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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.