SEPANG – Known as the last frontier of Sarawak, Ba’kelalan is a difficult 8-hour drive, half of which is on a tough logging road on a four-wheel drive, from the nearest town of Lawas. Since the nation-wide Movement Control Order was imposed on March 18 to prevent Covid-19 infections from spreading, the communities living here have relied on air transport for medical supplies and essentials like sugar, cooking oil and flour.
In early April, the first food-aid mission from Miri landed at the Ba’kelalan STOLport, or short take-off and landing airport.
“Our STOLports are critical hubs for vital supplies and services. Air travel is usually the fastest access to remote rural areas and settlements that are hard to reach by land,” said Michael Racha Agung, a Lun Bawang native working as an airport operative at the Ba’kelalan STOLport.
“Our priority is to ensure airfields and landing strips are operating like clockwork so that flights and cargo can reach us safely.” he said.
Malaysia Airports operates twelve STOLports in Sarawak to provide reliable connectivity to isolated communities throughout the country, which is a key socio-economic contribution. Its STOLports provide sustainable job opportunities to local talents and its operatives are mainly natives, who are well versed with the lie of the land. In addition, these STOLports also serve as links to more business prospects from other industry sectors, contributing to the local economic development.
STOLport staff such as Agung have been working with the state government, the Ministry of Health (MoH), Ministry of Transport (MoT) and aviation authorities to coordinate national chartered flight planning and landing slots to expedite supply chains and critical aid.
“These missions are essential,” said Agung, who has worked at Ba’kelalan STOLport for more than 20 years.
“Ba’kelalan’s remoteness is both a blessing and a curse in this pandemic,” he continued. The enormous distance has helped limit the spread of the virus, but it has also made it difficult for daily necessities to reach the villages regularly. Even then, aircraft sometimes cannot land due to bad weather and low visibility conditions that sweep the highland and its mountainous terrain.
Getting around in rural areas has always been a challenge, said airport operative Alice Martin who has worked at Ba’kelalan STOLport for more than 30 years. With the Covid-19 pandemic and the restriction on movement, the communities are experiencing new challenges.
“The closest hospital to Ba’kelalan is located in Lawas, so the villagers here rely on the local health clinic which has limited medicine and less sophisticated medical equipment to deal with this outbreak,” she said.
“We are working with RELA (the Malaysian Volunteer Corps) to ensure Ba’kelalan is prepared for any outbreak and if we need to evacuate patients to Hospital Lawas by air,” Martin said.
Agung and Martin have been vigilant on sanitising the Ba’kelalan STOLport to safeguard the wellbeing of its passengers and the community it serves. The small operations team combines its efforts with the local medical staff at the government health sub-centre to carry out sanitisation measures and temperature checks at the STOLport.
Malaysia Airports’ Ba’kelalan STOLport handles flights between Lawas STOLport, Bario STOLport and Miri Airport which include four scheduled weekly flights by MASWing’s 18-seater Twin Otter planes to transport returning native residents, cargo helicopters and ad-hoc flights by MoH’s Flying Doctors of Malaysia medical services.
Malaysia Airports’ STOLports across Sarawak continue to be central in coordinating with MoH, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) and MASWings to ensure supply of basic needs and transportation connectivity to the remote East Malaysian communities.