Awaking early to light in the sky, I look out to a thick, gray sky–until I realize the sun has not yet risen. It does shortly, brightening things considerably, and the dawn becomes another mostly cloudy tropical morning. Outside the hotel the banka boats–pole-powered pontoon boats–already are busy. It had rained overnight and clears considerably by the time we get to the airport.
We were parked last night on the military ramp at Mactan-Cebu International; the night before, several South Korean fighter jets had paused here. Four Philippine Air Force C-130s and two Australian-built Nomads are parked on the far end of the expansive ramp.
We are planeside early, and customs and immigration are prompt. We’re not scheduled to depart until 10 a.m. local, though, and there’s concern about our arrival slot into Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport. Mike’s in the airplane talking with ground control, and one of our ramp crew is on her radio as well; someone in the office is coordinating with BaseOps, our flight-planning service. So I enjoy a conversation with our handler out on the ramp, as we watch single-engine Cessna trainers take off and land. There are four flight schools doing training at the international airport, he explains, with many students coming from Africa, Iran, and Korea–turns out the training is much less expensive in the Philippines. There are limitations, he adds; training flights are allowed in the morning and later in the afternoon, but not during periods of peak commercial operations at the field. Finally we get word at 9 a.m. local that our departure is approved.
We’re cleared to depart from Runway 22 after the departure of Cebu 564 and the arrival of a Cessna 172, which crosses the threshold very high; we quickly realize he’s landing long on the 10,827- foot-long runway because the flight schools all are at the far end. The MACTAN 1 departure brings us around to the left, overflying the sprawling city–I didn’t get much of a view yesterday on our approach–and across lush mountains on the western side of the island. There are a few glimpses of the Philippine Sea but for the most part, clouds obscure the view as we track northwest through the Philippines.
In and out of the clouds, the weather radar is on so we can get an idea of what’s unseen out in front of us. Fortunately there’s little precipitation at our altitude, although we pick up a little light ice in a couple of clouds. In an area of clear air we see buildups towering ahead; we ask for clearance to a waypoint farther upstream and can cut the corner as well as avoid the weather. It’s situations like this that make you really miss the big-picture perspective that datalinked Nexrad radar images can provide in the United States. “You really do get used to that,” Mike agrees.
Although we pass just east of Manila, we’re in the clouds and can’t see anything. To the north, however, there’s a bit of clear sky and we look down on mountains, with lush green fields and a wide river winding through the valley floor. From the northern tip of the Philippines, it’s only about 200 nautical miles across the water to the southern end of Taiwan. Somewhere off to the east are the Batan Islands.
We flirt with the Taiwan Straits as we skirt Taiwan’s western shore, alternately in or above clouds. About 100 nautical miles south of Taipei, the clouds below us fall away, and we shift our focus from an approach to ground operations…how will they taxi us and where will they park us? If we only knew where we would be parking, ground planning would be much easier. This is a large, busy airport with several construction projects to boot. There is a Domestic and Business Aviation apron but it has only three parking spots, so I’m thinking that is not where we’ll be parking.
It seems like everyone is shooting an ILS approach to Runway 23 Left or 23 Right today; we are assigned 23 Right. Visibility is good over the water just offshore, but on final, the tan haze over the city becomes very obvious; I bet there are days that an instrument approach is required just because of the haze. And it turns out we’re assigned parking on that business aviation apron–it’s been expanded and the increased capacity is not reflected on our taxi charts. Also, one of the handlers tells me that each parking space can accommodate more than one airplane. Fueling takes a while; once the truck arrives, the fueler upon filling the left main must have grabbed the valve by mistake when pulling out the nozzle, because suddenly fuel is gushing off the wing–and the same thing happens on the right main tank. A water truck is called to help wash the fuel off the plane. Clearing customs, in the airline terminal, is easy but requires what seems like an endless amount of walking.
We’re parked beside a Challenger and a couple of Gulfstreams; before we leave, a German-registered Jetprop DLX conversion of the Piper Malibu taxis up and parks, so for a change we’re not the little kid in town.
Our hotel is right on the field–we come to find out it was one of the buildings we were looking at as we waited for the fuel truck. Only a few hundred yards from the hotel is an aviation museum, apparently operated by the airport. I decide to walk over and have a look; the admission fee is 30 Taiwanese dollars but I don’t have any local currency, and the museum does not accept credit cards–so they offer to let me in for free. (The fact that it’s less than an hour to closing time may have been part of it, too.) The museum is remarkably comprehensive, although part of it is dated (for example, one display talks about the future and shows a U.S. space shuttle taking off–all of the shuttles have been retired.) The museum has an impressive collection of models, of historic aircraft, military aircraft, and civilian airliners.
I’m surprised to see a Cessna 182RG, still bearing a U.S. registration number. Jerry Tsai, a Chinese citizen, flew the Cessna from San Francisco to Taipei in 1984, stopping in Hawaii and a couple of other islands on the way; Tsai set several records for flying across the Pacific in a single-engine airplane. There are a few other small aircraft inside, including another Cessna piston single, a helicopter, and a Chinese-built military training airplane. A park surrounding the museum is home to a number of larger airplanes, including former military fighters and training aircraft, a Grumman Albatross amphibian–and a venerable Douglas DC-3. Worth a visit if you’re at the airport and have some time to fill, but be forwarned that only about 25 or 30 percent of the exhibits include signage or information in English. Tomorrow: On to Nagoya, Japan.