MAF’s first base in the Papuan Lowlands was Wasua on the Fly River. C180 VH-BVL with the ‘primitive but adequate’ pilot accommodation of the day. (Mission Aviation Fellowship)
VH-BUX, a Cessna 170B, started life in 1955 as MAF’s first Cessna in PNG, then spent three decades as a tailwheel trainer, and 56 years on is still owned and operated by MAF enthusiasts in Victoria. (Mission Aviation Fellowship)
Now in its 60th year of operations in PNG, former Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilot Ron Watts traces MAF's early history in one of the world's most unforgiving aviation environments.
Early on 7 May 1951, without fanfare an Auster Autocar lifted off from Madang on the New Guinea north coast, and set course inland. At the controls of VH-KAN was a quietly spoken Australian, a veteran of WWII B-24 anti-submarine operations.
Just how demanding is the combination of terrain and weather in that part of the world was driven home emphatically only three months after that first MAF flight, when the Auster and its pilot, Harry Hartwig, failed to return from a day’s flying into the Highlands. The fate of the radio-less aircraft and its pilot might have forever remained a mystery, had not a New Guinean schoolteacher (at a mission outpost near the Asaroka Gap) seen an aircraft that afternoon circling in and out of cloud, before hearing an impact on the mountain. Immediately he dispatched two boys to carry the message to Asaroka, but it would still be another day and a half before the aircraft and the body of its pilot was located, 300 feet below the Gap. Not long before, Harry had written the prophetic comment in a report: “A local knowledge of the weather and topography is essential, and familiarisation flights will be of great value in this respect”.
Ironically, it was the very nature of that New Guinea topography, dotted as it was with isolated mission stations, that brought the fledgling Missionary Aviation Fellowship (as it was originally known) to New Guinea in the first place. Barely three years earlier, a small group of Christian airmen returning to civilian life, had met together at a Bible college in Melbourne to discuss the possibility of employing their wartime military aircrew training to provide an air service to remote area missions. And so Missionary Aviation Fellowship in Australia was incorporated, with John (later Sir John) Nimmo as the founding President. At the outset, it was not even evident which areas most needed the services of such an operation.
In the meantime, and for little other reason than the bargain price, MAF bought its first aircraft, an RAAF surplus Avro Anson. It proved to be a dubious bargain. The Department of Civil Aviation was already questioning the structural integrity of the type’s wooden wing. In view of this, it was finally decided to sell the aircraft, but not before MAF had to foot the bill for a adhesion test on the wing spar. (This was a risky procedure, as well as costly, in that it could have done irreparable damage to the aircraft). A great deal was learned about the pitfalls and costs of aircraft ownership during this period, and MAF’s next purchase was a much more modest Tiger Moth!
Tiger surveys north Crewed by Harry Hartwig and Alex Freind, this aircraft was used in August 1949 to survey most of the northern half of Australia, with a view to determining the most needy areas. Following this, a second survey was carried out in the Territory of New Guinea. A decision was finally reached to commence operations out of Madang, and that the Lutheran Mission, which was to be the major user of the service, would cover the cost of an aircraft and equipment, and that MAF would provide aircrew and engineering support. Several aircraft types were evaluated, including the lumbering radial-engined Noorduyn Norseman, the older DH 84 Dragon, and the recently released Auster Autocar, with a 120 HP Gipsy Major engine. Hopelessly inadequate by today’s standards, back then the Auster was considered a suitable workhorse for the task, being simple and rugged, with reasonable short field performance.
Looking to the USA So the loss of the Auster and MAF’s first pilot on 6 August 1951, after only three months of operation, could have spelt the end of a less determined enterprise. Lacking both financial and human resources, but committed to the original vision of seeing isolated communities transformed through access to safe and reliable air transport, the Board of MAF in Australia turned to the MAF-USA organisation for assistance. This led to a re-survey of the whole island by American MAF pioneer Grady Parrott, including Dutch New Guinea, and the beginning of MAF’s long association with Cessna aircraft. The type 170 was brand new at the time, and deemed a very suitable aircraft to re-establish operations.
VH-AMF arrived at Madang from the US and was assembled in MAF’s hangar, commencing operations in 1952 with ex-USAAF pilot Charlie Mellis at the helm. Things began to move swiftly from that point on, as many mission organisations began to show interest in what MAF were achieving, having seen the capabilities of the hard-working Cessna 170. Plans were put in place to open a new base at Wewak, utilising the Wirui airstrip that had been established by the Japanese a decade earlier. A Piper PA20 Pacer was chosen for this new work, which would serve the Sepik, and across the border to Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea (now Jayapura, West Papua, Indonesia). And so VH-MFA was taken on charge in January 1954, and the base was soon manned by an all-Australian team of Max Flavel and Vic Ambrose. Vic’s wartime service had been as Lancaster captain on Pathfinder missions over Europe, and his ‘call’ to service with MAF was due in part to the untimely death of his wartime buddy, Harry Hartwig.
As the demand for MAF’s services increased, it became imperative that new bases be opened away from the coast, and closer to the areas of need. The first such base was at Banz in the Wahgi Valley. It also was opened with C170s, including the legendary VH-BUX, later to become one of MAF’s key training aircraft, and still today can be seen in Victorian skies, lovingly owned and operated by a syndicate of MAF supporters.
Cessnas Despite the good service being rendered by the type, and despite the fact that a MAF pilot, Ray Jaensch, had once climbed a C170 to the near orbital height of 19,000 feet due stress of weather, and even while their paint was relatively new, MAF began looking for a replacement. It came in the form of its bigger brother, the 230 hp C180. But another event, far away, shocked people around the globe and thrust MAF onto the world stage.
On 8 Jan 1956 beside a remote river in Ecuador, MAF-USA pilot Nate Saint and four other missionaries were mercilessly slaughtered, and Saint’s Piper Pacer hacked to shreds by the Waodani warriors they had been trying for months to befriend. The story of the five martyrs of Ecuador, and its amazing sequel, is told in the books Jungle Pilot and End of the Spear. Across the world people became aware of the contribution MAF was making, not just as a deeply Christian organisation supporting missionary outreach, but also in the areas of community development, medical emergency flying, disaster relief, opening new airstrips, and even enabling government agencies to do their necessary work in areas where no other air service existed. Out of the Ecuador tragedy came much public goodwill toward MAF. And so when the expensive exercise of fleet upgrade faced MAF in the later fifties, it was a Congregational Church in Pasadena, California, that generously financed the purchase of C180 VH-BVJ - the first of the many 180/185 series Cessnas that MAF continued to operate in PNG for the next two decades.
Ideally suited to short and soft field operations with their large 8.00 x 6.00 tyres and tailwheel configuration, not to mention the extra power, the 180s and later 185s soon became a favourite with their crews. Almost anything, it seemed, could be swallowed by a 185. Full-sized tractors were dismantled and carried piece by piece to remote outstations. An entire prefabricated hospital or house could be transported in the same fashion. The lives of expatriate families living and working in great isolation were becoming just that little bit easier, with the regular arrival of mail and provisions from the larger centres. Journeys on foot that once may have taken up to a week were reduced to an hour or so. MAF’s growing fleet of aircraft and network of new airstrips was beginning to become an integral part of the New Guinea scene, as the country gradually moved toward independence in the early seventies.
Contributing in no small way to the expansion of MAF services in New Guinea was a keen and like-minded group of supporters in New Zealand. As early as 1947 a committee had been formed with a view to exploring how a MAF-NZ could best advance the same objectives that were driving the MAF organisations in Australia, the US and the UK. In time, many of MAF’s field staff, both pilots and engineers, would come from across the Tasman. But the first to come, aeronautical engineer Alex Jardine, was to have a profound and lasting influence on the direction of engineering and candidate training.
MAF maint The need for a heavy maintenance and flying training facility in Australia to support the increasing demands of the field was well and truly evident by 1960, and a remarkable (but somewhat complex) sequence of events brought about the establishment of MAF-AIR Services at Ballarat (Vic) Aerodrome in 1961, with Jardine (universally known as ‘AJ’) as first manager. The RAAF had recently vacated the site, leaving five Bellman hangars, numerous huts and several staff houses, some of which MAF now rented from the Ballarat Shire. MAF-AIR continued to serve the maintenance needs of field aircraft – major overhauls, repairs, modifications, repaints, engine and component overhauls – for the next forty years, not to mention the many other aircraft owners and operators from Victoria and beyond who chose to use the fully approved Ballarat workshop. Flying training was carried out using a selection of Cessna aircraft that prepared pilots for New Guinea operations, particularly on the 180 and 185 types.
Meanwhile new airstrips were being opened in many remote parts of New Guinea, often constructed by local labour under the supervision of mission or government personnel. Commonsense dictated that these new strips needed ground inspections before the first landing was carried out. As this was not always possible, a novel approach was tried, using ‘Whittaker Gear’ – tandem mains on a C180, and a type of undercarriage the could handle almost any surface. The experiment worked, and several new strips were opened in this way. The rivers and lakes of the island were also utilised, with several aircraft converted to floatplane or amphibian configuration – later the appropriate registration VH-WET (later P2-WET) was allocated and carried by MAF aircraft for many years!
As the work spread, so new bases were opened – Tari and Mendi in the Southern Highlands, Wapenamanda in Enga Province, Anguganak in the Western Sepik, Wasua and Kawito in the Fly River area, Telefomin far to the west and Mt Hagen in the Western Highlands, later to become MAF’s headquarters in PNG. By this time, the Cessna 206 was beginning to prove itself as a bush aircraft, and with its large double rear doors and obstruction free flat floor, became an attractive type for the operations for which MAF was increasingly renowned. By 1967, and with former RAAF pilot Max Meyers as field leader, MAF had introduced three 206s to its fleet – all turbocharged versions – making a huge difference to the organisation’s capabilities in the Highlands, operating off high altitude airstrips, and needing to climb even higher over mountain ranges and weather. Oxygen equipment began to be fitted as standard.
1967 was also the year that MAF suffered its second fatal accident. On 23 June John Harveson, flying C180 VH-MFG, was attempting to reach Olsobip in poor weather. His route had involved negotiating the notorious Hindenburg Wall (the near-vertical 9,000’ escarpment separating the Highlands from the Papuan Lowlands). His call to Madang Aeradio outlining his difficult situation was the last transmission heard. The aircraft with its three occupants disappeared without trace. The search involving 27 aircraft lasted nearly two weeks, and failed to uncover any clue as to the aircraft’s whereabouts. And so, sadly, yet another “lost without trace” entered into New Guinea aviation lists. It’s unlikely that Harry Hartwig, coaxing his fragile, underpowered Auster over the mountains of New Guinea in 1951 could have foreseen the MAF of today – operating 120 aircraft in 35 countries. But those first sixteen pioneering years had seen steady growth, from such a humble beginning to a sophisticated, multi-base operation, using the latest turbocharged aircraft. Mission Aviation Fellowship – an indispensable and much-loved resource – would continue to play an increasingly important role in the emergence of an independent Papua New Guinea.
CAPTION: VH-BUX, a Cessna 170B, started life in 1955 as MAF’s first Cessna in PNG, then spent three decades as a tailwheel trainer, and 56 years on is still owned and operated by MAF enthusiasts in Victoria. (Mission Aviation Fellowship)
Further reading Unfortunately, the definitive history of the first 40 years of Australian MAF, Balus Bilong Mipela, by Vic Ambrose has long been out of print, but two books currently available are Eyes Turned Skyward by Max Meyers (Mission Aviation Fellowship UK 2009), and Many Adventures Followed by Roger Young – available as a special offer for a limited time free of charge – by visiting the MAF website.