Archive for September, 2013

Day 15: Latrobe Valley to Bundaberg, Australia

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

After a good night’s sleep there’s plenty of time to pack my now-clean clothes; check out of the hotel and bid farewell to John, the innkeeper, who was incredibly helpful with directions and recommendations; and go to Mass on the way to the airport. Mike Laver, who I am accompanying on this flight around the world in his MU-2, is a native of Australia and grew up near Leongatha, near here. He spent the weekend with his brother and mother, who follow me to Traralgon to drop off my rental car. Just when I think I have this whole driving on the left side of the road pretty much wired, after refueling I open the left door and start to get in–it’s going to be hard to drive from there.

Departing Latrobe Valley

Mike Laver makes an overhead departure from the airport where he learned to fly 45 years ago.

A mostly black Pitts is making its first flight since it was imported from the United States (and it sounds great) as we say our farewells to Aero Club members and Mike’s family. By 1:02 p.m. we’re off the ground and banking above the airport in an overhead departure on course. On climbout hears a familiar call sign on the Melbourne Control frequency. “I used to fly [Victor Hotel] Sierra-Sierra-Lima,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s still an Aztec or not.”

Great Dividing Range

Snow remains on only a few peaks of the Great Dividing Range.

The snow cap is gone from all but the tallest peaks of The Great Dividing Range, mountains that run a quarter of the way up Australia’s east coast. Far below us the valley floors resonate with the bright greens of spring. Mike spent a year in these mountains, attending a boarding school there when he was in the tenth grade. “On weekends we were kicked out with a backpack and a tent. We hiked all over those mountains,” he recalls. “We were fit fellows.” We look down on green plains and several large lakes before the view is claimed by a cloud layer below. We climb another 1,000 feet, to FL250, in an effort to stay above the tops.

Passing over what I think is Albury, I see a nice-sized town with a nearby airport with two intersecting runways. We’re too high to see if there’s any traffic in the pattern–er, circuit. We’re in and out of clouds at our cruising altitude, and I can see the terrain is much flatter, with fields of crops that are medium green, a darker green, and a very bright yellow-green. By the time we pass the Wagga Wagga VOR (no, I’m not making this up) the visible terrain is almost completely flat.

We pass about 100 miles west of Sydney; it’s mostly clear except for some small, puffy clouds on the horizon but any view of the city is blocked be the Great Dividing Range. At FL250 we have a groundspeed of 293 knots, which reflects a bit of a tailwind.

Several of you have asked about food, especially in some of the countries where food quality can be, shall we say, inconsistent. Breakfast for me has usually been a Clif Bar–an energy bar containing a good bit of protein–because on travel days we usually are gone well before any hotel restaurant opens. Lunch is another Clif Bar, because it’s nutritious and portable. For dinner I like to sample the cuisine of whatever part of the world we’re traversing, but this has to be done carefully. Mike’s done enough flying in this part of the world that he’s had a bad meal, and the resulting distress made travel a miserable experience. Because of this–and late arrival times–most of our meals have been in the hotel restaurant, perhaps not as adventurous as some people would like but a conservative compromise. I’m carrying a few “noodles in a cup” meals in case the hotel restaurant seemed too risky, but haven’t used them yet.

MU-2 instrument panel

The updated instrument panel in Mike Laver’s Mitsubishi MU-2.

A couple readers have asked about the panel in Mike’s MU-2. It’s well equipped and a very efficient IFR machine. In front of Mike in the left seat is a Garmin G600 primary flight display and multifunction display. To the right of it is a touch-screen GTN 750 GPS/com, and below it is a GTN 650. “I designed it for myself,” he said. “It’s very unique.” He moved the lighting switches from a recessed overhead panel to a location below the GTN 650. He also moved the anti-ice system controls from another recessed panel to a more forward overhead location. On the right side, I have the standard six-pack instruments in a slightly nonstandard configuration.

An airliner passes 2,000 feet below us, its white fuselage and red tail sharp against the haze below.The Earth’s surface below has changed from farmland to rangeland to rolling hills, to low forested mountains. Approaching Brisbane the landscape is flat again.

Noosa Heads resort area

A contrail high overhead paints a line across the Noosa Heads area; the national park is to the left.

Passing over Brisbane, we’re only 130 nautical miles and half an hour from Bundaberg. From our altitude we can see the waves rolling onto the wide, sandy beaches below as we parallel the Sunshine Coast (south of Brisbane it’s the Gold Coast). We pass the resort area of Noosa Heads, abutting a large national park, as we begin our descent into Bundaberg, and the wide beaches stretch out of sight to the north.

Burnett River in Bundaberg

We fly over the Burnett River as we turn base for our landing at Bundaberg.

In only a few minutes we’re on the ground in Bundaberg, where we’ll spend Monday visiting Jabiru Aircraft–it is headquartered on the field.


Day 14: Latrobe Valley, Australia

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

Latrobe Valley Aero Club sign

Welcome to the Latrobe Valley Aero Club.

So what do you do with your one day off at approximately the midpoint of a flight around the world? Of course: Laundry! Clean clothes will come in handy during the remainder of the journey. But going to the laundromat doesn’t make for an interesting blog post, and the photos weren’t particularly interesting, either.

On Friday evening George Morgan and his lovely wife, Marguerite, had introduced me to several members of the Latrobe Valley Aero Club during the organization’s weekly happy hour. They invited me back at noon Saturday for the club’s weekly barbecue. Who could resist the chance to see how a flying club socializes Down Under?

Lining up for sausages

Lining up for grilled sausages at the Latrobe Valley Aero Club’s barbecue.

This week's grillmaster

Club members take turns will grillmaster duties.

The club’s tradition is to grill sausages, which are wrapped in a slice of white bread and eaten with some barbecue sauce–and a cup of tea or coffee, as desired. We know from research that social interaction is very important to keeping new pilots active and engaged. Club members aren’t sure how long the Saturday barbecue tradition has been going on, but the club has about 100 members and four aircraft (three Cessna 172s and a light sport aircraft), and it’s been operating since 1949. Like most clubs, it’s operated by a cadre of volunteers, and this extends to the Saturday barbecues; a sign-up sheet on the wall inside dutifully tracks who will be grilling the sausages over the coming weeks.

Incorporated as a nonprofit organization, the club is licensed by  Australia’s Civil Aviation Authority as a flight school. It also provides some of what most of us would consider FBO functions at the airport, especially fuel sales; the club offers both 100LL avgas and Jet-A fuels. We know this because we purchased about 1,000 liters of Jet-A from the club when we arrived on Thursday.

Hanging around the airport

After lunch I hang around the airport for a while with several club members.

There’s a brisk, 17-knot breeze that club members feel was responsible for the lower-than-usual fly-in traffic for the barbecue; only an Archer, a Skyhawk, and a Cirrus arrive during my visit and I think the Skyhawk was on a training flight (and not necessarily in search of a $100 sausage). Several club members head out to the ramp after lunch, however, including the group above, trying to resolve some intermittent interference issues with the intercom in a member’s Van’s RV-12. I’m unable to add more than moral support to their efforts.

Caution: Koalas sign

I pass caution signs for koalas and kangaroos, but see none of either.

Fortified with a couple of sausages and some tea–and getting more comfortable with this whole driving on the left side of the road thing–I go exploring. The Latrobe Valley has a long and proud history of generating electricity, for Victoria and the rest of Australia. Here, what they call the open-cut mines are located in close proximity to the power plants themselves, eliminating the need to transport the coal long distances by rail or other means as typically is done in the United States. The morning’s beautiful weather is replaced by clouds and rain, so most of my exploring is through the rental car’s windshield. I do see several impressively large power-generating facilities. I also pass cautionary signs for both kangaroos and koalas, but I see none of either. I do see a rabbit, in addition to lots of cattle and sheep (and one herd of alpacas), and a plethora of large, black-and-white birds that look something like crows and make one heck of a squawking noise. I think they all live next to my motel.

Snake procedures sign

Snake procedures sign at the GippsAero factory.

Speaking of the local wildlife reminds me of a sign I saw yesterday in the GippsAero factory. When I was preparing for this trip, and mentioned I would be in Australia, one of my coworkers at AOPA told me that Australia was the only continent where every known poisonous snake could be found (I’m not going to mention any names, but Rebecca, you know who you are). George told me that a couple of snakes make their way into the factory each year, but usually only during the hottest days of summer.

Fortunately for me, here in Australia not only am I on the opposite side of the clock from my home in Maryland, but I’m also on the other side of the calendar. Late at night here is early morning at home, and while fall is rapidly approaching back home, here in southern Australia winter is turning into spring. Much of the foliage here is bright green; flowers are poking up in gardens and along the roads; and many flowering trees and shrubs are…flowering. I’m going to take solace in my hypothesis that any poisonous snakes are still hibernating.

And this one-day breather is coming to an end. Tomorrow afternoon we’re back in N50ET, heading up Australia’s eastern coast to Bundaberg.

Day 13: Latrobe Valley, Australia

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Today was a nonflying day…one of very few on this trip, and the only time when we have two down days in the same location. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a working day!

GA !0 takeoff

The GippsAero GA10 takes off on a test flight.

When I arrived at GippsAero this morning, one of the first things I photographed was the company’s turbine-powered GA 10 taking off for a test flight. The company is best known in the United States for its boxy, purpose-built GA8 (“GA” for Gippsland Aerospace, and “8” for eight passengers) Airvan utility airplane. That wasn’t the company’s first certified airplane, however–that would be the GA200, a two-place, side-by-side agricultural aircraft. Some of its elements, including the wing design, are evident in the newer GA8.

GA8 Airvan wing ribs

Ribs for an Airvan wing are aligned in a jig at the GippsAero factory.

Airvan wing gets skinned

Aluminum skins are applied to the structure for a GA8 Airvan wing.

The company is very traditional, in terms of both design philosophy and construction practices. For example, its airframes are constructed of metal, primarily aluminum; carbon fiber is used ingeniously for fire protection and in a number of nonstructural applications. George Morgan, who founded the company with Peter Furlong in 1983, said the Airvan was designed to meet the specifications of its primary market: Bush pilots. After building a prototype, “we flew it around to operators and said, ‘Climb in and tell us what you think.'” Those sessions led to the decision to lower all the passenger windows, to match the pilot’s, for better passenger visibility–among other changes. The GA8 received Australian certification in 2000.

More recently, the company has developed a 10-seat, turbine-powered airplane: the GA10. “Basically it is a stretched turbine version of the GA8,” Morgan says. The stretched fuselage adds value to the cabin in terms of volume/payload; one stretch is in the forward fuselage to adjust the airplane’s center of gravity–the turbine engine is lighter than the piston engine it replaces–and another is behind the main spar to move back the tail surfaces. The main reason for the much more expensive turbine engine is not performance, but the ability to burn more widely available Jet-A fuel, said Morgan, adding that the company is watching developments in the aircraft diesel engine arena with interest as well. Its four tests flights scheduled for the day of my visit were to evaluate aircraft performance during split-flap conditions.

Preparing a GA8 Airvan

A GA8 Airvan is prepared for flight.

Pilot's view from Airvan

A GA8 pilot gets this fantastic view out the Airvan’s large side window.

Dave Wheatland demonstrates the GA8

Dave Wheatland, a longtime GippsAero employee and pilot, shows how easy the airplane is to fly.

Later in the day, Dave Wheatland–a pilot for and longtime employee of the company–offers a demonstration flight in the GA8 Airvan. With just the two of us aboard, the airplane is at its forward center of gravity limits; this is the worst control situation for the airplane, he explains. It does feel a bit heavy and trucklike on the ground, but it’s very pilot friendly once the wheels leave the runway. Although the Airvan requires a little more aileron than I expected, the ride is very smooth, and the visibility out the big, flat lifting-body windshield and the large side windows is incredible. My second landing on the Latrobe Valley Airport’s gravel Runway 27 has the airplane down and stopped in less than 400 meters–very impressive, in my opinion, especially because I am not a bush pilot and don’t practice short-field landings as often as I should.

The turbocharged GA8 I flew certainly didn’t feel like a 4,200-pound airplane. Its handling is not unlike that of a Cessna 206–right up until you park, turn to look over your right shoulder, and see six more seats–and a cavernous cabin–behind you. “And the GA10 is even bigger,” Wheatland comments.

There’s a lot more to say about GippsAero, but that will have to wait for a future article in AOPA Pilot magazine. Now it’s time for bed. Tomorrow, my only day off on the trip, is filling up; I’ve been invited to a noon barbecue at the Latrobe Valley Aero Club. Sounds like fun!

Cessna settles with former supplier

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Avcorp of Delta, British Columbia, once could boast that its vertical stabilizer for the Cessna CJ3 was the first component designed by someone other than Cessna. In fact, it still makes the boast on a Web page that probably needs to be taken down. Avcorp also made wing spars and the horizontal stabilizer for the wildly successful Sovereign. Cessna is waiting on an upgrade of that aircraft to turn its bottom line from red to black in the first quarter of 2014. All Avcorp work for Cessna ended in 2010 when Cessna said it was taking the subassemblies back in-house. Avcorp objected and won a $27.9 million judgement that was contested for a year or two. Now Cessna and Avcorp have reached a settlement, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Strange but true general aviation news

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Caught on video tape. A 17-year-old student pilot flying in the mountains near Meeteetse, Wyo., was forced to make an emergency landing after becoming disoriented, reports Flying magazine. The teen, fearing the worst, videotapped the flight, which is being used in the investigation.

Interesting drone stories. First, a drone fell from the sky and crashed into onlookers at a running of the bulls event at the Virginia Motorsports Park, reports the Verge. Five spectators had minor injuries. The whole thing was videotaped.  Second,  the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has begun testing drones to battle an infestation of black salt marsh mosquito, reports the Miami Herald. An attached camera will survey hard-to-reach mangroves to track the mosquitos.

Emergency landings. A pilot trying to land at made an emergency landing at Vernon Airport in Vernon, British Columbia, Canada, instead ended up in a pasture near the Allan Brooks Nature Centre in the Commonage, reports the Vernon Morning Star. A 60-year-old pilot flying a homebuilt aircraft made an emergency landing in a field near Green Bay, Wisc., after taking off from a private airstrip, reports the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

The end of an era. British stunt pilot Doug Gregory has reluctantly decided to end his aerobatics career now that he’s turned 90 years old, reports the Daily Mail. The World War II pilot says he will continue to fly.


Day 12: Ayers Rock to Latrobe Valley, Australia

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Early morning preflight

Sunrise air tours are returning as Mike Laver preflights N50ET.

Just after sunrise, we make our way to the Ayers Rock airport for departure. Because it’s an air carrier airport and we don’t have Australian airport security credentials, the very pleasant security guard escorts us through the gate to our aircraft. We ask whether we’re the first departure, and she explains that several helicopters have already flown sunrise sightseeing flights. As if to reinforce her point, a yellow-and-blue PHC Jet Ranger arrives and lands as Mike Laver is still preflighting N50ET. Sunrise apparently is big business in the Ayers Rock area; at the hotel there were signs offering sunrise bus tours, sunrise helicopter rides–and, yes, even a sunrise camel ride if you were so inclined. I wasn’t, and I don’t think Mike was, either.

Mike has been here many times before, and even climbed the rock on previous visits. Our shuttle driver yesterday said climbing the rock was “discouraged,” but the security guard said this morning it still was a common and popular activity. Mike recalled that there used to be a chain attached to the rock, to help climbers navigate difficult sections. She assured him that not only is it still there, but it’s still used.

Departure from Ayers Rock

Climbing to the southeast, we bid Ayers Rock farewell.

Immediately upon takeoff it’s obvious how big–and desolate–this region is. A few resorts are clustered between the airport and the rock, and that’s about the only signs of civilization you can see. We climb to the east-southeast and bid Ayers Rock farewell. We’re cleared to climb to FL250, about 25,000 feet–our preferred cruise altitude for most legs of this journey so far–and told to fly direct to the first navaid on our route: Leigh Creek, a VOR some 523 nautical miles away, that will take us more than an hour and a half to reach.

About 40 nautical miles east-southeast of Ayers Rock, a larger cluster of smaller rocks juts from the desert. Further east there are still more, but from cruise altitude, they don’t seem to have the color–or the fame–of Ayers Rock and the nearby Olgas.

Back in civilian clothes

It’s good to be back in civilian clothes after wearing pilot uniforms for the past several days.

It’s nice to be wearing civilian clothes again as we fly, and fly, and fly; the pilot uniforms will come back out when we leave Australia and we’ll probably have to wear them until we get back to the United States. A couple of brush flies have stowed away aboard the airplane today. They’re not nearly as annoying as they were last night, when we went out to photograph Ayers Rock at sunset; maybe they somehow realize that they’re out of their element.

“Oh, we just got tailwinds!” Mike exclaimed as we flew. Tailwinds had been forecast for the past couple of days, but we had experienced relatively light headwinds instead. The flight plan for this 1,150-nautical-mile leg called for 3 hours, 30 minutes of flying; the tailwind makes that a possibility now. We’ve crossed into South Australia and will traverse the state almost diagonally. This is still a nonradar envinronment so it’s airway flying and position reports to air traffic control.

Dunes in the desert

A gorge cuts through sand dunes in the Australian desert.

The scenery changes little; there are sand dunes, and for a while we parallel a feature that’s somewhere between a large ridge and a small mountain range; its height, I’m sure, is being exaggerated by the low morning sunlight. Gulleys and occasionally rivers can be seen snaking through the landscape, so we must be transitioning to an area with more moisture. Mike takes advantage of the quiet flight to enter the rest of our flight plans into the Garmin navigation system–all the way back to Frederick, Md., and Aiken, S.C.

Our tailwind increases to 18 knots, boosting our groundspeed to 305 kt, as we fly over Lake Cadibarrawirricama, which is near Koolkootinnie Lake. I wonder about the origins of these names until we pass abeam the larger, and more traditionally named, Lake Torrens. We pass over Coober Pedy,  in an area known for its underground opal mines, and about 100 miles northeast of Adelaide, but see neither because of cloud cover. We cross into New South Wales and then into Victoria as Mike reflects on the trip so far. He estimates we’ve flown about 53 hours to get to this point, while the fastest airline option to get him to Australia from his South Carolina home would take about 21 hours–he figures we haven’t done too badly.

Arriving at Latrobe Valley

Mike Laver flies the Latrobe Valley traffic pattern–something he first did 45 years ago.

We’re in and out of the cloud tops at FL250, and in some light turbulence; the wings pick up a little ice. Over Melborne, about 80 miles out, we begin our descent. There’s a sigmet for possible severe icing between FL120 and FL185; we turn on the ice protection equipment but do not encounter any ice. We break out of the clouds at 8,000 feet, although the clouds are lower toward the coast. Mike first learned to fly at the Latrobe Valley airport. “It’s hard to believe I soloed here–I was sixteen. Now I’m 61. That was 45 years ago,” he says as we fly a left traffic pattern in preparation for landing.

We touch down, park, and in a few minutes Mike is met by his mother and brother. A light rain begins to fall as we refuel the airplane. I’ll spend Friday doing a story on a local aircraft manufacturer, and Saturday is my only day off of the trip (I won’t kid you, much of it will be spent doing laundry. Anyone know how to get the kerosene smell out of clothing?). Sunday we head north up the coast.

For the nonpilots

Navaid: Short for navigational aid, this term generally refers to a ground-based radio beacon, or transmitter, providing electronic signals that help pilots navigate.

Sigmet:  A sigmet is a statement of significant meteorological information that has the potential to adversely affect a flight.


Day 11: Denpasar to Ayers Rock, Australia

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Preflighting at Denpasar

Mike Laver preflights his MU-2 beside airliners at Denpasar.

The rising sun backlights low clouds to the east as we climb into N50ET’s cockpit around 6:35 a.m. local time in Bali, and we easily beat our planned departure time of 7 a.m. We were ready to leave the hotel early and our driver was already there. The ride to the airport was a short and sane five minutes; we breezed through security in the company of an Asian airline crew; and we didn’t even have to go to immigration–a handler left with our passports and general declaration and when he brought them back, we were cleared to depart.

Engine start in Denpasar

Our marshaller OKs our request for engine start. Not the ramp sign; we’re almost 8.5 degrees south.

Overnight we gained several neighbors on the Denpasar ramp, a half-dozen business jets–predominantly Gulfstreams of one flavor or another. Most carry the registration code B, for China and Taiwan; there’s one CS, for Portugal; and two N-registered U.S. aircraft. Our MU-2 is by far the smallest of the lot. Here, too, the ramp crew is fascinated by the plane, pulling out cellphones and gesturing for permission to photograph her, and each other in front of her. I win friends by reaching for a handful of phones and snapping shots of a group of four by N50ET’s nose.

Morning over the indian Ocean

It’s a beautiful morning over the Indian Ocean as we depart Bali.

We lift off at 6:46 a.m. local time on our first leg, 700 nautical miles to Broome, Australia, where we will clear Australian customs. Departure timing works out perfectly, because we’re able to turn around and taxi out during a lull in airline activity at the compact, busy terminal–a string of jets has just left, except for a 737 pushing back far to our east, and there were no arrivals on the approach. The proffered intersection takeoff saves a taxi out over the water, where Runway 9 begins. We’re cle ared direct to our cruising altitude of Flight Level 250 (about 25,000 feet) and wide bands of white surf break a couple hundred yards offshore as we bid Bali farewell.

Halfway from Bali to Broome

Crossing into Australian air traffic control at TARUN intersection.

Less than an hour into the flight, as we cross the Australian FIR boundary at TARUN intersection, we notice the air aloft is cooler: minus 20 degrees Celsius, a drop of about 2 degrees. “The airplane likes it,” Mike observes. We’re given an HF frequency and contact Brisbane, which assigns a VHF frequency with instructions to call in 35 minutes. By then we’ll be only about an hour out of Broome. “Easy to understand!” Mike exclaims after the exchange with a fellow Australian. Although our exchanges with controllers through a wide swath of the world have gone much better than I ever expected, there were challenges, sometimes taking both of us to figure out what was being said or instructed–and a couple times we were convinced the controller didn’t have a clue what we were saying. We hardly notice the slight headwind.

As we get closer and can talk to Brisbane on VHF frequencies, we hear the controller give instructions and clearances to a number of aircraft heading to various destinations. This brings back a flood of memories for Mike, who flew here extensively before moving to the United States 20 years ago. “Kununurra is just beautiful. Falls Creek is in the desert, but the scenery there is unbelievable. Argyle is a diamond mine. I used to fly in there all the time–it’s a huge operation.”

One nice thing about Australia is that the transition level is 10,000 feet throughout the country, so it will be several days before we go back to divining them. On the approach to Broome, the approach to Runway 10 carries us over Cable Beach, which Mike says used to be topless to the south and nude to the north. The isolated beach appears nearly deserted at 9:25 this morning, with only a couple of people walking along the water. Offshore a solitary fishing boat plies the bright blue water.

We’re directed to a parking area to wait for customs. After half an hour of waiting we phone customs and they say they’ll be right over. When they arrive we learn that we failed to give the appropriate notice of arrival. The two agents are businesslike and polite, and they quickly determine our error was inadvertent. We’re sent on our way with a warning.

Preparing to depart Broome

Mike watches the fueling of a Caravan while waiting for departure clearance from Broome, Australia.

Broome is a remarkably busy airport with no radar, and the airplanes here are primarily working aircraft: Cessna Caravans, Caravans on floats, Cessna Conquests, twin Cessnas and Cessna 210s are most prevalent. A Grumman Albatross with turbine engines comes and goes. When we depart, a Caravan on floats arrives, and two on wheels taxi in; there’s a Cessna  210 on final, and a GippsAero AirVan awaits departure.

The second leg carries us another 680 nautical miles to Ayers Rock, near the center of the country. Northern Australia is a nonradar environment so position reports are the order of the day. Fortunately, the Garmins make this very simple. Skies are clear in northern Australia. To the right of the aircraft, from FL250 straight rows of tall sand dunes stretch to the horizon. Later we fly over a large crater apparently created by a meteor, and pass to the right of massive Lake Mackay, which sits on the border of Western Australia and Northern Territory, two of the country’s states. Before landing at Ayes Rock we will cross the Tropic of Capricorn.

Ayers Rock from the air

Ayers Rock from the air!

Flying past Ayers Rock

Mike glances toward Ayers Rock as we fly the special procedure for scenic flights.

As we get closer to Ayers Rock, the sand dunes gradually give way to forests interspersed with small lakes. We decide to do an aerial tour of Ayers Rock and its nearby counterpart, The Olgas, upon arrival–there are special procedures published for Ayers Rock scenic flights, and we have a copy. The air down low is a bit rough for MU-2 speeds, but we enjoy the circuit and incredible views of both formations. A Gipps Skyvan and a couple helicopters are flying the same circut. On the way back we try to follow the Skyvan, but it’s just not working out, and we coordinate our passing of the airplane with its pilot over the advisory frequency before we do so. Moments later, a voice comes on the frequency: “And the Speed Queen gets passed!” This prompts a series of comments by the local pilots, and Mike and I have a good laugh.

Skyvan passing The Olgas

If you can see the Skyvan passing The Olgas in this photo, it’s apparently being flown by a pilot known as the “Speed Queen.”

We touch down at the Ayers Rock airport–seems like the first one we’ve visited in several days that doesn’t have the word “Sultan” as part of its proper name–and quickly load 933 liters of Jet-A. It’s one fueler and a truck, not the large teams we’ve seen in Indonesia, and he appears grateful for a hand with the hose and his ladder. When we’re done, it’s off to the terminal to pick up our rental car–but it’s closed. Seems the last airline flight is around 2:30 p.m. these days, and there’s not much sense in staying open much past then. An airport operations staffer tries to help, phoning other numbers for the agency, but nobody’s answering their phones. Turns out the hotel is glad to send a shuttle over, in less time than it probably would have taken to do the rental car paperwork.

Tomorrow: The long trek to Latrobe Valley. We’ve had light headwinds the past few days, and we’re hoping for tailwinds for a change.

For nonpilots

Transition level: The altitude (in feet above mean sea level) at which aircraft change from the use of altitude to the use of flight levels. Operations below this are based on the aircraft altimeter; above, the pressure setting is set to the standard pressure setting of 1013 hectopascals (millibars) or 29.92 inches of mercury. This is done to eliminate the effects of pressure’s natural variation over time and in different areas.


Day 10: Palembang to Denpasar, Bali

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Morning traffic in Indonesia

Morning traffic in Palembang, Indonesia.

I’ve never been to Indonesia before, and the traffic is absolutely crazy. Driving to the hotel last night, some of it in monsoon rains, there is a sea of cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, scooters, three-wheeled jitneys, and pedestrians. Lane markings appear to be nothing more than decorations, and scooters and motorbikes pass between lanes or squeeze between other vehicles and the curb. Apparently if you wait for a break in the traffic, you’ll be there forever, so vehicles try to just edge their way in–horns are used more than brakes here. Schoolchildren in tan and light blue uniforms, girls with heads covered, march in a line to the curb and step into the fray. One young man’s scooter is much slower than the rest, and I think that he needs a smaller girlfriend–even though the woman on the back of the vehicle is petite.

For Mike, this is old hat, but I’m expecting carnage any second. And it never happens, at least that I can see. It was similar the day before in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but here it seems much worse. Memo to self: Any time I come to Indonesia, hire a driver. Given a choice between driving in these conditions and shooting an instrument approach in a monsoon, I would take the instrument approach any day. Hands down.

Preflighting N50ET

Mike Laver preflights N50ET beside a 737 at Palembang.

We had already crossed the Equator

Our ramp sign says we’re 2 degrees south–turns out we crossed the Equator yesterday.

The traffic this morning is less crazy than last night (but still crazy, in my opinion) and the drive to the airport takes 35 or 40 minutes. Once there, things happen quickly. We get through the terminal with two security checks (magnetometers for us and x-ray for our bags); customs and immigration are not necessary because we now have seven-day crew transit visas good throughout Indonesia. The fuel truck arrives within just a few minutes, and once the crew gets the right ladder off the truck, we begin the refueling dance. This crew also is friendly and efficient, although their truck measures in decaliters, so I have to mentally recalibrate. Mike has now delegated me to sign fuel tickets, and I really hope these 900 liters end up on his World Fuel account and not on my credit card.

Looking up at the ramp sign at our parking spot, I see that it says 2 degrees south. Mike and I had been talking about the Equator and when we would cross it. Turns out that it’s not on the aeronautical charts or the Garmins’ databases–if it is in the latter, it’s in a section that’s disabled. You know that red line that goes around the middle of every globe you’ve ever seen? We never saw it! We had thought we would cross that line tomorrow. Welcome to the southern hemisphere!

At 8:56 local, about 45 minutes after arriving at the airport, we lift off from a dry Runway 29 into a thick haze, punctuated by smoke rising from what look like cooking fires in a residential area to the north of the airport. Today’s leg is 808 nautical miles and is planned at 3 hours. Our route takes us over the Java Sea briefly, passing just north of Jakarta, then along land to Bali and Denpasar.

Although the satellite image this morning indicated we’re leaving the Intratropical Convergence Zone and its frequently unfriendly weather behind, it’s still monsoon season, and there’s a buildup just ahead of us on airway G461 near BORAS intersection. A slight deviation to the right keeps us out of most of it; there’s a little turbulence and brief rain. We break out into bright sunshine and a beautiful morning; buildups to the left cast their shadows on the water below, and there’s nothing but small, puffy cumulus to the right.

Volcano in Indonesia

We pass several volcanoes; volcanic peaks in Indonesia reach to 12,500 feet.

Volcano and crater

A bit further along the island, we see what appears to be a crater.

Airliners, however, are holding at multiple altitudes as high as FL 260. We have no idea whether there’s weather or if it’s just traffic volume into busy, single-runway Jakarta (or somewhere else). Regardless, we’re glad that we’re not going where they’re going. Instead we motor along due east, gawking at the seemingly endless string of volcanic peaks jutting out of the clouds off our right wing. Many of them are 15,000 feet high, or higher. In Bali, Denpasar is ringed by mountains with peaks ranging from 7,500 feet to 14,500 feet.

Surf near Denpasar runway

Surf breaks near the end of Runway 9 as we prepare to touch down at Denpasar.

Airliner and MU-2

We  An airliner takes off behind the MU-2, which has just been fueled.

From 8,000 feet on approach, the beaches in Bali look beautiful–thin, white lines of sand ring the islands, bordered by the turquoise hues of shallow water just offshore. There are whitecaps on the bay off the end of Runway 9, and a lot of fishing boats. The general aviation ramp is closed off and apparently under construction, so we’re parked across the field in front of the airline terminal–between a Boeing 737 and a twin-engine regional turboprop. The flight has taken 3.2 hours, and we fill the airplane with 900 liters of Jet-A in preparation for an early departure tomorrow. The line crew here, too, is fascinated by the MU-2; cellphones come out and photos are taken. Considered a domestic arrival, we breeze out of the terminal and to our nearby hotel. Tomorrow we’ll have to clear out through Customs, however–both of our stops will be in Australia.



Day 9: Sri Lanka to Palembang, Indonesia

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Preparing to depart Colombo

Preparing to depart Colombo, Sri Lanka, just before sunrise.

It’s another early day, up at 4 a.m. local to leave the hotel at 5 and, hopefully, take off at 6. Our handler meets us at the terminal and walks us through the maze. Customs and immigration are in the airline terminal, as is the case at many countries we’ve transited. The lines are long but crew move to the front. Even with a stop at the flight information office to file a flight plan, we’re out in what seems like no time. Later, in the plane, Mike Laver–the MU-2 owner I’m accompanying on this journey–remarks, “How could a person possibly do this himself?”

After a ride to the ramp in a crew bus even bigger than last night’s, we load and preflight under the orange glow of sodium vapor floodlights. It’s still dark but the glow of the approaching sunrise is visible on the horizon. Tropical birds sing somewhere in the darkness. Light rain or heavy mist falls as we board, and in the cabin it’s a steamy and seemingly interminable wait for engine start. Finally we’re turning; we hold for a landing 737 and then we leave the low clouds behind as we climb over mountainous southern Sri Lanka.

The mountains are beautiful, harboring a number of lakes, and I wonder if the brighter green areas are tea plantations. The former Ceylon also is known for its Buddhist sites and shrines, and for an elephant preserve, among others.

At Flight Level 250 (about 25,000 feet), we’re still over Sri Lanka and we’re cleared direct to TOPIN, an intersection 650 nautical miles away–nearly on the other side of the Bay of Bengal, our long overwater leg for today. This is nonradar territory so there is a litany of radio frequencies (primary HF, backup HF, and VHF), estimates of arrival times at several fixes, requests to report arrival at specific waypoints, and requests to check in by radio every half hour.

The sky over the Bay of Bengal is waking up, with buildups in several quadrants; we’re flying generally east here, however, and most are to our south. Later we’re in the clouds, making it impossible to avoid buildups visually, but checks of the radar and Stormscope show nothing, and the ride is smooth.

We’re in cloud for quite a while, which makes it hard to see strong vertical development and avoid it. But the ride stays smooth, and except for passing through a particularly moist area of cloud–which, at an outside air temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius wants to turn into ice on the airplane–the segment is uneventful. We emerge into thinner clouds and, eventually, bright sunlight 260 mn from Banda Aceh. The conditions come with a little turbulence in the clear air, but it’s a great trade for the ability to visually avoid weather. Below, small white clouds float like cotton balls above the blue water.

Making radio contact with Jakarta proves one of the greatest challenges of the day. None of our assigned frequencies is successful. Eventually an airliner, Singapore 462, relays to Jakarta for us, and provides the Sultan Tower frequency. Later he reports no response from Jakarta, so at least it’s not just us. Getting a descent clearance is almost as challenging. Fortunately, Mike can bring the MU-2 down at 3,000 feet per minute. Maybe it’s weak radios, maybe it’s a trainee controller–maybe it’s just the way things are done there.

Arrival to Banda Aceh

A view of Banda Aceh’s beaches on the approach.

Tsunami scars in Banda Aceh

A portion of Banda Aceh ravaged by a tsunami eight years ago.

On approach to Runway 17 we cross ribbons of white beach bordering turquoise waters. Banda Aceh stretches far to the east of the runway. Close by, what looks like prime waterfront real estate is swept nearly clean; there are only a few buildings standing, likely built–or rebuilt–after a devastating tsunami eight years ago. As we perform the MU-2 refueling dance on the ramp at Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport, our handler Rafiq explains that 80 percent of the city was destroyed and 250,000 lives were lost. The airport, at an elevation of 65 feet, was not damaged although a new terminal building–with dramatic domes–was recently completed.

Fueler in Banda Aceh

The tip tank is topped near the Banda Aceh airport terminal’s distinctive dome.

Our first leg of the day was 905 nm and, thanks to headwinds, took 4.2 hours; we added 1,075 liters of fuel. By the time we finished cups of Indonesian coffee offered by Rafiq in the airport lounge, our passports were returned, with seven-day crew visas that should let us transit all the way through Indonesia to Australia.

On the Banda Aceh ramp

MU-2 on the ramp at Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

Banda Aceh ramp crew

Mike Laver took this photo of Mike Collins with the Banda Aceh ramp crew.

It’s monsoon season in Indonesia and rain is in the forecast; we flew through a rainshower on the approach and have stayed dry on the ground. However, there’s a dramatic-looking squall line just to the east of the airport as we backtrack on the runway to depart from Runway 17.

Climbing southeastward along the middle of Sumatra toward Palembang, first the Medan and then the Jakarta controller offer shortcuts. This is VHF country, but clear radio communications are still a challenge. Laver’s Bendix/King KX 196B–which can transmit at an increased power of 16 watts, twice as strong a signal as the normal 8–proves to be a worthwhile addition. Isolated thunderstorms are building all around us but we’re in smooth, clear air and no deviations from our course are required to avoid them.

Building thunderstorms

Monsoonal thunderstorms starting to build along our route across Sumatra. The shape of things to come?

So I brought my favorite kneeboard along on this trip. Flying from the left seat, with it strapped to my right leg, its silver aluminum surface never has been a problem. Now, however, in the right seat it’s a magnet for glare and reflection. Why don’t they make these in flat black? I know what I’ll be looking for when I get home.

Further along, we pass abeam of Singapore, which is about 100 nautical miles to our northeast. Here, we’re well south of Bangkok and Vietnam; we’re getting closer to the equator and will cross it Wednesday after we leave Bali. We successfully avoid the weather until we encounter a cell on our descent into Padang, about 35 miles from the field. Weather radar and a deviation to the right of course make it manageable. Looking at the available approaches, we decide for a variety of reasons that the ILS Runway 29 approach is the way to go, despite a slight tailwind, and this proves to be an excellent choice–we’re not done with this storm yet.

Vectors to the ILS final approach course take us out of the rain, but we fly back into it on the final. Our first real approach of the trip is almost to minimums; we break out at 2.5 miles and land in a monsoon. On the ramp, there’s at least half an inch of water on the concrete, and you’re soaked in an instant–even with the high wing and umbrellas. We defer fueling until morning because of the rain, and get inside as quickly as we can. You’ll have to believe me about the rain; it was coming down too hard to get the cameras out for a picture!

For the nonpilots

Intersection: This is a point in space where two airways (see earlier entry) cross. A flight might change from one airway to another at an intersection, just like you’d change roads at a highway intersection–but they also serve as convenient locations to report your position to controllers if they don’t have radar, or to monitor the progress of your flight.

Stormscope: This is a device installed in the aircraft that detects lightning strikes and displays them on a map or graphic. Pilots use it to identify and avoid thunderstorms.


Day 8: Oman to Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Dawn in Oman

Sunrise in Muscat, Oman–ready to go, but the runway isn’t.

It’s still evening at home in Maryland when I awake at 3:30 a.m. in Muscat for a 4:45 pickup at our hotel for a planned 6 a.m. takeoff. Our handler Abraham escorts us through the crew entrance and gets us through customs quickly as promised, walking us to the front of every line. While I’ve joked a bit about the pilot uniform it’s clearly an expedient to international flight in this part of the world, and I have already seen a full return on my investment.

Walking out of the frigid terminal onto the very humid ramp, our glasses instantly become Foggles, although there is a nice breeze. A crew bus takes us to the airplane, we preflight, and get our departure clearance. All is tracking perfectly for a 6 a.m. departure until Mike calls for engine start–the runway is closed for half an hour, apparently for a FOD check. So we climb out of the cockpit and stand on the ramp.

Across the runway an array of lights twinkle on a forest of construction cranes, where a massive new terminal is being built. Above we see a crescent moon. Eventually the sun rises off our nose, over the old terminal building and a parked Boeing 737.

Finally we’re off, climbing over a line of mountains not far from the airport. Fog hugs one side and a road carved out of the rock snakes its way up to a pass.

Organizing charts

Mike Laver takes advantage of a quiet climbout to organize charts.

Over the Arabian Sea we’re handed off to Mumbai Radio, and it takes a while before Mike can talk with them on high frequency radio. For a while, anyway, it’s position reports and estimates, which GPS makes pretty simple. “This is just like the old days,” Mike observes. This leg’s a little more than 800 NM and the flight plan used our long-range numbers. “We’re just going to open it up and get there,” Mike says. Normal cruise is giving is us about 275 knots on 68 gallons per hour. It’s warm at altitude–ISA plus 20–not as warm as yesterday but the day is young.

Below, a solid layer of clouds has become mostly clear, with isolated clouds beginning to show vertical development. The forecast includes a chance of isolated thunderstorms later, with tops to FL410–all the more reason to fly early. Approaching NOBAT intersection, where we will resume VHF communication, we cheerfully turn off the squeaking, chirping HF radio. The Mumbai ATIS can be heard 200 miles out. The busy Indian controller acknowledges calls with a crisp, “Rog.”

Cloud tops on the descent are around 15,000 feet and we break out just over a significant peak on the ILS approach course. The rolling landscape is a verdant green, and we don’t see the runway until we’re two and a half miles out because of the haze. The approach is over taller buildings that give way to squat residential structures with black roofs, many covered with bright blue tarps.

Marshaller in Mumbai

Our marshaller in Mumbai, India–stopping us in the middle of a taxiway.

Our concerns about the complex airport are unfounded; a turnoff to the left, right onto a parallel taxiway, and straight to our marshaller, who stops us on the taxiway. On the way we pass a group of workers watching us pass who give us the “MU-2 salute”–a finger in each ear to counter the airplane’s ground noise. There’s no tow bar that will fit the Mitsubishi, so the line crew pushes us back for fueling. The bowser (fuel truck) arrives quickly; I oversee the delivery of 966 liters of Jet-A while Mike takes care of the paperwork. The Indian bureaucracy won’t accept the flight plan BaseOps had filed, so Mike has to refile. No question I get the better end of this deal.

Birds are a problem at the Mumbai airport, and many others around the world. People are stationed under tents at intervals along the runway, firing noise cannons to discourage the feathered nuisances. At times on the ramp, it sounds–and smells–like the Fourth of July. Less than 100 yards from us, a steady stream of airliners comes and goes, brightly decorated and bearing names like IFly, Spice Jet, and Air India.

Ramp crew in Mumbai

Our ramp crew in Mumbai.

Moving the MU-2

Pushing the fueled MU-2 back onto the taxiway–uphill.

We’re nowhere near a conventional FBO, but our handler knows some people, and we’re able to use the water closet in a private hangar that is home to a Piaggio Avanti and a couple of jets. After that, the friendly line crew pushes us back onto the taxiway–slightly uphill, and with the additional weight of the fuel–so we can start engines. Total time on the ground was one hour…pretty good in anyone’s book. They were good sports about it, but it’s probably a good thing that I took the group photo before the big push.

After departure we turn southeastward and angle inland toward Bangalore, roughly paralleling the coast. All aircraft registrations in India begin with the letters VT, just like those in the United States begin with N. I don’t know if the letters have any historical significance, but the phonetic pronunciation “Victor Tango” rolls off a controller’s tongue with a cadence that’s almost musical.

Thunderstorms in southern India

These thunderstorms in southern India stayed to the west of our route.

Puffy clouds are visible over the rolling green landscape below, and they’re starting to build, but it’s clear along the coast–just like many flights I’ve made along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Much taller buildups in the distance include a couple of monsters at our 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock that appear to have reached the mature stage. We pass well clear to see some big ones to the right of our course, which become part of a line. Here we’re happy for the quartering headwind, which is pushing the weather off to our east at 25 knots.

We leave the clouds behind at India’s southern coast–covered with rectangular white areas, possibly salt harvested from seawater?–and cross the Gulf of Mannar, with only scattered puffy clouds far below us. We descend through a layer at 2,000 feet along the beach, and hear another pilot tell the controller that kite are being flown at midfield (we never see them). Soon we’re on the ground, parked on a large ramp beside a Russian-built IL-76 and near a Cessna Citation bearing the registration, M-AYBE. Clearly the United States is not the only country where aircraft owners can seek vanity registration numbers.

Crew bus in Colombo

We could almost fit the whole MU-2 fuselage in our expansive crew bus.

After adding 973 liters of Jet-A and just before we board what’s by far the largest crew bus to date–this is for just the two of us, mind you–a Sri Lankan airport official tells me that an Australian pilot making a world record flight attempt, Ryan Campbell, visited the field just a week or so ago. I tried to look up his website, but couldn’t; the high-speed internet in my room simply wasn’t. Maybe you’ll have better luck. For me, I’m already late to bed–we have two legs tomorrow, 950 and 805 nm, and our ride to the airport comes early.

A cheat sheet for any nonpilots:

ATIS: This stands for Automatic Terminal Information System, a recording of important runway and weather information at airports with control towers. It’s usually updated hourly, and broadcasts in an endless loop on a designated radio frequency. Approaching pilots listen to the information so controllers don’t have to repeat it for every arriving flight.

ILS: The Instrument Landing System uses ground-based radio signals, aligned horizontally and vertically, that guide pilots to the runway when there is low cloud or something else that reduces visibility and make it difficult to see the runway. Depending on a variety of factors, an ILS can bring an airplane down to anywhere from about 300 feet above ground level to, potentially, the surface.