Friday, 30 November 2012

M/M Interview with Kent Bergsma

Image of Kent Bergsma upon landing in Papua provided by Kent Bergsma. All rights reserved.

Interview with Kent Bergsma conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in Bellingham, Washington during September 2012.

How and why did you become a bush pilot?

I grew up around airplanes. My father was a pilot during WWII. When he returned to the Pacific Northwest after the war he started a seaplane taxi service from Bellingham, Washington to the San Juan Islands. I have very fond memories of riding with my Dad and trying to fly his seaplane at an early age. I still recall what a hard time I had seeing over the instrument panel. It was exciting to work the controls and maneuver the plane, but I could not see well enough to land on the water. I was also active in building and repairing boats and cars at a young age. I purchased my first car at the age of 13 and soon became very fond of all things mechanical.

In my senior year in high school I began to seriously consider what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted my life to count for something while serving mankind. I had read stories about bush pilots in Alaska and South America. When I looked at my background, and pondered my skills and the things I enjoyed most, I decided I wanted to become a bush pilot and fly somewhere in the third world.

After graduating from high school I spent the next five years in training. This included general college courses, aircraft mechanics and basic flight training and advanced flight training geared specifically for rugged mountain terrain and short landing strips. Upon graduation I was a licensed aircraft mechanic and a commercial and instrument rated pilot. I was 23 years old and ready to go .... but not sure where!

In 1972, why did you fly into the rugged Eastern Highlands of Irian Jaya, Indonesia?

My wife Linda and I were married shortly after we graduated from college.  She was just as excited as I was to take on the challenge of living and working in a primitive culture.  After I gained some practical stateside flight experience working as a flight instructor and charter pilot, we applied to an organization, Mission Aviation Fellowship. This organization had bases and aircraft located in the most remote regions on earth.  Their pilots operated in some of the most hostile flight environments on earth located in South America, Africa, Central Asia and the South Pacific. One of the organization’s objectives was to operate only in areas where no reliable commercial air travel existed. In some cases, like Papua, flying was the ONLY means of transportation

We were accepted to come to their headquarters in Southern California for further evaluation. After six weeks of mechanical and flight testing they pulled us into a room and asked, “How would you two like to go to West Irian, Indonesia?” To this day I still can remember the images that flashed through my mind.  They were images of rugged desolate mountains, swamps and lowlands as far as the eye could see, and storied stone age people. I looked at Linda, she smiled and said, “Let’s do it.”

Note: The western half of the Island of New Guinea has gone through a few name changes in the past 50 years. What was Dutch New Guinea became West Irian when the Dutch moved out. Then the name was changed to Irian Jaya. It is now called Papua. It is not to be mistaken for Papua New Guinea which is the name of the eastern half of the Island. Papua New Guinea was under Austrailian control for a number of years and is considerably more developed than Papua. 

Had the natives of the region ever seen a white man before?

During most of our time in Papua, we lived in the Central Highlands among the Dani Tribe. They had previous contact with Europeans and Americans just before and during World War II. Initial contact to this tribe was on foot but after the war a single engine seaplane flew into the central highlands where foreigners began making significant and long term contact with the Danis. By the late 1960’s there were airstrips dotted throughout the Central Highlands and almost all of the Dani Tribe had seen and come into contact with white men.

When we arrived in 1972 there were still remote areas in the Eastern Highlands and the western “Birds Head” that had little or no contact with the outside world. Some tribes in those areas had yet to see a white man. I had the privilege to make the first landing into the Bime tribe area. They had only seen one other white man who had trekked into the region to help them build an airstrip which had to be cut right out of the side of a mountain. A first landing is always a special event. For the natives it is a time of celebration and entertainment. For the pilot the landing can be both dangerous and exhilerating. Everyone from the tribe shows up and usually in their full war dress and paint. I made a couple passes over the strip to inspect the surface and slope. My approach to land was cautious and slow. When I taxied the plane up to the top of the strip I shut the engine down even before I stopped rolling. I was immediately surrounded by a few hundred not so friendly looking natives. They were more in awe of me and my plane than I was of them. Upon exiting the plane some of the elder men came up and started pulling on my hair and pinching my skin. Remember, their skin was black and their hair was short and kinky. I really think they thought I was some kind of God coming out of the sky in a big white bird. I learned later that they were looking under my plane to try to determine if it was male or female! They had never seen any motorized vehicle before let alone an airplane up close. You can imagine what was going through their minds. 

Was personal safety ever a concern?

Yes and no. Let me explain. As far as the nationals were concerned I never feared for our lives. Even when I made that first landing into the Eastern Highlands I was never really concerned. I think they were more afraid of me than I ever would have been of them. At times we lived among the Danis as the only white people in the village. We felt safe and secure. They knew the pilots were were there to help - bringing them hope, aid and medicine. In the more remote areas the natives held great respect for the pilots. On the few occasions I was stranded by weather and had to overnight with them, they always treated me like an honored guest. 

But piloting the airplane was a different matter. The airstrips were short, sloped and mostly in areas that allowed little room for error. The weather in the mountains was horrendous. Over 200 inches of rain fell in the highlands every year. The weather could build so rapidly that it could out-climb a heavily loaded Cessna. As a pilot you had to be alert and always ahead of the airplane. This was where the real danger lay.  Two of my fellow pilots and friends were killed there in aircraft accidents during our 7 year stay. 

Describe your first interaction upon landing?

You must understand that all travel back then to the highlands was by aircraft. Unless you wanted to hike for weeks there was no other way to travel. By the time we arrived there were over 100 airstrips located in various locations on the wester half of the Island. Many were literally carved right out the sides of mountains. 

Many flights between airstrips took only 5 to 10 minutes, but due to the rugged terrain to could take a a full day to walk the same distance. On some days I would make 12 to 15 landings and every time the plane would be surrounded by nationals.

On every landing, curiosity was the main interaction. They were curious about me, about the airplane and about was I carried inside the airplane. They were constantly seeing things they had never seen before. When I brought a portable sawmill into the highlands to help build some houses and hangers for our staff they were “blown away.” They had only ever used stone or steel axe heads to hand cut the boards for their own round houses. Hundreds of natives from miles around came to see the new sawmill in action. 

How long did you stay on the island?

We were stationed in Indonesia from 1972 to 1979.  Except for a brief stay on the coast of Papua, we spent almost all out time in the central highlands operating my plane out of airstrips in elevation from 4,000 to 9,000 feet.
During our last four months of service there we were transferred to East Kalimantan (formerly Borneo) to help build three aircraft hangers. 

What is most memorable about the natives?

Our love and respect for the people is the thing we remember most. Linda and I thoroughly enjoyed our time living and working among them. We shared their joys and sorrows. We helped them and they helped us. We came to highly respect their ability to live and survive in a very difficult environment with minimal resources. I guess we were surprised to discover we had more things in common with them than uncommon. They have a strong sense of community. They are well organized and have a work ethic to be admired. Family is important to them and they dearly love their children. Their sense of humor was uncanny. They were observant, intelligent, friendly and loyal. When we left in 1979 it was hard to say goodbye. 

It has been over 30 years since we left. We can still see their faces and smiles and hear their voices and laughter.

The above interview with Kent Bergsma 2012 © Manner of Man Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.