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Samaritan Aviation stops in Willmar

Mark Palm, front, and Bryan Yaeger visit Willmar Tuesday after showing their plane at the Experimental Aircraft Association show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and in Minneapolis. The plane is destined for Papua New Guinea, where they fly medical emergency flights along the East Sepik River for the Christian organization Samaritan Aviation. (TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR — Flying over the sea of corn that separates Minneapolis from Willmar might make this seem like a remote destination, unless you are Mark Palm, who really knows the definition of remote.

The Cessna plane equipped with amphibious landing pontoons he landed Tuesday at the Willmar Municipal Airport is destined by the end of the year for the East Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Crocodiles lurk in its waters. Floating logs, subsistence fishermen in dugout canoes, even 100-foot-long trees are common obstacles found along the 700-mile long ribbon of water he uses as a runway.

Volatile weather from the South Pacific can stir those waters with sudden storms of thunder and lightning too.

“Every landing is different, which keeps it exciting,’’ said Palm after his mundane landing in Willmar.

Many of his landings in Papua New Guinea can be the difference between life and death for those waiting for the telltale sound of his floatplane.

Palm operates the only air ambulance serving this remote portion of Papua New Guinea. It is the only floatplane based on the entire island, the second largest island in the world.

The East Sepik province he serves is separated from the rest of Papua New Guinea by the river. No bridge crosses the river. Nor are there roads to reach through most of its length.

Palm is the founder and pilot for Samaritan Aviation. It is a Christian-based medical service for the area. One hospital in the community of Wewak serves more than 500,000 people scattered in villages along the tropical river. It can take a week or more to reach the hospital by canoe, the chief means of getting around for many of those living along the river.

It can be an hour and a half flight to reach a mother experiencing a breech birth, a victim poisoned by snake venom, or a man who has lost a hand to a machete or suffered a trauma wound from a spear fight with an enemy from another tribe, according to Palm.

The Cessna he flew to Willmar will be the second plane acquired by the organization he launched in Papua New Guinea in 2000. The first is the same model Cessna. It was acquired for $15,000, and originally used by Palm to transport doctors to help people in Mexico.

He made Willmar one of 10 stops in the United States this summer as part of the organization’s Every Life Matters tour.

His seemingly surprise stop in Willmar is nothing compared to the unexpected visit he received some years ago at the organization’s office in Montrose, Colorado. Jason Schwitters of Clara City had read about Samaritan Aviation’s service in Papua New Guinea. He was so impressed he stopped at the office unannounced to learn about it firsthand.

In 2011, Schwitters made a trip to Papua New Guinea. He is now a member of the board of directors for the nonprofit organization. He invited Palm and fellow Samaritan Aviation pilot Bryan Yaeger to visit Willmar and tell their story to a local audience.

Palm and Yaeger had showed the newly acquired 1981 Cessna floatplane at the Experimental Aircraft Association show in Oshkosh, Wis., last week to launch their fundraising tour. After stops in Minneapolis and Willmar, they are on their way to cities in Texas, Arizona and California before the plane is shipped to Papua New Guinea.

Palm grew up a minister’s son in Santa Cruz, California. He said God called him to do this work when he was a 16-year-old helping build houses in Mexico. He and a friend visited Papua New Guinea in 1994, when he was 19. He saw the need for the air ambulance service, and returned home to become a pilot and create what is now Samaritan Aviation.

It’s taken years to put it all together, but Samaritan Aviation is now proving to be a life saver in the remote corner of the world. The Papua New Guinea government helped pay one-half the cost of the newly acquired plane. Donations from individuals and Christian churches and organizations provided the other half.

Palm said his first medical flight in Papua New Guinea was made on Good Friday in 2011 when he flew up river to rescue a mother experiencing a difficult birth. Her husband reached her at the hospital by canoe a week later. They named their new son Mark in his honor.

Not all of the flights have the drama of an ambulance-style rescue, but all are important. One of the most important involved bringing medical staff and medicines to stomp out a cholera outbreak that had infected 90 people in three days. Three people died, but the timely intervention saved many others, he said.

Last year Palm and volunteers flew 117 emergency flights and made 50 medical deliveries along the river. Medicines must otherwise be transported by canoe.

Demand for the floatplane just keeps growing, he said. He had to turn down 18 emergency calls last year when the plane was down for maintenance.

Hence the need for this second plane now on its way, and the call for support from sponsors in the U.S. “We can’t do what we’re doing over there without the support of people here,’’ he said.

Learn more samaviation.com

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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