Saturday 25 May 2013 09:56 UTC
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Some of my best flying (note I didn't write 'best paid') was a job I had based out of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory carrying freight in Cessna 210s. It was a three on, three off roster flying single crew in aircraft that were pretty knackered. When they call 206/210s aerial utes they're not kidding, they really do get used to carry just about everything and these looked the part. The autopilots never worked, there was no GPS or weather radar (unless you counted the ADF which gleefully pointed at CBs) and with only the pilot's seat and an interior that looked like it had been savaged by a cattle dog to sit in for up to 8 hours a day or night there were nicer aircraft to fly. They had been and continued to be worked hard so it wasn't surprising that they broke down from time to time.
The first day of a three 'on' was actually a night. Leaving Darwin at midnight I'd haul about 500kg of newspapers, well the NT News which was a rag rather than a newspaper, southward. For the pedants among you it was actually 158nm bearing 178 degrees and I've no idea how I know that all these years later, I can even recall the distances and tracks for the other two legs of the night to Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. How sad is that?
First stop was Tindal, an RAAF base open to civilian traffic on the outskirts of Katherine but manned only during business hours. Aerodrome lighting was pilot operated using VHF. Half a dozen bundles of papers would be offloaded and left in a shed (by the pilot) and the aircraft refuelled (by the pilot) before heading off on the 323nm second leg. In that part of the world VHF comms was of limited use even during the day so reporting to ATC in Adelaide 1500nm away was done using HF. As we flew IFR it was a case of reporting airborne, top of climb and then estimate for the next waypoint with no other traffic on frequency so it was either peaceful or lonely depending on your outlook. I thought it the former and once the aircraft was trimmed in the cruise I'd settle in for a bit of stargazing particularly on a dry-season moonless night like this one. Soon after TOC I gave Adelaide my position report. As I acknowledged their readback I thought the panel lights dimmed slightly. I called them for a radio check, heard nothing and confirmed that the lights dimmed when I depressed the PTT. Buggrit. A glance at the ammeter confirmed the bad news. Buggrit again. A few minutes earlier I'd heard a Qantas aircraft call another on 121.5 so called him for a check. "Strength two, readability three" was not what I wanted to hear and knowing that I'd soon be deaf and mute I broadcast to the Qantas aircraft my eta for Tennant Creek, I barely heard his acknowledgement. There were three waypoints between my present position and Tennant but winds were pretty predictable so provided I held an accurate heading I didn't think it would be too far out. It was approximately two hours away though.
I turned the dying panel lights off and began ferreting through my trusty navbag by torchlight. After a minute or two I found what I wanted buried at the bottom, something resembling a tinfoil teabag. In fact it was a packet containing a tiny 'cyalume' type light used by anglers, stuck on their rod tip or float for night fishing. I'd spotted them in a dollar (pound) shop several months earlier and for no reason bought half a dozen, now I knew why. With the scissors on my Leatherman (we were allowed sharp objects airside then and no self respecting bush pilot would be seen dead without one) I neatly cut the bag open to reveal the reflective interior. Next from the navbag came a sticking plaster. Two small pieces were snipped off that, the cyalume snapped and shaken (I don't care who you are, that's right up there with popping open the foil on a coffee jar or being first to dip your knife into a new jar of chocolate spread) and stuck it to the reflective foil which was then sticky-plastered to the top of the glare shield to illuminate the panel. We were back in business. The 210 is a relatively simple aircraft so there wasn't much I could check in the cockpit but I did it anyway. After a minute or two I confirmed what I already knew, no electrics apart from the sparks to the plugs which in addition to no radio meant no nav lights, VOR, DME or ADF and later on no flaps and manual landing gear extension.
On a normal night the navaids were generally good for the first 100 miles out of Tindal and the 100 miles into Tennant Creek with the mid-section being flown by good old dead-reckoning but the winds were slight and rarely did we ever find ourselves more than a few degrees off track. As I moved south my track began to run parallel to the Stuart Highway so I was able to relax. One of my reasons for not turning back was that the longer I was airborne the more chance I would have of landing in daylight. We also had a Company pilot based in Tennant Creek and among ourselves we'd always said that if on any night the pilot activated lighting failed to come on we'd fly low over the town to alert them so that was my plan. Satisfied that I'd done all I could for now I broke out my Thermos and biscuits.
Almost on cue the lights of the town came into view and I started a slow descent. I knew the radio wouldn't activate the aerodrome lights but I tried anyway, who wouldn't? As I approached MSA and began to wonder if I would be spending the next few hours orbiting the runway lights came on. Fantastic! I owed the Qantas pilot, Adelaide ATC, our duty manager in Alice Springs and base pilot in Tennant a beer each.
The circuit and landing were uneventful requiring only a minute or two of manually pumping the gear down (while resisting the urge to wiggle the yoke to the beat) and a slightly higher landing speed to compensate for zero flap. I spent what was left of the night at my colleague's house and on waking mid-morning found the little cyalume still glowing away in my navbag. It would have outlasted my fuel and bladder by several hours and while I could have survived without it I was pleasantly surprised at just how much easier that little gadget had made things. Best $1 (about 30p in those days) I ever spent.
The electrics? De-brief from the engineer flown up from Alice Springs was "She was proper f***en rooted mate".
Edit: I found this photo of the aircraft which finally met its end at the hands of someone who mistakenly refuelled it from a drum of Jet-A1 several years after I left the company. http://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/investigation_reports/2004/aair/aair200402060.aspx
Interesting "adventure" Flintstone. I guess one has to be mentally prepared for anything when doing this kind of flying.
Would love to do some flying in Australia one day, I have a couple of aussie mates downunder and they do share some incredible flying stories. From what I notice Australia as quite big GA wise.
Been there in the past and I loved the place.
PPL Student - EGKR
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