The Story of Pacific Missionary Aviation – The Pacific’s Unique Airline
By Raf Jah
THE HISTORY OF PMA
Far away on the edge of the western Caroline Islands lie the multitudinal Islands of Yap. A self governing state within the Federated States of Micronesia. Yap is divided between Yap Island and every other island which are known as “The outer Islands” . The outer islands include all other isands. Ulithi, Fais, Woleai, Lamotrek and Faalop. The eastern most island of Pikelot is 600 miles east of Yap and is much closer to Weno, the capital of Truk Lagoon than it is to Yap Island.
Yap was a tribal independent nation until it was colonised by the Japanese, who added it to their Micronesian possessions in the early 20th century. During WW2 the Islands were attacked by the US Navy, who took Ulithi and turned it into a resupply base. Yap was bypassed but attacked continuously until the Japanese forces there were rendered impotent. In 1945 the Micronesian Islands were taken into trust by the United States on behalf of the United Nations. The whole of Micronesia was desperately poor as the war had devastated their agricultural abilities. When full Independence came to Micronesia in 1986 , Yap had a tuna canning factory and a garment factory. The only links with the outside world were the passing ships that brought food and consumer goods, taking away the garments and fish and three Air Micronesia flights operated by Continental Airlines. That service continues to this day operated by United Air Micronesia.
After WW2 the Yap Islands were linked to the outer islands by the occasional steamer. When there was a medical emergency on one of the outer islands, and if the local hospital could not cope, the patient was loaded onto the steamer for further treatment in Yap. On to many occasions it was not a patient which arrived in Yap, but a body. Watching this process was a German Evangelical Priest named Edmund Kalau. Kalau had been a Luftwaffe pilot during the war. Afterwards he found God through a chance meeting with a Russian, his former enemy. He came to Yap. In 1954 to serve the Yap Evangelical Church- (Th German mission) .After 20 years of watching the poor transport links of Yap, he decided that his calling could make a positive impact on the people of Yap. He realised that with an aircraft, the former WW2 airfields on the outer Islands could be used to bring the sick to Yap in a timely manner. He sought permission from the government, such as it was, to operate an emergency air ambulance. He was given permission to do so. And so he raised funds to buy an aircraft named an Evangel 4500. He then flew this with a British co-pilot to Micronesia via England and the Middle East. He arrived in Yap in to start his work 1974.
With permission to do medical evacuation flights, Kalau placed his aircraft on standby at the aerodrome in Yap. Pacific Missionary Aviation (PMA) had been born. Very soon the local government invited him to operate a standard flight service. Kalau agreed thinking that it would help pay for his fuel for when he did his evacuation lights.
PMA continued its single aircraft operation until demand increased. The Evangel was eventually retired and Kalau went to the United States to raise money for a new aircraft. Kalau had one unique problem. In spite of the fact that he was making some money for his charity, he had no real money. So when he got to the United states, he had to start canvassing for funds. This was done by giving lectures in churches around America. In one case a man gave him a cheque for $10,000. Soon enough he had enough money to buy a Beechcraft queen air. This then became the workhorse of his fleet. As Kalau grew older fate shined on PMA. He had managed minor expansions into the Philippines and Pohnopei. It was the Pohnopei operation which was to prove to be the boost to PMA that would ensure its future. As the new airport was being built at Kosrae three hundred miles away, there was a massive demand for flights of workers into the new field. Using the old WW2 era field the PMA pilot was able to operate four return flights a day. Indeed his last flight was so late that he would sleep in Pohnopei and Kosrae on alternate nights. The amount of money that this generated allowed PMA to increase its fleet. By the time the Kosrae contract was finished in 1984, the airline had increased its revenue and reserves. Operations continued in Pohnopei until raised rents made it harder for PMA to continue operations. As costs rose in Pohnopei, the airline decided to close their operations there and move to Yap. This coincided with the expansion of air services in Yap and Palau. PMA sent the 206 Aircraft to the Philippines to conduct medical and missionary work and moved the rest of the aircraft to Yap. In 2017 PMA’s fleet boasted 2 Britten Norman Islanders, a pair of Cessna 206‘s and two Beechcraft Queen Airs.
PMA now concentrated on its Yapese inter island business of transporting people and medical patients. This did not interfere with their principles as they state that providing an air service to people’s in remote places was a service they wished to perform.
The issue of medical service was however to become far more important. The furthest airstrip served by PMA within Yap state was the island of Woleai. This WW2 era air strip had become potholed and had issues. PMA then decided to stop flying to Woleai until the government serviced the runway. The local authorities in Woleai asked the central government in Yap to do the work. Delays took place and neither did it. This then rendered the runway at Woleai unusable. This in turn finished the air service to the east, medical evacuations dropped dramatically as people who used to bring their sick to Woleai by “bumboat” were no longer able to do so. They now had to rely on the government freighter that came round every 6 to 8 weeks. As Amos Collins, the chief pilot and flight director in Yap stated:
“After Woleai closed our medevacs dropped dramatically as woleai was the hub for 5 islands. Including: Lamotrek Euripick Ifalu.”
PMA CURRENT OPERATIONS
PMA flies all of Yap State’s remaining domestic air services and medical evacuation services, which may be from an outer island to Yap or onwards to the better medical care of Palau. Due to financial reasons, PMA is not able to fly commercially to the US Island of Guam.
The airline also provides Palau with Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Government of Palau identified a real need for a maritime patrol aircraft in the southern islands of the State of Palau. At first hiring a high flying aircraft with radar, they settled on the PMA conducted patrols. This was due to the PMA Pilots ability to fly low and in front of the patrol boat. They would search a grid and visually identify illegal fishing vessels. They would inform the patrol boat using VHF radio and the previous reporting of infractions turned into actual interceptions and arrest. The revenue generated from this seasonal operation goes into the pot to provide the free evacuations, and maintain the aircraft
In 2012 the governor of Angar Province in Palau asked for a air service to the main airport. PMA rose to the challenge and placed an islander in Palau to start with but reassigned a Cessna 206 to this role. This provided more cost effective tickets for the local people. In addition the airline needed a base in Palau and had to somehow pay for this. One of the ways to do this was scenic flights for tourists.
“our main role is to help the people of Micronesia by providing an air service and medical evacuation, but to do that we have to have money. While I am not so keen on them, those scenic flights sustain our ability to provide that help to the people”
“The Palau operation also helps us with our training needs”
Collins goes on to explain that Yap is the most challenging flying operation for the airline. They need to fly hundreds of miles overwater, using VFR rules, which often means flying under the weather and low over the sea. Then the aircraft needs to get back to Yap and land.
“There is no divert airport, if there is cloud, the pilot must come in low around the island looking for our marks. When he finds one, he follows the sequence of marks in to the runway. Sometimes, when the visibility is too bad in the sequence, I have to go out to sea and start again. We require 1200 hours flying time to work for us us Yap. And at least 200 hours multi engine. This is for safety reasons. This is no place for a newly qualified pilot, and most pilots with 1200 hours could get a job flying the right hand seat of an airbus, so finding experienced pilots who want to work in Yap is a challenge”
“The goal therefore is to get our own pilots trained in house, The Palau market for scenic flights allows us to bring in pilots with 500 hours. They build their hours flying in Palau. Then the surveillance operation allows me to put multi rated pilots into the left hand seat for the eight hour flight and they can increase their pilot in command hours. All of this revenue also supports our Philippine branch which is only medical and missionary work. It has no revenue at all.
What makes PMA unique, is that all the pilots are mechanic / pilots. They fly three days a week and do maintenance 3 days a week. The Pilots are also missionaries who must subscribe to the core principles of PMA in order to gain employment.
This is not an onerous document, and many protestants would have no problem with the ethos of PMA. But this simple policy lowers the pool of available pilots. All other staff members can be of any religion. Upon the author’s visit, he found all the pilots to be down to earth people who flew in the week and went to church on Sunday.
The salt air is the second challenge facing PMA, turboprops do not fare well in the extreme salt of the islands. There is too much salt in the air. After every flight the pilots wipe the propeller blades down with oil.
“We do a lot of Low flying” explains Collins “and that means having durable and reliable engines. We used to use geared 4 cylinder engines, but now use the upgraded Lycoming Injected 6 cylinder 720 cu inch upgrades. These engines last as long as they are supposed to. Our experience with turboprops is that they do not make their cycle of hours. In addition, we have a spare engine for the two queen airs at all times on the shelf.
Money is also an issue, the goal of PMA is to keep the cost of flying down as much as possible for the local people of Micronesia. Tourists pay $100 to fly to the Ulithi Atoll, and the locals pay $80. Medical evacuations for Micronesians have been free, 24 hours a day 365 days a year since day one. The pilots are also unpaid. They have to raise funds with their own supporters through their local churches to pay for their tickets to Yap and their monthly stipend. (Salaries). While this system may seem slightly onerous, it allows all revenue that PMA generates, to go back into building the airline and providing the free flights for emergencies. There must be something about the allure of working on a remote island, as Collins goes on to say:
“I have been here for 12 years and I have no plans to leave. I get 4 weeks holiday a year, which I spend in the US or Australia to see my wife’s family. Life is not always easy, but we are making a real difference here”
THE FUTURE FOR PMA
Sadly the past has become the future in PMA. The Government of Yap State has been remiss in their duties, and allowed not only the airfields to fall into disrepair, but to add to issues, the “new” freighter has developed an engine fault. Rather than fix the problem, the freighter sits in Colonia harbour rusting at the wharf. Their own people, the people of the outer Islands are now cut off from Yap completely. Once every year, the national freighter from Pohnopei visits the outer islands and brings people to Yap. Once again, it does not bring casualties to hospital but the news of the dead. There is no postal service to the outer islands, no medical evacuation and no form of supply apart from a yearly service.
The outer islands of Yap now regularly run out of medical supplies and people die. In desperation, the hospital in Yap asked PMA for a solution. Theirs was simple. They removed the rear cargo door on the Queen Air, created a hatch cover for the hole and developed a system of parachuting boxes onto the tarmac at Yap using hospital bed sheets. They then flew to Woleai and made a low pass over the beach and dropped the medical supplies. This has now become a regular feature.
“the greatest challenge is always the low hanging palm trees, so we have to fly close to the beach, but not always over it. I give the other guy the signal and he pushes the parachute out the back. We make the box absolutely waterproof in case it ends up in the sea”.
PMA is a dynamic organisation with an impressive fleet of aircraft. While it mays stem from religious origins, it is a viable airline in a remote area, which is growing.
There are questions that must be addressed by Yap State Government vis a vis their own infrastructure but in the meantime, PMA is operating under difficult circumstances where no one else cares to do so.
The Rev Kalau’s dream of unconditionally helping the people of the Micronesia has succeeded, perhaps a little more than he could have dreamed of.
YAP KNOW AND GO:
If you would like to fly on a PMA flight, you can get to YAP from Guam or Palau on United Airlines, or Caroline Island Air. The people to ask are The African and Oriental Travel Company , who offer very competitive packages to Yap, with accommodation in the Manta Ray Bay Hotel, and Scuba Diving if required. If you wish to fly with PMA to Ulithi or charter an aircraft then you can email Capt Amos Collins at Yap and book. If you wish to donate to PMA to help keep the service going, please also contact Capt Collins.