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Cheers and tears of joy as floatplane arrives

Story and Photos by Mandy Glass

Hundreds of cheering people greeted P2-WET, MAF’s floatplane, as it touched down at Lake Murray and the Balimo lagoon on its maiden flight into Papua New Guinea.

To have P2-WET finally touching down on PNG waters was a long-awaited day for many people, not only for the two pilots Chad Tilley and Volkher Jacobsen but also those on the ground. Civil engineer Terry Fahey, who has worked with MAF and communities in Western Province to prepare for the floatplane’s arrival, shared the emotions of local families.

“We've had a lot of setbacks and challenges. But seeing the plane come over the cellphone tower in Lake Murray, some tears came to my eyes. And again, as we were pulling in to the MAF Base at Mt Hagen and seeing all the cheering MAF staff waiting, again, the tears started to roll,” Terry said.

“These people have never seen this kind of plane. They have only heard stories from their great grandparents, when the previous MAF P2-WET used to fly on the upper part of the lake.”

The newly arrived floatplane, which previously flew in MAF’s Bangladesh programme, now carries the same registration as the old P2-WET Cessna 185 floatplane that served in PNG until the late 1970-ies.

The success of bringing P2-WET into PNG is a testament to a colossal team effort across various MAF departments and locations, leaving Terry astounded.

“We had groups in Mareeba who were maintaining the aircraft and preparing it specifically for the needs in Papua New Guinea. We had the support departments, both in Europe and in Cairns, who were working on all the manuals and the changes that had to be made to training guides and operations manuals,” he said.

“And people here in the programme who were working to get them all approved through CASA PNG. So you think about the number of people it took just to be able to do the landing.”

The floatplane project has been supported by Sustainable Development Program (SDP) and will bring aerial health patrols to more isolated communities across Western Province. Everywhere Terry went in Western Province, SDP staff were working alongside him helping build all the docks and infrastructure.

“They are a key stakeholder and they put a lot of effort into this whole process, which of course we're very grateful for,” added Terry.

 “As a civil engineer, my background actually was in water surveying, and with a new programme and a floatplane coming in, there is a lot of concern about how that would work. So as one of the ways of minimising risk, we decided to do a water surveying programme.” For Terry, this also meant engaging with local communities at Lake Murray to help them envision a floatplane operation and to help him locate safe landing sites as well as building docking stations. Terry marvelled at how generations could share the joy of a new floatplane serving their region.

“Some of the older folks were saying, we’re really excited - we’ve only been able to share stories with our children and they have no idea what we’re talking about. But today they understand,” he said. “Now we have the opportunity to go back to these communities and now they understand what we're doing so we can talk with them about where they would like to see the docks finally positioned.

“And then we're going to start going to more and more communities. Currently, we have six locations picked, five on Lake Murray and one in Balimo area. And then over the next months and years, we'll be phasing in to likely 24 more locations.”

Fact file: Lake Murray

Lake Murray is the largest lake in Papua New Guinea, located in the Western Province. It spans an area of approximately 647 square miles (1,675 square kilometres) and varies in size seasonally due to rainfall, often expanding significantly during the wet season. The lake is situated in a remote and sparsely populated area of the North Fly, which poses significant challenges for transportation and logistics. There are no major roads connecting the lake to other parts of the country. MAF does serve airstrips in its vicinity, like Lake Murray and Pangoa airstrip at the north of the lake as well as Aimbak and Bosset which are about 50 km away.

The area around Lake Murray has a population of approximately 14,410 people as of the 2011 census but, 13 years on, this number might have crossed the 20,000 mark. This population is spreading across various small villages, many of which are situated on tiny islands and along the coastal areas of the lake.



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