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Australia (Part 1)

19/02/2011

In January I was asked if I would like to ferry one of our aircraft to Cairns for an engine change. It was planned to coincide with my scheduled holiday so naturally I said yes.

The PT6 engines found in the Grand Caravan have a standard time before overhaul (TBO) of 3600 hours. With the installation of an engine trend monitor as in our fleet TBO extensions can be granted allowing the engine to be flown for many hours over the standard TBO. The engine in this particular aircraft while over the standard TBO had not yet reached our companies approved extension limit but because it was not performing fully the call was made to err on the side of safety and install a new engine.

Our central maintenance base in Papua is now on the island of Biak utilising WWII-era hangars so a couple of days prior to departure for Australia I flew over to Biak for preparation. Non-scheduled international flights it turns out can be quite the headache. I have flown to Singapore from Padang in West Sumatra and return before on a charter but that was a 4 hour return trip. From Biak to Cairns is 7 hours one-way. We were originally planning on crossing the Arafua Sea and Torres Strait to Horn Island with a couple of New Zealand helicopters that had finished their contract in Papua. However, they were having difficulty getting their final Indonesian paperwork. This was actually of great help to me as it gave me more time to plan.

New Zealand citizen’s entering Australia are automatically granted a Special Category Visa (SCV). Because our original plan was to complete border formalities in Horn Island rather than just making a technical stop for fuel it became a bit more complicated. Horn Island is part of the Torres Strait Islands which is a statutory authority within Queensland. Legislation brought in by the Australian Government early last decade to help combat the ‘boat-people’ threat meant changes to the automatic granting of an SCV. The SCV can only be granted at the major International entry ports and while Horn Island is an International entry port it is not a major one.

By this time it had already been decided not to wait for the helicopters as the new engine was waiting in Cairns so after email back and forth with the Customs Officer on Thursday Island (who handles all border formalities for Horn Island) we were told we would be granted with 456 visas to allow us to enter Australia via Horn Island.

Being wet season we always knew the weather was going to be challenging. Weather forecasts for our original planned departure date looked very promising, the next few days after not so much. On such a long flight planning is very important. With full fuel tanks our maximum endurance in the Grand Caravan is over 6 hours. However with our company reserve requirement our actual flight endurance is just over 5 hours. Given our planned 7 hour flight wind becomes a consideration, something rarely considered in Indonesia which sits across the equator and for the most part experiences only light breezes affecting flight planning very little. However, the winds soon start to pick up as you head further south into the double digit latitudes. The synoptic charts were showing that as we headed toward the Australian mainland we would be confronted with a headwind of around 15 knots (28 km/h).

The day of departure finally arrived with a 3am wake-up. Bags packed, it is a short walk across the road from the Aerotel Irian Hotel to the Biak Airport Terminal and our office. First order of business was to check out the weather using the acronym-rich weather sources – BoM, BMKG, NAIPS and MetVUW. With weather and NOTAMS (important notices for pilots) I updated our operational flight plan and joined the First Officer outside to pre-flight the aircraft.

With some canned coffees and pastries loaded on board we were airborne just after 5am pointing the nose of the aircraft to the southeast in the still dark sky. As we approached the Sudirman mountain range that dissects Papua the sun was beginning to lift in the eastern sky. Cruising at 13,500 feet early in the morning I made good use of our on board oxygen supply as we kept above cloud that was also wrapped around Puncak Jaya (at 16,024 feet one of mountaineering’s seven summits). The dark sky rapidly vanished behind and after crossing the Sudirman range the flatlands of southern Papua were clear to see. We dropped down to 10,500 feet and continued heading southeast for another 2 hours to reach our first stop, Merauke.

Arriving in Merauke around 8.30am we ordered fuel to top us back up to full tanks and headed for the airport office to wait for  Customs and Immigration to arrive and clear us for departure. By 11am all the formalities were completed and we were able to depart for Horn Island. Flying at 9500 feet to adhere to Australian cruising levels the flight was planned to take just over an hour and would take us outside of glide range for about 4 minutes. Thankfully we had a life raft secured down the back in case the nightmare scenario struck.

Fitting into the flow of traffic at Horn Island we landed just over an hour after departing Merauke, shutting down on the apron we were promptly handed disinfectant spray cans to douse the cabin with and were then cleared to exit the aircraft. I was greeted by the friendly Customs Officer who I had been emailing back and forth in the days prior. Everything was nice and simple and after we had satisfied all the requirements we were cleared to carry on the flight.

Because it was wet season and we would be arriving in Cairns late in the afternoon I decided to uplift more fuel, you really can never have enough. We called over AirBP and low and behold but crewing the refuelling truck were two Maori shelias from Taneatua. Before we left Indonesia the company had tried to purchase Australian dollars to cover any incidental costs. Unfortunately we were unable to get Australian dollar so only had US dollars. AvTur fuel in Horn Island is not cheap at $2 a litre and initially they weren’t happy about accepting US dollars but I’m pretty sure that New Zealand bond helped and with a bit extra added for the inconvenience we were all fuelled up again.

Now approaching 2pm Queensland time we were airborne and again pointing southeast for Cairns. The afternoon build-ups were certainly starting to appear and it wasn’t long before we were having to make a large diversion off the coast to keep well clear of some large cumulonimbus clouds. As the latitude increases so too does the ferocity of these clouds so it pays to give them a wide berth. Not until we neared Cooktown were we able to start tracking the coastline again and once we were inside Cairns airspace we were having to continually drop down in altitude to keep below the cloud base. However, once we were passing abeam Port Douglas the cloud base lifted and Cairns came into clear view. We were cleared to join a long final and touched down just before 5pm.

An incredibly long day that progressed defiantly fast had come to an end.

To be continued…

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