For pilots in Timor-Leste who fly two GA8 Airvans, their passengers are often medevac patients. Transporting seriously ill or injured local Timorese people who live in remote places of the country, where air transportation is needed to help them reach the National Hospital in Dili, where their chances of survival is significantly greater, than in rural clinics. For these pilots, this is a “normal” day in the office for them, pregnant women, accident victims and people suffering the effects of a stroke, are their “frequent flyers.”
The MAF aircraft are also available for charters by other groups and are often chartered by aid organisations and the Timorese government to assist them in their work. Transportation by road in Timor-Leste can be a time consuming and often dangerous activity, with mountainous roads being effected by landslips. Travelling by air is quicker and also safer than road travel.
The 20th of June was an unusual day for the MAF Timor-Leste pilots. Due to the ceremonial opening of the new airstrip in Suai, on the southern coast of Timor-Leste, a number of bookings had been made for the MAF aircraft. Jason Job, pilot, had an early start to the day as he flew to Maliana in VH-MQO, a town south west of Dili. His passenger was Bishop Don Norberto do Amaral, the Bishop of the Maliana region and several members of his staff. A little while later, Pilot Jonathan Lowe, was airborne in the second aircraft, VH-MTX heading for Suai. His passengers included Dr. Rui Maria de Araújo, the current Prime Minister of Timor-Leste and several other government officials.
The new airport in Suai has been under construction for several years and includes a new sealed runway, a terminal building, control tower, hangar facilities for five large helicopters and fire fighting facilities.Throughout the redevelopment of the new airport, the officials have ensured that at least part of the runway has been useable at all times for medevac purposes. This meant that the workmen worked on half the airstrip at a time, to allow enough width and length for the MAF aircraft to land and take off when emergency medical evacuation flights were needed. A simple phone call to airport management would ensure that all bulldozers and other machinery were off the landing strip, before the plane arrived. On average, MAF aircraft fly into Suai airport, seven times each month.
The celebration for the official opening of the new airport was very elaborate, with Timor-Leste’s newly elected President, Francisco Guterres, and many other government ministers and local officials in attendance. The airport has been named Xanana Gusmao International Airport, after Xanana Gusmao, former President and Prime Minister of Timor-Leste.
Pilot Jason Job, joined the crowds of people, in celebration, while he waited for his passengers to be ready to return to Maliana. He found himself being escorted to the front of one of the lines of people waiting to access the tables of banquet style food that surrounded the area. Feeling embarrassed to be singled out, his face must have shown his reluctance, but a comment from an unknown voice in the crowd boosted his confidence. “Don’t worry about it,” the unknown voice called out, “you help save lives every year…” The recognition of MAF and their role in helping people reach medical services was encouraging in that moment of feeling on the spot in a crowd of important guests.
Meanwhile, in Dili, Jonathan Lowe was in fact completing a medevac flight. Jonathan had been scheduled to fly another group of people to Suai for the opening ceremony, when a medevac flight was required from nearby Atauro island. He delayed this charter flight, completing the fifteen minute flight to Atauro, where he transported a young man to Dili for greater hospital care at the National Hospital. After this he was able to continue to complete his schedule flights for the day, which included flying the Prime Minister back to Dili, then returning to Suai to collect another group of guests.
This was not an average day of flying in Timor-Leste, but the 20th of June was one that stands out in our memory. Our MAF staff do serve the poor, the ill and isolated by providing a safe and quicker method of transportation to help them reach the National Hospital when they need it. These flights do help to save many lives each year. But MAF’s role in Timor-Leste also often includes transporting government officials, ambassadors and even the leaders of the nations. And sometimes, like on the 20th of June, they do both in one day!