Go Flying Australia Podcast 019 – Flying the Knife Edge – Bush flying in Papua New Guinea

Matt McLaughlin and I talk about his experiences flying general aviation aircraft in one of the most dangerous flying environments in the world – Papua New Guinea.

Matt was inspired to go bush flying in remote parts of Papua New Guinea (PNG) by a scene in the classic aviation film Air America where Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Junior land a Pilatus Porter on a short strip on the side of a mountain in Laos.

During Matt’s time in Papua New Guinea Matt regularly operated out of strips which were terribly short, steep and perched on the side of mountains.  Matt was lucky enough to survive his 4 years of bush flying to tell the tale in his new book called ‘Flying the Knife Edge’.

Getting interested in Flying – Matt saw Air New Zealand Pilots flying a Fokker F27 Friendship and was hooked.

Starting out in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Matt applied in high school and made sure his CV was good enough to be prepared for the interview.  As an 18-year-old Matt started in the RNZAF and did 13 weeks of basic and officer training.  Matt did his flight training at RNZAF Wigram on the south island.  Matt had some health problems which required his training to be delayed and ultimately ended up leaving the RNZAF.

General Aviation Flying – Matt went back to his home town (Gisborne) and starting flight training with his local flight school to obtain his CPL and other ratings.  He noticed that the standards in GA with a good instructor were very high.  Matt finished off his exams and CPL and became a part-time instructor/charter pilot.

Industry Cycles – Due to the divestment of the Fokker F27 Friendship by Air New Zealand, the work for pilots dried up in New Zealand.  Matt saw a scene in Air America and decided he would like to try bush flying as a volunteer pilot.

Volunteer Pilot – Matt got an offer to work as a missionary pilot at Karema in Papua New Guinea.

First time in the mountains – Matt was in a Cessna 206 with an instructor (Mack) and launched towards the Owen Stanley ranges, during the flight they climbed for the whole duration to stay above the terrain.  The first landing was at Fane which is a strip at 4400ft AMSL, 450m long and with a 12% slope.

The trusty Cessna 206 in the mountains

pic 1 for Adam Knight

First Takeoff at Fane The instructor taxied to the top of the strip, applied the foot brakes, ran the engine up to full power, pulled the control column to his chest and let the brakes go.  After a ridiculous short ground roll the aircraft took flight and the instructor eased up on the yoke.

View from the windscreen into Fane Airstrip

pic 2 for Adam Knight

A video from another pilots flight into Fane

Aircraft – was flying non turbocharged, non pressurised aircrafts such as the Cessna 206.

Hazards in flying in PNG – High Terrain, equatorial temperatures and tropical weather (generally after lunch conditions were scary), turbulence from the mountains and strong updrafts and downdrafts.

The DHC-6 Twin Otter which Matt flew

twin otter 2

Accident statistics – PNG was a dangerous place to fly.

What aircraft were there in PNG at the time – Cessna 206, BN-2 islanders and Trislanders, Regional Airlines had De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters, Embraer EMB 110 Bandeiriantes, Dornier Do 228s and lots of smaller high wing Cessna’s.

DHC-6 Twin Otter loading passengers

twin otter 1

Using the Pilots Operating Handbook (POH) in PNG – the key was to get the figures (Reference speeds) from experienced pilots for each airstrip.  At a lot of the strips there was no go arounds as the aircraft did not have the performance to avoid the terrain.

Emergencies situations – Matt did a late Go Around on a strip and bounced halfway up the strip and faced the choice as to whether to fly to the left or to the right where there was a building.  Matt ended up recovering by flying into a valley to the left.  Matt had an engine failure on a charter in the Cessna 206 and was able to do a reversal turn back to the runway.  Matt ended up taking the charter via a Cessna 402 (twin) and gained some twin time from that bad experience.

The Cessna 206 in flight

c206 on wing

Famous Bush Pilots – Matt shares a house with Jim Miller (over 20,000 hours) and just to prove how brutal New Guinea is, Jim was killed in a plane crash.  Matt notes that he did not survive because he was a better pilot but because he was possibly lucky to get through it.

What traits did these pilots have – They were very calm and laid back.  They made things look very easy and unflappable.  They did not concentrate on the small stuff but the big picture.

After a full day of flying was Matt tired? – He was young (23), doing 16-17 sectors a day (very busy days).  Matt was always excited to fly every day despite the workload.

Coffin Charter – Matt notes that the locals would try to climb in the back of aircraft and the cargo hold when he was on a Coffin Charter because they knew the trip back to Port Moresby was fully paid.


Local pidgin english words used in PNG:

Helicopter – mixmaster bilong Jesus (Mix master that belongs to Jesus)

Aircraft – Balus (Bird)

Pilot – Captin (Captain), Master, Bossman

Proudest moment in PNG – Matt was proud of the fact that he didn’t break anything (damage airplanes) during his time in PNG.  Matt is aware that he was very lucky during his time.  Matt’s notes that it’s a fine line between being a cowboy and being reckless as a pilot in PNG.  He also notes that there is no shame in making the decision to turn around if the weather requires you to.

On final approach into Kamulai


What Matt Learnt in PNG that he uses now – Matt is acutely aware of terrain anytime he is departing or arriving at airports despite him flying aircraft with the latest technology onboard.

Matt’s Book – It’s a memoir and adventure narrative but mainly concentrates on his time flying in PNG.  You can buy Matt’s book here – Flying the Knife Edge – New Guinea Bush Pilot. 

The cover of Matts Book

book cover

Final 3 questions

Which Aircraft would you buy if cost was not a factor?

De Havilland Twin Otter – Great short field performance, Matt notes you could land one in less than 100 meters by taking full reverse before touchdown.

Which Famous Aviator you would fly with?

Charles Kingsford Smith

Whats your favourite Aviation Phrase?

‘The only hard thing about flying is the ground’

An example of a typical bush strip in Papua New Guinea is shown below 


Buy the book here – Flying the Knife Edge – New Guinea Bush Pilo

Flying the Knife Edge Twitter Page


Flying the Knife Edge: New Guinea Bush Pilot

Sometimes it’s not about the destination…it’s about the journey.
‘Flying the Knife Edge’ is the story of an ordinary man experiencing extraordinary things as a pilot in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s.
After an untimely exit from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, New Zealander Matt McLaughlin took a leap into the unknown, travelling to Papua New Guinea to work as a missionary pilot. He soon switched from missionary to mercenary, and over the next three and a half years, as he built up the necessary experience to chase his goal of becoming an airline captain, his life was a rollercoaster ride of adventure, risk, near-misses, and tragedy. Matt lived on the knife edge of bush pilot ops in one of the world’s most dangerous flying environments. Along the way he soaked up some fascinating local history: the country’s vital role in WWII’s Pacific Theatre; the disappearance of aviator Amelia Earhart; the chaos of the Bougainville civil war; the Morobe gold rush of the 1930s…
“The gap in the cloud became smaller and smaller as I descended, a shrinking tunnel twisting down the gorge. In a matter of seconds I was so low my wheels barely cleared the trees on the valley floor as I passed, and jungle-clad walls closed in on me until I was a mere wingspan from both sides of the valley. And then, in an instant, the gap was gone and I was flying blind.

In cloud.
In the bottom of a gorge.
With terrain on both sides rising thousands of feet above me.

Time stopped.

The passengers started screaming, anticipating the aircraft impacting the side of the mountain. And their deaths.
I had the capacity for just one other thought: Will I hear the sound of the airframe smashing into the trees as we crash, or will I be dead before it registers?”

Kindle Edition: Check Amazon for Pricing Digital Only

  • Travis Wilson

    Great interview Adam. Matt seems like a cool guy with some very cool stories! It would be nice to have a bloke with his kind of experience sitting at the pointy end of the next triple 7 I’m traveling on.
    Great work, keep em coming!

    • Adam

      Thank Travis, hope you enjoy the book! Im loving it.

  • Scott Crew

    Great interview thanks Adam and matt. Makes the 600m slight slope grass strip I thought was hard, easy!!!

    • Adam

      Thanks for listening mate!

  • Kathy Mexted

    Interesting interview.

    Easy interview to listen to. Enjoyed the Youtube footage too!