Day 9: I go flying!

Arriving at the office, I find that a RAAF Caribou has parked outside the door. Not something you see everyday. Then with a roar and a huge puff of white smoke, they are firing up the engines.

Someone has told me that the RAAF comes here to do mountainous terrain training in this area. Since we are already a mile high at Mt Hagen, and with Mt Wilhelm at 14,000 feet just a short distance away, I figure that this is a good place to do this. Hopefully they don't have the learner in the pilot's seat while they hop through these mountain passes with all this cloud hanging about.

To my surprise a hatch in the cockpit pops open and one of the crew sits up above. Maybe that's how they see those mountains. Boy, it must get windy, though.

I guess it's SOP to look out for things on the runway, such as pigs, bits of planes, tree limbs, and visiting IT Linux experts with cameras. So, with a friendly wave the RAAF are off to guard our borders, and I trudge back to our IT room and continue training (which is hitting a real high note when I show how we can run a web server, and everyone has lots of fun building their own home pages). Somehow, however, it just doesn't seem to have the panache of hanging out the cockpit of a Caribou looking for pigs on runways.

Excitement comes in the form of someone telling me there's a spare spot on one of the flights. To ensure my pupils don't skive off while I'm gone, they are going to work on fixing the WiFi antennas on the roof that connect the base with the terminal building (it appears that someone didn't understand that a directional antenna needs to be actually pointed at the other antenna, rather than straight up). I head down to the MAF terminal, and have a look through the cargo area. This contains all the loads that are carried to the remote communities. Sitting outside is the Cessna 206 that is taking a run to Kol, a village a short distance away (at least, by plane).

After a short while, one of the staff gives me a yell and tells me to jump in the front seat. For an instant I think he expects me to fly, but then sanity prevails, and Richard is our pilot (luckily, I had dinner with Richard the night before, and I figure that since I washed the dishes, he has no particular reason to kill me [otherwise he could have just got Anna to poison the meatloaf], so I feel safe with him).

Looking at the interior, I can't believe they call this a 6 seater aircraft. Two dwarves and a midget, maybe. In fact, a pilot tells me they can fit 8 people in. I somehow bend myself through and sit in the copilots seat. A National couple and a baby are the passengers, and they somehow fit into the rear seats. The strange thing is that a lot of the pilots I have met are rather tall men, and I have no idea how they fit into these spaces. It worries me a little, that there doesn't seem to be anywhere that I can put my legs without catching some lever or control or peddle. Richard doesn't seem to be too concerned, however, and eventually I figure out how I can sit without suddenly pushing the rudder pedal or hitting some knob.

So we're off, taxiing down the runway, Richard at the helm (or stick, or wheel, or whatever they call that thing).

At the end of the runway, there's a small flock of kites. No, not the paper ones, but the large, feathered, we-do-lots-of-damage-to-small-airplanes-if-you-hit-us kind of kites. I'm quite amazed that they just lazily take off and fly around us, and I suspect when we stop at the end of the runway, we're actually waiting for the birds to get out of our way before we take off. The photo of the flying one is taken looking straight ahead - you can see the blur of the prop.

In any case, once the pre-takeoff checks are done (and the birds have retired to a safe distance), off we go. Climbing, we look down on the picturesque Kagamuga International Airport terminal building, and then have an excellent view of the MAF base. It was only later when I was showing the photos to Michael that he said, "Oh look, you can see us on the roof". Sure enough, my pupils were actively engaged in the appropriate antenna alignment exercise. What a way to check on them.

So we are flying over the Waghi Valley, with its patchwork quilt of gardens, villages, tea plantations, coffee plantations, surrounded by hills and mountains.

It was about this time I noticed a small cockroach crawl out of the instrument panel and run across the panel, probably to check that Richard was doing the right thing. I commented that even planes can have bugs, just like software. I guess that's OK, because unlike bugs in software, bugs in planes won't crash it. Maybe some entomologist can ID it for me.

We're heading for the Kimil Gap (I think that's what it was called). Pilots like gaps, because they can use them to fly through mountain ranges without having to go over the top. Note, through mountain ranges, not through mountains. The interesting thing about flying through a gap is that sometimes the mountains are actually above you. You certainly get a good view of the trees that are in the gap.

We fly over steep hill country, with dotted clumps of huts, deep ravines, rough tracks, creeks and landslide areas. The small fires are where bush is being cleared for gardens (essentially slash-and-burn agriculture).

Around this time, Richard checks the daily report for the destination airstrip, and discovers that it has a curfew on it after midday for pilots below a certain number of hours (due to potential strong winds), so we abort the trip and head back to Mt Hagen. So after negotiating the Gap, we head back into the green and flat Waghi Valley.

We line up on the approach, and we're down. What fun! Boy, I want to be a pilot, now. Much more interesting than hacking away on computers.

The good news is that they felt I hadn't got the whole experience, because we had to turn back, so I'll get to go again tomorrow, and hopefully land at one of the bush airstrips. Bring it on! Oh, and the antenna alignment exercise was a great success, giving a much better connection to the terminal.

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