March 11th I flew to West Papua, Indonesia with some friends—a group led by Leks and Linda Santosa from Remote Destinations. We were flying into Asmat country—the swampy coastal area of West Papua famous for head-hunters, ferocious warriors with boar’s tusks through their noses and feathered or furred headdresses. The only way to reach this area is by boat--or by small plane and then boat. I had a tough time packing for this trip. (You may recall my blog posting of March 11, “Packing Light”). The supply list was specific and the weight restrictions strict. Selecting what to bring (mosquito repellent, liquor) vs. what I couldn’t (books, wine…) took the most part of a day. I groused about the weight restriction—“…only 15 Kilos—20 including carry-ons? How can they expect me to do that?”
I was delighted to be going even though Curtis couldn’t (a minor thing called “job” held him back). Remote Destinations had had a difficult time securing a plane to fly us into Asmat Country. The two regularly used planes were out of commission: one with engine trouble; the other had crashed after sliding off the runway. After much haggling, Leks finally hired an airplane to fly us from Timika to the village of Ewer. The night before we left on our trip, Linda sent us this message about the plane chartered through Mimika Air Charter:
“The plane is new and the pilot is from Myanmar...VERY professional. (Freeport Mining Company uses them all the time.) Everything was weighed and written down...6 seats behind the pilot and co-pilot. The flight was on time both ways. And just wait until you see the VIEW over the pristine jungle and the ribbons of rivers flowing into the Arafura Sea. Have your cameras ready!!!!”
The brightly-painted, close to brand new plane had been purchased to facilitate the upcoming--
--elections. Candidates and election officials would be ferried all over West Papua so everyone would have a chance to hear them speak and decide who was best for the job. Election Rally’s in Indonesia are more than a chance to see/learn about/meet a candidate, they are an opportunity to SCORE! Rally attendees are paid in T-shirts, food, and often cash—as much as 50 or 70,000 Rp a day (US $5-7—day’s wages for many). I have a friend whose gardener took election rally week off so he could earn extra money
Prior to boarding our luggage and each passenger was weighed and then loaded onto the plane accordingly. Upon take-off, we joked about how it seemed as though the pilot and co-pilot were leaning forward to help our heavy-in-spite-of-carefully-packing plane obtain lift-of. We laughed and leaned forward with them.
Once airborne, our pilot, Nay May Linn Aung and the co-pilot, welcomed us and handed back a plastic Pringles lid of wrapped candies—our onboard snack. We told him we had been to Myanmar a few months before and we shared some smiles about that. Their smiles were white and wide, friendly—confident.
A month after than trip, on April 14th, after carrying us to Ewer and back safely, that spiffy new plane crashed. According to reports, the plane was overweight, stuffed full of election ballots and maybe too many pounds of passenger. (There was seating for eight total and the plane was carrying 10 or 11, including 2 children.) It went down trying to navigate through the mountains regions of West Papua—crashed into Gergaji Mountain. (We had been warned that the air currents and cloud cover made flying difficult and that it was best to fly in the morning—early as possible.) All passengers and the crew—pilot Lin Aung, and co-pilot, Makmur Susanto—were lost.
According to statements from workers and others as the airport, the pilot and co-pilot knew the plane was overweight, knew it was not the best time, or best conditions, or best plan to fly…. Lin Aung and Makmur Susanto didn’t want to fly. Politicos, or political workers, and their bosses threatened them to make them fly. “Fly or lose your jobs,” they were told
Flying is so easy—“jet here, hop on a plane there, “can’t we fly it’s so much quicker,” to somewhere else—it’s easy to cop a lassez faire attitude and take flying for granted. We stop worrying about the danger. I did. A few weeks before the crash, I was the one asking “What difference can a few extra kilos make?” If allowed, I would have gladly piled more into the plane—both coming and going. The only difference between me and those eager to get flying passengers was clout.
Those passengers, impatient to get back to it played the “do what we say or else” card and won. And so, contrary to their best opinions, to their knowledge of the aircraft, the conditions, the terrain in West Papua, Ni Lin Aung and Co-pilot, Makmur Susanto flew. And the too-heavy plane crashed in the mountains. And everyone on board was lost.
Ni Lin Aung and Makmur Susanto will never again smile and pass back a plastic lid of wrapped candies to passengers or say “get ready for landing.”