THE CRITICAL LINK

I took the chance to sit with the MAF Engineers over lunch. Most of the men present at the lunch table were already well-seasoned skilled engineers. Each had previously prepared for years, by doing aircraft maintenance training and completing between 20-40 exams to become fully qualified. Although all of them have skills to use a spanner, wrench and riveting tool, their passion goes beyond the scope of fixing an aircraft and making sure it is ready to be released for service. They have made sacrifices to be with MAF because they truly believe in the vision of the organisation and they want to be part of God’s work among the Aboriginal people.

My first conversation was with Jonny Garwood, a recent edition to the MAF Arnhem Land team. Jonny is an aircraft apprentice and was quick to mention that the job requires a lot of reading and studying. As for Jonny, he finds satisfaction in troubleshooting faults and enjoys the opportunity to be part of a team. However the job has its challenges and one is the need to clean up horrid smells from the aircraft such as the results of motion sickness.

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Hangar foreman Rob Hovenden who was listening in on our conversation, was quick to agree that it’s a very humbling experience to be cleaning dirty aircraft. However the sheer satisfaction of finding a defect before it causes problems brings a sense of great worth to his role. For him, being part of MAF is a package deal: One gets to fix aircraft, work with a great bunch of people, and serve God and the people through the ministry of MAF. Chief Pilot in Training Lisa Curran added to this that: “What you engineers do makes us pilots safe.”

Within time most of the engineers had returned to the hangar floor and I was left with Storeman Rod Neil. Although not an engineer, Rod is part of the Engineering team and works very closely alongside the engineers. Rod commented, They don’t take shortcuts, they do their job very professionally and I would feel very comfortable travelling in any aircraft that is maintained by MAF Arnhem Land Engineers”. Rod also mentioned that the engineers will turn their hand to almost anything, whether it be cleaning, fixing vehicles, painting MAF houses, going on homeland outreach trips, or spending time with the local people. His humorous side came through in the conversation when he said that engineers stink like grease and oil and that smell never leaves them, yet they are hard workers and they have a great sense of humour.

The engineering team ensures that the plane has been through its vigorous checks and that any required repairs have been carried out, thus making it safe to fly. The team has to follow a complex set of procedures to keep up with aircraft standards. With the amount of planes that are managed by the engineering team this is not an easy process. Aircraft checks have to be planned weeks in advance in order to work in with the engineering staff availability, and to also provide buffer time for unexpected maintenance issues.

I found the Engineers on the humid and hot hangar floor. David Horton had just finished cleaning up an interesting smell* that was permeating from the storage pod. All the team were involved in doing a ‘check 3’ on MTR, a GA8 Airvan. This is a complex 2-3 day check that involves removing panels, screws, and filters etc to make sure the aircraft is safe and fit for service.

I asked David Lamboa, an engineer from PNG, on what is challenging about being an engineer. David said dealing with the civil aviation rules and keeping up with the constant changes in operational procedures surrounding the aviation industry brings it challenges. Also when time is tight, planes are needed to be flying and faults are taking a long time to fix, it can be very challenging. That challenge can often come in the shape of a call at the end of the week for a plane that needs attention and is stuck out at one of the communities. This means getting together a tool bag and finding a plane and pilot that can take an available engineer to the stranded plane, hoping that the fault can be fixed with ease and not require a night out in the bush or a second return trip with extra parts and tools.

“Without their hard work the planes wouldn’t fly, people and cargo wouldn’t be moved and the Gospel wouldn’t be spread so widely.”

John Hermanus said it is the constant pressure that makes one tired but in the end we are not working for nothing; we are doing this for God. It is important to check and re-check to make sure that things are done right. Sometimes you feel that something is not right and so you check again. Our source of strength comes from God and each day it means praying and asking God for wisdom to make the right decisions and to fix the aircraft properly.

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Moving into the hangar offices one will see the Chief Engineer and Hangar foreman at their desks, filling out countless amounts of paperwork, planning maintenance schedules and so on.

Together they make a team and together they see the MAF Arnhem Land aircraft fit for flight. Their roles are vital; their place in MAF makes the whole big picture vision come together.

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SPANNER IN THE WORKS

The MAF programme in Arnhem Land represents the sum of many parts, and in their own way there are many vital components. The Reservations team co-ordinate the flying schedule, and a team of Admin personnel do the 101 jobs that keep the organisation running. Pilots fly the planes of course, and the Programme Manager and Chief Pilot ensure how they do this. They also keep a watching brief on safety, pilot fatigue and many other facets of what is a demanding job. There is also one group without whom everything will grind to a halt and that is the ENGINEERING TEAM. No matter how efficient the organisation or how well the plane is flown, if maintenance and repairs are not carried out on a regular basis by trained staff, then very soon there would be no planes in the sky.

Not only are the engineers necessary but they are at present a rare breed. There is a serious shortage of engineers in many parts of the MAF world and Arnhem Land has been affected as much as anywhere. It is probably true to say that the workface of MAF programmes are places of pressure one way or another. Right now one of those pressure points is to be found in the hangar where new staff would be a welcome relief.

The job in Arnhem Land is quite large with fourteen aircraft to support. With that many in the fleet there is always something to do and this is not just working on aircraft engines. A MAF engineer has to be a jack of all trades! At various times they can be found welding, spray painting, cleaning and fighting the battle against corrosion! When it comes to aircraft maintenance, it is not just the engine that receives attention from these men but the whole plane. The engineers work on routine maintenance as well as emergency repairs. They are responsible for the engine, the airframe and also the avionics.

The avionics are the electronic heart of the plane that controls the various systems needed to fly the plane. With the changing nature of these there is a need to be up to date with the latest developments, and so obtaining knowledge and new skills is a never ending matter for the engineering crew. In addition there is a need for at least one engineer to be able to attend to the radios carried by each plane. This area has a separate skill-set all of its own and is essential to keeping the planes flying.

The life of an engineer does not always revolve around the hangar either. The hangar at Gove Airport is a good environment having been built around seven years ago. It is airy, light and well designed and equipped for the work. However the planes do not always oblige by breaking down around that area!

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More often than not if a plane does develop a problem it will be out in the field on an airstrip in the Homelands or Community bases. Then it will mean that the engineer will need to pack a tool bag, hop on another plane and go to investigate the problem. At certain times of the year this can even mean an overnight stay as the weather closes in; around the wet season the wise engineer carries a bedroll as well! The job itself can be a simple matter such as replacing a wheel or a part on the aircraft, or it can be a more complex matter getting the aircraft to a functioning state, and then bringing it in to the hangar for a more permanent solution. MAF’s engineers are well versed in this kind of responsive activity, and it is rare for a plane to be grounded for much more than a day with these kinds of problems.

Back at the hangar it is a different story as some repairs can be a much longer matter. Engine replacements, propeller replacements or even tailplane repairs have all been undertaken, and these jobs are not to be rushed for obvious reasons. As well as these complex jobs, many more routine tasks are carried out. Regular maintenance is needed just as with a car, and oil changes etc. are also part of the daily routine. These regular activities form the backbone of the engineers’ work and it was fitting to visit the hangar while a C3 check was being carried out.

The C3 check is a major check which will last three to four days depending upon what is found and what needs doing. Brendan Weeks, who comes from Tasmania, is one of our engineers who was involved in the check. Brendan is a qualified and licensed aircraft maintenance engineer who has been in Arnhem Land around 13 months. It takes around 4 years to gain this qualification so he is a valued and skilled member of the work force in the hangar.

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At the start of the C3, Brendan could be found re-greasing the prop– an unglamorous but highly necessary part of the check. The plane really does a get a top to tail inspection in this check so it was fitting that Brendan was at the front working back! By the time the crew have finished the plane will have undergone the following checks:

  • Engine inspection to ensure no leaks and it is as it should be.
  • Magneto timing.
  • Ignition system including cleaning or replacing spark plugs.
  • Oil and fuel system to ensure there are no leaks and that the lines are clean.
  • The exhaust system for leaks and cracks.
  • The electric alternator and starter.
  • The undercarriage for any defects, tyres etc.
  • The tail is inspected as are all flight control surfaces such as rudder, ailerons etc.
  • The internal cabin area is checked including seats, instruments and the floor. The floor is inspected for cables to ensure correct routing and no wear and tear.
  • Oil and filters are changed.

In all of this the engineers are also looking out for signs of corrosion. In the climate of Arnhem Land with its high humidity, corrosion is a real issue and they have to be on the alert at all times – as they say ‘Rust never sleeps’!

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There are times also when the plane has to leave Arnhem Land and go to Mareeba in the table land above Cairns. Here the engineers will attend to major refurbishment including total re-sprays, major modifications such as the Aspen (Avionics) systems being fitted and anything of a longer term requirement. However on its return the plane will still go through an inspection by the engineers in Gove before they will hand over the plane to a pilot.

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The job is demanding and at times difficult, especially in the heat of the Build-up, but it is a job the engineers do without complaint and a job they do very well indeed. MAF can be very glad that this small group of dedicated workers are carrying out such vital work in the programme.

ALL PIECES PLAY A PART

Each flight carried out by MAF in Arnhem Land is not a one man show as some would think.

The Pilot flies the plane from A to B, but there is a group of other people involved in making each flight possible and successful. Each flight is like a puzzle and it’s only half complete when only the pilots are involved. Other skilled and available people must fill the remaining pieces in the puzzle so it can come together.

Everything begins with a phone call to Reservations….

There is a small team of people located at Gove Airport, who arrange bookings and deal directly with the customers for the flights. They have to work out each individual flight, where it is going, how many seats are needed and the best way to utilise the plane for the day’s operation. They also have to deal with cancellations, date shifts and the many queries as to when a flight is departing or arriving.

Given the number of planes and flights arranged it would be quite impossible for the pilots themselves to handle such a complex schedule as well as fly the planes. Working in with the operations manager, the reservation department ensure that the day’s schedule is as smooth as possible. Michael Butler, Neesha Bailey and Katie Hovenden currently fill this vital role.

Finance ensures the aircraft costs are properly paid for….

Finance plays an important role in any organisation and it’s vital to have people to cover the role who understand money management, and are able to put proper systems in place. When payments for flights are not handled correctly, things turn into chaos and without finances planes simply don’t fly, staff don’t get paid, and fuel and aircraft parts cannot be purchased. Maureen Neil keeps the finances under control by keeping track of each flight payment and by making sure that all cash payments are deposited and accounted for.

The Engineers on the hangar floor ensure the plane is safe to fly….

The engineering team ensures that the plane has been through its vigorous checks and that any required repairs have been carried out, thus making it safe to fly. The team has to follow a complex set of procedures to keep up with aircraft maintenance standards.

With the amount of planes that are managed by the engineering team this is not an easy process. Aircraft checks have to be planned weeks in advance in order to work in with the engineering staff availability, and to also provide buffer time for unexpected maintenance issues.

All the engineers serving with MAF have prepared for years by doing aircraft maintenance training and completing multiple exams. Without their hard work the planes wouldn’t fly, people and cargo wouldn’t be moved, and the Gospel wouldn’t be spread so widely. Josh Todd and his small team of engineers carry out this critical work.

Stores ensure there are available parts for aircraft repairs….

The engineering team relies heavily on the store’s staff. They are responsible for making sure that sufficient aircraft parts are available in storage. These items include screws, nuts, tyres, oil supplies – you name it! As well as maintaining sufficient items for regular services the store’s team makes sure urgent parts are shipped in due time and that the best price is found to keep costs as low as possible for MAF.

Without the store’s team the engineers would not have the correct parts to maintain the planes, which would mean that the planes would be unable to continue to operate. Rod Neil and Matt Preece are the current face of Stores.

The Operations Manager takes all things into consideration before confirming the flight….

This vital job oversees the scheduling for both pilots and planes. The role covers not only flights made but also the need for planned maintenance and ensuring that pilots do not exceed allotted hours in each duty cycle. To do this effectively the operations manager needs a good deal of inside knowledge on systems, regulations, safety standards and also MAF policies. They are also responsible for the good performance of reservations and for ongoing development where needed.

Whilst the position does not include flying, it is infinitely preferable that the position is held by a pilot, and especially one who has flown the programme itself. This allows for the insight and understanding needed to deal with situations as they arise and to know what the pilots are facing every day.

It is a vital role and without it, the programme simply could not run properly. Rachel Goodfellow is the current operations manager for Arnhem Land.

Even after the flight is complete there is a job for Reservations Admin….

The team checks flight information and then translates it into the invoices that are sent to clients. The flights are checked for accuracy of detail and correct charging, and that the paperwork agrees with what has been sent. A smooth operation here means a good turnaround with payments etc.

Flight details must match accurate flight times, fuel consumption, and actual passenger names etc. This information is accurately recorded for each plane and pilot. This is used both for CASA (Civil Aviation Authority) and also internal monitoring to ensure that all is as it should be and the present high standards are maintained. Carol and Katie Hovenden are the ones who make this vital work happen.

And Behind the Scenes….

There are many others, such as the Programme Manager, who manages the entire operation of these roles, the Chief Pilot who monitors the pilots and airstrips, the Assistant Programme manager, as well as the families (wives and children) who are all keeping the work of MAF afloat.

We must not forget those who are praying and communicating the work of MAF and the resourcing groups such as MAF Australia, UK and NZ who are backing the current field staff and finding ways to find people to keep the roles filled.

Every one of these pieces is needed to make the complete jigsaw (to make every flight possible). A piece missing means a part of the jigsaw goes undone and the whole suffers as a result. Arnhem Land staff can be justifiably proud of the way the puzzle fits right now – long may it continue!

ALL PIECES PLAY A PART AND WHEN THEY ARE PUT TOGETHER EACH MAF FLIGHT BECOMES REALITY.

This picture was at the opening day of the new airstrip at Gäwa. MAF was able to fly there for the first time. All pieces of the puzzle were needed to make this flight possible.