Back in September just as Noel was returning from the states, our neighbor and fellow pilot was hiking 4 days from Kret to the strip we will call the “Little Pamir.” His job was to inspect and see if the airstrip was ready for a plane to land so we could open up the airstrip before winter. The night before leaving, many of us gathered at Chris’s house to pray for the trip, his health and for his wife and kids still here in Kabul. Each day as we got an update we could see God’s hand at work in the trip and all that was going on.
Here is what Daniel the pilot who was the first to land on the new airstrip said about the experience.
Impressions from the 1st Landing on “The Roof of the World”
By now you have probably heard, that we were able to open up a new airport – or what we might call an airstrip – in the Little Pamirs. To the Kirgiz nomads up there at 13340ft (4065m), I am sure it feels like an airport similar to how Atlanta Hartsfield or Zurich International feels to us. These people live remote by anybodies standards, eking out a living on the stunningly beautiful and serene but incredibly harsh “roof of the world”.
From Kabul where we are based and launched this morning, this new airstrip is 317 nautical miles by the directest possible routing, or 587km or 365 miles for the not so aviation thinkers. The route takes you from Kabul up the Panshir valley after which you are in high mountainous terrain for the rest of the time, over the Anjaman Pass (14’500ft), down a valley to where the Munji people live, past the “Camel‐Hump‐Peaks” which tower up to 22’500ft. Then one turns slight Northerly and proceeds within a few miles of the Pakistan boarder up to Eshkashem, which is the entrance to the Wakhan Corridor – the long skinny finger extending to the East of Afghanistan until it touches China, separating Pakistan and Tajkistan by half a valley width. At the end, the corridor widens again a little. Mountain peaks in the Wakhan corridor top 24’000ft on the south side and are as high as 20’000ft on the North side, with the valley floor at about 9000ft. At the very end is where the Little Pamirs are located, the birthplace of the Oxus river and a beautiful lake nestled in the valley only 20km from the China boarder – Lake Chaqmatin. This new airstrip is right beside this lake.
Arriving over the strip I could see a few yurts about 400m to the South side and some yaks, as well as men still busy picking up stones. Chris – one of our pilots – who we had dropped in Kret our closest airport from Lake Chaqmatin, had to hike for four days to get up there, so that he could assess, if this new airstrip was going to be suitable for our operations. The previous day it had snowed while they were working on finalizing the surface. After doing a low pass and assessing the suitability, Chris directed me to land just past the 25% marker, since there were some questionable spots before that. True airspeed on final was 88KTS making it feel like a fast approach. The surface of this new airstrip is basically virgin pasture land, which had to be cleared of larger stones – now piled along the sides to demark the strip – and some areas leveled and filled, so that bounders would become acceptable.
After coming to a stop, we were greeted by the small cheering crowd of workers. The Wild Life Conservation organization had facilitated the workers and done an extraordinary job at constructing this new airstrip! Chris and I first walked the entire strip noting all the relevant details for our airstrip directory.
FYI: A herdsman drove his sheep from the Little Pamirs to Kabul and it took him 40 days. Our flight time was 2 hours and 15 minutes. Chris walked from Kret to Lake Chaqmatin in four days and the Kodiak covered this distance in 30 minutes….
After that we needed to “test‐fly” the performance numbers extrapolated from the performance section of the Kodiak Flight Manual (which stops at 12’000ft). After doing a few operations empty, it was time to load up and add some weight. The first passengers were the local clan elder and two other fellows. Then we switched out for five others who had worked at the strip. These guys did not know how to use a seatbelt – why should they… ‐ and they were elated to see their home area from a bird’s eye perspective. The extrapolated numbers seemed to work very well and with the 1176m (3858ft), we will be able to carry a full load out till about 15°C. The aircraft lifted off well, but as we know, it does not like to climb so well once getting airborne at those altitudes; even though it was 5°C and our max weight was 6700lbs…
After all the work was done we were invited for the “official party” in a yurt. After a short speech from the side of PACTEC and then the clan elder, we were finally able to dig into the prepared goat meat, yak yogurt and yak cream – obviously no vegetables…. It was very tasty! We also got served yak milk coffee – now that is something you will unfortunately never get at Starbucks!!! The conversation with the Kirgiz clan elder was very informative, and I was struck again at the extreme isolation these people live in all year round. For about half the year they are totally cut off from the rest of the world, being snowed in experiencing very cold temperatures! They have no clinics, no shops, for some months some rudimentary volunteer teachers, and live off of yaks – that’s it!!!
I think, I speak for all of us, when I say, that we are very proud that we are now better positioned to support development on “the roof of the world”. A location so remote and unforgiving, where individuals, families, and clans – many of which are caught in terrible clutches of opium addiction – have very little hope for a better life. I am sure we will need to find creative ways to sustain operations so far away from home base – where life does feel comfortable with less uncertainty than the Kirgiz nomads experience. Granted now they have an airport called the “Little Pamir Airport (OALP) – which I suspect is the highest airport our organization serves worldwide.