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Aviation Careers: Matt Dearden, Bush Pilot In Indonesia

On a regular basis, the Boldmethod team brings you a new career and pilot through our "Aviation Careers" series. If you're an aspiring aviator, this is a great way for you to explore different career options.

Matt Dearden is a bush pilot in Indonesia, flying for Susi Air in the mountains of Papua. Matt has 3,700 hours and is based out of Nabire, Indonesia flying the Pilatus PC6 Turbo Porter. Check out one of his videos: A 73 Second Commercial Flight. He was recently featured on the hit UK TV Series "The Worst Place To Be A Pilot," featuring Susi Air pilots and their experiences. Although flying in the bush is tough, Matt wholeheartedly disagrees with the show's title - He loves flying in Papua more than anywhere in the world. Welcome to the Boldmethod community, Matt!

Matt Dearden

Why You Should Be Interested

This is a very outback career path, it's a great fit for my personality. Lots of guys look at this kind of flying as a great way to build up some flight hours before a jet job. The flying we do out here is incredibly hands-on and so unique. The environment out here is far removed from the real world, and the adventures I get to have in Papua are like none-other on Earth. The freedom of flying out here is more enjoyable I'd imagine than sipping on a coffee in a big jet. I can't imagine myself anywhere else right now.

The Typical Flight

Typical flight length here in Papua is around 30 minutes. A short flight might be 12 minutes; the longest flight we can do is 1.4 hours one-way. We have to be back at the base with an hour minimum of fuel reserves. We're doing two types of flights out here:

1) The passengers flights: They're subsidized by the government and serve the local people who live up in the mountains. We take the villagers back and forth between villages, or larger, more urban hubs such as Nabire for travel or medical reasons.

2) The cargo flights: We fly 850kg of rice, other food items, building supplies, personal possessions, etc. to the villages on a regular basis. Sometimes you'll have a plane full of flour, noodles, eggs, or even live chickens. It certainly varies though and cargo can be quite surprising.

The Passengers

The passenger types certainly vary. There are a lot of local Indonesian people mixing in with the native Papuan people. The Papuans are very tribal and just began integrating into modern Indonesian life starting about 50 years ago, when many villages first made contact with the outside world. The people are now wearing clothes and that sort of thing, but most of them don't wear shoes.

They're really interesting people; I can speak Indonesian which many of them can understand. But even then, a lot of them can't even understand that language, so the concept of flying in an airplane is a completely alien idea to them. Sometimes when you're unloading cargo and there aren't yet seats in the plane, they'll just kind of hop on in and sit down on the floor; the concept of sitting in a seat isn't always a popular idea. I'm often left teaching the villagers how to sit down in the seat and fasten/tighten their seatbelt. It can be a challenge sometimes for sure.

Drama at the airfield isn't uncommon. You can probably expect some kind of incident once a week or so in which people begin fighting over who gets on the plane. Particularly, if there's been some bad weather in the area and people have been trapped for awhile, for weeks and months, people start to get a little more desperate to get out. In those cases, it often ends up being 50 or so people trying to get on the plane with 7 seats. You just have to handle it diplomatically in the best way that you can.

A Day At Work

It's a pretty full day even though we're done by 1pm in the afternoon. We arrive at the airport at 5:30 in the morning, which is just about sunrise time. We'll work for about 9 hours with 4 to 6 roundtrip flights throughout the day beginning at the home airport, flying to a mountain strip, and returning to the home airport again. Sometimes you might do a multi-hop flight, flying to one airstrip, dropping some stuff off, then flying to another airstrip, before returning. You're working pretty hard most of the time, logging about 5 hours per day.

We start and end early because the weather in the mountains is much better earlier in the day, with lighter winds. Even though we're equatorial and don't get fronts, we have the sun which heats up the mountains and you get winds that come up the valleys. Most of the airstrips are oriented with an uphill landing, so you'd be landing with tailwinds later in the day. From about 10am onward, you'll start to get these winds and you don't go to the more treacherous airstrips. We end around lunchtime for that safety reason alone. Once we've finished up, I head home for some cycling or kayaking, eat dinner, watch a little TV, chat with some local pilots, and am in bed by 8 or 9pm every night.

The Pros

We get a nice work-holiday balance. We'll work 4 weeks on duty, then have 2 weeks off duty. I can shift that around sometimes and take a month off or something like that, so it's reasonably flexible. This job is nice in that the company provides everything. All we really have to do is fly the airplane. Housing, meals, transportation, and even laundry service is provided. When I'm on holiday, I'm on holiday and have nothing to do with the company, so I can just enjoy my vacation and relax. This schedule allows me to sort of move around the world. I've got friends all over the place. It's a nice balance for me.

The Cons

It's difficult to meet people out here. And whenever you're on vacation, it's never quite long enough to establish a proper relationship. Apart from that, you have to get used to living in the 3rd world; it's not an easy place to live. I know a lot of guys who got here thinking they'd be here for a couple of years and left after just a few months. They realized it just wouldn't work out for them. Life is slower here; we have a lot of power cuts, so when the air conditioner goes out in the middle of the night and you're sweating away, it can be hard to get sleep. We also have a lot of tropical diseases. I know a lot of guys who've gotten malaria or dengue fever, so you've got these hazards as well. It's a tough lifestyle in a way, but the balance is working out just fine for me.

Pilot Retention And Qualifications

On the whole, this is a transient job. The company knows that and adapts accordingly. They expect most people to fly for about 2 years with the company: 1 year as a copilot on the Cessna C208 Caravan and 1 year as a captain. After which, most pilots will have accumulated about 1,500 hours of total time, which is that magic number that makes you a little more employable to the airlines. I suppose that I was a bit of an anomaly in that respect; I've been with Susi Air for just over 5 years now. I'm a little bit older than most of the guys who seem to be in their mid-twenties.

I'll probably be out here for a little bit longer, I'm still really enjoying it. There's nothing available right now that would be more enjoyable than what I get to do today. Ultimately, I could see myself flying a Pilatus PC12, KingAir, or maybe even a little business jet. I really like the variety of flying I get to do, and want to continue that into my next job. Today, I probably get to fly to more destinations in a week than many airline guys get to fly to in a couple of years.

When I was hired at Susi Air, I had 230 hours of total time. Susi Air still hires low-time pilots, but it can vary a lot month to month. Due to a high turnover rate of pilots, the seniority scales change very quickly. There was a lot of added training when I switched over to the Turbo Porter; with the more risky type of flying, I saw a big increase in training and safety standards.

Salary Ranges And Benefits

Starting salaries are about $700-$800 per month, going up to $2,200-$2,600 per month for Caravan Captains. These are after-tax numbers. Remember that when we fly with Susi Air, all of our expenses are paid for. If you don't want to, you really don't have to spend much of the money you earn. You really will just need to use that money for personal holidays.

The salary scale is currently $3,300-$4,000 for non-Papua Porter pilots and $4,700-$7,700 for Porter pilots flying in Papua. For pilots in Papua, we make a little more money because of the added risks and harder living conditions.

The Company

Susi Air is one of Indonesia's largest charter airlines. The majority of our aircraft are Cessna Caravans (there are about 40 of them in the fleet), but we also have 9 Pilatus Porters, a couple of helicopters, 3 Piaggio P180 Avantis, and a number of other aircraft. Susi Air focuses on connecting the remote parts of Indonesia to more mid-sized hubs, where passengers can board flights on international airlines flying overseas. Susi Air is definitely focused more on those small, remote villages, with small runways, connecting them to the rest of the world.

The Airplane

The Pilatus PC6 has the world's most uncomfortable seat; Pilatus really should've switched that one out! I can only tolerate that seat for about a half-hour at a time. Aside from the seat, it's a fantastic airplane to fly. It's of course in a taildragger configuration, which allows it to operate into and out of runways that normal-configured aircraft wouldn't be able to handle. It's overall a beautiful plane to fly. The Turbo Porter is a pretty sizable aircraft; we take off at over 2.8 tons. But despite that, it's amazingly maneuverable due to aerodynamic instability. If you let go of the controls, you'll end up turning off in one direction or another. If you're in a turn and let go, it will begin tightening the turn by itself. You have to be quite hands-on all the time. The STOL (short take-off and landing) characteristics of the plane make the Pilatus PC6 perfect for short, high mountain strips.

Specific Qualifications

You've got to be open to a whole new lifestyle. For a lot of guys, this might be the first time really leaving their home country. Living in the 3rd world can be an incredibly frustrating place to try to get things done. The bureaucracy and paperwork here can take a very long time to get done. Newly hired pilots might have to wait 4-6 weeks or more just to get the paper and documentation in order to begin flying the line. You've got to be really patient around here. Most of the ex-pats are pretty social guys, which you need to be, especially in a culture you don't know much about.

Advice

Have a basic plan for where you want to end up, but don't overly focus on it. If you're obsessed about getting into the right seat of a 737, you can never know if you'll get there. Be willing to adapt your plan and take up any sort of flying job that comes your way. If you're getting paid to fly an airplane, it doesn't really matter what it is or where it is. Be willing to move around and take that odd-job, that's how you'll get to that end goal. And don't forget to enjoy it along the way. Don't be frustrated just because you're not doing exactly what you wanted to do; take a step back and actually look at what you're doing right now. I know many guys who fly Caravans in the neatest part of the world and they're frustrated. They want be flying something bigger or faster, but they haven't stepped back and appreciated what they're doing right now. In short, be willing to have a plan, but be willing to change it as you go along.

Matt, you truly have one of the coolest pilot careers out there! Thank you for taking us into the jungles of Papua and showing us why you love flying in the bush. Click Here for more information about Matt's story and follow him on his blog, Bush Flying Diaries.

Is this a job you'd like to have? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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