Recalling a flight in PNG

By Stephen E. DeForest
This item appears on page 24 of the February 2021 issue.

My wife and I flew from Seattle to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in September 2018 for a group tour. Along with offshore islands, PNG comprises the eastern half of New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world. (Greenland is the largest.)

Located just south of the equator and north of Australia, PNG is one of the most culturally diverse countries anywhere. Only 18% of its nearly 9 million people live in urban areas, and at least 850 indigenous languages are spoken there. The date of our tour was timed for the annual Goroka sing-sing, at which over 100 tribes, dressed in colorful costumes, danced and sang. It was a fantastic sensory overload!

The morning after the festival ended, our group was bused to the Goroka airport for a charter flight on an 8-passenger plane operated by Adventist Aviation Services, or AAS. It primarily supports its missionaries throughout PNG but also provides charter flights to help cover costs.

The weather was very cloudy, and no planes were taking off or landing. We waited in AAS’ small office, as they didn’t have a counter in the terminal. After we had sat around for 2½ hours, it was announced that the weather had improved enough that we could take off.

In the materials we had received from the tour operator, we were informed that “The majority of flying in PNG is conducted under visual flight rules.

“The mainland of PNG contains numerous mountain ranges rising up to 14,800 feet. Many flights are conducted in small unpressurized aircraft, making it difficult to fly above these mountains and the towering clouds. Therefore, if you can see where the mountains are and you can’t go over them, you can’t go into cloud!

“Due to PNG’s challenging topographical conditions, the navigational aids that allow aircraft to land in bad weather cannot be used at the vast majority of airports.”

We boarded our aircraft and fastened our seat belts. It taxied to the runway. In the small craft, the pilot then turned to us and said, “Please join me in prayer.” We began our one-hour flight to the Karawari River, and too soon we were in dense clouds.

After about 20 minutes, through a brief break in the clouds, I saw a steep, forested mountainside above and very close to us. I guessed we were flying through a gap in the mountains. Soon we were back in the clouds.

I became concerned and silently asked myself, “What if our intended destination is clouded in, will we return to Goroka? Are there other airfields or landing strips nearby? How much gas do we have?”

I became more and more anxious. In hindsight, I should have just sat back and relaxed, knowing that the pilot had been flying there for a year without instruments.

We were still in the clouds when we began our descent, almost miraculously breaking into the clear before touching down on a dirt strip in the jungle.

We came to a stop at the “terminal,” a crude wooden structure with no desk and no attendant. Off to one side were 20 to 30 naked children and bare-breasted women warily eyeing us.

With a great sense of relief, I picked up my bag and followed our tour leader through the jungle to the Karawari River. But that’s a story for another time.

Seattle, WA