Flying High in Papua New Guinea by Peter Rogers
It is always hard to describe flying in PNG to someone who has never been there and done that. It is exhilarating, demanding, difficult, and sometimes dangerous.
The wreckage of numerous aircraft still littering the country-side bears witness to the last bit. They stay where they are because after the bodies are got out, there generally isn’t too much that’s economically salvageable considering the force of the impact (usually into the side of a nearly vertical ridge), and the sheer (excuse the pun) inaccessibility of the site. Having clawed my way up, together with an engineer, on all fours—using fingernails, toes, elbows and knees through a hundred metres of mud and fallen timber on a nearly perpendicular slope—to what remained of an AS-350 Squirrel, only to find even the standby compass was broken, let alone everything else, I can tell you the country is not very forgiving.
It is demanding and difficult because the weather changes rapidly, sometimes in minutes. The hills and mountains are usually embedded in widespread cloud (not so much cumulo-granitus as cumulo-limestonus, but it still hurts when you hit it), and consistently high-density altitudes (normally International Standard + 25) and humidity. This means that your aircraft is really struggling in an atmosphere effectively thousands of feet higher than that same (pressure) altitude in Australia or New Zealand.
The cloud can be in layers on the same range, making for some interesting trips from coast to highlands and vice versa, and can go from an unlimited ceiling and visibility to towering cumulus topping 15,000 feet in a few hours. And it can get interesting—I was headed for a gap on a day with black clouds all around, and suddenly between me and the gap was a funnel cloud (a tornado that doesn’t touch the ground) reaching halfway down. I had seen a few in the USA, but only on flat, open plains, never in the mountains.
At Mount Hagen early one morning, the strip was covered in a light fog. I thought I’d hover around while I was waiting, and found that the rotor wash was actually dispersing the fog, just as traffic does on a highway, and agricultural operators keep icing fog away from fruit at night.
After ten minutes, I had a big hole around me, and I could see blue sky above. There are ways and means of getting the job done—and the control tower passed on the thanks of a couple of fixed-wing operators who were able to get away shortly afterwards.
With helicopters, available landing pads are challenging. They are often tiny level areas dug into the side of a mountain. At some sites, nearly all cargo in was by sling load, which meant you put the load on the pad, and landed beside it. With a sling load, you were usually committed to a landing from about half a kilometre out. There could be no U-turn flying into a re-entrant at high density altitude with a solid wall in front.
No big deal, once you accepted the aircraft was moving faster than indicated by the airspeed indicator and it felt like a tailwind—another peculiarity of high-density altitude—and there usually wasn’t much actual wind.
On the other hand, the pads could be made from timber cut down to make a hole in the rainforest—which might well be over 200 feet high. As a result, some pads are vertical tunnels, but because there are so many hills, they are more likely to be a timber platform built out on a horrendous slope.
This means that you are balanced on the slippery logs, with only a few centimetres of rotor clearance from the cliff in front, your tail stuck out into space, and surrounded by debris and stumps, in which people are moving and loading/unloading your aircraft, while you mentally will them not to move forward of the cabin (just the opposite you’ve trained for), because they will lose their heads if they do. It’s happened.
If you land in a village, often the only place available, you will almost certainly knock down a grass hut or two, which means that your own head is in danger.
With fixed wing it can get interesting, too. The airstrips that are still serviceable can have as much as a 10-degree slope from threshold to the far end, and up to 5 degrees laterally. They are often wet, muddy and slippery. Because maintenance is often non-existent, they can be overgrown with long grass, which conceals potholes and ruts. Fun!
I’ve always maintained that every hour of flying in PNG is worth three hours in Australia, as far as experience goes.
It is exhilarating because the scenery is breath-takingly spectacular, with deep lush colours of green and blue, dotted with brilliant reds and yellows of flowers and birds. Waterfalls abound, some coming straight out of cliff faces of porous limestone.
In one area of the highlands, a torrent comes out of the side of a mountain in the jungle, pours down a hundred metres, and disappears back into the hillside. The ultimate white-water rafting!
There are razorback ridges that are so narrow at the top that you could not walk along them, with drops of thousands of feet either side, and sinkholes that seem bottomless. Small villages and their nearby gardens dot the countryside with splashes of brown, and smoke rises lazily through the morning mist.
The hamlets in the highlands usually have palisade fences around them, a testament to mistrust of their neighbours. The famous yodelling that you can hear for miles is another indication—if you don’t announce well beforehand that you are coming, people think you are trying to sneak up and attack them.
Another is the fact that there are more than 700 languages in PNG, developed through centuries upon centuries of having little to do with one another. Another reason that it is so exhilarating is that in the Highlands, you are often flying so high that you get mild hypoxia. For most people, one of the symptoms is a sense of euphoria!
When you are involved in a ceremonial event, the costumes, complete with bird of paradise plumes, bark belts, arse grass (leaves stuck down the belt at the back to cover the bottom), nose bones, body ochre, bows and arrows are just breathtaking. The hypnotic chants and the incessant beat of the kundus (drums) leave an indelible impression. Add the heat, the dust, the smell, and the primitive tension and savagery, and it becomes something very special. The country could be a wonderful tourist destination, but careful planning with a tourist operator is recommended to mitigate potential attacks against foreigners.
Obviously, the best way to see this rugged, beautiful country is by helicopter—if you get the chance, do it! •