NZ Papua hostage: Pilots warned to take precautions in ‘danger’ zone

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A Susi Air Cessna similar to the one seized in Nduga pictured preparing for takeoff
A Susi Air Cessna Grand Caravan in the airline colours . . . the Indonesian company is believed to have the largest fleet of Cessna fleet in the world but the plane seized at Nduga was a smaller single pilot aircraft. Image: JP screenshot APR

By Kate Green , RNZ News journalist

A former New Zealand pilot says flying for an Indonesian airline can be dangerous, and those who do so are warned to take precautions in Papua.

This comes it was reported last night that a New Zealander, working as a pilot for Susi Air, was taken hostage by pro-independence fighters in West Papua.

Reuters reported that the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the pilot would not be released until the Indonesian government acknowledged the independence of West Papua.

The pilot was identified by Reuters as Captain Philip Merthens.

It is still unclear what happened to the five passengers reportedly on board, but the plane is said to have been set alight by the fighters.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told RNZ today that New Zealand officials in Indonesia were working on the case.

He said while standard practice was to give hostage situations minimal airtime, he could confirm the New Zealand Embassy was aware of the situation, and he would be receiving a full briefing.

Support for family
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the New Zealand Embassy was providing consular support to the family, but for privacy reasons it would not be commenting further.

A former New Zealand pilot, who flew for Susi Air for just over a year ending in 2017, said pilots were warned by the airline to take precautions in Papua — things such as keeping a low profile, travelling in groups, finding a driver to take them around, and not leaving the compound at night.

Susi Air was known for flying government-commissioned “perintis flights” — pioneer flights — carrying mostly freight to remote areas of Indonesia, he said.

These were subsidised by the Indonesian government, intended to open up regional development.

Susi Air was founded by a former Indonesian Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti.

All of this combined to make Susi Air near-synonymous with the Indonesian government.

The pilot who spoke to RNZ said the airline still ran the largest fleet of passenger-carrying Cessna Caravans in the world, and flew all around the Indonesian islands, including to Papua.

Mostly freight
Susi Air flights carried mostly freight, flying from tiny regional towns into main centres, picking up coffee beans, sugar, rice, and bringing in daily goods like washing powder

According to online reports, including aviation-safety.net, the plane flown by Captain Merthens was a Pilatus Porter, which only requires one pilot — unlike the Cessna Caravans, which the pilot said was required to be flown by two people at Susi Air.

The pilot said it was relatively common for foreign pilots to work for Susi Air. Those wanting to get more hours under their belt to be considered for a commercial airline back home would go to Indonesia to do so.

The situation within the country was tense, but most pilots saw it as part of the job.

“Most are just there to get their hours up and get out,” he said.

Since the region was brought under Indonesian control in 1969, there has been a low-level struggle for independence with the conflict escalating further from 2018.

‘Needlessly cruel’
“The smaller islands are being forced to align with a culture established in Jakarta,” the pilot said, and the Indonesian military had been “needlessly cruel and violent” in its oppression of the West Papuans.

As a white foreigner working for the Indonesian state, it was conceivable that Captain Merthens was in real danger — foreigners were, with some frequency, seen as pawns in this way, he said.

He said it was almost certain that the Indonesian government would not give in to the demands of the pro-independence rebels.

He had also heard reports of an aircraft being shot at while departing Papua, with bullets found lodged in the airframe under the pilot’s seat.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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