Airlines PNG, which crashed a Twin Otter carrying 13 people including nine Australians near Isurava on the Kokoda track yesterday, had a shocking safety record under its original name Milne Bay Airlines.

It added to those 42 (or more) fatalities with at least two under its current styling, which recently dropped the word ‘of’ from the title.

The same type of aircraft, a twin engined Twin Otter turboprop, was involved in the 2 August crash of an Indonesian Merpati Airlines flight in the mountains of West Papua which killed all 15 people on board.

The prominent place of Twin Otters in air crashes throughout PNG and West Papua is coincidental. There is no other design available with its combination of size and capabilities for short unpaved field operations including higher altitude strips and the accidents in which more than 1300 people have died in at least the last 20 years world wide have everything to do with where and how it is flown rather than its inherent safety.

Twin Otters are very safe until flown into terrain by pilots who lose ‘situational awareness’ or get lost in clouds containing mountains and gorges.

The anger and sorrow which the Kokoda disaster brings involves terrain that is the natural enemy of sophisticated air navigation and precision landing systems, including those that are used by larger jets at tough airstrips like Queenstown in New Zealand, in Tibet, and the hairier ski resort strips in Colorado and the European Alps.

At places like Kokoda they have to rely on judgement. And an element of luck. PNG pilots will talk about sitting out the clouds, playing a waiting game ready to advantage of any thinning or breaks.

There is a reason why they are able to talk about this. They have played the patience game successfully. Those that don’t die.

By comparison with the “village” level strips of PNG, the so called scary approaches to Courchevel, Colorado Springs, Lhasa or La Paz are mundane.

For these reasons it is impossible to imagine operations like Airlines PNG not having any crashes, but what infuriates many PNG expats and nationals is that its third tier carriers have what always comes across as an indifferent, take-it-or-leave it attitude when a flight goes down.

The national flag carrier Air Nuigini, only flies these days to centres where a jet as large as a Fokker F 28 can land on a proper runway with navigational aides and some very strict standard operating procedures about last minute decisions to land or go around.

In the wilder places, this amazing and scary third tier air transport network will inevitably continue to kill those who have no real alternative transport to and from the outside world, including the latter day Australian casualties who came to pay their respects to one of the great heroic chapters in our own history.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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