The Dimanbil people have been excavating a runway with sticks for 39 years with the hope of seeing MAF land in their village.
In September of 2022, Terry Fahey slid his way up and down steep trails that weaved through the mountains of the Saundaun Province. He was following a group of villagers that were guiding him from the remote airstrip at Munbil, on a seven-to-eight-hour hike, through the jungle to a village called Dimanbil.
Terry is a MAF surveyor and engineer working alongside the Rural Airstrip Agency (RAA) in PNG. The RAA is a non-profit agency mandated to maintain airstrips in PNG. This is no small task when the country boasts over 600 airstrips that need looking after with more airstrips opening each year.
“We don’t do 100% of the work. We try to motivate communities to do the work,” said Terry.
The people of Dimanbil have been cutting an airstrip out of the jungle in their village since 1984. The villagers contacted the RAA with the hope of receiving information about what is needed for the runway to be opened.
“We hiked all day up and down the mountains and got to Dimanbil,” said Terry. Upon arriving in the village Terry recalls thinking, “Wow it is going to be a real long time before anyone even considers landing at this place. I don’t like to be the person giving bad news, but I don’t think this is going to be open for a long time.”
Terry gave the villagers a large plan containing extensive work on what needed to be done for the airstrip to be accessible by MAF and other operators.
“The village didn’t have shovels, so they had been using sticks to dig and then loading the dirt on top of mosquito nets with their hands and carrying it like a stretcher just to move the dirt,” said Terry.
It was obvious to Terry that the Dimanbil people were committed to getting the airstrip open considering they had been working on the strip for 39 years with nothing but primitive tools and their bare hands. The amount of work left to get the strip “MAFable” was no small task even if the villagers had access to proper tools.
“Following that first visit, I had been trying to get them wheelbarrows and shovels to help them as they were previously only using sticks to dig and mosquito nets to transport dirt,” said Terry. “My friends and family helped with the purchase of two wheelbarrows, 10 shovels, 20 heavy-duty bags for transport of stones and dirt, and six hoes.”
Getting all the newly purchased supplies shuttled in across rivers and steep mountains was going to be a major task. Fortunately, Terry was able to work with the Strickland Bosavi Foundation who are involved in remote airstrip development and had an aircraft capable of landing on the portion of the runway that was developed.
“We filled the aircraft with the supplies not knowing what the pilot would find because there is no way to contact them. The pilot circled over to see if it looked good to land, if not he would default back to Munbil and drop the supplies there,” said Terry. “The area looked great, and the supplies were delivered! The people were shouting, dancing, and celebrating all that they had achieved in the 4 months since I was last there.”
According to Terry, the next step is for the village to purchase a radio through MAF Technologies so that they can contact MAF about flights and airstrip conditions and then finish the rest of the work outlined in the RAA plan. If the people of Dimanbil stay on pace with their current trajectory the airstrip should soon be ready for a final survey, assessment, and service by MAF aircraft.
When the airstrip is finished and the people of Dimanbil can connect their homes via MAF with the rest of PNG, the future for this community will be brighter than ever before. Right now, the village is cut off from access to supplies and many of the villagers suffer from malaria or other illnesses with no immediate access to medications, health services, building supplies, or education.
“They are just completely isolated. A day in one direction, or a day and a half in another direction on foot gets them to a remote airstrip,” said Terry.
MAF hopes to open the airstrip, in May or June of 2023, so that it can begin to provide help, hope, and healing through its aviation for the isolated people of Dimanbil.