MAF in Timor-Leste: A Perspective
Story Written by: James Benjamin, MAF Australia Board Member
The dawn was still with a pale pink clear sky reflecting off the calm Banda Sea. I was leaving home in Metiaut, Dili on my way to the Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport to experience an intra country air shuttle service recently launched by MAF Timor-Leste. A shuttle service to transport locals to and from or between remote districts, NGO personnel, government officials and business people, holiday makers and freight including coffee beans and other agricultural produce needing timely and gentle transport to the market.
Timor-Leste has lofty mountain ranges and deep valleys that have been carved away over time by heavy rains and subsequent fast running rivers. It is surrounded by warm tropical seas and shares half of its land mass with West Timor which is part of Indonesia.
Entering the new mini boarding lounge I was greeted by MAF pilot Ping, who made me a cup of Timor grown coffee. After ten minutes or so Ping led me to VH MAF, a gleaming and impeccably maintained GA 8 Airvan that was resting just beyond its hangar, prepped and ready for its next mission.
Three of us, including another MAF team ground support member, boarded and strapped ourselves in. I was blessed to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. With several switches being turned and checks being made Ping called out “Clear prop!” and after a couple of starter motor whirls the big six cylinder piston motor came to life with a reassuring cough and burble.
More checks, a pre flight “run up” and Ping praying aloud for a safe day of flying and we were on our way taxiing toward runway 08 before turning east for takeoff. Power on and we were airborne in no time with a crystal clear starboard view of Dili as we headed towards our first port of call, Baucau.
Ascending around 3000 feet over the statue of Jesus (known locally as Cristo Rei) we were greeted by clear skies and velvety green mountain slopes. The Airvan felt motionless as the northern coastline slowly slid aft beneath us with the coastal road and its many cars, trucks and motorbikes appearing smaller and smaller. In no time we had reached and levelled out at our designated altitude of 5000 feet. This was an opportunity for Ping to eventually enjoy his takeaway coffee and a pre warmed sweet pastry.
Shortly we were descending toward Baucau airport which I couldn’t see with my unfamiliar eye until we were almost right over the top of it. We made a quick low altitude pass over the city of Bacau before lining up for finals on the bitumen runway where we alighted and were met by local MAF reps. Ping explained to the MAF reps where he wanted the new shuttle service promotion placards to be positioned. Keeping to a tight schedule, within 10 minutes we were boarded, strapped in and taxiing down the runway before turning back for takeoff.
Airborne and we were pointing cross country and south east towards Viqueque near the south coast. Within minutes puffy white and grey low level clouds were quickly amassing over the steep contours of the mountain ranges and hills enroute.
Ping was surprised how quickly this typical wet season weather was forming so early in the day. Hence the importance of sticking to a tight flight schedule as all MAF flying in Timor-Leste is visual. The roof tops of Viqueque appeared and we circled in for landing on the grass airstrip lined with several incongruent well worn motor cycle tracks. Again, 10 minutes to explain to the local MAF Viqueque reps where to hang the promo placards and we were on our way, blasting along the grassy airstrip dodging the deep rutted motor cycle tracks before lifting effortlessly into the air beneath the now dark grey clouds that looked laden with rain.
Flying at around 3000 feet south westward towards the south coast we could clearly see many little villages surrounded by bright green farmland, crops and meandering river systems that mainly looked brown and dry. The turquoise Timor Sea looked still with small waves turning vivid white as they peaked and broke onto the beach.
Within minutes we were over Same and coming down for finals between the dense forrest of coconut palms and the ultra green grass strip that is mowed regularly due to the high Same rainfall. We touched down and jerkily taxied for a hundred meters or so where we stopped. It seems local people are intrigued by aeroplanes landing and after the engine was stopped they curiously and respectfully gathered around to view proceedings. Our stay on the ground was extended as Ping emphasised in Tetun to the local MAF rep the importance of keeping the airstrip clear of live stock (cattle) for expected MAF arrivals.
Two days prior with a scheduled MAF arrival a number of cattle were still grazing on the strip and the pilot had to perform a “go around” as the cattle were herded off the strip at last minute, causing a time delay and added fuel costs.
Full power with the wind force from the prop flattening the shinny green grass behind us, we bumpily sped away and up waving goodbye to the still curious onlookers. We climbed into the beautiful azure mid morning sky and set course for Suai. We Tracked at 2000 feet along the Suai Highway – a four lane super highway to cater for future Tasi Mane Oil and Gas Project traffic before descending over the impressive looking Xanana Gusmao International Airport (also built for future Tasi Mane Project personnel movements). Touching gently down upon the spectacularly smooth seldom used runway, we taxied to the shiny aluminium and glass clad terminal where we were greeted by a team of friendly and very proud looking uniformed airport staff. Upon our asking they were only too happy to give us a guided tour of this modern but yet to be fully utilised facility with its several boarding lounges with hundreds of comfortable cloth seats clad since new in protective plastic. There was even a VIP lounge!
Climbing into the heated cabin (from the late morning sun) of the GA 8 we were again taxiing for takeoff. Airborne we worked our way through some clouds towards and over the high and mountainous topography of Bobonaro before descending over very picturesque bright green and patterned rice fields that surround the airstrip at Maliana. A gentle landing on the smooth turf and we rolled to a stop. Again we were met by the local MAF team where Ping handed them their MAF Promotional Kit to display around the byways and streets of Maliana.
With no time to spare the big Lycoming engine roared as we were pulled along the airstrip and into the air exiting our last destination before turning slightly right and returning to the MAF Timor Leste Base. We were soon over the coastline of the glittering waters of the Ombai Strait where we tracked east over Liquicá, the new Tibar Shipping Port and descended on finals to touch down on Runway 08 at around 12:30pm where we had begun our adventure earlier that day.
Within a minute or so we were stationary in front of the MAF hangar with the engine switched off and a full morning’s worth of unforgettable memories of spectacular mountain peaks, remote mountain villages, gigantic meandering river systems, tropical bluegreen seas and the enthusiastic MAF support people at the destinations visited.
I love aviation in all its forms and that morning flying with Captain Ping as we circumnavigated this little “Emerald Paradise” just to the north of Australia was one of the best days of my life!
James Benjamin is a Board Member with MAF Australia. James is also currently living and working in Dili Timor Leste for 12 months with the Australian Volunteers Program.