Irwin Hodder has flown for the RAAF and Qantas but he was convinced that there was work to be done in developing nations such as Papua New Guinea. Derek Royal spoke to Irwin about his life as a pilot with the Mission Aviation Fellowship, serving God and assisting people in need.
Tell me about your flying career to date.
I started flying in 1978, when I joined the RAAF. I flew with them for seven years, mainly in transport aircraft ?(HS-748 and Hercules), with a short time instructing new pilots at the No.1 flying training school. In 1985, I left the RAAF and joined QANTAS. I flew with them for 22 years, flying the Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft, both domestically in Australia, and on QANTAS’s international routes. I resigned from QANTAS in 2009.
Why did you join MAF?
Even though I was really enjoying the challenge of flying heavy jets internationally, I had a conviction that there was important work to be done in many developing nations, such as PNG. Many pilots are not prepared to assist with this kind of work, but this kind of relief work does have long lasting benefits for the people here, and is also very rewarding for those of us involved.
How long have you been employed by MAF in PNG?
When you first arrived in PNG did your new working environment surprise you?
I had been exposed ?to PNG in the past, when flying up here with the RAAF, but even so I did have a lot to learn about ‘bush’ flying, the weather, the mountains, and, in many ways, the lack of support. Living with, and learning about a completely different culture (or many cultures) is also quite a challenge, which is ongoing.
Describe your current residence in PNG.
My wife and I are living in a comfortable four-bedroom house in the centre of Mt. Hagen. It is owned by MAF; has high fences around it with razor wire and a 24-hour security guard.
What are the challenges involved in living in PNG?
Our children are grown up now, so it is a challenge being away from them for long periods. Living in a town, personal safety and security is always a challenge, and something we need to be constantly aware of. For example, we don’t go out walking at night, but choose to drive. There are limited numbers of places to go ‘out’ – only a couple of restaurants.
What qualifications are required of new MAF pilots?
All our new pilots have a commercial pilots licence with an instrument rating. In addition they need to have about 500 hours’ minimum flying experience. In addition, because of the type of work we do, which is directly in support of the Christian churches here, all pilots need to be committed Christians, with a desire to help people and communities in need. Our corporate vision is to see isolated people spiritually and physically transformed in Jesus’ name, so everyone involved needs to share that.
Are pilots required to undergo any orientation programs when they arrive in PNG?
Before arriving in PNG, or other areas (such as Arnhem Land, NT), all our pilots undergo training in Mareeba, QLD where we concentrate on developing their bush pilot skills and judgement. This involves about four weeks training in a GA8 (Airvan) aircraft.
Given the terrain and challenge of flying in PNG, is there a training process involved before pilots are allowed to fly operations?
On arrival in PNG, our new pilots will complete their air law and instrument flying exams with CASA PNG, and then have orientation and language training for about four weeks, before starting flying with an experienced instructor pilot. For those moving onto the single pilot planes (C208 and GA8) this takes about six weeks before going ‘solo’. Co-pilots on the DHC6 take about the same time but will also obtain an instrument rating before flying with ‘line pilots’.
What types of missions do you fly?
Many and varied flights, such as flying trade store goods, produce (fruit and veggies), coffee, sawmills, timber, building materials, government officials, medical teams and doctors, medivacs, tourists, Australian Quarantine service teams, and many more.
Describe the worst weather and airstrip conditions you’ve faced in PNG.
It’s a little hard to specify one “worst weather” out of so many days where weather is a real challenge. Every day we go flying we are expecting low cloud, low visibility and rain. Fortunately we rarely get strong winds, and the associated turbulence, but when we do, it is very turbulent, and the wind shear makes all the takeoffs and landings hard work. Many times we have to divert because of adverse wind, or for low cloud and rain.
Airstrip conditions can be pretty poor in PNG. The shortest strips we operate into are about 350m and 11 per cent slope. But often the more difficult ones are about 400 metres, level, with more of a likelihood of getting bogged. I have had several occasions where we have had to dig the Twin-Otter out, and it is usually hard work.
What advice would you give to pilots interested in joining MAF PNG?
Being a bush pilot in PNG is not an easy route. There are many difficulties and challenges, but it is also very rewarding work. The biggest need, however, is a conviction to serve God and assist people here through using aircraft. It is one of the most interesting and challenging types of flying in the world, but without that conviction, most people wouldn’t be able to last very long.
What is your ultimate flying ambition?
In a way, I have achieved most of my ambitions in flying. Of course, there are still many aircraft I would like to fly – the list is almost endless. I would like to go supersonic again; I would like to learn to fly helicopters; I would like to do a lot of gliding. There are so many interesting areas of aviation to explore. ?But I have come to realise that we have a limited time here on earth, and the most important thing is not how much we can do in aviation, or any other field, or how many ‘toys’ a bloke can acquire; but the most important thing is to learn to know the God of the Universe, whom we all will meet one day. All these other things are great, but only a ‘fill in’ of the true reality. I know that this whole idea is something that most of us will find very difficult to come to terms with, but I hope that anybody reading this will find the time to consider this. ?For the moment, I would like to continue working here in PNG, without any incidents or accidents, for the next few years, before joining the ‘old pilots’ brigade’ and telling stories to younger pilots at the bar.
Name: Irwin Hodder
Hometown: Canberra, ACT
Family: Wife, Gaynor; 3 Adult children: Joel, a doctor in Canberra; Alexander, a student in Canberra; Caitlin, an artist living in Sydney
How long have you been married? 35 years
Total flying hours: 18,500
How long have you been a pilot? 36 years