Suitcase living

Due to our continuing pilot shortage on the Pilatus fleet, I’ve had to pack up my bags and hit the road to cover some of our other bases and leave the comforts of Nabire behind for a couple of months. It’s a situation I’m sure many pilots the world over are used to but it sure doesn’t get any easier; especially when you have to factor in carrying all your flying gear and anything you might need for any upcoming holidays. Still, at least I get to keep flying in the mountains of Papua. Or not…

My life in a suitcase

My first port of call was to our newest Porter base in Merauke in the far south east of Papua. This was a place I’d been to over four years ago when I was a co-pilot on our caravan fleet and I didn’t exactly have many fond memories of the place. The surrounding area is flat. And I mean totally and utterly flat. The highest things around are the trees which sadly are all being slowly burned down to make way for palm plantations or mining sites, but I digress.

If you needs ferry tanks, your destination is probably to far away!

Flying wise things don’t get any better sadly. The contract our Porter is flying in Merauke is an old Merpati Airlines one for which they were using Twin Otters. As you can imagine the seven seat 120kt Porter isn’t exactly the best choice for such routes! Still, needs must, so with ferry tanks attached I prepared my bum for the 2.3 hour legs between Merauke and Ewer.

WWII Marsden matting runway at Ewer, Papua

Still, there are a couple of interesting places, despite the distances between them. Ewer (or Asmat as it’s also known) is an old World War II airstrip which was constructed using Marsden matting. This stuff is a series of interlocking metal plates which provides a smooth and flat surface to land and take-off from. Even in the wet it offers a much better braking action than grass does and is considerably more durable. The fact it’s still in use today some 70 years later is testament to it’s design! 

Manggelum in the jungles of the south Papuan flatlands

Manggelum was probably the most challenging airstrip from a technically point of view and probably only suitable for a Porter due to it’s surface condition. It’s an odd feeling slowing down mid-takeoff run when you plough through a large boggy patch. Thankfully the 500m of length is more than enough for a fully laden Porter.

Yaniruma is not an especially interesting village or airstrip but the area is home to the Korowai people who are most famous for their tree house dwellings. Sadly the nearest one to the airstrip is around an hours trek away, so I didn’t get time to check one out properly but if I’m ever there again I’ll be sure to organise something. The best I could find was a couple of unfinished houses near the airstrip which still looked pretty neat:

Unfinished tree houses of Yaniruma, Papua

The town of Merauke itself does however have one thing in it’s favour. Crocodiles. There’s hundreds of them and because of that there’s a large trade in crocodile leather goods which can be purchased for very reasonable prices. $18 USD for a men’s leather wallet is very reasonable, especially when you can watch them hand crafting it in the tiny workshops out the back of their shops.

Merauke crocodile leather
Leather workshop

Thankfully I didn’t have to stay in Merauke too long and was replaced by a colleague who was equally delighted to be stationed there. My next stop was back to my original base of Timika where I will, in theory, be for the next month or so. I’ve not been flying much here recently due to a dose of the old gastroenteritis but should be back in action next week all being well.

Matt Dearden

Matt Dearden

English born professional pilot, writer, blogger and columnist. Currently flying the Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter in Papua, Indonesia.

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4 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting read as always but I was surprised to read that there is a SHORTAGE of pilots for the Porters. I would have thought that people would have been queuing up for this type of job, especially as it is ‘real’ flying instead of just programming a computer. Perhaps I should renew my licenses !!

    smooth landings

    • Matt Dearden Matt Dearden says:

      You may be surprised but whilst everyone thinks they want to do this for a living, the reality is you have to sacrifice a lot in order to do it and most people know that so keep away. Living and working in Papua imposes daily challenges that make you question why you’re even here. But then you go flying in the mountains and remember why.

      If you’ve got over 1000 hours total time, tailwheel time (ideally PC-6) and reckon you can live/work here fire off a CV to: You never know!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Cannot but helping thinking that this is what flying should be like, REAL flying with the added bonus of the scenery, varied routines and also the challenges. Looking forward to the next reports/videos/photos.

    Now if only I had tailwheel time and if only the licenses had not lapsed…..

    smooth landings

  3. Anonymous says:

    Just saw on youtube the episodes of ‘Worst Place to be a pilot’. I just want to say thank you for helping the papuans. You are really brave flying over dangerous mountains.. ‘Angkat topi’ (take my hat off to you). Be safe & be have a very risky, dangerous, & noble job to help others.

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