Interview by Mandy Glass. Photos by Ricky Poki.
Earlier this year, Ricky Poki, Executive Assistant to our MAF Papua New Guinea Country Director, had the privilege to swap his desk chair for the co-pilot’s seat. For a few days, he could see Papua New Guinea (PNG) from above and observe the day-to-day work done by our pilots and how our MAF planes make a difference in the remote communities. Shortly after, he shared some of his experiences in an interview. While sharing his story, his words were supported by his beaming face really illustrating his joy and excitement.
What made a lasting impression on you having had the chance to go flying again?
Ricky:I think flying the whole week, like day after day, was so exciting for me. It put me through like what the day of a MAF pilot would look like. It gave me a deeper insight to how our MAF pilots operate. And yeah, it was good!
I traveled to a lot of airstrips within that week. On Monday, we traveled to Balimo, Kawito, then Daru, the edge of PNG. The next couple of days we did some Simbai coffee runs. It was good to see and to know that we're helping this community. And I could help the pilot with a thing or two during the turn arounds. So that was good for me as well.
Another day, we flew to Tari and Wanakipa. Wanakipa was one of those airstrips that make your hair stand as it is a one way in. You have this committal point where there's no turning back. I think Simbai is also a one-way strip. But Wanakipa is one of those scary ones. At least for me... Well, I mean, in a way, you're scared, like when it's your first time and you see that airstrip and you know there's just one way in and one way out. You don't know what's there. I mean, in a sense, imagine myself, like, if you don't know, and you’re going there for the first time, - what if something goes wrong? You know, that kind of part is still there because you're only human and you get to be scared. But I think having that sense that God is the protection that you need, provides comfort.
And I mean, you as a pilot have to be confident. You know, you got the training and all that. And that's what I saw in Philipp, how he was just doing all these procedures, like checking the airstrips. It was all a repetitive thing through the whole day. He repeated the same procedures. For me it was important to realise that the training and all that you get with MAF gives you that extra confidence that you need and sets you apart from that normal human, I guess.
PNG has some specific challenges with the airstrips often being just small green patches between the jungles and swamps or on the edge of an island like Daru. Where there other challenges you could observe?
Ricky: I remember we were doing Tari Wanakipa and kept on going back and forth, and the weather itself was changing a lot. Well, I hear people talking about it, but when we took off at Wanakipa, there was one part where it was already raining, but then one part was already dry and it wasn't even like a big area. It was just little areas that the weather was just always changing, you know, especially in the afternoon. So, to see that perspective tells you that it's hard to plan sometimes because you have to be flexible, change your routing and all that. For me, it was good just seeing how pilots do that. It's just an eye opener for me.
Anything else beside the rather non-standard airstrips and the always changing weather en-route?
Ricky: Flying is one thing and navigating another. But as a pilot you also have to communicate and you have to listen to the traffic and all of that. So in a way, it's a lot of multitasking. It's a huge workload. I do salute the pilots, like communicating, navigating, and then, you know, as soon as they land, they're unloading cargo, putting on seats. I mean, I have thought flying was just fun, but it's hard work too.
I was happy to help Philipp. I can only imagine how much workload it is if you’re on your own. And still they are coming home in the afternoon and looking like they haven't been through anything. For me, the first day I came home and I run into my friends they greeted me, “Ricky, go home! You look tired!” ...
So I was wondering, how do they do it? But yeah, I think they get used to it, it helps, they get that workflow going. But they do a lot! I see the MAF pilots and I'm in awe! I have so much respect for them.
You're holding a commercial pilot's license yourself but are flying a desk with MAF and not one of our aircrafts...
Ricky: I'm comfortable now in the office because I know what to do every day and all that. But then the first day getting flying was really challenging, you know, and I'm like, oh, can I do this? I guess during the week and as the days went by, I things got easier. Just getting back into the flying mindset was so good for me.
I hear some confirmation that you still want to go back into the cockpit and one day also be flying for MAF...
Ricky: Oh, yeah, for sure! But I have so much respect for the MAF pilots because of their workload! Like airline pilots, they just come out, somebody does the manifest for them, they just check papers and it looks that there's not much hard work for them to do. Maybe they do a lot. I haven't been in the industry to know. But like just seeing last week, just helping with small things and putting those seats in is really hard work, like it's really hard work. But once you get the hang of it, you learn like a trick or two...
Oh, and Philipp was great! He taught me so much, how to take care of the aircraft. Just little things like that, showing care on pretty much everything that you do from cleaning the aircraft to putting on cargo and just being a good steward. The lessons that I learned with Philipp, I so appreciate. He was a good teacher, and when I needed to be taught, I was taught. I did appreciate all of that. For me it was an incredible one week. I felt like I got a lot out of that.
Flying to various remote communities, taking passengers and cargo in and out, could you sense the need of MAF in those communities or did you feel MAF is only a bush airline similar to PNG Air and AirNiugini only connecting the small places and not the big cities or is there more to it?
Ricky: Well, I personally feel like there is more to it. I'll give you an example. Friday was a public holiday, we flew passengers out to the bush and just seeing those people, like they needed to get there. Just flying around the country, seeing the rugged terrain, there's not a lot of roads. At one stage, me and Philipp flew back home, and as I was looking at those houses scattered in the jungle and I was amazed that people actually live there. I'm like, how do you live there? You know, there're no roads and I see houses? For me, as a Papua New Guinean, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And then I turned around and asked Philipp, “What makes me so special, that I grew up in a family that lives in the city? The way I'm seeing things now and some people here, they may never see what I see. But like, what gives me that right to live that life?” And then Philipp gave me an answer and I believe that answer was just the perfect answer. “You know, it's God's grace.”
I think it's just being thankful for God and because He has given me or put me where I am and I can see all that, then I feel like I'm more encouraged to help in any way that I can, when I am working in the office. Like for me, there was that drive like if I can't do something about it, maybe God put me where I am in the city to come back and help so that someone out in the bush can actually one day see at least a little bit of what I'm seeing. So that was a very eye-opening lesson for me, I guess.
Were you able to find out any reasons why people were traveling with MAF?
Ricky: Yeah, we picked up some kids who were to go back to school; like the two girls from Kawito who were returning to school and they had to get back on that day. It was a challenging situation because of some miscommunication we had already one passenger on the plane, and so now we're trying to decide who needs to get that priority and get out from the bush. And that, I think, is another challenging decision the pilots have to make sometimes. Because you don't have a lot of seats and people want to get out from the bush.
I saw a lot of students going back to school after being in their homes. Seeing how far they travel and all that, like their home is back there and the school is far away. I mean, that's challenging. Like for myself, I would see that as giving them a drive, you know, to work hard at school so that you live a better life in a way.I saw teachers going back to school after their holidays. I saw families. I saw just hardworking people trying to sell coffee and making a living and MAF plays a really important role. I mean, just getting stuff like the necessities, like noodles, oil, this is simple stuff. We took a lot of soap and oil and noodles into Wanakipa from Tari, like a big load. Loading and unloading all that, I didn't worry about like sweating, that was nothing because I’m at least doing something, I'm getting this to a place where they don't have it at the fingertip because they need a plane to take it in. I forgot about all the hard work, it was just like in you go, in you go, and lock it up, and yeah, it was just getting satisfaction, I guess. Like for me personally, I was satisfied.
Ricky will soon wrap up his time as the Executive Assistant to the Country Director with the MAF PNG Program. He will be traveling to the US in hopes of realising his dream to one day fly for MAF.