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Third World Living In A 21st Century Context (Part 1)

12/02/2010

I surprise and confuse myself at times. I am truly happy to be working back in Papua despite the fact I have always liked and enjoyed the comforts of the first world. While Medan isn’t exactly one of the nicest of cities in the world, being the 3rd largest city in Indonesia it did have some comforts. My most favoured of which was the Sushi Tei restaurant where I could have happily dined for every lunch and every dinner.

But now here I am based back in Papua and living in a small town called Nabire. Our house is in a poorer area (a relative term) and is a bit of a drive from the airport which is somewhat frustrating when our first flight is scheduled to depart before 6 am. The power goes on and off and the two-stroke generator is right next to my bedroom, the water has a strange smell although it appears clean, the rats that run in the ceiling space at night sound like they carrying an awful lot of weight and although we could go to an Internet Cafe for now I have just been using the GPRS connection on my mobile phone. Worst of all if the generator isn’t attempting to remove my sanity as I try to sleep we seem to have some neighbours running some sort of karaoke bar down the road which the other night didn’t shut down until 3am! To top it all off I am also back to the old school ‘steam-driven’ instruments after over 500 hours operating the divine G1000 system in our newer aircraft.

Not exactly making it sound exotic I am. But despite all that I remain in a far more upbeat mood than I ever did in Medan, even if the balance sheet shows things as being much worse.

The flying remains what Papua is all about and even though we are currently only operating 3 routes with the Grand Caravan the focus airport – Serui is still as fun as it always was. Sadly the lack of a speedy internet connection prevents me from inserting pictures with this post but I will attempt to rectify that at some stage; for now the map of Papua on the about page shows Serui sitting south of Biak. We operate multiple shuttle flights daily for connection with Garuda and Merpati who transit through Biak. It is a 25 minute flight between the longest sealed runway in Indonesia (a relic of WW2) at over 3.6 km and one of the shorter ones (without slope) at Serui which is just 650 m.

Because I am new to Serui in the left seat unfortunately for the first officers I have to do all the landings and take-offs on this first tour (four week rotation), which really means I get most of the fun – hey there have to be some perks to sitting in the left seat! The runway lies in the middle of the town which sits nestled in a small bay on the southern coast bordered by peninsulas and islets either side and a steeply rising mountain ridge line running west to east on the northern side. This means landing only to the north and taking off only to the south. There are mobile phone towers around and nature of the terrain means that passing what we call the key point through 500 feet on the final approach doing a go-around may not be successful.

Aside from the go-around situation there are multiple factors that have to be considered to keep the operation safe. The previously mentioned terrain or geographic features (a factor in its own right) make weather a primary factor. In the mornings there is often a katabatic wind coming down the slope making for a tailwind on takeoff and as the day progresses the sea breeze picks up meaning a tailwind on landing and also pushing clouds against the mountain ridges that rises to nearly 5000 feet which can quickly lower the cloud base and send rain tumbling into the town. If the wind does pick up the small size of the bay means turbulence that can quickly make the approach or departure very treacherous.

The operating weights are also an important factor. Being a short flight we can have a light fuel load which means a better available revenue payload. Of course the weather factor often has a bearing on the weight factor in many ways. Depending on the development of the weather extra fuel may be loaded for holding so we could for improvement. If that extra fuel isn’t used then it could impact the take-off weight for departure. For the most part landing weights are not critical; 650m is not an uncomfortable amount of runway at heavier weights. However at take-off the weight factor most definitely comes into play. Again, the weather has influence here and the wind can make all the difference.

Communication is another factor and this I can relate back to the title and claw myself back on topic. In most parts of the world a small airport such as this would not generally have an ATC facility. It would be an unattended airfield and we would fly overhead to determine suitability for landing. In Indonesia however, just about every tinpot airport has a collection of DGCA staff and this will always include a radio operator. This is, as might be expected both a blessing and a curse. As a general rule we will always take information from these radio operators with a grain of salt and rely more on what we are seeing from visual cues. Where they do come in handy is operating the airport siren and making sure that the runway is clear and reporting this back to us. Something we might not even be able to accomplish by flying overhead. The radio operator in Serui is somewhat partial to a drink, even early in the day it seems. A couple of times when he has not answered our calls we have flown overhead to check the runway and windsock and after landing he has asked us through the hiccups why we flew overhead – go figure!

You may be asking runway clear of what? Bird’s maybe? Nope – making sure the runway is clear of people and dogs. Being right in the middle of town the airport is quite the community feature and it is no doubt as fun to watch as it is for us to actually plant this big metal bird in the middle of town and then extract it 15 minutes later. What I don’t understand is the lack of fear and appreciation for the principles of inertia and momentum not to mention general safety. The radio man though when not too drunk and with the help of the other DGCA staff do manage to assist us fairly well in keeping the runway area clear for take-off and landing.

To be continued…

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