Aviation journey

The people of Rotuma gather to see the Air Pacific BAC 1-11 which landed on the island in 1981. Picture: SUPPLIED/HAROLD GATTY'S LEGACY

AS aerodromes across the country continued to evolve in the years after the World War II, the need to construct more airstrips outside the main ports of entry continued to gain prominence.

Rotuma, already considered one of the remotest islands, was identified as the site for a new aerodrome in 1981.

With a new airport came new staff members and among those recruited for the task was aerodrome information officer Antonio Muera.

Hot on the heels of his success in managing numerous aerodromes on mainland Fiji, Mr Muera was transferred to the newly established Rotuma Airport in 1981.

It was here that he was subjected to a historical occurrence for the island, the landing of a British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) 1-11 74-seat passenger jet.

Piloted by Rotuma’s own Captain Kava Konrote, the memory of this event is still fresh in the mind of Mr Muera.

“That was piloted by the late Captain Kava Konrote and nobody thought he could land such a big aircraft in that time,” the 70-year-old recalls.

“He did a very good landing and when I went to check, you could hardly see the tyre marks.

“That was the first time many saw an aircraft of that size, there were a few times smaller aircraft came in so a lot of people came over to see.”

At that time, he was to spend only three days at the airport.

He ended up staying for 28 years until his retirement in 2009. Today, he still resides on the island.

“We had a crash here in 1987 but luckily, no lives were lost.

“Now, we have improved and also have firefighters who have been trained.

“Before, when I was working up in the tower, if you want to call the aircraft and our VHF only worked when you saw the aircraft. Then, you can talk to the pilot.

“Recently, I asked Captain Sen (of Northern Air) and he said you can get the radio from 130 miles out, which is a big improvement and now we have modern equipment for the weather especially and you know, Rotuma weather changes very quickly so this is a huge improvement.”

He has spent over 40 years in civil aviation, starting in 1969 after leaving St Johns College in Cawaci, Ovalau.

“I was with my friends and everyone asked me to be a sailor and then when I talked to my parents, my mother told me ‘Son, if you get married, if your wife or children are sick, you can’t take them on board’.”

He then decided to join the aviation field and took heed of a vacancy advertised by Fiji Airports that was looking for a flight service officer.

“I’ve been to all the major airports, I’ve worked as airport manager in Savusavu and transferred to Labasa after.”

Today, his son has followed in his footsteps.

Bryan Tanu, 40, is a flight information officer for Fiji Airports based at Rotuma Airport. Because of its isolation, Rotuma Airport has had its share of challenges over the years. A grass landing strip which was almost always left in a poor state after bad weather tops that list.

This year, Fiji Airports invested almost $12.8 million to construct a new chip seal runway at the airport.

This investment is likely to minimise flight cancellations to the island as there were numerous instances in the past where people were left stranded on the island after flights were cancelled because of unfavourable weather.

According to Fiji Airports executive chairman Faiz Khan there were a number of challenges faced while working in an isolated environment located 587 kilometres from Nadi.

Mr Khan said the project spent about $500,000 in barging costs and $650,000 in flight charters.

“Each charter flight cost the project $23,000 and there were about 29 charters,” he says.

“There were five barges at a cost of around $100,000 each. Fiji Airports received no subsidies on these daunting charter costs but persevered on.”

Now, there is hope that improved facilities will not only result in reduced air fares, but also allow more people to visit their families on mainland Rotuma.

Antonio Muera, right, with his son Bryan Tanu. Picture: SHAYAL DEVI

An aerial shot of the completed chip seal runway at Rotuma Airport. Picture: SHAYAL DEVI

Bryan Tanu at Rotuma Airport. Picture: SHAYAL DEVI

  •  Next week: Read more about how Drasa, one of the most prominent sugarcane farming areas in Lautoka, was home to an airfield.

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