Day 9: Sri Lanka to Palembang, Indonesia

September 2, 2013 by Mike Collins

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.


2 Responses to “Day 9: Sri Lanka to Palembang, Indonesia”

  1. Ichwan Affandy Says:

    It’s an honour for handling N50ET ans the crew. Salute for you, Capt. Laver and Capt. Collins.
    Hope we’ll meet again soon.

    *One of BTJ ramp crews

  2. Mike Collins Says:

    It was our privilege, and we certainly appreciated the quality of your service. Thanks again!

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