First Landing at Sopu After 30 years
The people of Sopu in the Goilala district of central province are celebrating the re-opening of their airstrip after 30 years of isolation.
Last Wednesday, Aug 2, Fixed-Wing Chief Pilot of SIL Aviation, Jonathan Aederwitz, landed a small Cesna much to the jubilation and excitement of the local community who had gathered to watch the event.
The Sopu airstrip is 6,000 feet above sea level in the Owen Stanley Mountain range. It is 535 meters (1,750 ft) long and has an average slope of 11%.
It has not seen an aeroplane land in thirty years as it has been closed.
In mid 2016, the local Goilala MP Hon William Samb and his government partnered with the Rural Airstrip Agency to re-open several airstrips in his electorate. This included Ononge, Woitape, Yongai, Fane, Guari and Sopu.
Work on Sopu started in February this year. An initial drone survey was done on the day that the two men crew moved in. Work included cutting of the elephant grass, digging of drains, smoothing out undulating surfaces and widening the airstrip by cutting into the slope. A windsock pole and cone markers were also installed.
The community was very involved in the project, providing constant support to the crew.
Mr Aederwitz was estactic to be part of the occasion.
“On Wednesday I had the privilege of making the first landing to re-open Sopu airstrip in Central Province, Papua New Guinea. Sopu serves the Tauade language group and has been closed for 30 years. This past year, the Rural Airstrip Authority of PNG has been working with the local community to fix up the airstrip so that it could be opened again.
Sopu is 6,000 feet above sea level in the Owen Stanley Mountain range. As you look down the runway it looks like a ski jump because it starts down at 16% slope and “levels off” to about 1% slope at the bottom.” He said.
RAA CEO John Bromley commended the RAA team and the Sopu community on the successful completion of work to re-open the airstrip and the test landing. He also thanked SIL for its contribution.
Mr Bromley said the involvement of the local MP William Samb has meant that more communities in Goilala are enjoying the services of a maintained airstrip again.
Rural airstrips are a significant transport linkage for rural communities and island communities in PNG. There are around 650 rural airstrips in PNG, according to PNG Airstrip Guide 2013. However ninety (90) percent of these airstrips are currently closed and others that are open are maintained by agencies such as RAA and private operators and the missions and the churches.
While the responsibility of rural airstrips lies with the Provincial Government, DDAs, LLGs and respected Open members, only few Provinces have taken up initiative to maintain the airstrips. It is an important challenge for RAA to maintain and increase dialogue with all these levels of Government to financially support the implementation of the airstrip maintenance or restoration programs in their Province, District or Electorate.
RAA’s work to restore these closed airstrips, significantly improves the standard of living for isolated communities by facilitating the connectivity of the communities to Government, economic and development services. The restoration program is conducted on the airstrips that have deteriotated due to neglect and natural causes and are closed. After identifying and prioritizing of the airstrips that need restoration, an initial survey on the airstrip is conducted to determine the scope of work, what equipment is needed to fly in then the restoration work commence. When the restoration is completed, the airstrip is recommissioned and added to the RAA maintenance program.
Rural Airstrips Agency Ltd was established with the sole purpose of facilitating and conducting maintenance and restoration of rural airstrips in PNG. The RAA is a private- public partnership initiative with the Papua New Guinea Government.
Two people from Sopu have been identified for further training as Airstrip Maintenance Officers. They will look after the airstrip with RAA and represent the local community involvement.
The members of the local community, RAA and SIL Aviation representatives posing for a photo to commemorate the event at the Sopu airstrip.
Pic 2: View of the airstrip from a slope at Sopu.