Three in one!

Posted: on February 25, 2013

Report by Pilot Matt Painter
Photos courtesy Matt Painter & Godfrey Sim

While doing my daily inspection at Kiunga in the Western Province (WP) of PNG, I received a call from the MAF Operations Manager in Mt Hagen for not one, but three patients needing medical evacuation to the Mt Hagen hospital from the rarely used airstrip at Erave.

Erave in the Southern Highlands Province (SHP) is like a lot of highland communities. Years ago the airstrip was heavily used, but recently it has been a bit forgotten. Many communities have let their airstrips close, since they, like Erave, have been blessed with a road.

Photo courtesy The National newspaper and the Provincial Disaster Committee 11/09/12    

But after two weeks of continuous heavy rain five bridges had been washed away or damaged beyond use on the only road link (below) into the Erave area, cutting off 100,000 people. **

The maintenance of the Erave airstrip had been hanging on by a thread really. They had cut just enough grass to keep it open in recent years. Most landings by MAF aircraft had only been for training purposes to give pilots a bad weather landing option in the notorious Southern Highlands region, where the weather can be particularly nasty.

I was going to fly to Mt Hagen, a 13⁄4 hour flight, to conduct training with other pilots, and I would be in the vicinity of Erave on the way.

So after the medevac call my flight plan was redirected to include Erave where I was able to pick up the three patients and fly them the 30 min flight to Mt. Hagen.

There was a lady, Frieda, with pregnancy complications and her husband Simon. She was probably a high risk case that needed transfer to a hospital BEFORE a real urgent medevac was necessary. Then a lady, Rose, with hand and arm knife wounds, with her guardian, and finally Luke, a man with a smashed knee cap wound from a tribal fight, who was brought to the plane in a wheelbarrow by his guardian, Pastor David.

Having a carer/guardian is important for ‘survival’ in most public hospitals in PNG as they have to provide the ‘care’ when no facilities for food, cooking, washing, or bedding are provided .

p2-mkk_suki_pilot_matt_painter_17sep12_300The GA8 turbo Airvan, P2-MKK donated by MAF Denmark, was a plane well suited for this job. Bigger than a Cessna 206, it carried a stretcher case (above), plus five seated passengers. Its turbocharged engine meant that I wasn’t concerned about the climb-out which is in close proximity to terrain on all sides. So this aircraft was ideal, and the relatively low cost of operating it, compared to our larger aircraft, meant that the cost of such a flight is more manageable for those with limited finances.

In this case, the secretary of the Evangelical Church of PNG Health Services (ECPNGHS) in the SHP, Keith Kedekai, arranged for funding for the charter flight, with some additional local community contribution.

Communities often try to help with the cost of medevacs, but many cannot cope with the real cost of the flight, and MAF’s subsidised rates make all the difference. The church charter rate, which is very cheap thanks to our subsidy system fed by donors from around the world, means that these church health funds can cater for many more patient transfers and medevacs with the small amount of funding they have.

p1180394_gdsim_17sep12_300As we flew into Mt Hagen, Luke, with the knee injury, raised his eyes above the window sill to look out over the mountainous terrain. Years ago, the distance would have meant days and days of walking through dangerous country, dangerous for both terrain-related and possibly tribal-related reasons. Now, as he looked out, there was a road below, offering some means of connection. But the loss of just one bridge meant that once again the Erave people relied on MAF to be their lifeline in a time of need.

Bridge or no bridge, some cases are so urgent that flying is really the only way to get timely help. Nobody wants to drive on pot-holed, bumpy roads for hours when they have a shattered kneecap, or when just getting into a vehicle causes them to wince from their injuries.

When they were all finally settled in the ambulance (bottom left ), they smiled at the news “You are now on the way to hospital.” Pastor David replied, “MAF balus I bin kam olgeta long Kiunga long kisim mipela, taim mipela singaut long redio!- The MAF plane came all the way from Kiunga to pick us up when we called out on the radio.”


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