MU-2 Round the World

Around the world, by the numbers

October 4, 2013 by Mike Collins

Many of you have asked for statistics about the trip, and some of them are starting to come in:

Number of days: 25

Number of flight legs: 30 (fit into 20 flying days; there were five nonflying days on the schedule)

Distance traveled: 26,568 nautical miles (4,930 nm greater than the circumference of the Earth). Note, this is my distance traveled; Mike Laver’s journey began and ended in Aiken, S.C., so he logged two more flight legs and an additional 907 nm.

Total flight time: 98.1 hours

Average speed: 271 knots (312 mph)

Average flight leg: 886 nautical miles (1,020 miles)

Longest flight leg: 1,232 nautical miles (1,418 miles), from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Minot, North Dakota

Shortest flight leg: 93 nautical miles (107 miles), from Straubing, Germany, to Salzburg, Austria. Why so short? We wanted to visit MT Propeller in Straubing and the Red Bull Air Museum in Salzburg–why drive between the two, especially when fuel costs less in Salzburg? The next shortest flight leg was 674 nautical miles, from Broome to Ayers Rock, Australia.

Notebooks filled: 2.5

Photographs taken: 6,903

Video recorded: 175.5 GB

We’re still working on total fuel consumption, most expensive and least expensive fuel, highest fees, and similar numbers. However, many of those costs were billed through our handler, BaseOps, or primary fuel supplier, World Fuel. It could be another month or two before all the bills make their way to Mike’s business.

In the meantime, please take a look at the October 3 installment of AOPA Live This Week; Associate Producer Paul Harrop crafted a nice segment based primarily on video that I shot during the trip. The segment starts at about 4:20 into the program.

My wife really likes the homecoming segment on the September 19 AOPA Live This Week (very early in the show, about 1:30)…I’m not sure whether it’s the video itself or just the fact that I had returned from my longest trip ever.

 

 

 

Day 25: Minot to Frederick, Maryland

September 17, 2013 by Mike Collins

Our last day gets off to an unusual start when we arrive at the airport to learn that the nose gear of Mike Laver’s Mitsubishi MU-2, N50ET, had been accidentally damaged when the airplane was moved after we left it the night before. However, the FBO had summoned a mechanic who replaced the sheared bolt, and had prepared a logbook entry documenting the repair (for nonpilots readers, unlike your car, any repairs or maintenance on an aircraft is documented in a permanent record). Mike pronounces the repair satisfactory, and we depart on the final leg to Frederick. Had the problem been major, our 25-day journey around the world could have been halted abruptly, just one leg and 1,188 nautical miles from home.

Mike Laver before sunrise

Mike Laver checks an electronic chart on his iPad (we carried paper charts, too) as dawn approaches.

The clear black sky is full of stars as we complete the preflight and load the airplane. We take off VFR climbing eastward and pick up our clearance in flight as we pass small clusters of lights that mark North Dakota’s farming communities. Shortly a thin line of light along the eastern horizon starts to grow taller, and it separates into colors–orange along the horizon and a band of blue above.

Our flight plan was filed via airways, and included myriad slight turns left and right. Mike asks Minneapolis Center if we can have a clearance direct to the Indian Head VOR in southern Pennsylvania, and it is approved. “We aim to please,” the cheerful controller says. “And you do,” Mike replies.

Sunrise over North Dakota

The sun rises at 25,000 feet near Fargo, North Dakota.

Now a red band forms below the blue-and-orange horizon, and right around Fargo the sun’s disk begins to break the horizon. Below, fingers of low clouds are reaching over Fargo from the south. Even better, we have a 10-knot tailwind! And we enjoy slight tailwinds almost all the way to the East Coast.

Airliners converge on Eau Clair

The black diamonds represent airliners heading to Eau Clair (EAU) to hold.

We pass north of Minneapolis and Eau Claire, where a string of Minneapolis arrivals are being stacked in holding patterns. In fact, there are so many, the controller needs our altitude, and we’re assigned a modest vector to the left of our course. Our detour is short, and we’re thankful we’re going to Frederick and not Minneapolis this morning.

Sunlight over Lake Michigan

It’s seldom this clear over Lake Michigan, at least when I’m flying there.

It’s clear over Lake Michigan, which reflects the morning sun, and we pass over Grand Rapids, Michigan, the intersecting concrete runways of its airport in stark contrast to the green grass. This is a familiar route for the first time in 25 days. We pass north of Jackson, Michigan, where I lived in what now feels like an earlier life; between Detroit and Toledo; and angle across Lake Erie and Cleveland. There’s Kelleys Island, Ohio, on Lake Erie with its intersecting runways, and the amusement park at Cedar Point.

Spinning prop reflects sun

Mike Laver’s MU-2, N50ET, has flown us all the way around the world without any mechanical issues.

Near Cleveland, Center gives us a minor reroute–direct Morgantown, West Virginia; direct Martinsburg, West Virginia; then direct to Frederick. The change adds only 20 miles to our flight. This also is very familiar. We pass Akron, Ohio, and fly southwest of Pittsburgh under beautiful, clear skies with occasional clouds below. The farmland of Ohio gives way to the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania and mountains of West Virginia, and before we know it, we’re descending to land in Frederick.

Welcome back to Frederick

Friends and colleagues welcome us on our arrival to the AOPA ramp at Frederick.

Waiting for us on the AOPA ramp is a large group of my AOPA friends and coworkers, as well as my lovely bride, and while it’s been a fantastic trip–it’s absolutely great to get home. I’d be remiss not to thank Mike Laver; my colleagues at AOPA; and especially my wife and family for the opportunity.

Mike Laver and Mike Collins after trip

Mike Laver and Mike Collins at Frederick, after 25 days and 97.5 hours of flying.

It’s been a very remarkable, and enjoyable, trip. We saw many fascinating sights, breezed through quite a few countries (and stayed a little longer in a few), landed during a monsoon in Indonesia, and got out of Japan less than a day ahead of a typhoon that caused flooding and evacuations. Mike and I have spent right about 97.5 hours together in N50ET. We’ve been too busy to keep up with the mileages for each leg, and other trip statistics; I will calculate our distance travelled and other relevant information, and post it in one or more wrap-up posts on this blog.

One of the most unexpected, and gratifying, aspects of this trip has been your interest. I’ve been impressed and humbled by the number of emails you’ve sent to me at AOPA (and through the DeLorme InReach messenger, which has the ability to send and receive 160-character messages); here on this blog, and through Facebook. I’m glad you found our adventures interesting. If you’d like to read about the trip from Mike Laver’s perspective, please visit his blog on the Air 1st website (click on the “Around the World-N50ET” link). I’ll be doing that myself, as soon as I get some sleep–this flying through 10 time zones in three days is really starting to get to me. Tonight will be an early night.

 

Day 24: Fairbanks to Minot, North Dakota

September 16, 2013 by Mike Collins

The beauty of Alaska is always breathtaking, but it’s an especially glorious welcome back to the States after traveling almost all the way around the world. Day 24 of our 25-day journey begins before dawn in Fairbanks, where the temperature is 34.6 degrees Fahrenheit when I wake up. On our cab ride to the airport, Mike Laver is concerned that there might be frost on his Mitsubishi MU-2, which would delay our departure. Fortunately, there is no frost, although one of the line crew said there was frost on all the airplanes yesterday; it had rained the day before, and all that moisture found the aluminum to be irresistible in the cool air.

Sunrise leaving Fairbanks

The sun rises over a mountain range as we climb out of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Color is starting to paint the eastern sky as we preflight N50ET, and we take off from Runway 20 Right in the predawn light. Just after liftoff we cross the tree-lined Tanana River; most of the trees already bear the golden yellow of fall, and the vignette is beautiful.

Mike Laver contemplates an Alaskan sunrise

Mike Laver contemplates an Alaskan sunrise from the left seat of N50ET.

Climbing eastward above the river’s broad valley, we watch as the sun rises in front of us and slowly drizzles golden light from the tops of the tall, snow-capped mountain range to our south. Glancing down I see Allen Army Airfield (PABI) in Delta Junction, still slumbering in the valley’s shadows.

Distant Alaska peak

Tall peaks jut from the shadows and low clouds.

Further to the south, even taller peaks jut spectacularly into the sunshine, and the low morning sun gives their snow caps an orange glow. For a while I just sit and watch, taking in the beauty as the majesty of Alaska glides by at 275 knots less than 25,000 feet below.

The sky clouds up, however, as we approach Canada and cross the Yukon Territory as we make our way to Ketchikan, Alaska, for our fuel stop. Unfavorable winds aloft push our groundspeed on this 812-nautical-mile leg down to 245 knots, about the slowest we’ve seen on the trip. We’re in and out of the clouds, with continual light chop at our cruising altitude of Flight Level 250, about 25,000 feet.

Snow-covered Canadian mountains

Mountains in western Canada are barely visible through the clouds.

“Two hundred thirty! Unbelievable!” exclaims Mike a little later, after our progress slows further. “Sixty knots of headwind. Oh, well, we’re a lot quicker than a lot of airplanes.” Ironically, our true airspeed is a sprightly 296 knots, on a fuel burn of 70 gallons per hour. “For our fuel burn, that’s an incredible true airspeed,” he notes. To conserve fuel Mike is not cruising at full power, even when the headwind pushes our groundspeed to 225 knots.

The sun marches higher in the sky, accelerated by our relentless push to the east-southeast–across three more time zones today. Can you say 21-hour day? We pass to the west of Juneau, which is obscured by clouds. A couple of times we find ourselves flying through cloud valleys almost as expansive as what we saw on the Earth’s surface earlier.

Arriving at Ketchikan

Shooting the approach into Ketchikan. Do you see the runway?

We shoot an approach to Ketchikan and break out of the clouds into the center of a fjord that points to the airport. We land on Runway 11 as a de Havilland Beaver on floats touches down abeam us on the parallel City Harbor. At least three large cruise ships are docked on the other side of the harbor, and a steady stream of floatplanes–I think they’re all Beavers–stays busy giving scenic flights that, for many passengers, are their own flight of a lifetime.

Next to us on the ramp a FedEx twin turboprop unloads freight into an array of trucks. But there’s no time to watch these shows; the fuel truck has two nozzles and two fuelers, and they replenish our supply of Jet-A in each tank simultaneously–not only saving time but also avoiding the need to alternate the filling of the airplane’s wingtip tanks. We are able to land, fuel, pay the bill, use the restroom, and take off again–all in about 24 minutes.

We climb through low clouds into bright sunshine as we begin our next leg, 1,228 nautical miles from Ketchikan to Minot, North Dakota. We’re handed off almost immediately to Vancouver Center, which clears us to the Edmonton VOR, located 633 nautical miles to the east. Well before we get there, we’re cleared direct to Minot.

Crabbing into the wind

We crab into the unforecast headwind to maintain our desired ground track.

Clouds over the mountains of western Canada give way to Alberta’s vast, partly cloudy plains between Edmonton and Calgary, with their endless pattern of checkerboard fields. Somewhere else, aircraft are asking Edmonton Center for deviations around weather. We don’t have any rain or menacing clouds, but the winds for this portion of the flight are not at all what was forecast; the winds aloft have not shifted and instead of being neutral for us, we find an increasing headwind. Mike spends a lot of time checking his fuel calculations, tweaking the power settings, and then double-checking, to be certain we’ll land with at least an hour’s fuel reserve in Minot. We hold a hefty right crab into the quartering flow, which resulted in headwinds of 30 knots or more before the wind finally dropped off.

Lake Diefenbaker

The lowering sun reflects off Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan.

The skies are mostly clear as we fly across the large wheat fields of Saskatchewan. The sun is sinking in the west as we pass near Riverhurst, Saskatchewan, reflecting off the lazy waters of the wide Lake Diefenbaker. We’re less than an hour from Minot now and unlike yesterday, we’ll get there before the sun sets.

At Regina we turn right for the last 180 miles to Minot. When we land, we refuel the airplane and go to the hotel; no Customs, immigration, or other procedures are required. Because we did not land in Canada, and were just overflying it, technically we never left the United States–so it’s not necessary to reenter the country. We could have planned a fuel stop in Canada, but that would have required entry into Canada and a return to the United States. Mike felt that by now we’d be tired of the whole process. He was right.

Dinner is at a Mexican restaurant, and we try to turn in early to rest for the last day of our odyssey–and my final leg back to Frederick. Then Mike will have a fairly short flight back to his home base, in Aiken, South Carolina.

Day 23: Petropavlovsk to Fairbanks, Alaska

September 16, 2013 by Mike Collins

Monday morning dawns rainy and overcast; a mountain peak visible from my hotel window is obscured by clouds. The fourth-floor view is quite different from yesterday’s 41st-floor perspective of Nagoya, although except for the temperature, the weather is rather similar. We consider stopping in the hotel cafe for breakfast, but decide that with today’s planned flying and the time-zone-shortened day (we will cross four time zones and the International Date Line), getting going is the better option–then we play the what-if game until our driver arrives 10 minutes late. “What if we’d gone to the cafe right when it opened at 7:30? What if it opened a few minutes early?” I don’t mind another Clif Bar, especially after my stash came so close to supplying dinner last night.

Petropavlovsk hotel

Our short visit allows us to see very little of Russia. This is from in front of our hotel.

I had been looking forward to seeing Russia, but most of what I see is on the ride back to the airport Monday morning (it will become Sunday again when we cross the Bering Strait). The city of Kamchatsky appears similar to a U.S. city of similar size, with a mix of newer, often brightly colored buildings and clearly older structures. Outside of the city we drive along miles of tree-lined roads, with some leaves starting to show hints of fall color, that are punctuated occasionally by brightly colored, cinder-block bus shelters. There must be unseen homes behind the trees, however, because several shelters have people in them, and there are pedestrians along the rainy roadway.

Closer to the airport we pass through residential areas that are somewhat ramshackle; many homes have one or more apparently disused vehicles, some missing wheels or fenders. Closer to the airport there are a number of large apartment buildings that look as though they could be former barracks, leading me to believe the facility is a former–or current–military base.

Terrain around Petropavlovsk airport

Our departure from Petropavlovsk clearly shows the terrain surrounding the airport.

We meet our handler at the terminal, bypass one security checkpoint, then have our bags x-rayed and walk through a magnetometer at a second, apparently for crews and airport workers; on the bus out to the airplane, she gives us a weather package for this 1,004-nautical-mile leg, and discusses the two departure options. We can take off from either end of the single runway (the adjacent 16 Right/34 Left is under construction), “Just ask air traffic control.” Because of terrain near the airport, we decide a 34 Right departure will be preferable–even though we’ll have to backtrack the runway’s full 11,158-foot length.

Follow Me truck

Our Follow Me car in Petropavlovsk leads us all the way to the runway.

Last night it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere, but in daylight, there are two terminal buildings nearby, and a handful of twin-engine turboprops are a few hundred yards away. As we begin our rainy taxi, a three-engine Russian jet reminiscent of an older Falcon is being towed toward the terminals. Our lengthy taxi up a long taxiway, around the construction, and back down the runway gives us several glimpses of military activity. Off to the right, a transport plane sits in a revetment, surrounded by trees that look as though they could obscure its movement. Closer to the runway, behind a gated taxiway on the left, are a number of fighter jets that look like Sukhois. We bid farewell to our Follow Me truck and begin the long back-taxi, finding the side of the runway smoother than the center. We pass a fenced compound of trucks with radar antennas, and at the approach end of Runway 34 Right is another large ramp with several military transports, and beyond them, quite a few helicopters. Strangely, we see nobody in any of these areas. It’s not Sunday; perhaps the national holiday? Regardless, men and equipment are working on the new runway.

After starting engines early and our taxi tour, we’re airborne at 9:17 a.m. local, 21:17 Z–that’s 17 minutes behind our plan, but not bad under the circumstances. Our departure clearance is to Flight Level 090 (about 9,000 feet) but radar control immediately clears us to FL 250. This is good for terrain clearance and our fuel burn; departures must be above 7,190 feet by RILAT intersection and we make that easily. We start to fly out of the tops at 9,500 feet, and radar control accommodates our request to cut a corner by clearing us direct to GEFAR–which actually cuts two corners.

Most of the leg is in clear air with thick clouds below, but they clear temporarily over the Anadyrskiy Gulf. We look down on a desolate brown peninsula with snow-spotted mountains to our right and sheer cliffs falling to bright blue-green water on the left. Later, a river is seen snaking through a deep, curving valley. We get a slight push from the winds aloft at our cruise power setting until they shift and weaken closer to our destination of Anadyr, Russia, where the ATIS indicates better conditions than were forecast.

Approach to Anadyr

There’s wicked wind shear on the approach to Anadyr; today, at least, it dropped off right at the threshold.

Like Petropavlosk, Anadyr’s runway sits beside a bay, but it’s not surrounded by mountains, and the ILS approach to Runway 1 is very straightforward. But the ATIS included a statement, “Hazardous wind shear on final,” and a helicopter pilot on the approach ahead of us said, in English, “Significant wind shear,” and then talked in Russian with the controller, who also relayed the advisory. Later the pilot said, “Stops at runway.” We appreciated the heads up. Sure enough, there was a pretty wicked wind shear on final, which made it hard to track the localizer. We were below the clouds and had the runway visually. And sure enough, just after crossing the threshold, the shear disappeared.

A marshaller parked us, then left, and there was no sign of our handler. After waiting a few minutes, Mike placed a call to BaseOps–we had a phone number for the handler, but did not know what country code to dial. The handler arrived a few minutes later, very apologetic, because it was an unusually busy day in Anadyr; a charter flight was trying to depart with more than a hundred French tourists aboard and clearing them apparently required all the airport’s resources. Customs and immigration arrived before long; the latter left with our passports and brought them back half an hour later, stamped and ready to go. The fuel truck arrived, and once the proper ladder was procured, fueling went quickly.

I ask the handler about snow here, and we quickly learn we don’t want to be here in the winter. The snow usually starts in September, but sometimes in August, she says. “Maybe today,” says the immigration man. And I guess it could; it’s 8 degrees Celsius so about 45 degrees Fahrenheit at what we think is early afternoon local time. I also ask about a large mural on the terminal building; a cartoon figure of a young girl stands, arms upraised, with Cyrillic characters that read, “The day begins here.” I ask if I can take a photo; the handler says she thinks it would be ok but our friend in the green uniform says, “No pictures.” So, I don’t. We take off from Runway 1 after a 90-minute stop and a very short taxi.

Crossing International Date Line

We cross the International Date Line, go back to Sunday, and come back into the United States–all at the same time.

The leg from Anadyr to Fairbanks is a bit shorter, at 919 nautical miles. We depart Russian airspace after about an hour, then we cross the International Date Line, jump from Monday afternoon to Sunday evening, and enter U.S. airspace–all at about the same time.

Sunset behind us

The sun sets behind us…

Moonrise over Alaska

…as the moon rises over Alaska.

We overfly Nome, Alaska, but see nothing because of the thick clouds below us. The moon rises at our 2 o’clock position as the sun slowly sets behind us. Around Galena, we look down and through some breaks in the clouds we see the wide, graceful curves of the Yukon River. Eventually all traces of reflected orange disappear from the eastern horizon in front of us, and we fly into a deepening purple haze. After the sun has set, and we’re approaching Fairbanks, the moon’s reflection dances on the winding Tanana River off the right wing. Not all of this could be committed to film–er, pixels–through a thick plexiglass window, but they’re indelible mental images I’ll always carry with me.

Refueling in Fairbanks

After we clear Customs, N50ET is refueled in Fairbanks. Three legs over the next two days should get me home.

It’s been great to travel around the world, but it’s also great to be back in the United States. Here, if you don’t understand an instruction from air traffic control, it’s usually a speed issue (they’re talking too fast or you’re listening too slow)–not a language issue. And I’m hard pressed to remember the last time we were cleared for a visual approach; in many countries a full approach is the norm, even when the extra flying is not required by weather. We touched down in Fairbanks and I had what I think is the most painless Customs experience I’ve ever had in the United States. I guess I could complain that it was 11 p.m. by the time we got to the hotel, and there was nowhere to get a hot meal–instead, it’s beef jerky for dinner as I edit photos in the hotel room. But I’m not complaining, it’s great to be (almost) home.

 

Day 22: Nagoya to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia

September 16, 2013 by Mike Collins

Waiting to leave Nagoya

N50ET is reflected in a puddle as we wait to depart from Nagoya.

Today we get out of the hotel ahead of our goal, 7:50 a.m. local; and a cab–a very regal-looking Toyota sedan, the driver quite dapper in his white gloves–delivers us to the Nagoya airport faster than we anticipated. Outside the terminal, a fan of the MU-2 who we recognize from Friday is patiently waiting for us, and politely asks us to sign a photo of our arrival. Tropical Storm Man-yi is moving in behind us and is expected to bring the region heavy rain tonight and tomorrow; it has rained and the ramp is wet, but there’s no precipitation at the moment. And for a change, our forecast calls for respectable tailwinds.

Rain in Nagoya

Raindrops cling to one of the MU-2′s propeller blades at the Nagoya airport.

So do we do the logical thing and take off early? No–we wait. The approaching storm will give us good tailwinds, but the airport at our first fuel stop–Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, in Khomutovo, Russia–apparently doesn’t open until 0400 Z, so BaseOps has revised our flight plan with a delayed departure time of about 10:35 a.m. local.

Front page coverage

Our Friday arrival in Nagoya makes the front page of Saturday afternoon’s newspaper–the 50th anniversary of the model’s first flight.

We load up our luggage, swapping enough clean clothes from our duffel bags with dirty laundry from our roller bags to get us home. With the airplane preflighted, we take some photos and then go inside to sit down and talk more with Toru Takasu, Masanori Yamaguchi, and Yoshiaki Asako, our gracious hosts from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Masanori surprises us with copies of Saturday afternoon’s Nagoya newspaper–our arrival made the top of the front page! The article’s online, but apparently the site is open only to subscribers.

Final farewells in Nagoya

Mike Laver says his farewells when it’s time to depart Nagoya.

Finally, we bid our friends farewell just as a band of moderate rain–no doubt associated with the approaching tropical storm–moves aver the airport. It stops by the time we take off from Runway 34 at 9:44 local or 0144 Z. We climb through clouds from 4,000 to 8,000 feet and then find ourselves under clear skies and bright sunshine. It doesn’t last, however; clouds thicken and rise below us and by the time we’re north of Tokyo and want to look for Mt. Fuji, we’re in the soup and see nothing but milky whiteness.

Pretaxi checklist

Mike Laver is photographed while he runs the pretaxi checklist.

Our northeasterly heading for this 743-nautucal-mile leg takes us along the western side of the island but we can’t see it, or the Sea of Japan, for the clouds. We also pick up a little light ice. But we also pick up a tailwind that reaches 51 knots, pushing our groundspeed above 330 knots–even though Mike has pulled the power way back to make our arrival time. We’re talking with Sapporo Control, which is busy but not quite as busy as Tokyo, which again is acknowledging transmissions with a crisp “Roger!” or even just the click of a mic switch. Sapporo, Japan, is at the same latitude as Vladivostok, Russia.

Shortly we’re in Russian airspace, and then on the ILS 19 approach to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Airport. My overall first impression of Russia is clouds, because we’re either in them or above them until we break out below them on the approach. The only really unusual thing here is the use of meters, instead of feet, to reference altitudes below the transition level–we could change the units in N50ET’s GPS navigators but we think that may prove too confusing, so we opt to convert as needed (and we prime our calculators).

The stop is unlike any other on the trip this far. After we shut down we’re greeted by a welcoming committee of four or five people, all but our handler wearing uniforms. We expect to clear into Russia here, because it’s the first of three stops in the country, but they feel we should wait until Petropavlovsk because that’s where we’re spending the night. So the landing is treated as a technical stop. The fuelers arrive and we do the MU-2 tank dance. The fuelers are efficient but there’s almost no communication–sure, there’s a language barrier, but that’s nothing new. No one asks about the trip beyond the previous and next legs, not even a smile.

Before we leave, a young woman–either our handler or from the Hydrometeorological Service of Russia, we’re not quite sure–walks out and gives us a forecast folder. She also tells us what departure runway and SID (standard instrument departure) to expect. Her English sounds very good, and she may have smiled once or twice. The packet contained weather information, including a depiction that had been hand-tinted with colored pencils. I wonder if she is Mikhaylina, the forecaster who prepared the packet.

We sense that photography would not be appreciated, so we refrain. We’re only on the ground about an hour and 10 minutes, then we’re flying northeast again toward Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Reaching our cruise altitude of Flight Level 250 (about 25,000 feet) over the Sea of Okhotsk, we have an indicated airspeed of 186 knots, and a true airspeed in the thinner air of 281 knots–but our groundspeed tops out at 350 knots before the 70-knot tailwind starts to subside.

Mountains near Petropavlovsk

Clouds part to reveal mountains surrounding Petropavlovsk as we begin the instrument approach.

Halfway across the Sea of Okhotsk we finally break out of the clouds to find ourselves in clear air, with high clouds above and lower clouds below. Far ahead is a horizontal slice of blue sky; we pass through it like a gate…and we’re back in the tops again. Just as we prepare to begin our approach, we finally emerge into a mostly clear sky. The waxing gibbous moon is flying in formation off our right wing.

Approaching Petropavlovsk

The last bit of sunlight fades from the sky as we shoot the approach into Petropavlovsk.

As we descend we see serious peaks ahead and to the right of our course; the mountains to the left are a bit smaller. Descending into clear air on the approach, the vista of mountains surrounding a bay, and silhouetted by the setting sun, is spectacular. We touch down on a washboard runway–common in this part of Russia, we’ve been told–and taxi seemingly forever. There’s a lot of construction going on here, including a parallel runway and apparently a new terminal as well. We’re thankful for a Follow Me truck here.

Arriving in Petropavlovsk

On final approach to Petropavlovsk, you can see the town near the water–and mountains beyond.

Our handler is waiting and seems not to have been expecting us–she doesn’t have our personal information, although there is a fuel release and a taxi waiting to take us to our hotel. Apparently we cleared customs at Yushno, but not immigration; that’s handled quickly and efficiently. It’s fully dark by the time we refuel, and the ride to the hotel is nearly 30 minutes. It’s 9:45 p.m. local when we check into our hotel; we’ve lost three hours to time change today–and we’ll lose four more tomorrow. Changes like these make for short nights.

Night refueling in Petropavlovsk

Our fueler in Petropavlovsk uses an LED headlamp to refuel N50ET after dark.

Because of a national holiday, the hotel’s 24-hour restaurant is closed. The cafe is open for 15 more minutes, just enough to order some food that we eat in Mike’s hotel room. I have a delicious tomato and cucumber salad–best tomatoes I’ve had in a while–and very good salmon baked with carrots and some kind of cheese sauce, washed down with a rather tasty Russian beer from a plastic bottle.

For those of you following this trip blog regularly, this installment was unavoidably detained. Internet service at the hotel in Russia required cash purchase of a card, and only rubles were accepted. Since we were out of rubles (actually, we never had any in the first place), we stayed offline. Just as well, with the time-zone shift, sleep was a worthwhile alternative.

Day 21: Nagoya

September 14, 2013 by Mike Collins

Main Castle Tower

The Nagoya Castle was constructed between 1610 and 1612.

Today our gracious hosts with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are giving up a day at home with their families to give us a personally guided tour of Nagoya. The city is remarkably lively for a Saturday; there are a lot of people out and about, mostly walking in the city center area, with more bicycles as we move farther out. I would think it’s a Saturday, except the vehicular traffic on the roads is not as heavy as it was yesterday.

Screen paintings

Screen paintings adorn many locations in the castle structures.

Staircase in main tower

The many stairs are primarily used for descending the main tower.

Our first stop is the Nagoya Castle, a magnificent complex that was the model for modern Nagoya. It was built of stone and wood in three years by Tokugawa Ieyaus; he ordered 20 feudal lords from western Japan to build the stone walls. The Central Tower (top) can be seen from many places within the city. I lost count of how many flights of stairs there are (above); fortunately for us–and the many other tourists–the standard procedure is to take an elevator to the top and then walk down, viewing exhibits on the various levels.

Kinshachi on roof

Kinshachi–the gold fish–on the castle roof symbolize power and money.

Mike Collins with Kinshachi

There are several locations on the castle grounds where photos can be made with Kinshachi.

The Kinshachi–fish–atop the castle are said to be able to summon water and were used as charms to prevent fire, a very real consideration in all-wood construction. The fish atop the castle’s central tower–one male, one female–also represent the power and wealth of the Tokugawa family. The Kinshachi are gold-plated, with 18 carats of gold, to the tune of about 44 kilograms of gold per fish. Their theme repeats around the castle, and there are places where world travelers can photograph themselves with replicas of the Kinshachi (above).

Quick stop for water

A quick stop for bottled water.

The outskirts of the city are a study in contrasts, with modern office buildings or bank branches right beside a small, traditional Japanese home. Land is scarce here and real estate a limiting factor in residential construction, as it is in most (if not all) large cities. There are large apartment and condominium buildings near industrial complexes, so that workers’ commutes are shorter. It’s also laundry day in Nagoya, we determine after carefully considering the number of homes and condos with clothes hanging out to dry–especially on condo balconies.

The city is very neat and well organized, and there is good separation between pedestrians and other motor vehicles. There are many pedestrian bridges and ramps, and functional landscaping, railings, and guardrails direct pedestrians (and bicycles) to crosswalks. We also see a lot of familiar brands: McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, 7-11, Circle K, and Lawson’s, which if I recall correctly began as a chain of dairy and ice-cream stores in the United States; I remember them growing up in Ohio.

Interestingly, to me, is the fact that driving is on the left-hand side of the road here–British style–while in Taiwan everything is reversed. Seeing right-hand driving for the first time in so long made me feel right at home. While we’re sightseeing, our friends humor us with a stop to pick up another case of water for the final legs of the trip–something we both forgot to do in Australia. There’s still bottled water in the airplane, but that’s something you want to be sure you have plenty of.

Spinning demonstration

A spinning demonstration at the Toyota museum.

Toyota museum

An exhibit shows how Toyota’s first automobile was designed.

Our last stop on the tour is the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. It traces the history of what is today’s Toyota Motor Corporation–known primarily for its cars and trucks–from its roots in the textile industry, which was a surprise to both Mike and me. The company began by manufacturing spinning and weaving machines that eventually grew to industrial proportions. Also interesting was the fact that the family name originally was Toyoda; while a lot of the exhibits included English explanations, I did not see anything telling why the name shifted to Toyota (with a second “t” in place of the “d”) somewhere along the line.

Ross Russo surprises Mike Laver

Friend Ross Russo, right, surprises Mike Laver in Nagoya.

So our day in Nagoya–the 50th anniversary of the Mitsubishi’s first flight, from the very airport where Mike’s airplane is parked–is nearly over. But not quite. Upon our return to our hotel, Mike’s longtime friend Ross Russo was waiting in the lobby. Mike originally had asked Ross to accompany him on this trip, but Ross’s daughter was married earlier this month and he knew that he could not go–well, if he did, there wouldn’t be much point in returning home afterward. That’s how Ross, who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for some 20 years, came to suggest that Mike talk with me about the trip. For this opportunity, I’ll always owe Ross. Ross and his cousin had flown to Japan to climb Mt. Fuji, which they did on Thursday and Friday…so on Saturday, they rode the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Nagoya (about 100 minutes) for the surprise that was arranged largely by text messages on our cellphones.

Now Mike, N50ET, and I enter the home stretch–four days of flying back home. Looks like we’re getting out of Japan just ahead of Tropical Storm Man-yi, which we’ve been watching for the past few days. Russia, here we come!

 

Day 20, Part 2: A hero’s welcome in Nagoya

September 14, 2013 by Mike Collins

Greetings on arrival

Mike Laver is greeted by Toru Takasu of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries after landing at Nagoya.

Mike Laver had been exchanging emails with someone in Japan before we launched in his Mitsubishi MU-2 on this around-the-world trip, timed to place us in Nagoya, Japan, on Sept. 14–the 50th anniversary of the model’s first flight. This person was incredibly proud of the airplane, passionate about its history, and pleased that Laver was making this trip around the globe to commemorate the model’s capabilities half a century after the first one first flew. “You are a hero of Japan,” he wrote to Laver.

And it was a hero’s welcome that we received in Nagoya early on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 13. After turning left off the taxiway toward parking, dutifully following our second Follow Me truck of the trip, we both were surprised to see nearly 100 people waiting near the general aviation terminal building, standing on stairs and landings above the ramp, and looking on from adjoining hangars. Several were waving small flags–mostly Japanese, some American, and one or two Australian flags (Mike is a native and citizen of Australia). We heard applause when he opened the cabin door and stepped out.

N50ET is the center of attention

Mike Laver’s MU-2, N50ET, is the center of attention.

We were greeted by Toru “Tod” Takasu, manager of MU-2 product support for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and several other MHI officials. Many in the crowd had connections to Mitsubishi; some wore the business clothes of managers or engineers, and others were in the blue uniforms worn by production workers. At a couple of places outside the fence I could see aviation photographers, a few with step ladders so they could photograph over fences, snapping photos of this unusual aircraft–just like in the United States.

Workers examine N50ET's data plate

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries workers examine the airplane’s data plate.

The MU-2 drew a lot of attention, both overall and regarding specific aspects of the aircraft. People clustered around the left horizontal stabilizer, studying–and photographing–the airplane’s data plate. This is a plate affixed to all civil aircraft at the time of manufacture that records the airplane’s make, model, and production serial number. One man was very interested in the airplane’s landing gear and sat on the tarmac, nearly under the airplane, looking and taking photos. Another was very interested in the freon air conditioning system installed on N50ET.

First of many group photos

The first of many group photos.

Then it was time for group photos. I took a couple of frames before I was summoned into the group. Actually, it was a rapidly changing series of groups, but everyone was genuinely excited about the airplane.

Fueling in Nagoya

Of course, the airplane still needs to be refueled for Sunday’s departure.

Once the commotion died down, the airplane still needed to be fueled for Sunday morning’s first leg home, and our entry into Russia. Then, after we were cleared into the country by immigration and customs, Mike was interviewed by a reporter for a local newspaper. The reporter didn’t speak English but a helpful Mitsubishi employee served as translator.

Wind-tunnel model and MU-2

A wind-tunnel model of the MU-2A sits beside the first Marquise in Mitsubishi’s aviation museum.

After a quick lunch in a Mitsubishi conference room, Mike and I were given a guided tour of the company’s aviation museum, which was a real treat. On display in the museum is MU-2 serial number 501, the first Marquise model of the MU-2, which Mitsubishi used as a corporate aircraft for many years–until only about a year and a half ago. Mike noted immediately that the airplane had been retrofitted with a number of enhancements and upgrades that weren’t available when that airframe rolled off the production line. The museum also features a World War II Zero that had been restored from recovered wreckage, and a rocket-powered fighter that was based on the Messerschmitt Me 163, produced in Germany later in the war; the Japanese design never became operational.

Mike Laver photographs an MU-2A

Mike Laver photographs one of only three MU-2A aircraft ever built.

We’re driven to another museum, which features one of only three MU-2A aircraft ever built. The engine cowlings seem downright skinny when compared to those for the MU-2B’s Garrett turbofans. The MU-2A, powered by the French-built Turbomeca Astazou turbine engine, reportedly was underpowered–the reason that so few were built. We learn that a second of the three MU-2A airframes is in another museum.

Museum sendoff from Mitsubishi employees

Mike waves to Mitsubishi employees seeing us off as we depart the museum.

Eventually we’re driven to our hotel, and a large group of Mitsubishi employees bid us farewell. But our hosts apparently aren’t tired of us yet; a traditional Japanese dinner still is on the agenda. The meal and the company both prove excellent.

 

Day 20: Taipei to Nagoya, Japan

September 13, 2013 by Mike Collins

Waiting for the crew van

We wait under the nose of this China Pacific Boeing 747 for the van that will take us to N50ET.

Morning arrives quickly, as it has tended to do on the entire trip, and we leave the hotel at 6 a.m. for the short drive to the terminal. One security screening, a quick visit to clear immigration, and a long walk through the serpentine terminal later, we’re standing under the nose of a China Pacific Boeing 747 that the caterers are servicing for its next flight. We have plenty of time to watch the process as we wait for our crew van, which arrives about 6:30. It’s a long drive to our parking on the northeast corner of the airport. After preflighting and loading our bags, we wait for a paper departure clearance that has to be driven to us from the terminal. Mike has already obtained the ATIS but clearance delivery proves hard to raise–and once he does, hard to read. It feels much more humid than on our arrival yesterday, so much that I’m perspiring while standing still.

Finally we get our IFR and engine start clearances, and taxi follows soon afterward. Fortunately, our departure is from Runway 5 Left, which begins almost at the end of our parking ramp. We’re cleared to follow a China Southern airliner to the runway; the next airliner in the queue, still some distance away, is told to “give way and follow the business jet.” We are off the ground at 7:13 local, 2313 Z, with a Boeing 777 behind us on a 13-mile final. The efficient controllers get the following jet out, too, before the 777′s arrival.

Tamsui River in Taipei

The morning air is much clearer than last night, and we see Taipei hugging the banks of the Tamsui River.

Climbing out we’re cleared to FL190, about 19,000 feet, and later to our cruising altitude of FL 250. On the left we pass a golf course, a multilane toll road hugging the coast, and a power plant that also has three win turbines, still in the nearly calm morning air. Taipei shimmers in the cloud-diffused morning light, and the air appears nearly crystal clear–perhaps the haze builds during the day. The city appears to extend almost endlessly toward the southeast, following the banks of the broad Tamsui River.

Morning light on East China Sea

The sun backlights clouds on the East China Sea and projects shadows to the water below.

In no time we’re overflying mountains, then Taiwan’s northern coast, then we’re over the East China Sea. It’s mostly clear, and I am fascinated by the backlighting of the low clouds wear the water’s surface, and their obedient shadows offset away from the low sun in the east.

Cargo ship on East China Sea

One of many cargo ships crossing the East China Sea

From 25,000 feet I observe a lone cargo ship sailing toward Taiwan. A few minutes later, there’s another, and another. Some are quite large, others not so big, and the sun also backlights a number of much smaller vessels that are not moving, or are moving very slowly. These must be fishing boats. Clearly these shipping lanes are as busy as the airways high above. We are in clear air, still enjoying our view of the East China Sea, although there is a lone cumulonimbus buildup well to our right, and another way off the left wing. We don’t see any other aircraft, but we’re talking with Fukuoka Control–Japan!–and many other aircraft are requesting, and receiving, deviations for weather.

Mike Laver climbing from Taipei

Mike Laver enjoys the serenity of an early morning climb–and understandable controllers.

This is a big day for Mike, and the whole trip has built to it. He’s very passionate about the Mitsubishi MU-2, and being in Nagoya for the 50th anniversary of the model’s first flight has great personal significance to him. This year’s also the 40th anniversary of the completion of our steed, N50ET, a 1973-model MU-2B-25 (serial number 260), Mike’s personal airplane for the past eight years. With international general aviation flying, things sometimes don’t happen until they happen, and it’s best to have a conservative schedule and lots of patience–but I can tell the delays this morning are irritating to him. Fortunately, the winds are good to us, and by that I mean they’re not bad: just 13 knots abeam the aircraft, so there’s no headwind, and we post a groundspeed of 287 knots at our cruise power setting. “We’re getting closer,” Mike observes.

Far below the clouds on the East China Sea are thickening, and beginning to build. Haze starts to obscure our view of the ocean surface. We’re about two hours and 550 nautical miles from Nagoya, about the halfway point of the 1,059-nautical-mile leg. But the weather remains good; thunderstorms with the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) will stay south of Taiwan today; a tropical cyclone is forming off Guam and there’s a possibility it could begin affecting local weather Sunday when we’re scheduled to depart. There also have been two recent volcanic eruptions on Japan’s southern islands, but ash has not passed FL140–that stuff will ruin an engine in no time flat–and it’s blowing off to the east, so it won’t be a factor for us.

Approaching the Nagoya airport

We are approaching the Nagoya airport, marked by its identification code of RJNA.

We cross our first Japanese terrain, the city of Kagushima. The sun appears to reflect from rice paddies near the coast, a short distance east of the city. Soon we’re over the Pacific, skirting the east side of the Japanese islands.

Upon arrival in Nagoya we are greeted with what seems like a hero’s welcome. To be continued.

 

Day 19: Cebu to Taipei, Taiwan

September 12, 2013 by Mike Collins

Banka boats in Philippines

In the Philippines, hard-working banka boats start their days early.

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.

Philippine departure paperwork

Mike Laver signs final depature paperwork in the Philippines.

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.

Climbing out of Mactan-Cebu

Our departure route curves sharply to the right, giving this view of a city still shrouded in cloud.

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.

Rivers coalesce in northern Philippines

Several rivers flow out of the mountains in the northern Philippines.

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.

Follow Me truck at Taipei airport

Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan provides our first Follow Me car of the trip.

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.

On the ramp at Taoyuan

N50ET on the ramp at Taoyuan. Our hotel is barely visible at the far left.

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.

Aircraft models at Taoyuan museum

The aviation museum at Taoyuan Airport has an impressive collection of model aircraft.

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.

Jerry Tsai's record-setting Cessna

Jerry Tsai flew this Cessna 182RG from San Francisco to Taiwan in 1984.

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.

 

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.

 

Day 17: Bundaberg to Horn Island, Australia

September 10, 2013 by Mike Collins

Great Barrier Reef

Our route up the coast gave us panoramas of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

We departed Bundaberg a few minutes before 8 a.m. local, as planned, just ahead of VH-YJC–an Aero Commander that departed to the southwest after we exited the pattern heading northwest. There were scattered clouds at 2,100 feet and an overcast above; we emerged from a flat sheet of white into brilliant sunshine at 10,000 feet.

More reefs

The reefs just keep coming. I’d like to visit at a lower altitude–like the surface.

Our route of flight was pretty much up Australia’s East Coast, which took us directly over the Great Barrier Reef. Between the few clouds here and there, we enjoyed an unwinding vista of reef after reef after reef. This is an area I’d definitely like to come back and visit again, from a lower altitude–to and including sea level. Thanks to a persistent headwind, it took us about 4.5 hours to make the 1,050 or so nautical miles from Bundaberg to Horn Island.

On the ramp at Horn Island

Arriving at Horn Island, we found many airplanes–but no parking information.

Arriving at Horn Island, we found a ramp that was home to a number of airplanes–and no idea where to park. We shut down the engines, got things sorted out, then moved the airplane to a better parking space. The next challenge was fuel; Mike had been unable to contact the fuel distributor before departing the United States, and upon arrival found they only wanted to accept an Air BP card or cash. Neither of us had one, so Mike started scrambling for cash–he had plenty, but only enough Australian dollars to cover two-thirds of the fuel we needed. Then we found out that those payment methods were preferences, and we could use another credit card–cancel the bank run.

Refueling at Horn Island

Our refuelers at Horn Island got the job done, and had great senses of humor to boot.

The fuelers here were two women who were very pleasant, and efficient to boot. After they finished and as we were walking toward the gate, Horn Island’s new airport manager–also named Mike–introduced himself. Could we reposition the plane slightly, and could he offer us a ride to the ferry terminal so we wouldn’t have to wait for the next bus? He was a gracious host and we learned more about the area on our ride.

Ferry to Thursday Island

Our ride to the hotel on Thursday Island.

Riding the ferry to Thursday Island

Mike (Laver) and Mike (Collins) on the boat to Thursday Island.

Turns out, our hotel is on nearby Thursday Island. When Mike was making hotel reservations, he couldn’t find one on Horn Island (there apparently is one now). A short ferry ride across the Ellis Channel brings us to the other island, and a three-minute walk has us in the lobby of our hotel. Dinner is on an outside deck, watching night fall on the Torres Strait.

 

Day 16: Bundaberg, Australia

September 9, 2013 by Mike Collins

Yes, Virginia, in Australia you can get vegemite at McDonalds.

Yes, Virginia, in Australia you can get vegemite at McDonalds.

Apparently there’s a rule that you can’t visit Australia without trying vegemite. I had my introduction this morning, when we stopped at a McDonalds for coffee. (Yes, in Australia, you can get vegemite at McDonalds.) Vegemite is basically yeast, and other than seeming a bit salty, it actually has a better flavor than some other toppings I’ve put on English muffins over the years. Maybe I’m just predisposed to like the taste of yeast.

This Jabiru J-230 is in retro paint and sports anniversary lettering.

This Jabiru J-230 is in retro paint and sports anniversary lettering.

Our next stop is Jabiru Aircraft, perhaps best known in the United States for its Light Sport models–and which is celebrating its 25th anniversary beginning this month. The owner of this airplane, a new Jabiru J-230, will take delivery at the Ausfly event in Narromine, Australia, in four days. “It’s got retro striping just like the first Jabiru we did,” explains Sue Woods, business manager for the company.

Fuselages are ready for final assembly.

Fuselages are ready for final assembly.

Like other aircraft manufacturers in Australia, and elsewhere in the world, business is down since “the GFC”–the global financial crisis–but Jabiru is still producing airplanes and improving its designs. Here, fuselage assemblies are ready to proceed into final construction.

Spark plugs in a Jabiru engine await wiring.

Spark plugs in a Jabiru engine await wiring.

One interesting aspect of Jabiru is the fact that it has been making its own aircraft engines, both for its own designs and for other Experimental aircraft. Here, spark plugs installed in a new Jabiru engine await wires. Jabiru continues to make improvements to its engine design, as well; so has a supplier, CAMit, which has taken a different tack to engine improvements and soon could offer some of the modifications that it has developed.

Smiling after a J-430 demo flight.

Smiling after a J-430 demo flight.

A visit to an aircraft manufacturer isn’t complete without a demo flight, and Jamie Cook, Jabiru’s production manager, accommodates in a J-430. I find the airplane to be very stable and easy to fly; the U-shaped yoke is very ergonomic. It’s also remarkably roomy, something you notice easily when you’re 6 feet, 3 inches tall. Just get in the right way–posterior first, then swing your feet in; the task is easier because you don’t have to straddle a control stick to get seated. As an added bonus, we see a couple of whales off the mouth of the Elliott River–then we see a much larger one breach farther out. “This is very unusual to see them here,” Jamie observes, adding that they’re usually much farther south, near Frazier Island.

David McKenzie bids farewell to former schoolmate Mike Laver.

David McKenzie bids farewell to former schoolmate Mike Laver.

Also today, Mike Laver (right) said farewell to David McKenzie, an old friend from his boarding school days who he had not seen since 1968. David is a veterinary surgeon and sheep farmer (in the Australian vernacular, he “runs sheep”–something like 80,000 head of them) in the Mildura area. A pilot himself for more than 30 years, David flew in yesterday for dinner and to visit in his Cessna Hawk XP. David bought the Cessna new and has owned it ever since.

Can you identify the Sunshine State?

Can you identify the Sunshine State?

Which state is known as the Sunshine State? If you said Florida, that’s not the correct answer. Today the answer is the Australian state of Queensland, because that’s where we are. The license plates did make me think of Florida, however. Tomorrow we leave here and head north, to the top of Australia, in preparation for our departure from the country early Wednesday as we begin our trek to Japan.

 

Day 15: Latrobe Valley to Bundaberg, Australia

September 8, 2013 by Mike Collins

After a good night’s sleep there’s plenty of time to pack my now-clean clothes; check out of the hotel and bid farewell to John, the innkeeper, who was incredibly helpful with directions and recommendations; and go to Mass on the way to the airport. Mike Laver, who I am accompanying on this flight around the world in his MU-2, is a native of Australia and grew up near Leongatha, near here. He spent the weekend with his brother and mother, who follow me to Traralgon to drop off my rental car. Just when I think I have this whole driving on the left side of the road pretty much wired, after refueling I open the left door and start to get in–it’s going to be hard to drive from there.

Departing Latrobe Valley

Mike Laver makes an overhead departure from the airport where he learned to fly 45 years ago.

A mostly black Pitts is making its first flight since it was imported from the United States (and it sounds great) as we say our farewells to Aero Club members and Mike’s family. By 1:02 p.m. we’re off the ground and banking above the airport in an overhead departure on course. On climbout hears a familiar call sign on the Melbourne Control frequency. “I used to fly [Victor Hotel] Sierra-Sierra-Lima,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s still an Aztec or not.”

Great Dividing Range

Snow remains on only a few peaks of the Great Dividing Range.

The snow cap is gone from all but the tallest peaks of The Great Dividing Range, mountains that run a quarter of the way up Australia’s east coast. Far below us the valley floors resonate with the bright greens of spring. Mike spent a year in these mountains, attending a boarding school there when he was in the tenth grade. “On weekends we were kicked out with a backpack and a tent. We hiked all over those mountains,” he recalls. “We were fit fellows.” We look down on green plains and several large lakes before the view is claimed by a cloud layer below. We climb another 1,000 feet, to FL250, in an effort to stay above the tops.

Passing over what I think is Albury, I see a nice-sized town with a nearby airport with two intersecting runways. We’re too high to see if there’s any traffic in the pattern–er, circuit. We’re in and out of clouds at our cruising altitude, and I can see the terrain is much flatter, with fields of crops that are medium green, a darker green, and a very bright yellow-green. By the time we pass the Wagga Wagga VOR (no, I’m not making this up) the visible terrain is almost completely flat.

We pass about 100 miles west of Sydney; it’s mostly clear except for some small, puffy clouds on the horizon but any view of the city is blocked be the Great Dividing Range. At FL250 we have a groundspeed of 293 knots, which reflects a bit of a tailwind.

Several of you have asked about food, especially in some of the countries where food quality can be, shall we say, inconsistent. Breakfast for me has usually been a Clif Bar–an energy bar containing a good bit of protein–because on travel days we usually are gone well before any hotel restaurant opens. Lunch is another Clif Bar, because it’s nutritious and portable. For dinner I like to sample the cuisine of whatever part of the world we’re traversing, but this has to be done carefully. Mike’s done enough flying in this part of the world that he’s had a bad meal, and the resulting distress made travel a miserable experience. Because of this–and late arrival times–most of our meals have been in the hotel restaurant, perhaps not as adventurous as some people would like but a conservative compromise. I’m carrying a few “noodles in a cup” meals in case the hotel restaurant seemed too risky, but haven’t used them yet.

MU-2 instrument panel

The updated instrument panel in Mike Laver’s Mitsubishi MU-2.

A couple readers have asked about the panel in Mike’s MU-2. It’s well equipped and a very efficient IFR machine. In front of Mike in the left seat is a Garmin G600 primary flight display and multifunction display. To the right of it is a touch-screen GTN 750 GPS/com, and below it is a GTN 650. “I designed it for myself,” he said. “It’s very unique.” He moved the lighting switches from a recessed overhead panel to a location below the GTN 650. He also moved the anti-ice system controls from another recessed panel to a more forward overhead location. On the right side, I have the standard six-pack instruments in a slightly nonstandard configuration.

An airliner passes 2,000 feet below us, its white fuselage and red tail sharp against the haze below.The Earth’s surface below has changed from farmland to rangeland to rolling hills, to low forested mountains. Approaching Brisbane the landscape is flat again.

Noosa Heads resort area

A contrail high overhead paints a line across the Noosa Heads area; the national park is to the left.

Passing over Brisbane, we’re only 130 nautical miles and half an hour from Bundaberg. From our altitude we can see the waves rolling onto the wide, sandy beaches below as we parallel the Sunshine Coast (south of Brisbane it’s the Gold Coast). We pass the resort area of Noosa Heads, abutting a large national park, as we begin our descent into Bundaberg, and the wide beaches stretch out of sight to the north.

Burnett River in Bundaberg

We fly over the Burnett River as we turn base for our landing at Bundaberg.

In only a few minutes we’re on the ground in Bundaberg, where we’ll spend Monday visiting Jabiru Aircraft–it is headquartered on the field.

 

Day 14: Latrobe Valley, Australia

September 7, 2013 by Mike Collins

Latrobe Valley Aero Club sign

Welcome to the Latrobe Valley Aero Club.

So what do you do with your one day off at approximately the midpoint of a flight around the world? Of course: Laundry! Clean clothes will come in handy during the remainder of the journey. But going to the laundromat doesn’t make for an interesting blog post, and the photos weren’t particularly interesting, either.

On Friday evening George Morgan and his lovely wife, Marguerite, had introduced me to several members of the Latrobe Valley Aero Club during the organization’s weekly happy hour. They invited me back at noon Saturday for the club’s weekly barbecue. Who could resist the chance to see how a flying club socializes Down Under?

Lining up for sausages

Lining up for grilled sausages at the Latrobe Valley Aero Club’s barbecue.

This week's grillmaster

Club members take turns will grillmaster duties.

The club’s tradition is to grill sausages, which are wrapped in a slice of white bread and eaten with some barbecue sauce–and a cup of tea or coffee, as desired. We know from research that social interaction is very important to keeping new pilots active and engaged. Club members aren’t sure how long the Saturday barbecue tradition has been going on, but the club has about 100 members and four aircraft (three Cessna 172s and a light sport aircraft), and it’s been operating since 1949. Like most clubs, it’s operated by a cadre of volunteers, and this extends to the Saturday barbecues; a sign-up sheet on the wall inside dutifully tracks who will be grilling the sausages over the coming weeks.

Incorporated as a nonprofit organization, the club is licensed by  Australia’s Civil Aviation Authority as a flight school. It also provides some of what most of us would consider FBO functions at the airport, especially fuel sales; the club offers both 100LL avgas and Jet-A fuels. We know this because we purchased about 1,000 liters of Jet-A from the club when we arrived on Thursday.

Hanging around the airport

After lunch I hang around the airport for a while with several club members.

There’s a brisk, 17-knot breeze that club members feel was responsible for the lower-than-usual fly-in traffic for the barbecue; only an Archer, a Skyhawk, and a Cirrus arrive during my visit and I think the Skyhawk was on a training flight (and not necessarily in search of a $100 sausage). Several club members head out to the ramp after lunch, however, including the group above, trying to resolve some intermittent interference issues with the intercom in a member’s Van’s RV-12. I’m unable to add more than moral support to their efforts.

Caution: Koalas sign

I pass caution signs for koalas and kangaroos, but see none of either.

Fortified with a couple of sausages and some tea–and getting more comfortable with this whole driving on the left side of the road thing–I go exploring. The Latrobe Valley has a long and proud history of generating electricity, for Victoria and the rest of Australia. Here, what they call the open-cut mines are located in close proximity to the power plants themselves, eliminating the need to transport the coal long distances by rail or other means as typically is done in the United States. The morning’s beautiful weather is replaced by clouds and rain, so most of my exploring is through the rental car’s windshield. I do see several impressively large power-generating facilities. I also pass cautionary signs for both kangaroos and koalas, but I see none of either. I do see a rabbit, in addition to lots of cattle and sheep (and one herd of alpacas), and a plethora of large, black-and-white birds that look something like crows and make one heck of a squawking noise. I think they all live next to my motel.

Snake procedures sign

Snake procedures sign at the GippsAero factory.

Speaking of the local wildlife reminds me of a sign I saw yesterday in the GippsAero factory. When I was preparing for this trip, and mentioned I would be in Australia, one of my coworkers at AOPA told me that Australia was the only continent where every known poisonous snake could be found (I’m not going to mention any names, but Rebecca, you know who you are). George told me that a couple of snakes make their way into the factory each year, but usually only during the hottest days of summer.

Fortunately for me, here in Australia not only am I on the opposite side of the clock from my home in Maryland, but I’m also on the other side of the calendar. Late at night here is early morning at home, and while fall is rapidly approaching back home, here in southern Australia winter is turning into spring. Much of the foliage here is bright green; flowers are poking up in gardens and along the roads; and many flowering trees and shrubs are…flowering. I’m going to take solace in my hypothesis that any poisonous snakes are still hibernating.

And this one-day breather is coming to an end. Tomorrow afternoon we’re back in N50ET, heading up Australia’s eastern coast to Bundaberg.

Day 13: Latrobe Valley, Australia

September 6, 2013 by Mike Collins

Today was a nonflying day…one of very few on this trip, and the only time when we have two down days in the same location. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a working day!

GA !0 takeoff

The GippsAero GA10 takes off on a test flight.

When I arrived at GippsAero this morning, one of the first things I photographed was the company’s turbine-powered GA 10 taking off for a test flight. The company is best known in the United States for its boxy, purpose-built GA8 (“GA” for Gippsland Aerospace, and “8″ for eight passengers) Airvan utility airplane. That wasn’t the company’s first certified airplane, however–that would be the GA200, a two-place, side-by-side agricultural aircraft. Some of its elements, including the wing design, are evident in the newer GA8.

GA8 Airvan wing ribs

Ribs for an Airvan wing are aligned in a jig at the GippsAero factory.

Airvan wing gets skinned

Aluminum skins are applied to the structure for a GA8 Airvan wing.

The company is very traditional, in terms of both design philosophy and construction practices. For example, its airframes are constructed of metal, primarily aluminum; carbon fiber is used ingeniously for fire protection and in a number of nonstructural applications. George Morgan, who founded the company with Peter Furlong in 1983, said the Airvan was designed to meet the specifications of its primary market: Bush pilots. After building a prototype, “we flew it around to operators and said, ‘Climb in and tell us what you think.’” Those sessions led to the decision to lower all the passenger windows, to match the pilot’s, for better passenger visibility–among other changes. The GA8 received Australian certification in 2000.

More recently, the company has developed a 10-seat, turbine-powered airplane: the GA10. “Basically it is a stretched turbine version of the GA8,” Morgan says. The stretched fuselage adds value to the cabin in terms of volume/payload; one stretch is in the forward fuselage to adjust the airplane’s center of gravity–the turbine engine is lighter than the piston engine it replaces–and another is behind the main spar to move back the tail surfaces. The main reason for the much more expensive turbine engine is not performance, but the ability to burn more widely available Jet-A fuel, said Morgan, adding that the company is watching developments in the aircraft diesel engine arena with interest as well. Its four tests flights scheduled for the day of my visit were to evaluate aircraft performance during split-flap conditions.

Preparing a GA8 Airvan

A GA8 Airvan is prepared for flight.

Pilot's view from Airvan

A GA8 pilot gets this fantastic view out the Airvan’s large side window.

Dave Wheatland demonstrates the GA8

Dave Wheatland, a longtime GippsAero employee and pilot, shows how easy the airplane is to fly.

Later in the day, Dave Wheatland–a pilot for and longtime employee of the company–offers a demonstration flight in the GA8 Airvan. With just the two of us aboard, the airplane is at its forward center of gravity limits; this is the worst control situation for the airplane, he explains. It does feel a bit heavy and trucklike on the ground, but it’s very pilot friendly once the wheels leave the runway. Although the Airvan requires a little more aileron than I expected, the ride is very smooth, and the visibility out the big, flat lifting-body windshield and the large side windows is incredible. My second landing on the Latrobe Valley Airport’s gravel Runway 27 has the airplane down and stopped in less than 400 meters–very impressive, in my opinion, especially because I am not a bush pilot and don’t practice short-field landings as often as I should.

The turbocharged GA8 I flew certainly didn’t feel like a 4,200-pound airplane. Its handling is not unlike that of a Cessna 206–right up until you park, turn to look over your right shoulder, and see six more seats–and a cavernous cabin–behind you. “And the GA10 is even bigger,” Wheatland comments.

There’s a lot more to say about GippsAero, but that will have to wait for a future article in AOPA Pilot magazine. Now it’s time for bed. Tomorrow, my only day off on the trip, is filling up; I’ve been invited to a noon barbecue at the Latrobe Valley Aero Club. Sounds like fun!

Day 12: Ayers Rock to Latrobe Valley, Australia

September 5, 2013 by Mike Collins

Early morning preflight

Sunrise air tours are returning as Mike Laver preflights N50ET.

Just after sunrise, we make our way to the Ayers Rock airport for departure. Because it’s an air carrier airport and we don’t have Australian airport security credentials, the very pleasant security guard escorts us through the gate to our aircraft. We ask whether we’re the first departure, and she explains that several helicopters have already flown sunrise sightseeing flights. As if to reinforce her point, a yellow-and-blue PHC Jet Ranger arrives and lands as Mike Laver is still preflighting N50ET. Sunrise apparently is big business in the Ayers Rock area; at the hotel there were signs offering sunrise bus tours, sunrise helicopter rides–and, yes, even a sunrise camel ride if you were so inclined. I wasn’t, and I don’t think Mike was, either.

Mike has been here many times before, and even climbed the rock on previous visits. Our shuttle driver yesterday said climbing the rock was “discouraged,” but the security guard said this morning it still was a common and popular activity. Mike recalled that there used to be a chain attached to the rock, to help climbers navigate difficult sections. She assured him that not only is it still there, but it’s still used.

Departure from Ayers Rock

Climbing to the southeast, we bid Ayers Rock farewell.

Immediately upon takeoff it’s obvious how big–and desolate–this region is. A few resorts are clustered between the airport and the rock, and that’s about the only signs of civilization you can see. We climb to the east-southeast and bid Ayers Rock farewell. We’re cleared to climb to FL250, about 25,000 feet–our preferred cruise altitude for most legs of this journey so far–and told to fly direct to the first navaid on our route: Leigh Creek, a VOR some 523 nautical miles away, that will take us more than an hour and a half to reach.

About 40 nautical miles east-southeast of Ayers Rock, a larger cluster of smaller rocks juts from the desert. Further east there are still more, but from cruise altitude, they don’t seem to have the color–or the fame–of Ayers Rock and the nearby Olgas.

Back in civilian clothes

It’s good to be back in civilian clothes after wearing pilot uniforms for the past several days.

It’s nice to be wearing civilian clothes again as we fly, and fly, and fly; the pilot uniforms will come back out when we leave Australia and we’ll probably have to wear them until we get back to the United States. A couple of brush flies have stowed away aboard the airplane today. They’re not nearly as annoying as they were last night, when we went out to photograph Ayers Rock at sunset; maybe they somehow realize that they’re out of their element.

“Oh, we just got tailwinds!” Mike exclaimed as we flew. Tailwinds had been forecast for the past couple of days, but we had experienced relatively light headwinds instead. The flight plan for this 1,150-nautical-mile leg called for 3 hours, 30 minutes of flying; the tailwind makes that a possibility now. We’ve crossed into South Australia and will traverse the state almost diagonally. This is still a nonradar envinronment so it’s airway flying and position reports to air traffic control.

Dunes in the desert

A gorge cuts through sand dunes in the Australian desert.

The scenery changes little; there are sand dunes, and for a while we parallel a feature that’s somewhere between a large ridge and a small mountain range; its height, I’m sure, is being exaggerated by the low morning sunlight. Gulleys and occasionally rivers can be seen snaking through the landscape, so we must be transitioning to an area with more moisture. Mike takes advantage of the quiet flight to enter the rest of our flight plans into the Garmin navigation system–all the way back to Frederick, Md., and Aiken, S.C.

Our tailwind increases to 18 knots, boosting our groundspeed to 305 kt, as we fly over Lake Cadibarrawirricama, which is near Koolkootinnie Lake. I wonder about the origins of these names until we pass abeam the larger, and more traditionally named, Lake Torrens. We pass over Coober Pedy,  in an area known for its underground opal mines, and about 100 miles northeast of Adelaide, but see neither because of cloud cover. We cross into New South Wales and then into Victoria as Mike reflects on the trip so far. He estimates we’ve flown about 53 hours to get to this point, while the fastest airline option to get him to Australia from his South Carolina home would take about 21 hours–he figures we haven’t done too badly.

Arriving at Latrobe Valley

Mike Laver flies the Latrobe Valley traffic pattern–something he first did 45 years ago.

We’re in and out of the cloud tops at FL250, and in some light turbulence; the wings pick up a little ice. Over Melborne, about 80 miles out, we begin our descent. There’s a sigmet for possible severe icing between FL120 and FL185; we turn on the ice protection equipment but do not encounter any ice. We break out of the clouds at 8,000 feet, although the clouds are lower toward the coast. Mike first learned to fly at the Latrobe Valley airport. “It’s hard to believe I soloed here–I was sixteen. Now I’m 61. That was 45 years ago,” he says as we fly a left traffic pattern in preparation for landing.

We touch down, park, and in a few minutes Mike is met by his mother and brother. A light rain begins to fall as we refuel the airplane. I’ll spend Friday doing a story on a local aircraft manufacturer, and Saturday is my only day off of the trip (I won’t kid you, much of it will be spent doing laundry. Anyone know how to get the kerosene smell out of clothing?). Sunday we head north up the coast.

For the nonpilots

Navaid: Short for navigational aid, this term generally refers to a ground-based radio beacon, or transmitter, providing electronic signals that help pilots navigate.

Sigmet:  A sigmet is a statement of significant meteorological information that has the potential to adversely affect a flight.

 

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.

 

Day 10: Palembang to Denpasar, Bali

September 3, 2013 by Mike Collins

Morning traffic in Indonesia

Morning traffic in Palembang, Indonesia.

I’ve never been to Indonesia before, and the traffic is absolutely crazy. Driving to the hotel last night, some of it in monsoon rains, there is a sea of cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, scooters, three-wheeled jitneys, and pedestrians. Lane markings appear to be nothing more than decorations, and scooters and motorbikes pass between lanes or squeeze between other vehicles and the curb. Apparently if you wait for a break in the traffic, you’ll be there forever, so vehicles try to just edge their way in–horns are used more than brakes here. Schoolchildren in tan and light blue uniforms, girls with heads covered, march in a line to the curb and step into the fray. One young man’s scooter is much slower than the rest, and I think that he needs a smaller girlfriend–even though the woman on the back of the vehicle is petite.

For Mike, this is old hat, but I’m expecting carnage any second. And it never happens, at least that I can see. It was similar the day before in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but here it seems much worse. Memo to self: Any time I come to Indonesia, hire a driver. Given a choice between driving in these conditions and shooting an instrument approach in a monsoon, I would take the instrument approach any day. Hands down.

Preflighting N50ET

Mike Laver preflights N50ET beside a 737 at Palembang.

We had already crossed the Equator

Our ramp sign says we’re 2 degrees south–turns out we crossed the Equator yesterday.

The traffic this morning is less crazy than last night (but still crazy, in my opinion) and the drive to the airport takes 35 or 40 minutes. Once there, things happen quickly. We get through the terminal with two security checks (magnetometers for us and x-ray for our bags); customs and immigration are not necessary because we now have seven-day crew transit visas good throughout Indonesia. The fuel truck arrives within just a few minutes, and once the crew gets the right ladder off the truck, we begin the refueling dance. This crew also is friendly and efficient, although their truck measures in decaliters, so I have to mentally recalibrate. Mike has now delegated me to sign fuel tickets, and I really hope these 900 liters end up on his World Fuel account and not on my credit card.

Looking up at the ramp sign at our parking spot, I see that it says 2 degrees south. Mike and I had been talking about the Equator and when we would cross it. Turns out that it’s not on the aeronautical charts or the Garmins’ databases–if it is in the latter, it’s in a section that’s disabled. You know that red line that goes around the middle of every globe you’ve ever seen? We never saw it! We had thought we would cross that line tomorrow. Welcome to the southern hemisphere!

At 8:56 local, about 45 minutes after arriving at the airport, we lift off from a dry Runway 29 into a thick haze, punctuated by smoke rising from what look like cooking fires in a residential area to the north of the airport. Today’s leg is 808 nautical miles and is planned at 3 hours. Our route takes us over the Java Sea briefly, passing just north of Jakarta, then along land to Bali and Denpasar.

Although the satellite image this morning indicated we’re leaving the Intratropical Convergence Zone and its frequently unfriendly weather behind, it’s still monsoon season, and there’s a buildup just ahead of us on airway G461 near BORAS intersection. A slight deviation to the right keeps us out of most of it; there’s a little turbulence and brief rain. We break out into bright sunshine and a beautiful morning; buildups to the left cast their shadows on the water below, and there’s nothing but small, puffy cumulus to the right.

Volcano in Indonesia

We pass several volcanoes; volcanic peaks in Indonesia reach to 12,500 feet.

Volcano and crater

A bit further along the island, we see what appears to be a crater.

Airliners, however, are holding at multiple altitudes as high as FL 260. We have no idea whether there’s weather or if it’s just traffic volume into busy, single-runway Jakarta (or somewhere else). Regardless, we’re glad that we’re not going where they’re going. Instead we motor along due east, gawking at the seemingly endless string of volcanic peaks jutting out of the clouds off our right wing. Many of them are 15,000 feet high, or higher. In Bali, Denpasar is ringed by mountains with peaks ranging from 7,500 feet to 14,500 feet.

Surf near Denpasar runway

Surf breaks near the end of Runway 9 as we prepare to touch down at Denpasar.

Airliner and MU-2

We  An airliner takes off behind the MU-2, which has just been fueled.

From 8,000 feet on approach, the beaches in Bali look beautiful–thin, white lines of sand ring the islands, bordered by the turquoise hues of shallow water just offshore. There are whitecaps on the bay off the end of Runway 9, and a lot of fishing boats. The general aviation ramp is closed off and apparently under construction, so we’re parked across the field in front of the airline terminal–between a Boeing 737 and a twin-engine regional turboprop. The flight has taken 3.2 hours, and we fill the airplane with 900 liters of Jet-A in preparation for an early departure tomorrow. The line crew here, too, is fascinated by the MU-2; cellphones come out and photos are taken. Considered a domestic arrival, we breeze out of the terminal and to our nearby hotel. Tomorrow we’ll have to clear out through Customs, however–both of our stops will be in Australia.

 

 

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.

 

Day 8: Oman to Colombo, Sri Lanka

September 1, 2013 by Mike Collins

Dawn in Oman

Sunrise in Muscat, Oman–ready to go, but the runway isn’t.

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.

Organizing charts

Mike Laver takes advantage of a quiet climbout to organize charts.

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.

Marshaller in Mumbai

Our marshaller in Mumbai, India–stopping us in the middle of a taxiway.

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.

Ramp crew in Mumbai

Our ramp crew in Mumbai.

Moving the MU-2

Pushing the fueled MU-2 back onto the taxiway–uphill.

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.

Thunderstorms in southern India

These thunderstorms in southern India stayed to the west of our route.

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.

Crew bus in Colombo

We could almost fit the whole MU-2 fuselage in our expansive crew bus.

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.

 

Day 7: Kuwait to Muscat, Oman

August 31, 2013 by Mike Collins

Our handler in Kuwait

Edmund was our handler in Kuwait.

It’s a beautiful morning in Kuwait, and already hot as we load and preflight the airplane. Our departure time was moved 30 minutes later by our handling company, BaseOps, to meet a landing slot restriction at our destination of Muscat, Oman. Mike Laver contracted with BaseOps for flight-planning services on this trip; sometimes this results in a contracted fuel price lower than the posted local price. BaseOps and similar companies also offer handlers in many countries–a person on the ground who meets you when you arrive, knows the local people and procedures, and helps you navigate “the system”–which is different in every country. We have used handlers at every stop since arriving in Salzburg.

Edmund, our handler in Kuwait, is great–he has us through customs, immigration, and security in less than 15 minutes. Pilots can theoretically take care of this themselves, but in foreign countries–especially in this part of the world–having a handler is priceless. Well, it’s not priceless–there is, after all, a fee for this service. But he guided us through the process very quickly; left to our own devices, and with neither of us speaking the local language, we figure the process would have taken us at least a couple of hours…and maybe much longer.

Once in the airplane with the cabin door closed, the cooling breeze is gone, and I’m dripping with sweat before we can get engines started and the air conditioning on. Yes, if I lived in this part of the world, I would consider air conditioning a worthwhile option for an airplane. Today’s schedule has only one leg, planned for 706 nautical miles and two hours, 30 minutes, to Muscat, Oman.

Persian Gulf airways

The Garmin navigator shows airways across the Persian Gulf.

By the time we cross into the Persian Gulf, we’re at 6,000 feet and already Kuwait is fading into a brown haze–I don’t know how much is traditional haze and how much is blowing sand, but the cleaning cloth I used to wipe the windshield before we took off was pretty brown when I was done. Keep in mind, our stay was less than 15 hours. We finally top the haze layer at 18,000 feet, as we climb to our cruising altitude of FL250 (about 25,000 feet). It’s hot at altitude, as well. The temperature at our cruising altitude is minus 17 degrees Celsius; a normal temperature (or ISA, for International Standard Atmosphere, representative atmospheric pressure, temperature, and other conditions pilots use to plan aircraft performance) would be minus 35 degrees Celsius. That makes the temperature at our altitude ISA +18, which has an effect on aircraft performance; fuel flows are reduced because the warmer air is less dense, but it also reduces our cruise speed. Because of the higher temperatures, the exhaust gas temperatures for our two Garrett turbine engines are higher than I’ve seen them on this trip–about 520 degrees, slightly into the yellow arc on the gauges but not really a problem.

Kuwait Control is handling more flights in Arabic than English, which is different from our experiences of the past several days. I’m more interested in the route of our flight, however. We’re angling south-southeastward down the length of the Persian Gulf, flying on one of several designated airways (see above). Our aircraft is following an airway–the purple line shows that it’s our designated flight plan, but several other airways appear in green just to the right. To the left is a blue line that represents the edge of Iran’s airspace. Mike estimates that we’re no more than five miles from Iranian airspace. For you nonpilots reading: An airway is like a highway in the sky, comprised of waypoints (which could be radio beacons on the ground, an intersection of signals from two radio beacons, or simply a named latitude and longitude in a GPS database). Controllers route flights along various airways, at assigned altitudes, to keep everything moving along safely. In the United States, a chart would show airways moving in many directions, and usually farther apart, as well. Here traffic is forced into a narrow corridor to avoid Iran’s airspace, and the effect is remarkably similar to the lanes of an interstate highway going through a large city.

Persian Gulf chart

Paper chart showing airways in the Persian Gulf.

Fully electronic navigation is relatively new for many pilots, and a lot of us still carry paper charts as well. To give you an idea of the difference, here’s the paper chart showing the same portion of the Gulf. This is oriented a bit differently but otherwise presents the same information. Our assigned airway is highlighted in yellow; all those other airways are below it, and Iran’s airspace is just above.

Dubai from 25,000 feet

Dubai as seen from 25,000 feet.

We exit the Persian Gulf almost directly over Dubai, United Arab Emerates. We’re talking for a time with UAE Control, and the controllers pronounce the “UAE” as a word (rhymes with Louie or Huey). It’s hard to see much through the haze from our altitude, and I’ve given this photo about as much help as possible. But even from this altitude–wow, are those some tall buildings!

Hydration is always a concern when you’re flying, especially on long flights in an aircraft without a restroom. Our strategy has been to limit ourselves to one cup of coffee in the morning, and drink only a minimal amount of water until we’re within a hour or so of a stop. We do have options on board for obtaining relief should an urgent need develop, but these have not yet been necessary. The MU-2′s seat rails, just below the pilot seats, make a great place to park a bottle of water–the metal channels conduct cold air through the fuselage, keeping the water nice and cool. When I open a bottle today, the water’s lukewarm.

Approach into Muscat

This mosque is on the approach into Muscat, Oman.

Passing Dubai, the tan of the desert occasionally is interrupted by oases and irrigated areas, small shapes visible in an ocean of sand. The ILS approach to Runway 8 Right is essentially straight in from our direction, and soon we’re skimming over a massive area of new construction. I guess it’s not just in the United States that builders want to build things on an airport’s approach path. Just to the left, and visible in the center of the circular green area in the photo, is a gorgeous mosque–their domes and minarets are seemingly everywhere. And it’s a little cooler in Muscat, which has mountains on at least two sides; it’s 31 degrees Celsius (88 degrees Fahrenheit) when we touch down, and the forecast high is only 95. Now it’s dinner and early to bed, because both of the next two days are scheduled as long, two-leg days as we head for Australia. If we stay on schedule we’ll land there Wednesday.

 

Day 6: Salzburg to Kuwait City

August 30, 2013 by Mike Collins

Dawn refueling in Salzburg

Refueling in Salzburg at dawn.

Today started very early in Salzburg, Austria. Not only were there two long legs on the schedule, but our refueling stop at Ankara, Turkey, was time constrained–we had to be there and on the ground before the airport closed temporarily because of flight restrictions for a military demonstration over the city in celebration of Turkey’s Independence Day. First, we had to refuel in Salzburg–we had not on arrival, and most MU-2 owners will tell you that they hang around for refueling if the fuelers are not familiar with the airplane (more about this later). We had a few anxious moments but the fuel truck did arrive, allowing us to take off when the airport opened to noncommercial flights at 7 a.m. First up: A flight of about 1,000 nm to Ankara.

Morning fog in Austrian valleys

Fog fills valleys outside of Salzburg, Austria, as we climb on route to Turkey.

The sun has risen beyond the eastern mountains, striking taller peaks to the west but leaving the valley with the airport in shadow. We’re the first to taxi out, passing four parked Cessna 150/152s and a Diamond that apparently belong to a local flight school, as pilots preflight jets being tugged from hangars. As we taxi for departure from Runway 33, the multifunction display’s synthetic vision shows imposing terrain ahead. The center of the runway, and the Red Bulls’ Hangar 7 and 8, are still in shadow as we roll for takeoff, although the arrival and departure ends bask in bright sunshine. Climbing into the still morning air, we turn over brilliant green valleys, most filled with fog. In the low morning light villages of dark-roofed, white-walled houses are as sharp as etchings from 11,000 feet.

Mike and Mike make captain

Mike Collins and Mike Laver make captain.

Today is the first day MU-2 owner Mike Laver and I wear captains’ uniforms. There are parts of the world where appearances are important, and it’s important that pilots look like airline captains–even if their airplane for the day is a Cessna 172. Uniforms convey a sense of authority and purpose that can be very helpful in getting through customs, immigration, and other stops in the terminal process–and if it might save us time, it’s something we should do. We’re handed off to Bucharest and we’re immediately cleared to TEGRI, an intersection on our flight plan that lets us skip past three or four others. “Look, they’ve cleared us all the way across Hungary,” Mike observes. I think it’s all because of the uniforms.

Turkey's brown landscape

Flying over the browns of Turkey’s landscape.

Our timing is almost perfect. We cross Hungary, and similarly we’re given a fix that takes us all the way across Romania–more than 250 nm. We’ve seen a couple of contrails above, but otherwise we seem to have the sky to ourselves. Below, a couple of cloud layers make it hard to see any surface details, but our GPS displays indicate the terrain is rising. In southwest Romania, near the Serbian border, we do get a glimpse of some beautiful mountains through a hole in the clouds. Ahead and to the left, weather appears to be building–it’s off our route but we’ll encounter some later today. The controllers in Bucharest and Budapest are excellent, easy to understand, and sign off with a distinctive “bye bye” instead of the “good day” pilots often hear in the United States. Sofia Control hands us off to Ankara over the Black Sea, and we’re in Turkish airspace. We’re assigned a circling approach to Runway 3 Left, which confuses us–there is no such approach in the GPS database or the paper charts we were carrying (all were current). We can tell by the pilot’s voice over the radio that an airplane behind us is similarly surprised. We worked everything out and landed with time to spare before the airspace restriction went into effect. The leg takes 3.9 hours of flying.

Fueling in Ankara

Refueling in Ankara, Turkey.

Our handler in Turkey is great. He’s waiting with the fuel truck when we taxi onto a massive cargo ramp, used at night by military and civilian cargo aircraft but deserted on Independence Day. Our handler has been working with general aviation aircraft since 1996, and has never seen an MU-2. “I told all the guys, come out and see this airplane,” he said. Several ask if it’s a new model, not knowing that the 50th anniversary of its first flight comes in just over two weeks. One asks if he can photograph the airplane, and then, handing me his camera, asks if I’d take a photo of him with it.

Since they’ve never seen one, they had to be coached through the process. There’s a tip tank on each wing that holds 90 gallons of fuel–that’s 603 pounds of fuel on the end of each wing (yes, the wings are strong). Balance becomes important when fueling this aircraft. First the main tanks, closer to the center of the aircraft, are filled. Then one tip tank is filled about halfway–45 gallons or, say, 200 liters. Then the other tip tank is filled completely–and finally, the fueler comes back to the first tank and tops it off. Ladder placement is important, too, because the airplane leans to one side, then the other, during this process. A ladder in the wrong place can have a fuel tank land on it, which is not good for either the ladder or the airplane.

083013 Tea with the airport crew in Ankara

By the time we’re done, the airport has been closed temporarily, and we have to cool our heels for 45 minutes. Our handler graciously brings us hot tea, and we adjourn to a gazebo beside an administration building. Some airport workers are there, and others come out. They’re gracious, interested in our trip, and a good group to hang around with. We learn the browns that permeate the color exist pretty much year round–and that winter is not the best time to visit Ankara. They show why the Turkish people have a reputation for being so hospitable, and welcome us to return soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are now following the blog.

Independence day in Turkey

Turkish flags celebrate the country’s independence day.

Before leaving, I had to take a photo of this airport services building, sporting–like many other buildings on the airport–the national flag. Turkey celebrates its independence from Europe each year.

Weather in a tight space

What you don’t want to see between Iran and Syria.

Soon we’re on the way to Kuwait, 1,138 miles distant–planned at 4:21. The brown soil of Turkey begins to disappear into the haze, and below building clouds. Our route of flight is southeast, staying north of Syria, then south-southeast across Iraq to Kuwait. Cruising at Flight Level 270 (around 27,000 feet), we see cloud buildups taller than our altitude to the left, and to the right. Eventually, there’s one right in front of us. We’re about to enter Iraq airspace, which offers a narrow corridor between Iran, to the left, and Syria to the right. Violence has escalated in Syria, and I saw a news report that some 1,500 people were killed there today. So we deviated to the left around one particularly nasty looking cell; the Baghdad Center controller was very helpful and we managed to avoid causing any international incidents.

In the United States, it’s seldom difficult for pilots to deviate around weather–challenging, sometimes, when there’s a lot of weather that every pilot wants to circumnavigate–or if that weather is in busy terminal airspace. But anything like that can be worked out by controllers much more easily than an excursion into airspace belonging to a country like Syria or Iran.

A couple of terminology notes for you pilots: In much of Europe and into the Middle East, controllers prefer to say “identified” instead of “radar contact.” We do note that Baghdad Control uses the more familiar “good day” when handing a flight off to the next controller, instead of “bye bye.” Could this be a U.S. influence? Our route takes us east of Baghdad but we can’t see the city through the haze, which comes almost up to our altitude of 27,000 feet. One controller with an American-sounding voice asks us where our flight originated, and Mike mentioned our around the world journey. Wonder if, like that controller back in the States so many days ago, he’s been reading up on us?

Refueling in Kuwait

Refueling in Kuwait at sunset.

After 4.3 hours we touch down in Kuwait–another airport with acres upon acres of cargo ramps–and follow a Follow Me truck to our parking space. We open the door and step out into what feels like a blast furnace, relatively speaking. It must be 100 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe higher; the day’s high was more than 110. Our third refueling of the day is completed just as the sun sets; after some paperwork, it’s off to the hotel. Tomorrow: One leg, to Muscat, Oman. Access the tracking map online.

Day 5: Red Bull

August 29, 2013 by Mike Collins

Red Bull Hangar 7 museum

Hangar 7, the Red Bull air museum in Salzburg, Austria, is an expansive facility.

We spent much of today at Hangar 7 in Salzburg, Austria, home of the Red Bull aircraft collection and the Flying Bulls. That’s somewhat of a misnomer; all the aircraft fly–and the specific aircraft on display in Hangar 7 change frequently because they’re rotated in and out as they fly and undergo periodic maintenance.

Red Bull's Hangar 7 and 8

Hangar 7 is reflected in the nose of Red Bull’s P-38. Near the center, across the ramp, is the Hangar 8 maintenance facility.

The structure is glass and steel; from the end, its shape is that of an airfoil. The building is 10 years old and was designed to showcase Red Bull’s three passions: aviation, cuisine, and art. In addition to the aircraft on display, the building is home to several restaurants and an art gallery.

Red Bull jet gets cleaned

A Red Bull technician washes the top of an Alpha Jet displayed in Hangar 7.

The facility is spotless; display aircraft are regularly cleaned–a detail that did not come from Hangar 7′s PR representative, but from personal observation. There’s no admission fee, either; entrance to the museum is free. Apparently, it’s dog friendly as well. And if you plan to fly to Austria any time soon, be aware that visitors are welcome to visit the facility in their personal aircraft, although arrangements must be made in advance (there’s a form on the website) and no overnight parking is allowed.

Red Bull's B-25 gets engine work

Red Bull’s B-25 gets a new cylinder.

One of Hangar 7′s hidden gems is Hangar 8, just across the ramp, where technicians maintain the Red Bull aircraft fleet. Unfortunately, Hangar 8 is not open to the public, although if you’re a credentialed member of the news media you might be able to arrange a tour (well, it worked for us, anyway). It’s a hopping place, too, with five aircraft receiving maintenance during our visit in addition to Red Bull’s F-4 Corsair, which landed while we were in Hangar 7. The good news is that almost all the aircraft are regularly displayed in Hangar 7; they cycle out frequently, are flown, and then undergo maintenance–after which they go back on display in Hangar 7.

Alpha Jet reflections

Hangar 7 reflects in the curved flanks of an Alpha Jet.

All of the Red Bull aircraft appear to be maintained in excellent condition. The polished aluminum airplanes are kept polished. With all the glass in the building’s structure and sunlight often streaming in (it’s been cloudy for most of our visit), it’s hard not to notice the many reflections visible on the aircraft.

The timeless appeal of aviation

Aviation’s timeless appeal.

At one point I looked across Hangar 7 and saw one of those timeless scenes, a father pointing out to his son something across the ramp at Hangar 8. It’s details like this that can help introduce the younger generations to aviation, and I always find scenes like this heartwarming. I wasn’t at the best angle for a photo, but I had a shot, so I took it–and liked it enough to share with you. We’ll pay for the luxury of this visit tomorrow, when our seven to eight hours of flying will take us to Kuwait by way of Turkey. If you’re at your computer tomorrow morning, follow our progress online.

 

 

Day 4: Straubing to Salzburg

August 29, 2013 by Mike Collins

Today has been a nonstandard day. Instead of getting up early and flying, we got up early and spent most of the day visiting MT Propeller, a German company that has been doing some innovative work with propellers for general aviation aircraft. (The airplane we’re flying, Mike Laver’s Mitsubishi MU-2, has five-blade MT propellers installed; in fact, his airplane was used for FAA certification testing of the new props.)

MT Propeller was founded by Gerd Muhlbauer in 1980, and he still serves as the company’s president. Most of the propellers that MT makes are a combination of beech and spruce–yes, wood–covered in carbon fiber, Kevlar, or a combination of the two. “There’s nothing new here,” said Muhlbauer, explaining that the basic design can be traced to work that Ludwing Hoffman did in 1928. What is new, in addition to improved coverings for the wood, is a trend toward more blades that are shorter; this can reduce noise significantly and often improves performance, as well. In addition, MT has expanded into nonaviation areas, making propellers for hovercraft; the largest propller the company makes is used in wind tunnels.

Future propeller blades ready to cut

Beech and spruce are glued and compressed into blocks that will become propeller blades.

Wooden blades ready for finishing

Wooden blades are shaped and ready for finishing.

Glass goes on a wood propeller blade

Glass fiber is applied to a wooden propeller blade.

082813 Gerd Muhlbauer and Mike Laver at MT Propeller

Gerd Muhlbauer, MT Propeller founder and president (left), talks with Mike Laver by the MU-2 in Straubing.

Germany has become a multinational place. Late in the afternoon, following lunch at an Italian restaurant run by people from Turkey, we depart on the 20-minute flight to Salzburg, Austria. Taking off VFR, we turn over the Danube River–avoiding overflight of several small villages near the airport–and pick up our IFR clearance before climbing into the clouds.

Touching down in Salzburg

The Salzburg airport is well lit, and the runway was easy to spot when we emerged from the clouds.

We’re asked to keep our speed up–to 180 knots until we’re five miles from the runway–and we touch down a minute or so before a Boeing 737. On the ramp, we’re parked next to a Learjet from Switzerland; next to it is a Cessna Citation XLS from Austria and another Learjet from South Africa. The co-pilot of the Citiation walks over and talks with us as we wait for the crew van to pick us up.

Parked on a wet ramp in Salzburg

Our airplane parked in Austria, near another futuristic control tower. Cloud obscures the mountain peaks.

Tomorrow is a nonflying day. We’re going to visit Red Bull–the aviaton museum, not the energy drink! I’ll probably enjoy an extra cup of morning coffee, however….

 

Day 3: Reykjavik to Straubing

August 27, 2013 by Mike Collins

Sunshine on the departure from Reyjkavik

Sunshine streams through a hole in the clouds as we depart from Reyjkavik.

It was overcast and drizzling a bit as we prepared to take off from Reykjavik, Iceland, this morning. Seconds after we took off, however, sunlight flooded through a hole in the clouds and first bathed some buildings across a bay from the airport, and then flooded a green valley that turned out to be a golf course. The clouds were not thick and we quickly popped out into a gorgeous sunrise. I was glad my sunglasses were within reach.

Mike Laver organizes paper charts

Mike Laver takes advantage of some quiet cruise flight to prepare charts for the next few legs.

When we leave the Icelandic coast behind, we’re crusing at FL250 (about 25,000 feet) above the cloud-covered Atlantic. The winds are blowing at 86 knots at our altitude, but they’re generally perpendicular to our route of flight, and we’re actually getting a pretty good tailwind on this leg. A push is always nice; we can go faster or reduce power to save fuel. Today we’ve reduced power, and we’re still covering the ground at 338 knots–at least for a while. Mike takes advantage of the relatively quiet overwater flight to get his charts in order for the next couple of legs. Even with electronic navigation and international databases, paper charts still come in handy.

Garmin displays show Scotland

Proof that Scotland really is below all those clouds!

Passing RATSU intersection, we’re handed off to Scottish Control, and lose a lot of groundspeed when we make a turn on our flight plan. Our true airspeed is 280 knots, and after the turn our tailwind drops to 20 knots–so our groundspeed only falls to 300 knots. The ride gets bumpy for the first time this trip as we cross a jet stream but the turbulence lasts less than half an hour. We wouldn’t know we were flying over Scotland this morning if it wasn’t for the moving maps on our navigation displays. The country is blanketed by clouds. Eventually a mountain peak juts through the low clouds, providing visual confirmation that there’s land down there. The accent and cadence of the Scottish air traffic controllers is my favorite of the trip so far. Other notable changes with respect to air traffic control: Frequencies are assigned as “One Two Seven Decimal Two Eight,” instead of “Point” which usually is said in the United States, and controllers are much more likely to use the “proper” phonetic pronounciation–by saying “tree” for “three” and “fife” for “five,” for example.

Newcastle's futuristic control tower

The Newcastle, England, airport boasts an interesting tower and two active flight schools.

The clouds break up as we approach England, however, and the English countryside looks positively quaint as we descend through several broken layers en route to our fuel stop in Newcastle. A great couple of blokes take care of us at Samson Aviation Services, and our fueler, Martin, is a pilot. The airport has a uniquely modern air traffic control tower, and the Newcastle College flight program appeared to be keeping its modest fleet of Piper trainers busy. The first leg takes 3.1 hours and we’re on the ground less than an hour, never leaving the airport, although we did see two double-decker buses pass just beyond the end of the runway as we backtaxied to depart from Runway 25.
From there it’s 2.7 hours through the busiest airspace yet on our way to Straubing, Germany. Our route takes us across the North Sea into the Netherlands, just east of Amsterdam. ATC uses 8.33-mHz frequency spacing here, which can be a trap–it’s one more numeral that might be misidentified by a pilot listening to a foreign tongue, or a readback that could be misunderstood by a controller facing the same challenge. We arrive in time to stop in at MT Propeller, where we’ll spend part of the day tomorrow, and enjoy a traditional Bavarian dinner in the historic city (I recommend the Octoberfest). Many of its buildings are 900 years old, or even older; our restaurant is one of the newer ones–it’s only 700 years old.

Day 2: Goose Bay to Reykjavik

August 26, 2013 by Mike Collins

Five-blade props at sunrise

Mike Laver’s MU-2 on the ramp at Goose Bay.

First off, let me confirm that it’s true: Iceland is green, and Greenland isn’t–at least, not at this time of year. We had hoped to get a predawn start from Goose Bay, Labrador, for our fuel stop in Narsarsuaq, Greenland–but Mike Laver, who I’m accompanying on a flight around the world to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Mitsubishi MU-2′s first flight, remembered that you couldn’t depart for Narsarsuaq without getting a recent observation from the field…and the airport doesn’t open until 6 a.m. Sometimes, interational operations are just “interesting” but in this case, the airport lies at the end of a fjord, and weather frequently makes it a challenging place to get into.

Clouds over the North Atlantic

These clouds over the North Atlantic showed vertical development at 8 a.m.

Once off, however, we’re cleared directly to FL250 as we pass over a solitary boat on Lake Melville. “We’re going faster in the climb than we were in cruise yesterday,” Mike remarked, pointing at the groundspeed readout. Far below, whisps of morning fog rise, painting delicate white lines on the dark canvas of the Earth. The rising sun reflects on marshland below as we go feet wet over the Labrador Sea. We’re covering ground–er, water–at a rate of 313 knots when we cross the Davis Straits, but a solid layer below precludes any view of the water. Then we pass through 10 or 20 miles of clear sky, followed by more clouds–these with vertical development, despite the early hour. By 2 p.m. these could provide significant weather, and they show the wisdom of launching early in the day for long trips.

Iceberg on final to Narsarsuaqt

An iceberg marks the approach to Runway 7 at Narsarsuaq, Greenland.

We’re in nonradar airspace. Proper configuration of the screens on Mike’s Garmin GTN 750 and GTN 650 makes position reporting a breeze. The sky below us has cleared–was that an iceberg? A good tailwind gets us to Narsarsuaq in slightly more than two hours, so we didn’t have to take on a full load of fuel (at $8 per gallon)–and there’s no question that the shape off the end of Runway 7 as we approach is an iceberg.

Martin and Juliette Prakken

Martin and Juliette Prakken are flying home to Virginia from Europe.

After a quick refueling, we pause to talk with Martin and Juliette Prakken, who had just landed in a Socata TBM 700. Natives of the Netherlands who moved to Virginia about 20 years ago, he uses the airplane for business in the United States and in Europe, flying it across for several months every summer. They were westbound, heading home with their two children before school starts. Pilots flying internationally are quick to exchange notes about the weather and procedures; later at our hotel in Reykjavik, we talk with the pilot of a Socata TB-20 who had been following us east.

Icebergs east of Greenland

Icebergs dot the water off Greenland’s eastern coast.

Narsarsuaq is…cool. Any longer on the ground and I would have had to upgrade to a heavier coat. On Greenland’s east coast, however, it looked downright cold. The snowpack appeared thick and glaciers were calving icebergs–so many in a couple spots that the water looked more like a bowl of ice cubes. But we’re high above by now, enjoying an 80-knot tailwind. Eventually over the Atlantic we see nothing but a lot of water. While we don’t see any whitecaps from FL270, the texture of the surface looks like something to avoid in a small boat. After about two more hours, we break out of clouds at 2,200 feet and touch down at Reykjavik in light rain. 

Tomorrow we fly to Newcastle, England, for a fuel stop, and then to Straubing, Germany, for the night. If you want to know where we’re going, a schedule that’s almost up to date is posted on Mike Laver’s website. If you want to see where we’ve been, check out my DeLorme tracking map–the longer distance between tracking points today (the InReach SE updates position every 10 minutes) illustrates how much faster our groundspeeds were today.

Day 1: Frederick to Goose Bay

August 25, 2013 by Mike Collins

 

082513 Climbing out of Maryland

After taking off from Frederick, we climb through scattered clouds.

After a couple months of planning and several days of packing, it’s almost a relief to take off and begin watching the route unfold off our nose–just like my daughter and wife drew it out last night on a wall map at home. Not long into the trip a New York Center controller surprises us. “Five-Zero-Echo-Tango, I’m advised this is an around-the-world flight for the fiftieth anniversary of the aircraft.” Mike replied, “That’s a true statement.” We didn’t tell him, so he must have seen this blog or read the short article in AOPA Pilot. “Have a wonderful flight,” he said. What a great way to launch this adventure.

Landing Runway 8 at Goose Bay

Mike was astonished by this view. “I’ve never landed at Goose Bay in good weather,” he said.

Flying over Scranton, Pa., Mike took advantage of a lull in the action to enter the next few flight plans into the Garmins, creating waypoints over the middle of the Atlantic. FL250 (about 25,000 feet) gives a different perspective of Scranton and Albany, N.Y., than I normally see from 6,000 or 8,000 feet. Crossing into Canada, an array of wind turbines spins lazily beneath scattered clouds. There are more along the shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I didn’t expect this green corner of Canada to be so green!

Chocks Goose Bay style

Believe this is the first time I’ve seen chocks like this!

Up above, contrails chase airliners approaching us as the afternoon rush of international arrivals heads for the northeastern United States. We have a smooth ride the whole way, although Boston Center earlier advised a gaggle of airliners cleared to Green Bay that “For folks heading westbound [Flight Levels] 320 to 360 are light, occasionally moderate chop.” A few bumps below scattered clouds on approach was it for us.

MU-2 and Bombardier CL-215T at Goose Bay

This firefighting aircraft was our neighbor on the Goose Bay ramp.

Our departure took us on a scenic tour of central Maryland before we could climb enough to turn on course. Between that and a headwind that diminished more gradually than forecast, Mike spent more time than usual calculating fuel burn. At 1,112 nautical miles, this is one of the trip’s longer legs, but we determine that we would land with more than our required minimums–otherwise we would have made a precautionary fuel stop.

Tomorrow: Greenland and Iceland. You can track us online at http://blog.aopa.org/blog/?page_id=5288 or directly on a DeLorme tracking map, which updates our position every 10 minutes while we’re flying, at https://share.delorme.com/MikeCollins.

 

Final stretch

August 24, 2013 by Mike Collins

When I talked with Mike yesterday, he said that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan is planning several activities around the 50th anniversary of the MU-2′s first flight. We’re also anticipating a factory tour, as well as a tour of the company’s aviation museum. Both will be fascinating.

Because of this, we’re tweaking the schedule again. We had a buffer day scheduled in the Philippines for Thursday, Sept. 12, to help assure an arrival in Nagoya on Sept. 13 in case we took a delay because of weather or a mechanical issue. Now Thursday will be a flying day, and we’ll spend the night in Taiwan (previously only a “technical” stop, where we would refuel and not formally enter the country–think Snowden in the Moscow airport, except that we wouldn’t be making a habit of it). Friday will then be only one flight leg, which should get us into Nagoya before noon local time. I had thought about posting the original itinerary, but parts of it would be unrecognizable now–I hope you agree with that call.

I will say that I’ve never been so focused on packing for a trip before. I’m not sure why, because once you leave town, you’re gone–whether you’re going across the state or across the globe. Maybe it’s the lenght of the trip. Regardless, I’ve got packing to…and grass to mow…and I think I better get a haircut, too.

The beginnings of an adventure

August 22, 2013 by Mike Collins

N50ET Mike Laver's Mitsubishi MU-2

Interesting things always used to start with a phone call. Today it’s usually an email. And it was an email from an old friend, Ross Russo, that kicked off the discussion that led to an invitation to fly around the world. Mike Laver, a native of Australia, has been flying Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprops for some 30 years. He owns and operates the Air 1st Aviation companies in Aiken, S.C., which buys and sells the model, runs a repair facility, and operates the largest MU-2 fleet in the world.

While Mike has done a lot of international flying, he had never flown around the globe. So, why not combine that with the 5oth anniversary of the model’s first flight, on Sept. 14, by flying into Nagoya, Japan? He had invited Ross to document the the trip, but Ross’ daughter is getting married in the middle of the adventure, so he reluctantly passed. He suggested me as a worthy aviation journalist who would be up to the task. So I’ll be joining Mike aboard N50ET (above), his pristine 1973 MU-2B-25, for the adventure. If we stay on our current schedule, we’ll be on the airways for 25 days.

Mike has done most of the planning, working closely with BaseOps, which he’s contracted to provide handling services on the trip. The schedule has evolved; for example, a planned stop in Egypt was moved because of the political climate following the recent coup. We’re flying eastbound, from Frederick to Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland, England, then Germany and Austria. After a couple days of business there, we’ll transit the Middle East and make a fuel stop in India on the way to Australia. Following several days down under, we’ll make our way to the Philippines, stop for fuel in Taiwan, and land at the MU-2′s birthplace in Japan. Then it’s the home stretch: Russia (three stops), Alaska (two stops), North Dakota, then home. All told, it will be about 85 hours of flying.

Connectivity permitting, I will blog daily during the trip. I also will be doing several stories for AOPA Pilot that you’ll see over the coming year. Finally, I will be evaluating DeLorme’s InReach SE satellite tracker–check the map at the top of this blog any time to monitor our progress (it should update our position every 10 minutes while we’re in flight). We hope you’ll follow along.