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, 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 the bottom of a gorge.
With terrain on both sides rising thousands of feet above me.
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?”
Flying the Knife Edge highlights the perils of self-publishing on its opening page: poorly drawn illustrations of an Asaro mud mask and a kundu (drum) greet readers like dishevelled flight crew in a tatty provincial departure lounge. Yet, as readers brace for the drone of a Cathay Pacific captain who can afford to publish his own memoir, there are signs Matt McLaughlin has done all his checks for his story.
More important, the New Zealander from Gisborne controls his prose, stays on the plot's course and delivers valuable life lessons on how failure is not the end of the world, and terrible jobs can be the key to success as long as you follow your vocation and use your luck.
Cathay Pacific pilots come from all over the world, but McLaughlin shows how many earn their money, and a few have flown hard paths to Lantau.
Like many pilots, McLaughlin yearned to fly after a boyhood flight, on an Air New Zealand (ANZ) F-27 Fokker Friendship, and joins the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1989 as a 17-year-old officer cadet direct entry pilot at RNZAF Base Wigram. He expertly expresses the exhilaration of flying a Pacific Aerospace CT4-B Airtrainer and fondly recalls the exuberance of his fellow trainees.
However, McLaughlin also reveals how careers go awry when a superior doesn't like you. He describes the excruciating tension of his final flight, and the tears and silence of being cut from training - yet he holds on to his dream. He resumes training in an old Cessna 172, passes his commercial pilot's exams by working nights, and part-time as a fish spotter with Air Gisborne. But he qualifies just as Air New Zealand axes its more experienced F-27 pilots, so he volunteers to fly a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander on church missions in Papua New Guinea, where he later pilots a Cessna 206 for Port Moresby-based Air Manubada.
With refreshing simplicity and clarity, he describes his aircraft and their handling in fickle weather over some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet: from Fane and Woitape airports, and the perilous Owen Stanley Range, to the wreckage-strewn approaches of Goroka and Tapini, all of which are shown on clear maps.
Between 1992 and 1995, McLaughlin completes 3,300 take-offs and landings and "close to 2,500 hours of flying" in PNG. He loses many friends in its jungles, and with characteristic understatement heads to Cathay Pacific as a first officer on a Boeing 747-400 in Hong Kong. Here he focuses on the challenges of flying over the Chequerboard; the whiff of the nullah in Kai Tak; and "high tea at the Peninsular [sic] Hotel". But readers might wish he hadn't stowed his private life away.
McLaughlin clearly enjoys flying for Cathay Pacific, and his adventures in the "beautiful, scary, chaotic, and unforgiving" PNG leave readers with the impression that the airline recruits only the best pilots. A delightful, well-written memoir.