Day 18: Horn Island to Cebu, Philippines

September 11, 2013 by Mike Collins

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.

 

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