A most tense reception

Monday, September 23, 2013
Vanimo, Sandaun, Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea! Today we were finally going to see what for me was going to be highly anticipated. Of all the countries on the trip, this was surely going to be the most remote. That we were flying ourselves there just increased the adventure. We knew between the two flight legs, exiting Indonesian immigration, entering Papua New Guinea, and filling up the plane that it was going to be a long day.

Johannes had rented a moped to do some sightseeing the previous day so we used that for a couple trips to get our bags from the hotel to Maggie . The runway in Banda doubles as a road, so there were lots of pedestrians and other mopeds cruising on the runway. When a plane approaches or is going to take off, a siren goes off urging the people to the side. It was hilarious cruising on the runway that we'd be using just a half hour later. After takeoff we did a fly over the airport and along the neighboring town. It was fun cruising low, taking pictures, and just having a good time with Maggie over an island in the middle of Indonesia. Who would have ever thought?

Flying low at 7000’ to make sure our car batteries didn’t fry, we soon lost radio contact with any of the approach frequencies. We were able to maintain VMC though so just flew a relatively direct path to Biak, Indonesia, where we’d be able to tackle the exit immigration formalities and perhaps get fuel. We weren’t banking on the avgas, but we were going to try since the last confirmation of avgas in Vanimo, Papua New Guinea was already more than three weeks old . The approach into Biak was smooth and the runway, at more than 3km long, one of the longest of the whole trip. It was definitely a change from Banda Neira, where we took off on the downhill runway to ensure we’d have enough distance.

The customs procedures in Biak were unnecessarily cumbersome. There was way too much paper-pushing and nothing was clearly laid out. If our "handling agent" had just come up with a checklist so we knew what to expect, or provided some coffee or drinks, it would have been a more enjoyable experience. As it turned out, we were all jammed in either the small air-conditioned office or left to melt outside. We had to show our GenDec (General Declaration form which basically is just our personal and plane information showing we’re not carrying passengers or cargo), fill out the new flight plan, fumigate the plane for insects (sham) to appease the quarantine officer, get a myriad of stamps from the immigration offer, and lastly have the customs officer check our plane and belongings . We were tired of waiting for the non-existant customs officer so finally the person in charge of the process said we could leave without completing that step. It was all just so pointless, with extra photocopies being made of various papers and everyone having to put stamps on papers. We were just happy to be back in the plane after a little more than an hour of this bureaucracy.   

There was no avgas in Biak so we knew we’d be on our last gallons upon arrival in Vanimo, Papua New Guinea. We were still flying within safe limits to Vanimo, but once we arrived there we knew that we’d need more avgas to depart. That was it. No avgas, no fly. It was only going to a short, less than two-hour flight along the coast, with an alternate just on the Indonesian side at Jayapura. We’d even heard there was avgas in Jayapura. The only problem with stopping there, and the reason we opted to fly on to Vanimo, was that Jayapura didn’t have immigration. To play by the rules, we’d have to fly back to Biak for another exit stamp, more bureaucracy, and more expense!

The flight was pleasant and cloudless for the first two-thirds . We could see afternoon storm clouds though along the coastline for the last third of the trip. The one approach controller over Jayapura was completely overwhelmed. Planes not coming in to his airport were just ignored. Everyone was just telling the controller they were flying off the airways to avoid the build-up and steer clear of the storms. We had to do the same. This was so difficult for me to wrangle with, given that I’m so used to flying in radar-controlled environments where you cannot stray from the beaten path. In order to fly safely, we didn’t have a better option. After passing over Jayapura and nearing Vanimo, the controller was again too overwhelmed to give us descent instructions. We just couldn’t get through to him, or have him care enough to respond to us. After repeated requests to cancel IFR and just descend on our own through the clouds, we, like others in our group, just had to do it anyway. We’d still be up in the air flying if left to the devices of that one overwhelmed controller .

The descent into Vanimo was fun. We knew where we wanted to go and what we needed to do, so it was perfectly safe and we stayed clear of clouds. It was just nice not to have to listen to the constant banter and frustration of all the pilots on the previous frequency. Vanimo Tower and the regional approach frequencies were just the opposite. There was no activitiy on these stations at all. Nothing. Until, that is, we heard from Hans, the owner of the King Air. He was giving approach instructions to Dietmar and Veronika in their Cessna 210, and gave us a heads-up on where they were. Here was someone from our group (albeit a former controller at Frankfurt Main himself) essentially playing tower controller in Papua New Guinea! He gave us wind information and told us upon taxiing to the apron to remain in the plane and not take pictures. Johannes nailed the landing shortly after the Cessna was done back-taxiing. We’d made it to Papua!

We were the fourth aircraft to arrive . Already taxiing to the ramp we could see the situation was tense. A large crowd of “employees” were gathered near the “terminal” building, and an even larger group of passer-bys was outside the fence. It was too hot to sit in the plane, so we dared to open the door and slip outside. We were again repeatedly reminded by both Hans and seeming the lead official not to move away from the airplane and not to take pictures. This lead official wasn’t pleasant looking as something just wasn’t right in his eyes.

One by one the rest of the planes in our group arrived, and we continued to sit around and attempt to make small talk to decrease the tension. The number of police and military on the field only increased. Finally our passports and GenDecs were taken and fuel orders were relayed. Some of the planes were searched thoroughly for any contraband but fortunately none was found. Patrick, who spoke English very well, was in charge of fuel orders and already told us right away that he only had jet fuel . He would though contact the MAF, the Christian ministries organization, about getting us some of their avgas.

The situation finally calmed once evidence was shown that indeed we had contacted the Papua transportation ministry about our arrival. From our end the group had done everything properly. That the ministry didn’t contact the overwhelmed airport officials wasn’t our doing. After more than a couple hours, the groups that had their planes refueled were allowed to leave. We though continued back and forth discussions with Patrick about getting avgas. Without it, we weren’t going anywhere. Patrick told us he would meet us in the evening at our hotel, so that was our cue to also finally leave the field.

Our hotel left lots to be desired as it was just a glorified hostel. Others in the group weren’t impressed. A few of us decided to go for a swim even if it meant going outside the gated compound . That was quite the new experience. We were escorted out the gate and one of the hotel security officers watched us as we swam. It felt great to be refreshed in the water, but this really was a different world. Just an hour before it seemed like the wrong words or gestures could mean unpleasant escalation and here we were swimming under the oversight of security. Things in Papua were surely different than anywhere else I’d experienced.

Dinner was interesting. Jan gave us a recap and debrief about what to expect the following day and then I went down to see if Patrick was indeed there. He was, along with the scary looking official from the airport. They wanted to collect the fuel and landing fee money. Their paperwork wasn’t well organized and there was lots of back and forth between them and some of the crews. Some folks tried to negotiate but at the end everyone felt they were getting ripped off. Then the representative from quarantine showed up and wanted an additional US$35 for each plane . Now everyone was starting to get more than annoyed. Lastly, a customs official showed up saying that the immigration officers at the airport were not official and that our stamps were invalid. He wanted to see everyone’s passports again and re-stamp them. For some in the group this was the final straw and everyone balked. But sure enough, 15 minutes later the man came back with electronic equipment to scan our passports and re-stamp them. The saving grace that calmed everyone down was that he didn’t want more money, just wanted to put us in the system properly.

Most importantly for us, after repeated calls from Patrick to friends and others, we still had no avgas. There were indeed two barrels at the airport, but they were empty! There was avgas at an airport 150NM east, but we didn’t have the fuel for that. And there was avgas just on the Indonesian side of the border in Jayapura. That was closer, but would still mean a drive and dealing with a border crossing.

Unsure of how the day would unfold tomorrow, we reluctantly realized there was nothing more we could do that night so went to bed.
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