Day 11: Denpasar to Ayers Rock, Australia

September 4, 2013 by Mike Collins

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.


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