Archive for September, 2013

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.


ATC predictions from 25 years ago; Pilotless planes and empty control rooms

Friday, September 13th, 2013

There was a conference at the U.S. Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., 25 years ago attended by representatives from Japan, Europe, the USSR (it was 1988, three years before the USSR dissolved) and the United States. They made predictions of what the future held. Let’s see how they did.

Tatiana Anodina of the USSR predicted a fully automatic system in which controllers would act as supervisors. We don’t seem to be moving that way. She also said the future system would be heavily dependent on satellites. Absolutely correct.

MIT professor Robert Simpson said the U.S. could lose its dominance of aviation manufacturing, and its monopoly on commercial air services, to Asian countries. That one remains an interesting prediction.

William Rouse of Search Technology said a computer he named CAL could instantly revamp the entire air traffic flow based on a flood of travelers, such as a sporting event in one city. He also said politicians delayed on their flight could address a banquet crowd from their seats (creating a new hell for fellow travelers). Fortunately those predictions failed, but a speaker late to a speech could combine Skype with onboard wi-fi. (Don’t tell them.)

Fred Singer of the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed unmanned supersonic freighters carrying 20-ton payloads at Mach 2 and 3 over the ocean. Command destruct capability, a switch that would blow up errant unmanned aircraft, might be necessary so the flights would be mostly over water. Cargo shippers probably wouldn’t like the odds, but unmanned aircraft are here, growing, and they aren’t over water.

Paul Muto of NEC Corp. of Japan said aircraft with satellite navigation would be cleared onto minimum time tracks, while aircraft using conventional navigation tools would still use airways. Ground-based navigation aids would be retained only as long as users want to pay for them. Sounds like he was on the right “track,” making the part about “paying for them” a little scary. But we have AOPA.  He also said, “We will not forsake our controllers. Both pilots and controllers will have their jobs.” Good call–so far.

A final thought: What if an unmanned aircraft that has been programmed to go one direction finds itself in conflict with an unmanned control room that wants it to alter course? Would there be a cyber argument leading to overheated circuits?

Strange but true general aviation news

Friday, September 13th, 2013

Helicopter salvages airplane. A Sikorsky helicopter was used to pull a sunken Cessna 172 out of New York’s Marion Lake, located in the Adiroindacks, reports the Albany Democrat-Herald. All four of the aircraft’s passengers made it out uninjured.

Emergency landing. A Beechcraft 1900D with 10 people aboard made a belly landing at Telluride Regional Airport after the left landing gear collapsed, reports the LA Times. Among those aboard were people coming to the ski town to screen the new documentary “Salinger.”

For safety’s sake. Pilots for Australia’s Ambulance Victoria are refusing to land at the local hospital until the facility cuts down some trees, reports the Herald Sun. Instead, pilots are dropping patients off  at Dela­combe Park, where they are transferred by road ambulance.

Now landing: Blair Force One. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was recently seen at New York’s Adirondack Regional Airport, reports the Adiroindack Daily Enterprise.

Emergency helicopter landing. A helicopter operated by California’s Fresno County Sherrif’s Office was forced to make an emergency landing  on a baseball field at Washington Union High School, reports FOX 26. The pilot said he felt a vibration in the helicopter’s tail rotor.

NOT an emergency helicopter landing. The police chief of Salisbury, Mass., was called to the parking lot of the Kitten’s Gentlemen’s Club. Why? Residents saw a helicopter parked in the lot and wondered if there was an emergency, reports the Newburyport News. It turns out the helicopter had flown in a well-known dancer who performs under the stage name of “Bridget the Midget.”

Don’t ask what meal they had on the flight. More than 1,000 chickens rescued from an egg-laying farm were airlifted to new homes to live a cage-free life, reports the Today show. The animals were rescued by California-based shelter and sanctuary Animal Place.

Day 19: Cebu to Taipei, Taiwan

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Banka boats in Philippines

In the Philippines, hard-working banka boats start their days early.

Awaking early to light in the sky, I look out to a thick, gray sky–until I realize the sun has not yet risen. It does shortly, brightening things considerably, and the dawn becomes another mostly cloudy tropical morning. Outside the hotel the banka boats–pole-powered pontoon boats–already are busy. It had rained overnight and clears considerably by the time we get to the airport.

We were parked last night on the military ramp at Mactan-Cebu International; the night before, several South Korean fighter jets had paused here. Four Philippine Air Force C-130s and two Australian-built Nomads are parked on the far end of the expansive ramp.

Philippine departure paperwork

Mike Laver signs final depature paperwork in the Philippines.

We are planeside early, and customs and immigration are prompt. We’re not scheduled to depart until 10 a.m. local, though, and there’s concern about our arrival slot into Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport. Mike’s in the airplane talking with ground control, and one of our ramp crew is on her radio as well; someone in the office is coordinating with BaseOps, our flight-planning service. So I enjoy a conversation with our handler out on the ramp, as we watch single-engine Cessna trainers take off and land. There are four flight schools doing training at the international airport, he explains, with many students coming from Africa, Iran, and Korea–turns out the training is much less expensive in the Philippines. There are limitations, he adds; training flights are allowed in the morning and later in the afternoon, but not during periods of peak commercial operations at the field. Finally we get word at 9 a.m. local that our departure is approved.

Climbing out of Mactan-Cebu

Our departure route curves sharply to the right, giving this view of a city still shrouded in cloud.

We’re cleared to depart from Runway 22 after the departure of Cebu 564 and the arrival of a Cessna 172, which crosses the threshold very high; we quickly realize he’s landing long on the 10,827- foot-long runway because the flight schools all are at the far end. The MACTAN 1 departure brings us around to the left, overflying the sprawling city–I didn’t get much of a view yesterday on our approach–and across lush mountains on the western side of the island. There are a few glimpses of the Philippine Sea but for the most part, clouds obscure the view as we track northwest through the Philippines.

In and out of the clouds, the weather radar is on so we can get an idea of what’s unseen out in front of us. Fortunately there’s little precipitation at our altitude, although we pick up a little light ice in a couple of clouds. In an area of clear air we see buildups towering ahead; we ask for clearance to a waypoint farther upstream and can cut the corner as well as avoid the weather. It’s situations like this that make you really miss the big-picture perspective that datalinked Nexrad radar images can provide in the United States. “You really do get used to that,” Mike agrees.

Rivers coalesce in northern Philippines

Several rivers flow out of the mountains in the northern Philippines.

Although we pass just east of Manila, we’re in the clouds and can’t see anything. To the north, however, there’s a bit of clear sky and we look down on mountains, with lush green fields and a wide river winding through the valley floor. From the northern tip of the Philippines, it’s only about 200 nautical miles across the water to the southern end of Taiwan. Somewhere off to the east are the Batan Islands.

We flirt with the Taiwan Straits as we skirt Taiwan’s western shore, alternately in or above clouds. About 100 nautical miles south of Taipei, the clouds below us fall away, and we shift our focus from an approach to ground operations…how will they taxi us and where will they park us? If we only knew where we would be parking, ground planning would be much easier. This is a large, busy airport with several construction projects to boot. There is a Domestic and Business Aviation apron but it has only three parking spots, so I’m thinking that is not where we’ll be parking.

Follow Me truck at Taipei airport

Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan provides our first Follow Me car of the trip.

It seems like everyone is shooting an ILS approach to Runway 23 Left or 23 Right today; we are assigned 23 Right. Visibility is good over the water just offshore, but on final, the tan haze over the city becomes very obvious; I bet there are days that an instrument approach is required just because of the haze. And it turns out we’re assigned parking on that business aviation apron–it’s been expanded and the increased capacity is not reflected on our taxi charts. Also, one of the handlers tells me that each parking space can accommodate more than one airplane. Fueling takes a while; once the truck arrives, the fueler upon filling the left main must have grabbed the valve by mistake when pulling out the nozzle, because suddenly fuel is gushing off the wing–and the same thing happens on the right main tank. A water truck is called to help wash the fuel off the plane. Clearing customs, in the airline terminal, is easy but requires what seems like an endless amount of walking.

On the ramp at Taoyuan

N50ET on the ramp at Taoyuan. Our hotel is barely visible at the far left.

We’re parked beside a Challenger and a couple of Gulfstreams; before we leave, a German-registered Jetprop DLX conversion of the Piper Malibu taxis up and parks, so for a change we’re not the little kid in town.

Aircraft models at Taoyuan museum

The aviation museum at Taoyuan Airport has an impressive collection of model aircraft.

Our hotel is right on the field–we come to find out it was one of the buildings we were looking at as we waited for the fuel truck. Only a few hundred yards from the hotel is an aviation museum, apparently operated by the airport. I decide to walk over and have a look; the admission fee is 30 Taiwanese dollars but I don’t have any local currency, and the museum does not accept credit cards–so they offer to let me in for free. (The fact that it’s less than an hour to closing time may have been part of it, too.) The museum is remarkably comprehensive, although part of it is dated (for example, one display talks about the future and shows a U.S. space shuttle taking off–all of the shuttles have been retired.) The museum has an impressive collection of models, of historic aircraft, military aircraft, and civilian airliners.

Jerry Tsai's record-setting Cessna

Jerry Tsai flew this Cessna 182RG from San Francisco to Taiwan in 1984.

I’m surprised to see a Cessna 182RG, still bearing a U.S. registration number. Jerry Tsai, a Chinese citizen, flew the Cessna from San Francisco to Taipei in 1984, stopping in Hawaii and a couple of other islands on the way; Tsai set several records for flying across the Pacific in a single-engine airplane. There are a few other small aircraft inside, including another Cessna piston single, a helicopter, and a Chinese-built military training airplane. A park surrounding the museum is home to a number of larger airplanes, including former military fighters and training aircraft, a Grumman Albatross amphibian–and a venerable Douglas DC-3. Worth a visit if you’re at the airport and have some time to fill, but be forwarned that only about 25 or 30 percent of the exhibits include signage or information in English. Tomorrow: On to Nagoya, Japan.


Day 18: Horn Island to Cebu, Philippines

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

First ferry out

Mike Laver on the first ferry of the day. It’s not even dawn and we’ve already cleared customs outbound.

Our morning starts early, and we’re standing in the breeze on the Thursday Island ferry dock waiting for the first boat of the day–scheduled for 6:10 a.m., we think–when we’re approached by a uniformed Australian customs officer. Apparently a lot of Horn Island workers live or stay on Thursday Island; she explains that there’s something else she needs to do, can’t take the first ferry over, and proceeds to clear us out of Australia in the predawn darkness.

Sunrise preflight

The sun is just coming up as Laver preflights N50ET.

Michael Castrisos, the airport manager, walks across the ramp to say farewell. We load, preflight, and taxi out in short order. Backtracking down Runway 8, we clearly see the two squat wind turbines (compared to those we see in the United States) perched atop a Thursday Island hill, spinning in the unrelenting breeze.

We lift off at 7:07 local, seven minutes behind schedule–not bad, all things considered. But it’s important to leave early; we have a technical stop for fuel, and we also want to get through the Intratropical Convergence Zone so as to navigate any thunderstorms as early in the day as possible. Scattered thunderstorms are forecast there today, as they pretty much always are.

Cruising over the Pacific

Cruising over the Pacific Ocean, the early morning light illuminated clouds at several levels.

Taking off from Runway 8 into the sun, we turn on course and climb to the west over the Torres Straits toward BEGMI, the waypoint where we’ll turn north for Biak, Indonesia–our fuel stop. Listening to Brisbane Center as we’re leaving Australian airspace, we’re impressed by the extent to which Australia already is using ADS-B, and we wonder whether there’s already an equippage mandate, at least for commercial operators.

The flies that stowed away in the cabin are not happy as we reach our cruising altitude of Flight Level 240 (about 24,000 feet) and turn north over Papua. And while we don’t have a tailwind, winds aloft are abeam at only 4 knots–which sure beats a headwind.

Mountainous Papua

These tall mountains run down the center of Papua; some approach 20,000 feet in height.

We flew through some clouds and our cruising altitude turned out to be ideal, because it put us generally between cloud layers. Then the clouds opened up and we were looking down on a tall mountain range that jutted upward toward us, running generally through the middle of the country. Looking at our charts, we see that MEAs (minimum enroute altitudes) in the region approach 20,000 feet. A couple appear to have a little snow on them. Further below a river snaked through a deep valley.

On the descent into Biak we fly through a heavy rainshower, then break out of the clouds below a thick undercast among puffs of scud. Capturing the localizer for the ILS Runway 11 approach we cross the island’s shoreline, which here is a stark white vertical cliff of 50 to 100 feet. We touch down and taxi to parking, where our handler, a marshaller, and the fuel truck await.

Fueling during a shower in Biak

Our fueler in Biak uses an umbrella to keep the rain out of the tanks.

The rain is intermittent and once we find a ladder tall enough for the MU-2, the fueler uses an umbrella to keep the rain out of the tanks. During refueling I think I see vehicles crossing the runway; later I hear a siren, which I assume is coming from a military complex at the far end of the airfield. Shortly after, a Boeing 737 lands in a cloud of mist, rain, and noise. Could it be to warn the locals that the runway’s about to get busy?

There’s a bit of confusion about our passports; they bear seven-day crew visas from our earlier transit of Indonesia but no exit stamps, and the immigration person’s thinking is that we’ll have to pay fees of $150 each. I leave Mike to negotiate this while I supervise the refueling; when we finish, our passports have been returned and we still have our cash, so it’s apparently a successful outcome. After all, this is only a technical stop; we don’t even go inside the airport.

Departing Biak

Our departure from Biak gave us this view of the terminal. We refueled on the left side of the ramp.

Leaving Biak after our 45-minute visit, the rain has stopped, and whisps of fog dot forests on the west side of the island. We climb through clouds and break out just above the tops, which fall away quickly. Things look clear ahead; was that all the ITCZ had for us today?

Crossing the Equator

Crossing the Equator northbound!

We had nearly climbed to our cruising altitude when we crossed the equator at 01:11Z, noting S 00 deg 00.00 min and E 135 deg 02.85 min on the Garmin. We were in instrument meteorological conditions at the time, so we weren’t able to look for that elusive line on the surface. Soon we were crossing the Pacific Ocean in an area of mostly clear skies, looking down on the occasional reef or small island that didn’t appear on our charts.

A looming ridge of tall cumulus buildups gradually draws closer; after negotiating it with a slight, brief deviation to the right, we’re back into mostly clear air. We’re scratching our heads wondering why our flight plan takes us to SADOK, an intersection 80 nautical miles east of Mactan-Cebu International Airport in Lapu-Lapu–then back in toward the airport. When we establish communications with Mactan Control on the VHF radios, and can turn down the whine of the UHF, we ask for–and quickly receive–a more direct clearance. Even better, our groundspeed has increased slightly to 286 knots.

We land at Mactan Cebu International Airport 15 minutes early, and our handler apologizes for the delay with the fuel truck (I don’t think it’s any more than 10 minutes). We’re cleared by Customs planeside before the fuel truck even arrives, and once again we refuel amidst a parade of airliners and regional turboprops. It does warm my heart to see several Cessna 172s arrive and depart among the commercial traffic; I’m told there’s still flight training at this airport–something we’ve seen little of at the international airports we’ve visited on this trip.


Day 17: Bundaberg to Horn Island, Australia

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Great Barrier Reef

Our route up the coast gave us panoramas of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

We departed Bundaberg a few minutes before 8 a.m. local, as planned, just ahead of VH-YJC–an Aero Commander that departed to the southwest after we exited the pattern heading northwest. There were scattered clouds at 2,100 feet and an overcast above; we emerged from a flat sheet of white into brilliant sunshine at 10,000 feet.

More reefs

The reefs just keep coming. I’d like to visit at a lower altitude–like the surface.

Our route of flight was pretty much up Australia’s East Coast, which took us directly over the Great Barrier Reef. Between the few clouds here and there, we enjoyed an unwinding vista of reef after reef after reef. This is an area I’d definitely like to come back and visit again, from a lower altitude–to and including sea level. Thanks to a persistent headwind, it took us about 4.5 hours to make the 1,050 or so nautical miles from Bundaberg to Horn Island.

On the ramp at Horn Island

Arriving at Horn Island, we found many airplanes–but no parking information.

Arriving at Horn Island, we found a ramp that was home to a number of airplanes–and no idea where to park. We shut down the engines, got things sorted out, then moved the airplane to a better parking space. The next challenge was fuel; Mike had been unable to contact the fuel distributor before departing the United States, and upon arrival found they only wanted to accept an Air BP card or cash. Neither of us had one, so Mike started scrambling for cash–he had plenty, but only enough Australian dollars to cover two-thirds of the fuel we needed. Then we found out that those payment methods were preferences, and we could use another credit card–cancel the bank run.

Refueling at Horn Island

Our refuelers at Horn Island got the job done, and had great senses of humor to boot.

The fuelers here were two women who were very pleasant, and efficient to boot. After they finished and as we were walking toward the gate, Horn Island’s new airport manager–also named Mike–introduced himself. Could we reposition the plane slightly, and could he offer us a ride to the ferry terminal so we wouldn’t have to wait for the next bus? He was a gracious host and we learned more about the area on our ride.

Ferry to Thursday Island

Our ride to the hotel on Thursday Island.

Riding the ferry to Thursday Island

Mike (Laver) and Mike (Collins) on the boat to Thursday Island.

Turns out, our hotel is on nearby Thursday Island. When Mike was making hotel reservations, he couldn’t find one on Horn Island (there apparently is one now). A short ferry ride across the Ellis Channel brings us to the other island, and a three-minute walk has us in the lobby of our hotel. Dinner is on an outside deck, watching night fall on the Torres Strait.


Day 16: Bundaberg, Australia

Monday, September 9th, 2013

Yes, Virginia, in Australia you can get vegemite at McDonalds.

Yes, Virginia, in Australia you can get vegemite at McDonalds.

Apparently there’s a rule that you can’t visit Australia without trying vegemite. I had my introduction this morning, when we stopped at a McDonalds for coffee. (Yes, in Australia, you can get vegemite at McDonalds.) Vegemite is basically yeast, and other than seeming a bit salty, it actually has a better flavor than some other toppings I’ve put on English muffins over the years. Maybe I’m just predisposed to like the taste of yeast.

This Jabiru J-230 is in retro paint and sports anniversary lettering.

This Jabiru J-230 is in retro paint and sports anniversary lettering.

Our next stop is Jabiru Aircraft, perhaps best known in the United States for its Light Sport models–and which is celebrating its 25th anniversary beginning this month. The owner of this airplane, a new Jabiru J-230, will take delivery at the Ausfly event in Narromine, Australia, in four days. “It’s got retro striping just like the first Jabiru we did,” explains Sue Woods, business manager for the company.

Fuselages are ready for final assembly.

Fuselages are ready for final assembly.

Like other aircraft manufacturers in Australia, and elsewhere in the world, business is down since “the GFC”–the global financial crisis–but Jabiru is still producing airplanes and improving its designs. Here, fuselage assemblies are ready to proceed into final construction.

Spark plugs in a Jabiru engine await wiring.

Spark plugs in a Jabiru engine await wiring.

One interesting aspect of Jabiru is the fact that it has been making its own aircraft engines, both for its own designs and for other Experimental aircraft. Here, spark plugs installed in a new Jabiru engine await wires. Jabiru continues to make improvements to its engine design, as well; so has a supplier, CAMit, which has taken a different tack to engine improvements and soon could offer some of the modifications that it has developed.

Smiling after a J-430 demo flight.

Smiling after a J-430 demo flight.

A visit to an aircraft manufacturer isn’t complete without a demo flight, and Jamie Cook, Jabiru’s production manager, accommodates in a J-430. I find the airplane to be very stable and easy to fly; the U-shaped yoke is very ergonomic. It’s also remarkably roomy, something you notice easily when you’re 6 feet, 3 inches tall. Just get in the right way–posterior first, then swing your feet in; the task is easier because you don’t have to straddle a control stick to get seated. As an added bonus, we see a couple of whales off the mouth of the Elliott River–then we see a much larger one breach farther out. “This is very unusual to see them here,” Jamie observes, adding that they’re usually much farther south, near Frazier Island.

David McKenzie bids farewell to former schoolmate Mike Laver.

David McKenzie bids farewell to former schoolmate Mike Laver.

Also today, Mike Laver (right) said farewell to David McKenzie, an old friend from his boarding school days who he had not seen since 1968. David is a veterinary surgeon and sheep farmer (in the Australian vernacular, he “runs sheep”–something like 80,000 head of them) in the Mildura area. A pilot himself for more than 30 years, David flew in yesterday for dinner and to visit in his Cessna Hawk XP. David bought the Cessna new and has owned it ever since.

Can you identify the Sunshine State?

Can you identify the Sunshine State?

Which state is known as the Sunshine State? If you said Florida, that’s not the correct answer. Today the answer is the Australian state of Queensland, because that’s where we are. The license plates did make me think of Florida, however. Tomorrow we leave here and head north, to the top of Australia, in preparation for our departure from the country early Wednesday as we begin our trek to Japan.