Mike Collins Archive

Goodbye, Goodyear blimp

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I had a chance to say goodbye this morning to what, for many of us, feels like an old friend. N3A, the Spirit of Goodyear–one of the company’s three blimps and the one traditionally based in Akron, Ohio–was on her farewell tour. The airship has left Ohio for the last time, and was passing through Frederick, Maryland, on her way to Florida. There, in a few months, she’ll be decommissioned.

Goodbye Goodyear blimp

The Spirit of Goodyear in thick fog.

Thanks to recent rains, the ground here has been pretty wet. Combined with a narrow temperature/dew point spread and calm winds overnight, morning fog at the airport was guaranteed. At 8:45, you barely could see the blimp, moored in the airport’s infield.

When the fog begins to lift, it lifts quickly.

When the fog begins to lift, it lifts quickly.

A few minutes later, the fog began to lift. It lifted so quickly that you could watch it go.

As soon as the fog lifted, N3A did too--headed to Florida and eventual decommissioning.

As soon as the fog lifted, N3A did too–headed to Florida and eventual decommissioning.

The Spirit of Goodyear followed soon after, soaring skyward toward the southwest. (I’m sure the crew had to circumnavigate the Baltimore/Washington Class B airspace, just like the rest of us do.) Yes, there will be a new airship next year, but it won’t be a blimp–it will be a zeppelin. “The Goodyear Zeppelin”–that’s going to take some getting used to.


Around the world, by the numbers

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Many of you have asked for statistics about the trip, and some of them are starting to come in:

Number of days: 25

Number of flight legs: 30 (fit into 20 flying days; there were five nonflying days on the schedule)

Distance traveled: 26,568 nautical miles (4,930 nm greater than the circumference of the Earth). Note, this is my distance traveled; Mike Laver’s journey began and ended in Aiken, S.C., so he logged two more flight legs and an additional 907 nm.

Total flight time: 98.1 hours

Average speed: 271 knots (312 mph)

Average flight leg: 886 nautical miles (1,020 miles)

Longest flight leg: 1,232 nautical miles (1,418 miles), from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Minot, North Dakota

Shortest flight leg: 93 nautical miles (107 miles), from Straubing, Germany, to Salzburg, Austria. Why so short? We wanted to visit MT Propeller in Straubing and the Red Bull Air Museum in Salzburg–why drive between the two, especially when fuel costs less in Salzburg? The next shortest flight leg was 674 nautical miles, from Broome to Ayers Rock, Australia.

Notebooks filled: 2.5

Photographs taken: 6,903

Video recorded: 175.5 GB

We’re still working on total fuel consumption, most expensive and least expensive fuel, highest fees, and similar numbers. However, many of those costs were billed through our handler, BaseOps, or primary fuel supplier, World Fuel. It could be another month or two before all the bills make their way to Mike’s business.

In the meantime, please take a look at the October 3 installment of AOPA Live This Week; Associate Producer Paul Harrop crafted a nice segment based primarily on video that I shot during the trip. The segment starts at about 4:20 into the program.

My wife really likes the homecoming segment on the September 19 AOPA Live This Week (very early in the show, about 1:30)…I’m not sure whether it’s the video itself or just the fact that I had returned from my longest trip ever.




iPhone: Latest cause of runway incursions

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Did you know that the Apple iPhone is causing runway incursions in Fairbanks, Alaska? No, it’s not Siri run amok–apparently, drivers from outside the area were following their iPhones’ built-in map app to get to the airport. The app directed them onto Taxiway Bravo and from there, it’s easy to see the terminal and drive across the main runway to reach it, the Alaska Dispatch reported.

I think we’ve all heard stories about drivers blindly following directions from their GPS navigators. Question: Is an instrument rating required for blind driving? An instrument rating might not have solved the navigation problems, but at least the drivers would have known to call the tower for clearance before crossing Runway 2 Left/20 Right.

Coincidentally, I was through Fairbanks late Sept. 15 and early Sept. 16, flying around the world with Mike Laver in his Mitsubishi MU-2, but nobody at the airport made mention of the first incident. We were watching for wandering bucks on our early morning departure, but a wayward Buick would have been a heck of a surprise.
Don’t fret about flying into Fairbanks now, however; the problem has been fixed–sort of. Apple created a temporary “you can’t get there from here” fix for the iPhone map app, according to the Alaska Dispatch. Directions to the airport have been removed from the map, unless you type in the airport terminal’s exact street address. What, you say you need to get to the terminal? Enter 6450 Airport Way, Fairbanks, AK into your iPhone–or request a taxi clearance.

Day 25: Minot to Frederick, Maryland

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Our last day gets off to an unusual start when we arrive at the airport to learn that the nose gear of Mike Laver’s Mitsubishi MU-2, N50ET, had been accidentally damaged when the airplane was moved after we left it the night before. However, the FBO had summoned a mechanic who replaced the sheared bolt, and had prepared a logbook entry documenting the repair (for nonpilots readers, unlike your car, any repairs or maintenance on an aircraft is documented in a permanent record). Mike pronounces the repair satisfactory, and we depart on the final leg to Frederick. Had the problem been major, our 25-day journey around the world could have been halted abruptly, just one leg and 1,188 nautical miles from home.

Mike Laver before sunrise

Mike Laver checks an electronic chart on his iPad (we carried paper charts, too) as dawn approaches.

The clear black sky is full of stars as we complete the preflight and load the airplane. We take off VFR climbing eastward and pick up our clearance in flight as we pass small clusters of lights that mark North Dakota’s farming communities. Shortly a thin line of light along the eastern horizon starts to grow taller, and it separates into colors–orange along the horizon and a band of blue above.

Our flight plan was filed via airways, and included myriad slight turns left and right. Mike asks Minneapolis Center if we can have a clearance direct to the Indian Head VOR in southern Pennsylvania, and it is approved. “We aim to please,” the cheerful controller says. “And you do,” Mike replies.

Sunrise over North Dakota

The sun rises at 25,000 feet near Fargo, North Dakota.

Now a red band forms below the blue-and-orange horizon, and right around Fargo the sun’s disk begins to break the horizon. Below, fingers of low clouds are reaching over Fargo from the south. Even better, we have a 10-knot tailwind! And we enjoy slight tailwinds almost all the way to the East Coast.

Airliners converge on Eau Clair

The black diamonds represent airliners heading to Eau Clair (EAU) to hold.

We pass north of Minneapolis and Eau Claire, where a string of Minneapolis arrivals are being stacked in holding patterns. In fact, there are so many, the controller needs our altitude, and we’re assigned a modest vector to the left of our course. Our detour is short, and we’re thankful we’re going to Frederick and not Minneapolis this morning.

Sunlight over Lake Michigan

It’s seldom this clear over Lake Michigan, at least when I’m flying there.

It’s clear over Lake Michigan, which reflects the morning sun, and we pass over Grand Rapids, Michigan, the intersecting concrete runways of its airport in stark contrast to the green grass. This is a familiar route for the first time in 25 days. We pass north of Jackson, Michigan, where I lived in what now feels like an earlier life; between Detroit and Toledo; and angle across Lake Erie and Cleveland. There’s Kelleys Island, Ohio, on Lake Erie with its intersecting runways, and the amusement park at Cedar Point.

Spinning prop reflects sun

Mike Laver’s MU-2, N50ET, has flown us all the way around the world without any mechanical issues.

Near Cleveland, Center gives us a minor reroute–direct Morgantown, West Virginia; direct Martinsburg, West Virginia; then direct to Frederick. The change adds only 20 miles to our flight. This also is very familiar. We pass Akron, Ohio, and fly southwest of Pittsburgh under beautiful, clear skies with occasional clouds below. The farmland of Ohio gives way to the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania and mountains of West Virginia, and before we know it, we’re descending to land in Frederick.

Welcome back to Frederick

Friends and colleagues welcome us on our arrival to the AOPA ramp at Frederick.

Waiting for us on the AOPA ramp is a large group of my AOPA friends and coworkers, as well as my lovely bride, and while it’s been a fantastic trip–it’s absolutely great to get home. I’d be remiss not to thank Mike Laver; my colleagues at AOPA; and especially my wife and family for the opportunity.

Mike Laver and Mike Collins after trip

Mike Laver and Mike Collins at Frederick, after 25 days and 97.5 hours of flying.

It’s been a very remarkable, and enjoyable, trip. We saw many fascinating sights, breezed through quite a few countries (and stayed a little longer in a few), landed during a monsoon in Indonesia, and got out of Japan less than a day ahead of a typhoon that caused flooding and evacuations. Mike and I have spent right about 97.5 hours together in N50ET. We’ve been too busy to keep up with the mileages for each leg, and other trip statistics; I will calculate our distance travelled and other relevant information, and post it in one or more wrap-up posts on this blog.

One of the most unexpected, and gratifying, aspects of this trip has been your interest. I’ve been impressed and humbled by the number of emails you’ve sent to me at AOPA (and through the DeLorme InReach messenger, which has the ability to send and receive 160-character messages); here on this blog, and through Facebook. I’m glad you found our adventures interesting. If you’d like to read about the trip from Mike Laver’s perspective, please visit his blog on the Air 1st website (click on the “Around the World-N50ET” link). I’ll be doing that myself, as soon as I get some sleep–this flying through 10 time zones in three days is really starting to get to me. Tonight will be an early night.


Day 24: Fairbanks to Minot, North Dakota

Monday, September 16th, 2013

The beauty of Alaska is always breathtaking, but it’s an especially glorious welcome back to the States after traveling almost all the way around the world. Day 24 of our 25-day journey begins before dawn in Fairbanks, where the temperature is 34.6 degrees Fahrenheit when I wake up. On our cab ride to the airport, Mike Laver is concerned that there might be frost on his Mitsubishi MU-2, which would delay our departure. Fortunately, there is no frost, although one of the line crew said there was frost on all the airplanes yesterday; it had rained the day before, and all that moisture found the aluminum to be irresistible in the cool air.

Sunrise leaving Fairbanks

The sun rises over a mountain range as we climb out of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Color is starting to paint the eastern sky as we preflight N50ET, and we take off from Runway 20 Right in the predawn light. Just after liftoff we cross the tree-lined Tanana River; most of the trees already bear the golden yellow of fall, and the vignette is beautiful.

Mike Laver contemplates an Alaskan sunrise

Mike Laver contemplates an Alaskan sunrise from the left seat of N50ET.

Climbing eastward above the river’s broad valley, we watch as the sun rises in front of us and slowly drizzles golden light from the tops of the tall, snow-capped mountain range to our south. Glancing down I see Allen Army Airfield (PABI) in Delta Junction, still slumbering in the valley’s shadows.

Distant Alaska peak

Tall peaks jut from the shadows and low clouds.

Further to the south, even taller peaks jut spectacularly into the sunshine, and the low morning sun gives their snow caps an orange glow. For a while I just sit and watch, taking in the beauty as the majesty of Alaska glides by at 275 knots less than 25,000 feet below.

The sky clouds up, however, as we approach Canada and cross the Yukon Territory as we make our way to Ketchikan, Alaska, for our fuel stop. Unfavorable winds aloft push our groundspeed on this 812-nautical-mile leg down to 245 knots, about the slowest we’ve seen on the trip. We’re in and out of the clouds, with continual light chop at our cruising altitude of Flight Level 250, about 25,000 feet.

Snow-covered Canadian mountains

Mountains in western Canada are barely visible through the clouds.

“Two hundred thirty! Unbelievable!” exclaims Mike a little later, after our progress slows further. “Sixty knots of headwind. Oh, well, we’re a lot quicker than a lot of airplanes.” Ironically, our true airspeed is a sprightly 296 knots, on a fuel burn of 70 gallons per hour. “For our fuel burn, that’s an incredible true airspeed,” he notes. To conserve fuel Mike is not cruising at full power, even when the headwind pushes our groundspeed to 225 knots.

The sun marches higher in the sky, accelerated by our relentless push to the east-southeast–across three more time zones today. Can you say 21-hour day? We pass to the west of Juneau, which is obscured by clouds. A couple of times we find ourselves flying through cloud valleys almost as expansive as what we saw on the Earth’s surface earlier.

Arriving at Ketchikan

Shooting the approach into Ketchikan. Do you see the runway?

We shoot an approach to Ketchikan and break out of the clouds into the center of a fjord that points to the airport. We land on Runway 11 as a de Havilland Beaver on floats touches down abeam us on the parallel City Harbor. At least three large cruise ships are docked on the other side of the harbor, and a steady stream of floatplanes–I think they’re all Beavers–stays busy giving scenic flights that, for many passengers, are their own flight of a lifetime.

Next to us on the ramp a FedEx twin turboprop unloads freight into an array of trucks. But there’s no time to watch these shows; the fuel truck has two nozzles and two fuelers, and they replenish our supply of Jet-A in each tank simultaneously–not only saving time but also avoiding the need to alternate the filling of the airplane’s wingtip tanks. We are able to land, fuel, pay the bill, use the restroom, and take off again–all in about 24 minutes.

We climb through low clouds into bright sunshine as we begin our next leg, 1,228 nautical miles from Ketchikan to Minot, North Dakota. We’re handed off almost immediately to Vancouver Center, which clears us to the Edmonton VOR, located 633 nautical miles to the east. Well before we get there, we’re cleared direct to Minot.

Crabbing into the wind

We crab into the unforecast headwind to maintain our desired ground track.

Clouds over the mountains of western Canada give way to Alberta’s vast, partly cloudy plains between Edmonton and Calgary, with their endless pattern of checkerboard fields. Somewhere else, aircraft are asking Edmonton Center for deviations around weather. We don’t have any rain or menacing clouds, but the winds for this portion of the flight are not at all what was forecast; the winds aloft have not shifted and instead of being neutral for us, we find an increasing headwind. Mike spends a lot of time checking his fuel calculations, tweaking the power settings, and then double-checking, to be certain we’ll land with at least an hour’s fuel reserve in Minot. We hold a hefty right crab into the quartering flow, which resulted in headwinds of 30 knots or more before the wind finally dropped off.

Lake Diefenbaker

The lowering sun reflects off Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan.

The skies are mostly clear as we fly across the large wheat fields of Saskatchewan. The sun is sinking in the west as we pass near Riverhurst, Saskatchewan, reflecting off the lazy waters of the wide Lake Diefenbaker. We’re less than an hour from Minot now and unlike yesterday, we’ll get there before the sun sets.

At Regina we turn right for the last 180 miles to Minot. When we land, we refuel the airplane and go to the hotel; no Customs, immigration, or other procedures are required. Because we did not land in Canada, and were just overflying it, technically we never left the United States–so it’s not necessary to reenter the country. We could have planned a fuel stop in Canada, but that would have required entry into Canada and a return to the United States. Mike felt that by now we’d be tired of the whole process. He was right.

Dinner is at a Mexican restaurant, and we try to turn in early to rest for the last day of our odyssey–and my final leg back to Frederick. Then Mike will have a fairly short flight back to his home base, in Aiken, South Carolina.

Day 23: Petropavlovsk to Fairbanks, Alaska

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Monday morning dawns rainy and overcast; a mountain peak visible from my hotel window is obscured by clouds. The fourth-floor view is quite different from yesterday’s 41st-floor perspective of Nagoya, although except for the temperature, the weather is rather similar. We consider stopping in the hotel cafe for breakfast, but decide that with today’s planned flying and the time-zone-shortened day (we will cross four time zones and the International Date Line), getting going is the better option–then we play the what-if game until our driver arrives 10 minutes late. “What if we’d gone to the cafe right when it opened at 7:30? What if it opened a few minutes early?” I don’t mind another Clif Bar, especially after my stash came so close to supplying dinner last night.

Petropavlovsk hotel

Our short visit allows us to see very little of Russia. This is from in front of our hotel.

I had been looking forward to seeing Russia, but most of what I see is on the ride back to the airport Monday morning (it will become Sunday again when we cross the Bering Strait). The city of Kamchatsky appears similar to a U.S. city of similar size, with a mix of newer, often brightly colored buildings and clearly older structures. Outside of the city we drive along miles of tree-lined roads, with some leaves starting to show hints of fall color, that are punctuated occasionally by brightly colored, cinder-block bus shelters. There must be unseen homes behind the trees, however, because several shelters have people in them, and there are pedestrians along the rainy roadway.

Closer to the airport we pass through residential areas that are somewhat ramshackle; many homes have one or more apparently disused vehicles, some missing wheels or fenders. Closer to the airport there are a number of large apartment buildings that look as though they could be former barracks, leading me to believe the facility is a former–or current–military base.

Terrain around Petropavlovsk airport

Our departure from Petropavlovsk clearly shows the terrain surrounding the airport.

We meet our handler at the terminal, bypass one security checkpoint, then have our bags x-rayed and walk through a magnetometer at a second, apparently for crews and airport workers; on the bus out to the airplane, she gives us a weather package for this 1,004-nautical-mile leg, and discusses the two departure options. We can take off from either end of the single runway (the adjacent 16 Right/34 Left is under construction), “Just ask air traffic control.” Because of terrain near the airport, we decide a 34 Right departure will be preferable–even though we’ll have to backtrack the runway’s full 11,158-foot length.

Follow Me truck

Our Follow Me car in Petropavlovsk leads us all the way to the runway.

Last night it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere, but in daylight, there are two terminal buildings nearby, and a handful of twin-engine turboprops are a few hundred yards away. As we begin our rainy taxi, a three-engine Russian jet reminiscent of an older Falcon is being towed toward the terminals. Our lengthy taxi up a long taxiway, around the construction, and back down the runway gives us several glimpses of military activity. Off to the right, a transport plane sits in a revetment, surrounded by trees that look as though they could obscure its movement. Closer to the runway, behind a gated taxiway on the left, are a number of fighter jets that look like Sukhois. We bid farewell to our Follow Me truck and begin the long back-taxi, finding the side of the runway smoother than the center. We pass a fenced compound of trucks with radar antennas, and at the approach end of Runway 34 Right is another large ramp with several military transports, and beyond them, quite a few helicopters. Strangely, we see nobody in any of these areas. It’s not Sunday; perhaps the national holiday? Regardless, men and equipment are working on the new runway.

After starting engines early and our taxi tour, we’re airborne at 9:17 a.m. local, 21:17 Z–that’s 17 minutes behind our plan, but not bad under the circumstances. Our departure clearance is to Flight Level 090 (about 9,000 feet) but radar control immediately clears us to FL 250. This is good for terrain clearance and our fuel burn; departures must be above 7,190 feet by RILAT intersection and we make that easily. We start to fly out of the tops at 9,500 feet, and radar control accommodates our request to cut a corner by clearing us direct to GEFAR–which actually cuts two corners.

Most of the leg is in clear air with thick clouds below, but they clear temporarily over the Anadyrskiy Gulf. We look down on a desolate brown peninsula with snow-spotted mountains to our right and sheer cliffs falling to bright blue-green water on the left. Later, a river is seen snaking through a deep, curving valley. We get a slight push from the winds aloft at our cruise power setting until they shift and weaken closer to our destination of Anadyr, Russia, where the ATIS indicates better conditions than were forecast.

Approach to Anadyr

There’s wicked wind shear on the approach to Anadyr; today, at least, it dropped off right at the threshold.

Like Petropavlosk, Anadyr’s runway sits beside a bay, but it’s not surrounded by mountains, and the ILS approach to Runway 1 is very straightforward. But the ATIS included a statement, “Hazardous wind shear on final,” and a helicopter pilot on the approach ahead of us said, in English, “Significant wind shear,” and then talked in Russian with the controller, who also relayed the advisory. Later the pilot said, “Stops at runway.” We appreciated the heads up. Sure enough, there was a pretty wicked wind shear on final, which made it hard to track the localizer. We were below the clouds and had the runway visually. And sure enough, just after crossing the threshold, the shear disappeared.

A marshaller parked us, then left, and there was no sign of our handler. After waiting a few minutes, Mike placed a call to BaseOps–we had a phone number for the handler, but did not know what country code to dial. The handler arrived a few minutes later, very apologetic, because it was an unusually busy day in Anadyr; a charter flight was trying to depart with more than a hundred French tourists aboard and clearing them apparently required all the airport’s resources. Customs and immigration arrived before long; the latter left with our passports and brought them back half an hour later, stamped and ready to go. The fuel truck arrived, and once the proper ladder was procured, fueling went quickly.

I ask the handler about snow here, and we quickly learn we don’t want to be here in the winter. The snow usually starts in September, but sometimes in August, she says. “Maybe today,” says the immigration man. And I guess it could; it’s 8 degrees Celsius so about 45 degrees Fahrenheit at what we think is early afternoon local time. I also ask about a large mural on the terminal building; a cartoon figure of a young girl stands, arms upraised, with Cyrillic characters that read, “The day begins here.” I ask if I can take a photo; the handler says she thinks it would be ok but our friend in the green uniform says, “No pictures.” So, I don’t. We take off from Runway 1 after a 90-minute stop and a very short taxi.

Crossing International Date Line

We cross the International Date Line, go back to Sunday, and come back into the United States–all at the same time.

The leg from Anadyr to Fairbanks is a bit shorter, at 919 nautical miles. We depart Russian airspace after about an hour, then we cross the International Date Line, jump from Monday afternoon to Sunday evening, and enter U.S. airspace–all at about the same time.

Sunset behind us

The sun sets behind us…

Moonrise over Alaska

…as the moon rises over Alaska.

We overfly Nome, Alaska, but see nothing because of the thick clouds below us. The moon rises at our 2 o’clock position as the sun slowly sets behind us. Around Galena, we look down and through some breaks in the clouds we see the wide, graceful curves of the Yukon River. Eventually all traces of reflected orange disappear from the eastern horizon in front of us, and we fly into a deepening purple haze. After the sun has set, and we’re approaching Fairbanks, the moon’s reflection dances on the winding Tanana River off the right wing. Not all of this could be committed to film–er, pixels–through a thick plexiglass window, but they’re indelible mental images I’ll always carry with me.

Refueling in Fairbanks

After we clear Customs, N50ET is refueled in Fairbanks. Three legs over the next two days should get me home.

It’s been great to travel around the world, but it’s also great to be back in the United States. Here, if you don’t understand an instruction from air traffic control, it’s usually a speed issue (they’re talking too fast or you’re listening too slow)–not a language issue. And I’m hard pressed to remember the last time we were cleared for a visual approach; in many countries a full approach is the norm, even when the extra flying is not required by weather. We touched down in Fairbanks and I had what I think is the most painless Customs experience I’ve ever had in the United States. I guess I could complain that it was 11 p.m. by the time we got to the hotel, and there was nowhere to get a hot meal–instead, it’s beef jerky for dinner as I edit photos in the hotel room. But I’m not complaining, it’s great to be (almost) home.


Day 22: Nagoya to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Waiting to leave Nagoya

N50ET is reflected in a puddle as we wait to depart from Nagoya.

Today we get out of the hotel ahead of our goal, 7:50 a.m. local; and a cab–a very regal-looking Toyota sedan, the driver quite dapper in his white gloves–delivers us to the Nagoya airport faster than we anticipated. Outside the terminal, a fan of the MU-2 who we recognize from Friday is patiently waiting for us, and politely asks us to sign a photo of our arrival. Tropical Storm Man-yi is moving in behind us and is expected to bring the region heavy rain tonight and tomorrow; it has rained and the ramp is wet, but there’s no precipitation at the moment. And for a change, our forecast calls for respectable tailwinds.

Rain in Nagoya

Raindrops cling to one of the MU-2′s propeller blades at the Nagoya airport.

So do we do the logical thing and take off early? No–we wait. The approaching storm will give us good tailwinds, but the airport at our first fuel stop–Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, in Khomutovo, Russia–apparently doesn’t open until 0400 Z, so BaseOps has revised our flight plan with a delayed departure time of about 10:35 a.m. local.

Front page coverage

Our Friday arrival in Nagoya makes the front page of Saturday afternoon’s newspaper–the 50th anniversary of the model’s first flight.

We load up our luggage, swapping enough clean clothes from our duffel bags with dirty laundry from our roller bags to get us home. With the airplane preflighted, we take some photos and then go inside to sit down and talk more with Toru Takasu, Masanori Yamaguchi, and Yoshiaki Asako, our gracious hosts from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Masanori surprises us with copies of Saturday afternoon’s Nagoya newspaper–our arrival made the top of the front page! The article’s online, but apparently the site is open only to subscribers.

Final farewells in Nagoya

Mike Laver says his farewells when it’s time to depart Nagoya.

Finally, we bid our friends farewell just as a band of moderate rain–no doubt associated with the approaching tropical storm–moves aver the airport. It stops by the time we take off from Runway 34 at 9:44 local or 0144 Z. We climb through clouds from 4,000 to 8,000 feet and then find ourselves under clear skies and bright sunshine. It doesn’t last, however; clouds thicken and rise below us and by the time we’re north of Tokyo and want to look for Mt. Fuji, we’re in the soup and see nothing but milky whiteness.

Pretaxi checklist

Mike Laver is photographed while he runs the pretaxi checklist.

Our northeasterly heading for this 743-nautucal-mile leg takes us along the western side of the island but we can’t see it, or the Sea of Japan, for the clouds. We also pick up a little light ice. But we also pick up a tailwind that reaches 51 knots, pushing our groundspeed above 330 knots–even though Mike has pulled the power way back to make our arrival time. We’re talking with Sapporo Control, which is busy but not quite as busy as Tokyo, which again is acknowledging transmissions with a crisp “Roger!” or even just the click of a mic switch. Sapporo, Japan, is at the same latitude as Vladivostok, Russia.

Shortly we’re in Russian airspace, and then on the ILS 19 approach to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Airport. My overall first impression of Russia is clouds, because we’re either in them or above them until we break out below them on the approach. The only really unusual thing here is the use of meters, instead of feet, to reference altitudes below the transition level–we could change the units in N50ET’s GPS navigators but we think that may prove too confusing, so we opt to convert as needed (and we prime our calculators).

The stop is unlike any other on the trip this far. After we shut down we’re greeted by a welcoming committee of four or five people, all but our handler wearing uniforms. We expect to clear into Russia here, because it’s the first of three stops in the country, but they feel we should wait until Petropavlovsk because that’s where we’re spending the night. So the landing is treated as a technical stop. The fuelers arrive and we do the MU-2 tank dance. The fuelers are efficient but there’s almost no communication–sure, there’s a language barrier, but that’s nothing new. No one asks about the trip beyond the previous and next legs, not even a smile.

Before we leave, a young woman–either our handler or from the Hydrometeorological Service of Russia, we’re not quite sure–walks out and gives us a forecast folder. She also tells us what departure runway and SID (standard instrument departure) to expect. Her English sounds very good, and she may have smiled once or twice. The packet contained weather information, including a depiction that had been hand-tinted with colored pencils. I wonder if she is Mikhaylina, the forecaster who prepared the packet.

We sense that photography would not be appreciated, so we refrain. We’re only on the ground about an hour and 10 minutes, then we’re flying northeast again toward Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Reaching our cruise altitude of Flight Level 250 (about 25,000 feet) over the Sea of Okhotsk, we have an indicated airspeed of 186 knots, and a true airspeed in the thinner air of 281 knots–but our groundspeed tops out at 350 knots before the 70-knot tailwind starts to subside.

Mountains near Petropavlovsk

Clouds part to reveal mountains surrounding Petropavlovsk as we begin the instrument approach.

Halfway across the Sea of Okhotsk we finally break out of the clouds to find ourselves in clear air, with high clouds above and lower clouds below. Far ahead is a horizontal slice of blue sky; we pass through it like a gate…and we’re back in the tops again. Just as we prepare to begin our approach, we finally emerge into a mostly clear sky. The waxing gibbous moon is flying in formation off our right wing.

Approaching Petropavlovsk

The last bit of sunlight fades from the sky as we shoot the approach into Petropavlovsk.

As we descend we see serious peaks ahead and to the right of our course; the mountains to the left are a bit smaller. Descending into clear air on the approach, the vista of mountains surrounding a bay, and silhouetted by the setting sun, is spectacular. We touch down on a washboard runway–common in this part of Russia, we’ve been told–and taxi seemingly forever. There’s a lot of construction going on here, including a parallel runway and apparently a new terminal as well. We’re thankful for a Follow Me truck here.

Arriving in Petropavlovsk

On final approach to Petropavlovsk, you can see the town near the water–and mountains beyond.

Our handler is waiting and seems not to have been expecting us–she doesn’t have our personal information, although there is a fuel release and a taxi waiting to take us to our hotel. Apparently we cleared customs at Yushno, but not immigration; that’s handled quickly and efficiently. It’s fully dark by the time we refuel, and the ride to the hotel is nearly 30 minutes. It’s 9:45 p.m. local when we check into our hotel; we’ve lost three hours to time change today–and we’ll lose four more tomorrow. Changes like these make for short nights.

Night refueling in Petropavlovsk

Our fueler in Petropavlovsk uses an LED headlamp to refuel N50ET after dark.

Because of a national holiday, the hotel’s 24-hour restaurant is closed. The cafe is open for 15 more minutes, just enough to order some food that we eat in Mike’s hotel room. I have a delicious tomato and cucumber salad–best tomatoes I’ve had in a while–and very good salmon baked with carrots and some kind of cheese sauce, washed down with a rather tasty Russian beer from a plastic bottle.

For those of you following this trip blog regularly, this installment was unavoidably detained. Internet service at the hotel in Russia required cash purchase of a card, and only rubles were accepted. Since we were out of rubles (actually, we never had any in the first place), we stayed offline. Just as well, with the time-zone shift, sleep was a worthwhile alternative.

Day 21: Nagoya

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

Main Castle Tower

The Nagoya Castle was constructed between 1610 and 1612.

Today our gracious hosts with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are giving up a day at home with their families to give us a personally guided tour of Nagoya. The city is remarkably lively for a Saturday; there are a lot of people out and about, mostly walking in the city center area, with more bicycles as we move farther out. I would think it’s a Saturday, except the vehicular traffic on the roads is not as heavy as it was yesterday.

Screen paintings

Screen paintings adorn many locations in the castle structures.

Staircase in main tower

The many stairs are primarily used for descending the main tower.

Our first stop is the Nagoya Castle, a magnificent complex that was the model for modern Nagoya. It was built of stone and wood in three years by Tokugawa Ieyaus; he ordered 20 feudal lords from western Japan to build the stone walls. The Central Tower (top) can be seen from many places within the city. I lost count of how many flights of stairs there are (above); fortunately for us–and the many other tourists–the standard procedure is to take an elevator to the top and then walk down, viewing exhibits on the various levels.

Kinshachi on roof

Kinshachi–the gold fish–on the castle roof symbolize power and money.

Mike Collins with Kinshachi

There are several locations on the castle grounds where photos can be made with Kinshachi.

The Kinshachi–fish–atop the castle are said to be able to summon water and were used as charms to prevent fire, a very real consideration in all-wood construction. The fish atop the castle’s central tower–one male, one female–also represent the power and wealth of the Tokugawa family. The Kinshachi are gold-plated, with 18 carats of gold, to the tune of about 44 kilograms of gold per fish. Their theme repeats around the castle, and there are places where world travelers can photograph themselves with replicas of the Kinshachi (above).

Quick stop for water

A quick stop for bottled water.

The outskirts of the city are a study in contrasts, with modern office buildings or bank branches right beside a small, traditional Japanese home. Land is scarce here and real estate a limiting factor in residential construction, as it is in most (if not all) large cities. There are large apartment and condominium buildings near industrial complexes, so that workers’ commutes are shorter. It’s also laundry day in Nagoya, we determine after carefully considering the number of homes and condos with clothes hanging out to dry–especially on condo balconies.

The city is very neat and well organized, and there is good separation between pedestrians and other motor vehicles. There are many pedestrian bridges and ramps, and functional landscaping, railings, and guardrails direct pedestrians (and bicycles) to crosswalks. We also see a lot of familiar brands: McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, 7-11, Circle K, and Lawson’s, which if I recall correctly began as a chain of dairy and ice-cream stores in the United States; I remember them growing up in Ohio.

Interestingly, to me, is the fact that driving is on the left-hand side of the road here–British style–while in Taiwan everything is reversed. Seeing right-hand driving for the first time in so long made me feel right at home. While we’re sightseeing, our friends humor us with a stop to pick up another case of water for the final legs of the trip–something we both forgot to do in Australia. There’s still bottled water in the airplane, but that’s something you want to be sure you have plenty of.

Spinning demonstration

A spinning demonstration at the Toyota museum.

Toyota museum

An exhibit shows how Toyota’s first automobile was designed.

Our last stop on the tour is the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. It traces the history of what is today’s Toyota Motor Corporation–known primarily for its cars and trucks–from its roots in the textile industry, which was a surprise to both Mike and me. The company began by manufacturing spinning and weaving machines that eventually grew to industrial proportions. Also interesting was the fact that the family name originally was Toyoda; while a lot of the exhibits included English explanations, I did not see anything telling why the name shifted to Toyota (with a second “t” in place of the “d”) somewhere along the line.

Ross Russo surprises Mike Laver

Friend Ross Russo, right, surprises Mike Laver in Nagoya.

So our day in Nagoya–the 50th anniversary of the Mitsubishi’s first flight, from the very airport where Mike’s airplane is parked–is nearly over. But not quite. Upon our return to our hotel, Mike’s longtime friend Ross Russo was waiting in the lobby. Mike originally had asked Ross to accompany him on this trip, but Ross’s daughter was married earlier this month and he knew that he could not go–well, if he did, there wouldn’t be much point in returning home afterward. That’s how Ross, who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for some 20 years, came to suggest that Mike talk with me about the trip. For this opportunity, I’ll always owe Ross. Ross and his cousin had flown to Japan to climb Mt. Fuji, which they did on Thursday and Friday…so on Saturday, they rode the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Nagoya (about 100 minutes) for the surprise that was arranged largely by text messages on our cellphones.

Now Mike, N50ET, and I enter the home stretch–four days of flying back home. Looks like we’re getting out of Japan just ahead of Tropical Storm Man-yi, which we’ve been watching for the past few days. Russia, here we come!


Day 20, Part 2: A hero’s welcome in Nagoya

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

Greetings on arrival

Mike Laver is greeted by Toru Takasu of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries after landing at Nagoya.

Mike Laver had been exchanging emails with someone in Japan before we launched in his Mitsubishi MU-2 on this around-the-world trip, timed to place us in Nagoya, Japan, on Sept. 14–the 50th anniversary of the model’s first flight. This person was incredibly proud of the airplane, passionate about its history, and pleased that Laver was making this trip around the globe to commemorate the model’s capabilities half a century after the first one first flew. “You are a hero of Japan,” he wrote to Laver.

And it was a hero’s welcome that we received in Nagoya early on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 13. After turning left off the taxiway toward parking, dutifully following our second Follow Me truck of the trip, we both were surprised to see nearly 100 people waiting near the general aviation terminal building, standing on stairs and landings above the ramp, and looking on from adjoining hangars. Several were waving small flags–mostly Japanese, some American, and one or two Australian flags (Mike is a native and citizen of Australia). We heard applause when he opened the cabin door and stepped out.

N50ET is the center of attention

Mike Laver’s MU-2, N50ET, is the center of attention.

We were greeted by Toru “Tod” Takasu, manager of MU-2 product support for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and several other MHI officials. Many in the crowd had connections to Mitsubishi; some wore the business clothes of managers or engineers, and others were in the blue uniforms worn by production workers. At a couple of places outside the fence I could see aviation photographers, a few with step ladders so they could photograph over fences, snapping photos of this unusual aircraft–just like in the United States.

Workers examine N50ET's data plate

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries workers examine the airplane’s data plate.

The MU-2 drew a lot of attention, both overall and regarding specific aspects of the aircraft. People clustered around the left horizontal stabilizer, studying–and photographing–the airplane’s data plate. This is a plate affixed to all civil aircraft at the time of manufacture that records the airplane’s make, model, and production serial number. One man was very interested in the airplane’s landing gear and sat on the tarmac, nearly under the airplane, looking and taking photos. Another was very interested in the freon air conditioning system installed on N50ET.

First of many group photos

The first of many group photos.

Then it was time for group photos. I took a couple of frames before I was summoned into the group. Actually, it was a rapidly changing series of groups, but everyone was genuinely excited about the airplane.

Fueling in Nagoya

Of course, the airplane still needs to be refueled for Sunday’s departure.

Once the commotion died down, the airplane still needed to be fueled for Sunday morning’s first leg home, and our entry into Russia. Then, after we were cleared into the country by immigration and customs, Mike was interviewed by a reporter for a local newspaper. The reporter didn’t speak English but a helpful Mitsubishi employee served as translator.

Wind-tunnel model and MU-2

A wind-tunnel model of the MU-2A sits beside the first Marquise in Mitsubishi’s aviation museum.

After a quick lunch in a Mitsubishi conference room, Mike and I were given a guided tour of the company’s aviation museum, which was a real treat. On display in the museum is MU-2 serial number 501, the first Marquise model of the MU-2, which Mitsubishi used as a corporate aircraft for many years–until only about a year and a half ago. Mike noted immediately that the airplane had been retrofitted with a number of enhancements and upgrades that weren’t available when that airframe rolled off the production line. The museum also features a World War II Zero that had been restored from recovered wreckage, and a rocket-powered fighter that was based on the Messerschmitt Me 163, produced in Germany later in the war; the Japanese design never became operational.

Mike Laver photographs an MU-2A

Mike Laver photographs one of only three MU-2A aircraft ever built.

We’re driven to another museum, which features one of only three MU-2A aircraft ever built. The engine cowlings seem downright skinny when compared to those for the MU-2B’s Garrett turbofans. The MU-2A, powered by the French-built Turbomeca Astazou turbine engine, reportedly was underpowered–the reason that so few were built. We learn that a second of the three MU-2A airframes is in another museum.

Museum sendoff from Mitsubishi employees

Mike waves to Mitsubishi employees seeing us off as we depart the museum.

Eventually we’re driven to our hotel, and a large group of Mitsubishi employees bid us farewell. But our hosts apparently aren’t tired of us yet; a traditional Japanese dinner still is on the agenda. The meal and the company both prove excellent.


Day 20: Taipei to Nagoya, Japan

Friday, September 13th, 2013

Waiting for the crew van

We wait under the nose of this China Pacific Boeing 747 for the van that will take us to N50ET.

Morning arrives quickly, as it has tended to do on the entire trip, and we leave the hotel at 6 a.m. for the short drive to the terminal. One security screening, a quick visit to clear immigration, and a long walk through the serpentine terminal later, we’re standing under the nose of a China Pacific Boeing 747 that the caterers are servicing for its next flight. We have plenty of time to watch the process as we wait for our crew van, which arrives about 6:30. It’s a long drive to our parking on the northeast corner of the airport. After preflighting and loading our bags, we wait for a paper departure clearance that has to be driven to us from the terminal. Mike has already obtained the ATIS but clearance delivery proves hard to raise–and once he does, hard to read. It feels much more humid than on our arrival yesterday, so much that I’m perspiring while standing still.

Finally we get our IFR and engine start clearances, and taxi follows soon afterward. Fortunately, our departure is from Runway 5 Left, which begins almost at the end of our parking ramp. We’re cleared to follow a China Southern airliner to the runway; the next airliner in the queue, still some distance away, is told to “give way and follow the business jet.” We are off the ground at 7:13 local, 2313 Z, with a Boeing 777 behind us on a 13-mile final. The efficient controllers get the following jet out, too, before the 777′s arrival.

Tamsui River in Taipei

The morning air is much clearer than last night, and we see Taipei hugging the banks of the Tamsui River.

Climbing out we’re cleared to FL190, about 19,000 feet, and later to our cruising altitude of FL 250. On the left we pass a golf course, a multilane toll road hugging the coast, and a power plant that also has three win turbines, still in the nearly calm morning air. Taipei shimmers in the cloud-diffused morning light, and the air appears nearly crystal clear–perhaps the haze builds during the day. The city appears to extend almost endlessly toward the southeast, following the banks of the broad Tamsui River.

Morning light on East China Sea

The sun backlights clouds on the East China Sea and projects shadows to the water below.

In no time we’re overflying mountains, then Taiwan’s northern coast, then we’re over the East China Sea. It’s mostly clear, and I am fascinated by the backlighting of the low clouds wear the water’s surface, and their obedient shadows offset away from the low sun in the east.

Cargo ship on East China Sea

One of many cargo ships crossing the East China Sea

From 25,000 feet I observe a lone cargo ship sailing toward Taiwan. A few minutes later, there’s another, and another. Some are quite large, others not so big, and the sun also backlights a number of much smaller vessels that are not moving, or are moving very slowly. These must be fishing boats. Clearly these shipping lanes are as busy as the airways high above. We are in clear air, still enjoying our view of the East China Sea, although there is a lone cumulonimbus buildup well to our right, and another way off the left wing. We don’t see any other aircraft, but we’re talking with Fukuoka Control–Japan!–and many other aircraft are requesting, and receiving, deviations for weather.

Mike Laver climbing from Taipei

Mike Laver enjoys the serenity of an early morning climb–and understandable controllers.

This is a big day for Mike, and the whole trip has built to it. He’s very passionate about the Mitsubishi MU-2, and being in Nagoya for the 50th anniversary of the model’s first flight has great personal significance to him. This year’s also the 40th anniversary of the completion of our steed, N50ET, a 1973-model MU-2B-25 (serial number 260), Mike’s personal airplane for the past eight years. With international general aviation flying, things sometimes don’t happen until they happen, and it’s best to have a conservative schedule and lots of patience–but I can tell the delays this morning are irritating to him. Fortunately, the winds are good to us, and by that I mean they’re not bad: just 13 knots abeam the aircraft, so there’s no headwind, and we post a groundspeed of 287 knots at our cruise power setting. “We’re getting closer,” Mike observes.

Far below the clouds on the East China Sea are thickening, and beginning to build. Haze starts to obscure our view of the ocean surface. We’re about two hours and 550 nautical miles from Nagoya, about the halfway point of the 1,059-nautical-mile leg. But the weather remains good; thunderstorms with the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) will stay south of Taiwan today; a tropical cyclone is forming off Guam and there’s a possibility it could begin affecting local weather Sunday when we’re scheduled to depart. There also have been two recent volcanic eruptions on Japan’s southern islands, but ash has not passed FL140–that stuff will ruin an engine in no time flat–and it’s blowing off to the east, so it won’t be a factor for us.

Approaching the Nagoya airport

We are approaching the Nagoya airport, marked by its identification code of RJNA.

We cross our first Japanese terrain, the city of Kagushima. The sun appears to reflect from rice paddies near the coast, a short distance east of the city. Soon we’re over the Pacific, skirting the east side of the Japanese islands.

Upon arrival in Nagoya we are greeted with what seems like a hero’s welcome. To be continued.