“Too slow! Too slow!” I said to myself, “You’re gonna stall and crash before you reach the biggest airport in Papua! Get some power on this thing now!”
Mountain flying in Papua, Indonesia, is high performance flying. It isn’t high performance because our planes are fast. They aren't. It isn’t because we’re doing aerobatics or stunt show work. We're not. It's high performance because Papua is the deadliest aviation environment in the world. The island claims at least half a dozen planes every year.
The threat is multifaceted and complex. The mountains produce their own weather systems, and they are unpredictable and often violent. The planes are almost always loaded to maximum weight and operated at high altitudes, a dangerous combination. The peaks of the mountains can top out over fourteen thousand feet. However, we don't usually fly that high, landing instead on short runways at six, or seven or even twenty percent grades at six thousand or seven or eight thousand feet above sea level to serve our clients. We have to navigate around and through the mountains, up valleys and down rivers that can fill up with weather and trap an unprepared pilot in minutes. The heat and tropical humidity play havoc with density altitude which is complicated, but basically means that an airplane's ability to climb is degraded due to thin air and can change dramatically from one day to the next. Then there is the trackless jungle. Drop your airplane into that endless canopy of green, and even if you survive the crash it is doubtful that anyone will ever find you. The jungle simply swallows you up. Every year the mission aviators based in Sentani are called out to do search and rescue (SAR) for aircraft lost in the jungle. Some are never found.
Our planes are specially designed and/or modified to operate in this environment, to take off and land at low speeds carrying heavy loads at high altitudes. They’re called STOL airplanes for “Short Takeoff and Landing.” In addition, our pilots are specially trained and our procedures have been carefully developed such that over the last sixty years, our organization has one of the best safety records in the world for what we do. Ultimately we know that our safety is in the hands of God, but we do our best not to test him on it. In the words of an old Civil War soldier, we trust God, but we keep our powder dry.
Just how much I was going to have to depend on God as a mission pilot came vividly to life during my first term in Papua. I was based a little over an hour west of Sentani, a bustling town of about fifteen thousand people that grew up around an airport initially built by Dutch colonists, expanded by the Japanese during World War II, and then taken over by General Douglas MacArthur on his island-hopping campaign against the Empire of the Sun. The airport is huge by Papuan standards, with a ten thousand foot long runway that can host big commercial jets like Boeing 737s, as well as our small planes. Many mission organizations are based there.
I launched one morning in the Helio Courier, a single engine STOL workhorse of an airplane, on a routine run to Maki to drop off supplies for a translator. Maki sits at the end of an incredibly steep, railroad-narrow, and stubby-short canyon that draws to a point on the far end. The Maki airstrip is carved into the side of one of the mountains, just above a river. It’s only about an hour and five minutes from base, but it’s the third scariest place we fly to from Sentani.
Procedure called for a high pass over the airstrip to check for obstructions, backtracking to the open end of the valley, checking the airspeed and altimeter just before entering this box canyon, and then a careful descent down the valley between the ridges. The trick is to get all the numbers right -- airspeed, altitude, and descent rate -- as you fly to the end of the box and land before you run out of room. Do it right and it is a thing of beauty. Get one of those three wrong, especially the airspeed, and end up in the river.
I scanned all three instruments every few seconds as I made the descent and got it right, feeling very satisfied with myself as I touched down. I made the supply drop, picked up a couple of passengers who needed to go to town, and roared away again for Sentani. Nothing to it, I thought. A smug grin spread across my face.
Everything seemed normal on the flight back to Sentani until I got into the pattern to land. Pilots fly the same pattern the world over. It’s essentially one half of a rectangle flown with a constant rate of descent concluding on the ground. Airplanes are designed to be flown at a certain speed in this pattern. The Helio’s initial pattern speed was 80 knots, or about 92 mph.
We were in the pattern and the airspeed indicator showed 80, but something didn’t feel right. I tried to shake it off. C’mon Westlund! What’s the matter with you? Just fly the airplane! I turned on the base leg, and still something wasn’t right. The airspeed indicator showed 80 knots. I had just staked my life on its accuracy two hours ago in that canyon. But the airplane didn’t feel right, the wind noise didn’t sound right, the trees passing beneath us didn’t look right. We were going too slow. Too slow! Forget the airspeed indicator! You’ve got ten thousand feet of runway, not one thousand! Get some more speed on this thing now! Just use what you need and get down!
I did. I got it on the ground and hauled it to a stop, a much longer landing rollout than usual. Then I looked again at the instruments. The airspeed indicator still read 80 knots, frozen in place. If that had happened on the way into Maki, I shuddered.
I unloaded my passengers and cargo and made a report on the problem and went home, thanking God all the way.
Later on, when we inspected the plane, we found that the pitot system was clogged. The pitot system is made up of a small tube mounted on the leading edge of the wing with air lines flowing to the cockpit instruments. The instruments use the difference between the pressure in that system and the static air pressure system to calculate speed. Water had somehow gotten into it and stayed, even though the system had a drain and we covered it at night. After that incident, we equipped the fleet with permanent pitot covers that pivot open only when the plane is moving through air.
One of the reasons that I became a mission pilot is that I like being in situations where I am totally dependent on God. But that day I learned how totally dependent on him I really am. I also learned to keep my pitot system dry!
ü What situations in your life have revealed your dependence on God?
ü What changes have you made in “procedures” in order to minimize risk?
From the upcoming book: PAPUA PILOT by Paul Westlund with Dane Skelton