waiting patiently will see results, and so I want to say thank you to the landowners of Vivigani airstrip, this is not the first time you cleaned it, you cleaned it the last time when we made some promises, and things did not happen and then last year, and then this year twice, you cleaned the airstrip.”
“The only mode of transport is by sea, but due to high level of piracy, it has affected our people, these flight will open a new chapter for development for Goodenough island,” Tomuriesa said.
Tomuriesa said the DDA in its meeting would engage Vivigani landowners to put up fencing for the airstrip.
Vivigani area has about 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants.
He also opened an informal market built by authorities and locals at the airstrip area for villages to buy and sell.
We then moved to the Vivigani Primary school about 500 meters away where Tomuriesa officiated at the opening of a double classroom and a teachers’ house all built by timbers made from portable sawmills.
Both buildings cost K100,000.
Goodenough is also big on cocoa, with about 30,000 cocoa tress. A K3 million hydropower station capable of generating 6 megawatts of electricity is also in the books.
The Vivigani flight resumption lands with more opportunities for locals to engage in economic activities.
“In the next months, you will see workers putting power poles on Goodenough island, we will bring electrification to Goodenough and Kiriwina as well,”
“We have the first 200 poles that the Steel Industries are working on and we are going to make certain that all is run across the Island, it is not easy to get money from the Government, but we thank God that the wisdom of the Government they continue to give us something and so when you see power poles, classrooms and airports coming up, please look after them, because money is hard to come, works department are coming, we will make sure that transport is available for PMV services to the airstrip,”
“Vivigani you have the best opportunity for business, make sure you use it wisely, opportunities comes only once in a while, if you don’t, we will wait for another 30 years again for the next plane to come,” he told the people.
Tropicair remains committed to Vivigani like it is with other rural areas of the country.
Brutnall said the 9-seated Cessna Caravan single engine is perfect for remote trips.
He said the flight schedule would include Port Moresby, Tufi in Oro, Vivigani, Esa’ala and Alotau.
“The Vivigani airstrip itself was a WWII airstrip built by the US army and just due to the size and how well built it is, there was no maintenance on it, but it was still kept in good condition with the help of the local Vivigani landowners, they have done a great extensive work to clean it up and put cones and other essential items on the airport that require the plane to land including windsocks for the pilots to tell from which direction the wide is coming from and also cleaning the airstrip,” Brutnall said.
“It is one of the best airstrips in PNG,”
“Just due to PNGs unpredictable weather is a big part of whether we have a smooth flight or not but regardless the aircraft will always be once a week, and generally on time, sometimes when we get to the airport and just like anywhere else, it is raining very hard and your ability to land and the plan moves to either Tufi or Esa’ala or back to Alotau and Moresby,”
He said Tropicair’s commercial routes started in Gulf.
“We only start at Gulf, from Moresby to Gulf and to Kikori, Balimo, and a lot of rural Gulf.”
“Tickets are purchased just like for a normal flight, we only operate on these rural areas, which puts a pressure on Tropicair but otherwise it is non-flight services to other regions.
“We got another aircraft that we position in Rabual and that services some of the rural areas there like Pomio, Rano and also Kandrian and Bialla in West New Britain.”
“We are looking at opening up Nissan, is small island in Bougainville, there was no services in 20 years and very soon we are might be starting services there,”
“Tropicair has quite a large commitment to service some of the rural airstrips that hasn’t been serviced in many decades and hopefully once you have services there, it obviously helps in medivacs where sadly some of these rural areas cannot fly anyone out,”
The Kiriwina-Goodenough MP Hon Douglas Tomuriesa offered flight and cargo subsidies of flights in and out of Vivigani and on that basis and the assistance from landowners to clean up the airport, it makes us viable for us to start flying in and out of there, without the assistance these flights would not have happen at this point in time,”
“But in any of the other areas, we do not have any assistance from the local government,” Brutnall said.