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Starting from Scratch in Myanmar

How do you begin to work in an isolated community that has no outside access? We spoke to Andy K, Project Team Leader for the construction of a new airstrip in Lailenpi to find out!

Story by Emily Davies

Flying into some of the most isolated places in the world is the foundation of MAF’s ministry, but without working airstrips we can do nothing. Developing an airstrip in a place that has no outside access is often the first step to establishing a MAF programme and this is precisely what we’re doing in the mountainous jungle community of Lailenpi, Myanmar. Until three years ago this community had very limited road access, and for seven months of the year, heavy rains make travel unreliable at best, impossible at worst. There is desperate need for these people to have access to the outside world – and all the socio-economic, educational and health benefits that access will bring.

Progress, as is often the case with these things, can seem chronically slow. Permissions must be sought from governments, discussions must be had with aviation authorities, and assessments must be carried out to see whether plans can ever be achieved with the available resources.

In 2017 in partnership with Burmese charity Health & Hope, MAF was given the go-ahead to begin work in Lailenpi. We had the permission, we had the plans; it was now time to start assessing the land to see if an airstrip in this location was viable.

Andy K from Engineering Ministries International (EMI), India, is leading the team responsible for building the airstrip. We sat down with him to find out more:

What’s the chosen site for the airstrip like?

Lailenpi is on the ridge of a mountain, with very steep slopes on all sides. Some of the slopes are steeper than 45°, as you can imagine it will be very difficult to build on!

Sounds complicated! Why have you decided to build the airstrip on the ridge of a mountain if it’s so difficult?

In a region that had nearly 4.5m of rain in 2017, dealing with storm water runoff is a serious issue. The ridge placement makes the runway less susceptible to long term erosion problems that would otherwise need addressing, as the 850m long strip crosses small valleys. In heavy rains these small valleys carry significant amounts of water which would have to go under or around the runway. So placing it on the ridge as much as possible greatly simplifies the construction and future maintenance of the runway.

There seems to be a lot of drilling happening, what’s that for?

That’s geotechnical investigation. It involves drilling holes along the runway centreline and in the sloped areas on all sides of the runway survey; 28 shallow holes (up to 4m deep) were drilled by hand and 20 with a diesel drilling rig, between 9m and 30m deep. The purpose of the drilling is to identify the soil and rock properties of the earth. The properties, determined by field and laboratory tests, will be used by the civil engineers for nearly every calculation, including the maximum slopes of the cut and fill surfaces, the exact specifications for the compaction of the fill material, the amount of settlement to expect, and the thickness of the gravel beneath the paved runway surface.

It sounds really in depth. So accuracy is crucial?

An accurate survey is crucial to the design of the project so that the exact location of the runway and all of the associated slopes can be precisely located. This will lead to an accurate estimation of the amount of earthwork required, which allows for proper budgeting of time and money.

Lailenpi is really isolated – the reason we’re there! But how will you be getting all the materials on site so that you can start building?

The only reason building this runway is possible, is due to the fact that there is a local road contractor who is based in Lailenpi. MAF will be able to contract with this company to utilise the tracked excavators, bulldozer and other equipment already on site. There is some additional equipment to mobilize for the project, specifically dump trucks and a vibratory compactor, but taking advantage of the equipment already on site in Lailenpi is a huge benefit to the project.

Logistically it must be a huge challenge?

Logistics would be a challenge if the project were near a big city! Being at least two days drive from anywhere will require a lot of advance planning and placement of material. More than 1000 litres of diesel will be consumed daily, and all will be delivered in the back of small trucks in barrels. The roads to the region are very limited after monsoon season starts in May, and are not reliably open again most years until December. This means that once we get started, equipment and fuel or anything that needs to be transported by truck and not by motorcycle or small boat, need to be pre-positioned before monsoon season so that construction can continue during breaks in the rain.

Lailenpi will be one of MAF’s most expensive airstrips to date. Why will it cost so much?

The primary reason that it will be expensive is that it will be on top of an untouched mountain in an incredibly hard to reach corner of Myanmar. The final design is still being worked on, but we are estimating to have to move 400,000 cubic metres of earth in order to level the 850m x 30m runway. With the size of dump trucks that we are planning to use, that is 40,000 loads!

The other reason that it is so expensive is that the design is following the standards for airport construction by the Myanmar Department of Civil Aviation. These standards are comparable to small runway standards in UK or Europe, requiring a maximum longitudinal slope of 2°, a 30m wide flat strip for just a 15m wide runway, and an asphalt or concrete surface. MAF Myanmar is developing a relationship with the Department of Civil Aviation and hopes to see less stringent requirements developed for rural airstrips in the future, but this first runway will be built by MAF to the current standards.

If all goes to plan, Lailenpi airstrip will be operational in May 2020, bringing with it opportunities for development, socio-economic progress, education and health benefits, opening access up to approximately 40,000 people. Importantly for us, it will be the beginning of an exciting new chapter in our history – adding Myanmar to our list of operational programmes.

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