A Mission with MAF
Not to be confused with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, this organisation’s acronym stands for the Mission Aviation Fellowship, with the New Zealand branch part of a worldwide Christian-run charitable air transport service currently operating 132 aircraft to over 2200 different airstrips in over 30 separate countries. Impressive statistics show a MAF aircraft actually takes off or lands somewhere on the globe every four minutes 24/7, with no other airline having anywhere near the amount of destinations covered!
This should be ringing bells for readers of April’s Aviation News who may recall seeing photographs of Cessna 206, VH-UBV arriving at Ardmore after a ferry flight across the Tasman on behalf of the organisation at the end of last summer. As of last month, VH-UBV has been reregistered ZK-MAF and since flown down to Omaka where the aircraft will be utilised both as a publicity and awareness tool and as an assessment platform for pilot candidates seeking a flying role within the not-for-profit charitable organisation.
A general misconception seems to exist that MAF is purely a religious operation, although their broad mission scope and capabilities actually cover four key aerial services throughout the developing world.
Their primary targets are isolated communities that are cut off from all modern-day amenities, relying instead upon regular aerial contact to help them survive poverty, disease and territorial conflict induced circumstances. For example, indigenous communities in both Arnhem Land and Papua New Guinea depend heavily upon MAF’s humanitarian services whose major airborne cargo and passenger transportation roles replace multiple-day hikes to the nearest facility, be it a hospital, a school or a food store.
In many cases, the provision of frequent freight deliveries by MAF is the only way these communities can develop sustainable futures, with an example mentioned to me of Twin Otters used in the highlands of Papua New Guinea to carry several tons at a time of locally grown coffee beans out to processing facilities at Goroka or Mt Hagen, generating an otherwise unattainable income for the isolated subsistence farming population.
MAF’s second service is providing transport for children from rural settlements to schools in the larger towns, as most of the small villages lack any form of education establishment. This is generally conducted at the beginning and end of each term, with the children living away from their families during the schooling period because no other transport is available. The organisation’s aircraft are also known to ferry teachers on the reserve route from the larger centres out to remote postings, with the use of an airstrip essential to the ability to learn for the communities’ younger generation.
Medevac flying is the third capacity the MAF aircraft can offer, with the greatly reduced flight time to a hospital compared with walking, a life saver for regions inaccessible by road ambulance. Everything from complications during child birth to tribesmen with axe wounds are catered for by the MAF staff, who fly on demand whenever their HF radio network crackles into life requesting emergency assistance. These services are all provided at a heavily subsidised rate with the Christian ethos of caring for those who cannot care for themselves a strong belief, one continued on from the foundation of the operation in 1946.
This idea extends to the stationing of church missionary staff amongst these indigenous communities, and further supply runs to provide them with the provisions and other support equipment that they may require. In reality, their motto, “Flying for Life”, encompasses a whole umbrella of aerial aid that is made possible by a professional and highly devoted team of expatriate western flight crew, engineers and evangelist staff who have relocated themselves to the third world and dedicated their lives to the helping of the less fortunate.
Public charter requests are also accommodated on a lower priority basis, with the greater MAF infrastructure resources allowing for flexible shuffling of the aircraft fleet in order to fly ad-hoc revenue generating services that help financially support the aforementioned flight operations running at an accepted loss.
Back in July, I was invited by MAF New Zealand’s chief pilot, Rev. John Neal, down to Blenheim to sample some overseas mission style flying in the C206 on behalf of Aviation News. As an accredited MAF Flight Assessor, John comes from a bush flying background in eastern Canada, as well as having served with the RNZAF as a Chaplain for some 23 years where, he jokes, he had more flying hours than most of the pilots he met and was actually older than most of the aircraft they flew! He has been associated with MAF since the mid 1960s and now serves as a member of the New Zealand Board.
His primary role these days sees him gauging the suitability of local pilots looking to join the ranks, evaluating both the flying skills and the character traits of those sent to him after they’ve passed a comprehensive initial interview process, including GPSS (Global Pilot Selection System) aptitude and personality testing as well as a psychometric assessment.
Solid basic flying skills is what John looks for, nothing fancy he tells me, just consistent command decision making, accurate placement of the aircraft onto an aim point on each landing area, with a +3, -0 knot tolerance on approach speeds. During the typical three-hour assessment flight he conducts around the Marlborough/Nelson region, John plays the part of a mission client in the right seat, simulating some typical interactions that a MAF pilot may find himself experiencing during real world operations.
On the day of my flight, I was given an abbreviated hour and a half version of this check out. Apart from the odd radio call, the aircraft was all mine whilst John acted as a passenger and threw me various scenarios to analyse my decision making process.
Before getting airborne I had checked the weather to see a gentle north-easter blowing off Cook Strait at ground level with the upper wind reported as a south-westerly dying down from 25 to 15 knots during the early afternoon when we would be aviating. No significant cloud was reported on Woodbourne’s ATIS, and we had a nice high QNH of 1024 with an incoming anticyclone.
After warming the aircraft up, I ran my pre-take-off DVAs with the assistance of the ingenious dash-top switchbox modification that is standard on all MAF aircraft, giving the pilot a green light to confirm that the take-off drills are correctly completed. I lined us up on the 691m long 07 vector with 20° of flap and managed to lift off without even checking back on the yoke due to our relatively low all up weight with only two POB.
Back from max continuous power to 25”/2500rpm, I climbed via the downwind to the maximum altitude of 1500 feet in Omaka’s transit lane under Woodbourne’s CTR, awaiting my first scenario. My passenger told me that we had a few hundred kilos of cargo in the back that he wanted to deliver to his mission station up the Wairau Valley, and mentioned there was a landing strip that he reckoned was suitable for a Cessna. It was my job to navigate the aircraft to this position, locate the site from his minimal description and make the call as to whether it was indeed useable by the 206 with the day’s conditions.
I reduced the power to MAF’s economical cruise of 23”/2400RPM, which gave us 120 knots IAS at 60 litres/hour fuel burn and set about traversing the foothills towards the braided river in the distance to the south west. John had mentioned that many passengers on MAF flights could very well be first time flyers and terrified at this prospect, so every control input should be as docile as possible. This meant maintaining awareness of the wind direction, noting where any lee turbulence was likely to form, and avoiding it if at all possible.
Without giving too much of the lesson secrets away, I thankfully managed to pick out the airstrip about ten minutes later with some further geographic clues before setting course for the second strip of the day. My mission client in the right seat had a general idea of its location in the Awatere Valley, but once again, was a bit hazy on the finer details. For the purpose of the exercise, we also simulated an overcast cloud layer at 3500 feet, which prevented me just being cheeky and zooming up and over the ranges ahead in a straight line.
I initially chose to make a reversal track down the Wairau River with the south-wester behind me, climbing right up to the 3500 feet limit, before crossing the Waihopai Valley and picking a saddle to passage the terrain between The Ned (3000 feet) and Blairich Peak (5000 feet) that was thankfully oriented northeast/southwest parallel with the upper wind flow. I had to be careful to keep my airspeed out of the yellow range on the descent into the Awatere, with conditions ripe for turbulence, yet the large scale of the surrounding mountains had more of a shielding effect, with the valley interior far calmer than what I was expecting.
It was at this point I had to admit to John that I was actually familiar with the grass airstrip he’d been alluding to, having had the good fortune of attending the off-airport flying course with the Marlborough Aero Club a year prior, and coincidentally landing a C172 there for lunch! It was considered a Grade 2 difficulty to get into on the course, with a curved approach, uphill gradient and dogleg bend on the strip itself, made slightly trickier this time without any verbal direction from the mentor I’d had guiding me in last time.
I made the call to overfly the strip at a slower speed, so dropped to around 500 AGL and inched the throttle back. There were several tractors driving along nearby fields, kicking up dust in nice straight lines behind their direction of travel which indicated to me that the surface wind must be pretty stagnant, so I positioned for an approach that would see me landing uphill, albeit in the opposite direction I’d taken off from at Omaka with a chance of a slight tail wind if anything.
The 206 was certainly a little more heavy on the controls than the 172 of my landing attempt the year before, but I’d managed to retain a mental picture of the unusual arrival and, with the help of 40° worth of the big barn door flaps, came in over the fence at 55 knots and plonked the wheels down right where I said I’d wanted them. Keeping the power on deliberately, I taxied at pace up the hill to make the most of the inertia we’d retained, before pulling a U turn, retrimming the aircraft for take-off and running through the DVA box once again.
With 300 horses under the cowl, accelerating on the downhill slope got us airborne even quicker than we had at Omaka, followed by instructions to fly northeast in the direction of Cape Campbell. During this part of the test, if it had been the real deal, we’d be approaching the two and a half hours’ mark where concentration would surely be waning for the left seat candidate. This was expected of course, but the pressure was upped with a simulated mechanical failure (again, I won’t reveal exactly what this was, but it required more command decision making as a result) to see if the pilot’s mental endurance could cope with the continuing workload.
As a consequence, I once again had to search for a landing site, and identified what John confirmed was indeed another private airstrip that he had in mind, running parallel with the coast. We commenced a short approach, although aborted soon after realising it was covered in sheep. It is in MAF’s best interests not to get in the farmers’ bad books if they wish to use the strip in the future!
It was back to Omaka from this point, across Lake Grassmere and Seddon township and through the Taylor Pass for an overhead rejoin. Considering I hadn’t flown a 206 for about 10 months, I was fairly happy with the landings I made off the several circuits back on to runway 07, with the type quietly reaffirming itself as still being my favourite out of all the Cessna singles I’ve flown thus far.
While I only saw a sample on that day of what life as a MAF pilot was like, I was very grateful for the experience and can only imagine how incredibly rewarding it must be for those who make a life flying these sorties for real. I’d like to give a big thanks to John for his time, and MAF NZ CEO Mark Fox for making the aircraft available to us.
As mentioned, MAF NZ is only able to run through voluntary monetary contributions and they are an aviation institution who I believe are well worth supporting.
The organisation keeps a well updated news feed of all of their global activities, along with plenty of interesting accompanying photographs on their official website which can be found at www.maf.org.nz where donations can also be made.
Contact 0800 87 85 88 or email@example.com for more info!
- Report and photograph by Andrew Underwood.
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