(Note: Click the photos for a larger view of the scenery)
For a guy who pretty much spends his life in airport transit halls, I’ve never been fond of flying. As a kid I was a nervous flier. As an adult I’ve learned to relax on flights where I know the chance of pieces dropping off the plane are relatively slim (ergo Qantas gives me the heebies), although on some of the world’s more dubious airlines (Air Ivoire, Air Burkina, United Airlines) I’ll still crack a sweat. Planes which rock up without even a tail ensigna (thank you Air Mauritania), I’m pretty much up to giving myself the last rites.
So the thought of flying Air Niugini, PNG’s national carrier, as my only way around that particular little slab of paradise, didn’t fill me with glee. In fact, I didn’t have a lot of options. I was stationed in Madang, on the North Coast. It is connected by road to Lae and to Goroka, but not to Port Moresby, where the country’s international airport is situated. In principle you can travel to Moresby by boat. But it’d take you days and days. Most people opt for the one-hour flight.
Air Niugini has, against all the odds, an impeccable safety record. Impeccable in that PNG has some of the most aircraft-unfriendly terrain on the planet. It is effectively a massive range of spiny mountain peaks wrapped in dense jungle, ringed by a thin strip of flattish ground near the coast. During World War II, when aircraft were unpressurized, limiting flying at altitude, PNG was known for its “rock-studded clouds” as huge spires three and four thousand metres high cloaked in tropical mists jutted into aircraft flight-paths. Dozens of airmen and women lost their lives to the unmerciful terrain.
A couple of factors contribute to Air Niugini’s safety record. The first is the terrain itself. It’s so dangerous that to fly it, you really have to know your stuff. Weather can be violently unpredictable, landing strips short. Because everything away from the coast is jagged and steep, there’s no place to put an aircraft down in an emergency- unless you fancy pancaking a struggling jetliner on a 45-degree forested mountainside. If something goes wrong, you’re up the proverbial creek, with neither a paddle nor a parachute.
Air Niugini, while state-owned and run by a Papua New Guinean, also employs the habit of partnering a white Australian in the cockpit alongside every national pilot or copilot flying, the theory being that the Australians know how to fly better. I won’t comment on either the policy or the theory underlying it. However a late friend of mine intimate with PNG flew on an Air Niugini flight some years back where this policy was not observed. Upon landing, the pilots, presumably forgetting protocol, did not use the reverse-thrusters to decellerate the aircraft, but used the hydraulic brakes on the wheels. The hydraulics, unable to cope with the speeding aircraft, promptly burst with a loud bang, and the plane ended up careening down the landing strip and barely avoiding a serious accident. As the aircraft sat ticking over once the crisis was managed, disgruntled Papua New Guineans could be heard muttering to one another in Tok Pisin, “If a white man had been in the cockpit this would never have happened”.*
Stories about Air Niugini’s minor mishaps are rife. Friends of mine were on a flight travelling into Madang that, through pilot error, experienced a sudden violent depressurization at 4,000m, and the plane touched down with blood pouring from everybody’s ears. A few years back, a Fokker F100 ran off the end of the runway in Madang and plopped into the sea. Nobody was hurt, and crew and passengers walked off the plane along the wing back onto dry land. It turns out that the pilot had had to land without any ground support because the staff in the control tower had simply gone out and left it.
Worse perhaps than the safety risks were the delays. Air Niugini’s flights were so notoriously unreliable that if any of us were flying to leave the country on a connecting flight, we would generally book two or three flights earlier out of Madang than necessary (there were generally two flights per day out of Madang), just to ensure that we wouldn’t miss our onward leg. Such events were referred to as “TANG-FU”s- Typical Air Niugini Stuff-Ups. It was an acronym we used frequently, and with heavy bitterness.
Over the twelve months I was stationed in Madang, I spent days and days worth of my time in the tiny airport building- a single room with a grubby lino floor and a few rows of plastic bucket seats. Air Niugini operated two types of aircraft- Fokker F50s and Fokker F100s- the number designating roughly the number of seats on the aircraft. Louver windows opened onto the apron, so that when the planes taxied up to the building, a blast of ear-shredding noise would pound the waiting passengers. On more than one occasion I have spent hours and hours trying to get either myself, or colleagues for whom I was responsible onto one of their aircraft.
The story that in my mind typifies the mind-blowing simplicity of Air Niugini’s mismanagement occurred around July 2008. Several colleagues were due to fly to Port Moresby following a disaster simulation. The flight they were booked on was listed up on the whiteboard (no, of course there was no automated screen) as being an F100, coming in from Wewak and continuing to POM. A total of 100 passengers were booked on the leg to the capital. Only when the plane landed, despite having accepted 100 bookings to Port Moresby, Air Niugini had scheduled an F50 with exactly half the number of necessary seats on it.
In my mind this is a pretty simple set of mathematics, wouldn’t you say? But somehow it outfoxed (routinely) the cerebral giants who managed Air Niugini’s flight schedules.
However the one thing that Air Niugini delivered (for which it really couldn’t take much credit) was the scenery. I’ve noted elsewhere that for all its foibles, PNG is a jawdroppingly, brain-explodingly beautiful country. The jagged mountains that scream “you really shouldn’t be flying over me” are dramatic and awe-inspiring, real heart-of-darkness sort of stuff. Views of the coastline landing in Madang are simply tremendous. Coming in from POM over the Rai Coast, the plane plummets thousands of feet down the face of the Finisterre Mountains, straight out of the pages of Jurassic Park with verdant cliffs dripping with thick foliage.
Even the touchdown (or take-off) in Madang is magnificent. The runway is on the mainland, about four feet above sea-level, jutting out into a pocket of Madang Harbour. Madang itself sits on a series of small inlets and peninsulas, and even spreads out onto the dozen or so little islands plopped in the sea nearby. Outrigger canoes and banana-boats (fibreglass hull outboard motorboats) ply the channels like taxis. The water is azure and palm-trees lean out over the raised reef shoreline. And the aircraft cruises straight down the harbour, views on both sides of the charming waterways and seafronts, until as a passenger you’re sure that the wheels must be churning up a creamy wake in the glass sea.
It’s really quite splendid.
If I never have to fly Air Niugini again as long as I live, I will probably cope with this fact. I do genuinely admire the skill of pilots in PNG- not just those of the small jets and turboprops who do navigate some of the most challenging commercial airspace in the world, but those like the small missionary air companies like MAF whose little single-engined planes are the lifeblood of many remote villages in the hinterlands, and who place their aircraft sans assistance into clearings in jungles or onto steeply-angled landing strips on yawning mountainsides.
And much as I hated it all at the time, flying paradise sure did leave me with some memories. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about the time flying Solomon Airlines that I spent 8 hours in Honiara because somebody put toilet-paper down the toilet, and a passenger disappeared…
*(It’s worth noting briefly that their colonial history has sadly left much of PNG with something of an inferiority complex, whereby many Papua New Guineans will express feeling less adequate than whites. Colleagues would periodically apologize to me for the state of their country with genuine shame, and the impact on the national psyche was quite plain to see. While some whites do still behave as though PNG is still an Australian colony, it’s saddest of all to see nationals upholding this mindset while they struggle to establish a stable national identity and find pride in their country).
All photos except 1 taken on Air Niugini flights between Port Moresby and Madang.
Note: For those readers among you who have your own experiences of Air Niugini and the various TANG-FUs you’ve enjoyed, please feel free to share them below- I’d love to hear about them!