I (Michael) had many requests when we were in the U.S. recently to write about flying here and the challenges that surround the operations, decisions and the overall environment of Papua. The flying here is a challenge to say the least.
Flying in the States provides many available emergency Landing Zones (LZs) in case of an aircraft emergency. For a helicopter it could be a crop field or football field or even smaller. Here, there is no such thing. Five miles outside of Wamena, there are no LZs that you can safely land at. Every so often you might have a clearing or a riverbed but these areas are usually laden with rocks and large bushes; better than big trees, though! The terrain looks like something out of Jurassic Park, and I’m not exaggerating. Here’s an example of some of the insect life that is here, at the ‘end of the Earth’ (both pics are the same “bug”):
Helimission has three aircraft here. There are two Bell L4 Long Rangers and one Eurocopter AS-350 Astar. The Bells I have flown for years and feel right at home in. The Astar is a little squirrely at first, but after I acclimated to the rotors traveling in the opposite direction of what I’m used to, it’s not so bad. Of course this means I have to use opposite pedals and cyclic movement while taking off and landing, and oh yeah, during autos, etc… pretty much learning how to fly again. All in all, it’s a great aircraft.
Throughout the day we have big puffy clouds called cumulus nimbus (big rain clouds). This means the atmosphere is fairly unstable. Flying becomes very interesting when we are trying to fly from one point to another and don’t have a lot of extra fuel because the amount of people and equipment on board. Unfortunately, I can’t land at an airport along the way and fuel up. So, there is a lot calculating fuel for weather and weight on the aircraft. Too much fuel you can’t get of the ground; not enough fuel, and you hope you don’t have to go around weather. I have not flown, as of yet, where we did not have to go around weather. Now I see why sometimes we spend the night in the villages.
What makes it possible for Helimission to operate helicopters for missions, especially when they cost so much to operate? I will tell you first, that, everyone in Helimission prays for the mission. The other part of the prayer support comes from the faithful financial and prayer supporters of Helimission partners, mostly individuals in Switzerland (95%).
Helimission has a suggested donation of ¼, ½, ¾, and full fuel cost for those we fly, depending on the purpose of the flight. If you know anything about helicopters you know they are expensive to operate. The aircraft we are flying are $1400-$1600 an hour to fly. On the rare occasion that we do receive payment for full fuel cost, it is not even a third of the total cost per hour. However, the main reason that Helimission is so successful is because this is God’s mission and a man named Ernie Tanner listened and obeyed over 40 years ago.
So why are we here? Our mission is to further the kingdom of God. How does this happen using a helicopter? My family and I believe that every man, woman and child should have the opportunity to know our great and wonderful Creator and Savior. In these parts of the world where there is no other way in, the Bible translated into tribal language gets to villages by helicopter. The missionary is able to get to the village by helicopter and be supported while they are there. Countless lives have been physically saved because of the helicopters here in Papua. Because the jungle is so thick and the terrain is so traverse, it takes a human 10 hours to walk five miles. The helicopter can go the same distance in four minutes.
Just today I flew in a pastor and his co-workers who will be for the first time sharing Jesus with a tribe who has not yet heard. I’ve been told there are at least two new tribes who are ready and waiting for the Gospel, and we are working on getting the Jesus Film to them as well. There are no roads, no real trails even. There would be no way to get the necessary equipment that far in without the helicopter.
I look forward to writing more about my up coming adventures that the Lord will put me on while flying here. My hope and prayer is that He will use this gift of flying for His purpose every flight.