The Airplane—New Guinea’s Workhorse
By “Awake!” correspondent in Papua
SAFETY belts are fastened, the plane banks steeply on the approach to the unbelievably tiny airstrip, and soon the wheels touch down on an uneven gravel surface. We taxi to a stop and immediately we are surrounded by painted, befeathered villagers beating drums, waving spears and bows and shouting traditional war cries.
Happily they are our friends, for this is the inauguration of a new airstrip in the eastern highlands of New Guinea. Most of these primitive people are already familiar with the giant bird or balus as they call the plane in their native tongue, but for many this is the first time they have seen one landing.
The skies above New Guinea truly hum with the sound of planes. The growth of air transport since its inception here late in the 1920’s has been phenomenal. By 1968 the number of airstrips on the mainland and the islands comprising the territory had increased to 248. The plane is certainly New Guinea’s workhorse. In one month last year two million pounds of freight were lifted to highland airstrips from one center alone! And here is the opening of one more airstrip.
A Trip on “The Milk Run”
But while the celebrations go on, let’s reflect on the airplane’s role in this mountainous land of jungle and deep gorges. The Douglas DC-3 is quite common here. Without padding or the usual comforts of the modern airliner, they are bare shells, designed to carry a maximum of freight as well as passengers. Canvas and metal seats are ranged along each side of the plane, passengers facing inward where the center floor space is reserved for the goods that will be picked up or dropped off along the route.
The passenger may note at his feet a bamboo basket containing two hens; farther along may lie a fender or mudguard for a truck. Fresh bread, frozen meat, spare parts for a tractor, medical supplies, bundles of newspapers and periodicals, water pipe for some village project, odds and ends of construction material—any or all of these may make up the daily cargo.
Up forward, toward the cockpit, there will be stacks of mailbags. How anxiously these are awaited in the isolated communities where this flying workhorse will touch down! By the door quite likely there are cane baskets of lettuce, carrots, cabbage and tomatoes destined for the coast. A big crate may house a large fat pig—probably part of a bride price for a wedding ceremony.
The passenger load can be almost as varied as the cargo: a native policeman going home on leave, a mechanic with a large box of tools for repair of earth-moving equipment on some new road, a planter and his family returning home after a weekend in town, perhaps a naked pickaninny asleep on his mother’s knee, and some nervous villagers in bark loincloths. Decorated with shells and feathers, and with bows and arrows at their feet, they would be on their way to the coast to trade cowrie shells, the traditional currency of their highland home, for dollars.
The pilot climbs over the freight to the flight deck, the door is locked and with a roar the engines are started. Every rivet, every bolt seems to shiver and shake as the big bird taxis to the runway, the noise magnified in the unlined cabin. Then with a burst of speed and an upward surge all that load is airborne. The natives strain forward against their seat belts, eyes closed, teeth bared, great beads of perspiration on their foreheads. Probably it is their first frightening flight in the giant “bird”!
Discovering the Reason Why
As the plane circles to gain altitude and climbs through the clouds to pass through a gap between towering mountains, one can begin to realize why the plane is such a valuable workhorse in this region. Running the entire length of the mainland area for some 1,500 miles is a massive cordillera, one of the great mountain systems of the world, with peaks attaining 15,000 feet. Crisscrossing the island are great gorges and fertile valleys. Roads are expensive to build and maintain in this rugged terrain. Indeed, in these areas human carriers and donkeys are relied on to get the produce to the nearest airstrip.
Twisting and turning along the valleys, one gets glimpses of grass huts and orderly gardens. Rumbling below tells the passengers that the landing gear has been lowered, and soon the great bird alights on a grassy slope, perhaps the first level stretch to be seen since takeoff. Native laborers, wearing only grass or bark aprons and a few leaves behind, swiftly load and unload cargo. Planters and public servants wait for some long-expected parcel or urgently required spare parts. A jeep may arrive in a cloud of dust, bringing a doctor to pick up his medical supplies and a patient bound for the hospital at Mount Hagen. Yes, the plane here often becomes an aerial ambulance.
Under the watchful eye of government, the air industry here has earned an enviable reputation for safety and service. Though the road network is gradually expanding, so also does the network of airports as new airstrips are completed in outlying areas. In the early days German Junkers used to do most of the air hauling. Later the Bristol aircraft, with its front-end loading, became a familiar sight in these skies, continuing until 1966.
The natives used to think of the planes as huge birds, and would even bring great loads of vegetables to feed it. In fact, a story is told of one native policeman who grew rich by telling the credulous people that the bird would eat only pigs. Today, however, the peoples of the territory value the airplane, not alone as a link with the outside world, but particularly as the workhorse that hauls their loads of produce to market.
A roar of applause brings us back to the present, and the renewal of singing and dancing means that the official ceremony of inauguration of this new airstrip has been concluded. Our little aircraft is again inspected by tribal dignitaries, and the local luluai or chief and his councillors are taken for a short flight.
Finally we board our workhorse and take off for home, just twenty minutes away. People traveling by road will take nearly four hours over rough and sometimes dangerous tracks to reach the same destination. That alone tells volumes about the role of the airplane as New Guinea’s workhorse.