Thursday, May 29, 2014

A River Runs Round It

What's the value of an airstrip and flight service in PNG? Are they just there to make life easier for the expats?

Last week I got to stay a few nights in the village of one of the translators who currently relies on the helicopter for transportation. There is an airstrip near the village, but it is low-lying and has a river going around 3 sides, so floods regularly, making maintenance a big problem. Due to the softness of the ground, the airstrip has been closed for some time.

The current airstrip
So the community would like to build a new airstrip on a ridge closer to the village.

The site of the new airstrip with some of the trees cleared
The airstrip not only allows the translator to get in and out easier, but provides the area with a valuable service. Without the airstrip teachers and teaching materials for the local elementary school cannot go in and out. Without the airstrip the village is without supplies, other than those either grown in the area or walked in. Without the airstrip there is no way to evacuate medical patients with illnesses beyond the capabilities of the rural aid post. They cannot afford the cost of the helicopter, so there is 'hunger' (to use their word) for a new airstrip.

We set out to walk the new site and see what work would need to be done to turn the bush into a place suitable for an aircraft to land.

The ridge which it is hoped will be the site of the new runway
Unfortunately there are a few challenges ahead for the community as they prepare their new landing area. The first is that the ridge is not straight.

This gully will have to be filled in
At the start of the runway there are two such gullies to fill in - a lot of work for manual labour with just shovels and wheelbarrows to help! But even shovels and wheelbarrows need to come from somewhere and that's where one of our sister organisations can help - we had the Wycliffe Associates' program manager with us, who agreed to fund the supply and transport of the tools.

The second problem facing them is that, whilst the ridge won't suffer from flooding, the ground there is still soft.

Digging down to test to firmness of the sub-soil with the 'pogo stick' in the foreground
Also, not only will they have to finish clearing all the tress from the ridge, they will also need to dig out all the roots. If the roots are left in the ground, over time they'll rot and then that creates a soft area or hole on the airstrip. At best this means work filling in the hole, at worst an accident if an aircraft tyre drops into it on landing or take-off. Removing the roots can mean digging down as deep as a person is tall.

Tree roots around here are no small thing!
 Lastly, the ridge chosen is not quite as long as was hoped. 

This means the airstrip will have to be extended into more bush
And that there is another big gully which needs to be filled in
But there was still plenty of enthusiasm for construction, so the centreline was marked to show the workers where the airstrip will go.

The stick in the foreground had its bark cut to indicate the runway's path
A task of this size could take 10 - 15 years to complete. In the meantime there are plans to repair the existing strip so that flight services can resume, which will be even more work! What a 'hunger' the community must have for flights into their village. 

A meeting (inside the new literacy building) where the local community affirmed their commitment to the new airstrip

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