From time to time, I write articles for magazines about the expeditions my work takes me on and the far flung places on the planet that we visit. The below article from 2014 accompanied the Channel 4 series, Worst Place to be a Pilot, in Exploring magazine.
Worst Place to be a Pilot
TV Producer Mark Challender recounts his filming expedition to Indonesia to film Channel 4’s Worst Place to be a Pilot. He was part of the first film crew in 10 years to be granted permission to film in Papua.
Bang! A loud gunshot echoed through the Hampshire woods as my colleagues and I ran for cover, trying to find the nearest tree trunk to hide behind. I’d only been in the job for a day so being shot at seemed a bit harsh, but then why was I in the woods of Hampshire head to toe in my waterproofs on a cold January morning in the first place?
‘Hostile Environment’ training was the answer. In preparation for our three month expedition to Indonesia I was at a country house in Hampshire with five other producers and directors being shot at. Needless to say we weren’t being shot at for real, but as I’d never been to Indonesia before it’s fair to say my colleagues and I started to feel like we might not make it back. Guns, plane crashes and how to deal with mass trauma were all scenarios we discussed on the course.
Ninety-six hours later and we were en route to Heathrow (with a remarkable amount of filming equipment and a hefty excess baggage bill to boot) bound for Jakarta. We were setting out to make a Channel 4 documentary series about Susi Air, a small Indonesian airline that operates across many of the 17,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. The interest for a British broadcaster is that the airline attracts a lot of British pilots who are looking for flying experience, adventure or both - plus the location offers plenty of potentially dramatic scenarios, which was what we were hoping to capture.
We finally arrived at Pangandaran on the south coast of West Java a mere forty-eight hours after leaving London. This small fishing village offered nothing more than beach bars, fish and surfing – paradise for some. It was home for the next few weeks.
Within a day or two we’d started filming for the series and did so every day, interviewing pilots and recording simulator sessions. But before long we enjoyed a rare day off and took a trip to the ‘green canyon’ – a beautiful lagoon about an hour from Pangandaran. En route, we were caught in a huge thunderstorm and we took shelter in a local mechanic’s garage. He didn’t have much choice as we skidded up the ramp into his inspection bay. The rain was like I’ve experienced in the Amazon… heavy and relentless. It was still the wet season and afternoon thunderstorms were a daily occurrence.
Indonesia is a developing nation and I saw roads go from being bone dry to being one foot under water in a matter of minutes. Happily for us we were soon off the road and on a boat to complete the final bit of the journey. On a clear day the waters at green canyon are crystal green in colour and after the thirty minute boat ride, and despite the water looking more brown than green, I took the opportunity to cool down with a jump into the lagoon from the surrounding rocks. Indonesia, being in the tropics, is hot and humid and normal temperatures were anywhere from 32 ° up to 40°+ so a cooling swim was a necessity more than luxury.
Our team had been en masse in Pangandaran but it wasn’t long before we dispersed into our filming teams (we had three teams of two people spread over various parts of Indonesia), this way we could cover more stories from a variety of locations. I remained in Pangandaran with my colleague Steve and we would remain together as a two-man team for the remainder of the shoot. We started to pick up bits of the local language, Bahasa, and sample the local foods – mainly Nasi Goreng. The other guys on the expedition headed off to Sumatra and to Papua respectively.
Steve and I were there to film the new recruits at the airline going through their training and being put through their paces. We would eventually film them on their training flights in the Cessna Caravans. It usually entailed a 1hr drive to the local airport which was only 20km away by road but the roads in Pangandaran were not like roads in Jakarta and not only did we have traffic to contend with, but the roads were essentially dirt tracks. The drives to and from the airport were hot, bouncy and uncomfortable affairs. We spent days at the remote and basic Nasuwiru airport in the baking heat filming on and around the airstrip. Snakes, spiders and other bugs all lurked within hangers but real concern came from watching locals running or cycling across the runway as planes were coming in or taking off!
Pangandaran may not have offered much in the way of recreation but it did offer stunning sunsets and I hoped, stunning sunrises. I got up early one morning and with my tripod on my shoulder and my camera in hand, set out at 0330 to walk to the beach. I knew the direction of the beach but I hadn’t walked that way before and after 30 minutes, fearing the sun would rise before I was set up and ready to film, I convinced a local man with a scooter (who happened to be sat by the side of the road in the early hours) to give me a ride to the beach, which he did. I was thankful for the ride as it would have taken longer than anticipated before I reached the beach. I arrived in time and captured some fantastic shots.
Filming everyday continued and days off were to be relished – I spent my final one snorkeling off the Javan coast. As I was changing and sorting my gear out a group of macaques came on to the beach. They had wandered down from the jungle nature reserve that spills out on to the beach. I had been warned about them but didn’t expect too much trouble. They were about to prove me wrong… I tried to send one on its way as it was stood quite close to me but instead of backing off, it clearly sensed my aggressiveness and it came at me, attacking my leg. The attack didn’t last long and I didn’t sustain any injuries, but I was bemused. I carried on packing my kit and had a sandwich in my mouth when I suddenly spotted something in my peripheral vision – it was another macaque on its way to jump up and try and steal the sandwich right from my mouth. Luckily I saw it and pulled my head back just in time. Credit the little chap for his audacity. The snorkeling was a relief to the monkey madness and the warm tropical waters were an ideal place to relax and not have to think about filming for a few hours.
I spent a total of seven weeks in Pangandaran and having filmed the end of our stories it was time to move on. The experiences here were relatively sedate compared to where we’d be going and what we’d be filming next.
We travelled from Pangandaran back to Jakarta and from Jakarta we took a six hour flight to Jayapura, the provincial capital of Papua. Upon arrival we met our government escorts - with Papua’s political situation a concern for the Indonesian government, our escorts would ensure our safety and would remain with us for our entire stay in Papua.
The flights we filmed in and around Papua carried rice as well as Papuan passengers, most of whom were taking advantage of the ‘perintis’ or government subsidized flights. Unable to afford the full cost of flights, a lot of indigenous Papuans used Susi Air’s subsidized flights to come to Timika when they needed services or provisions. Having spent their lives in the mountains and jungles a lot of Papuan passengers often don’t know how to fasten and unfasten seatbelts and would often look bemused and seek our help. We’d now be flying and filming in Pilatus Porter planes – incredibly agile short take-off and landing (STOL) planes.
The majority of the landing strips here were simple grass or shale strips on the top of mountain ridges, usually banked by steep drops covered in dense trees. We experienced some thrilling scenery and breath taking views. We were in the tropics yet still flew high enough to see snow on top of glaciers!
My most exhilarating experience came when we were filming on one particular strip at Pogapa (in Nabire) and upon landing it was clear that there were two crashed planes there already. They were a long time crashed but the logistical implications of removing them was difficult and expensive so they remained where they were. The contrast between the technology and complex flying instruments in the planes against the relatively basic way the indigenous Papuans appeared to live was stark.
It was the time of the Indonesian national elections and a large number of local Papuans had descended upon Pogapa to vote, talk and celebrate. Many people from different tribes were all mixing together. We filmed what we needed to, most notably with the only white man that lived there full time, a man named John Cutts who grew up in the area and whose first language was ‘Moni’, the local tribal tongue.
As we were about to leave Pogapa there was a sense of commotion and the locals started running in all directions – including towards us. Accusations of vote rigging between different factions had led to a tense face off. At the advice of our pilot, we ran back to the plane and readied ourselves to leave. Men, women and boys were all gripping rocks in their hands ready to use as weapons. The runway was scattered with people, but in a scene reminiscent of an Indiana Jones film, we boarded the Porter and hurtled down the runway and were up in the air before we needed to call upon our hostile environment training skills.
Ten and a half weeks had passed since we arrived in Indonesia and we’d seen a lot of places and people but somehow we’d saved the best bit until last: filming from plane to plane.
Having made our way to Wamena in the Papuan highlands – which would be our final filming destination of the trip, and with the help of the great Susi Air pilots there, we had 20 minutes in which to shoot our ‘plane to plane’ shots. This meant Steve would go up in one plane, the Caravan, and I would go up in the Porter. Once in the air, we’d communicate with the pilots and take turns to get shots of each plane.
Once Steve had what he needed, it was time for me to film the Caravan from the Porter and having strapped myself in with the safety straps nice and tightly, I got the ok from the pilot to open the door on the left. The porter has sliding doors that should have made things easy only I couldn’t lean forward far enough to reach the handle. With the clock ticking I decided to loosen off the safety straps that enabled me to lean forward, release the handle and slide the door back.
The door was about 120cm in length so there is a huge void once it is open. With undulating jungle 500ft below passing by very quickly I gave Steve the cue and the Caravan moved in to position for me to get my shots. Holding a steady shot was difficult however… but achievable, and we managed a couple of take-off and landings with the door open too – a thrilling experience!
All in all, this filming trip is one that won’t be forgotten easily.
Worst Place to be a Pilot is available now on 4oD.