Story & Photograph by Catherine Fitzsimons, Location: Indonesia, Indonesia Flying Club
|Someone once declared my flying trips unimpressive accomplishments because I did all my early cross-country trips with my former instructor as my co-pilot. I disputed the remark at the time, maintaining that I was the one who did all the trip planning and who actually flew the plane. Since coming to Indonesia where I do all my flying either alone or in the company of passengers with no aviation experience, I have reflected on this earlier disagreement, noticing a change in my sense of responsibility and awareness of risk.|
I look back at my trips all over the Philippine archipelago and wonder now at my audacity. It was as though I subconsciously regarded the presence of my instructor as an insurance policy against anything going wrong whereas in reality the risks were always present. Now I am acutely aware of risk, am much more sensitive to the weather, have developed a marginally better understanding of the internal workings of the plane I am flying and, of relevance to this story, I have realised that flying over water is not to be taken lightly.
I arrived at Pondok Cabe airstrip in Jakarta last Friday morning in an alert frame of mind, the adrenalin already pumping in anticipation of the altitude therapy ahead and a long flight over water with a Spa Director as my co-pilot. The plan was to fly to Karimunjawa, a national marine park consisting of 27 islands off the coast of central Java. The route was east over land to Cirebon, along the coast to Semarang, north to Jepara and then over the sea to Karimunjawa, a total distance of 290 nautical miles of which some 45 would be over water. I had prepared a flight plan for a more direct route that cut 60NM off the total time but required around 120 NM flying over water. That would not have been prudent and was not even necessary, given the excellent fuel efficiency of the Jabiru which could cover the round trip with ample reserve for emergencies and no need to take on fuel en route.
Everything was prepared, including marine life vests which Sugeng wanted us to don immediately but which we said we would put on as soon as we were over water. No point flying in discomfort with those things on for the first two hours over land?! I pre-flighted while my driver and my co-pilot posed for photos with the Jabiru.
My co-pilot (passenger, in fact), Spa Director at the Jakarta Four Seasons Hotel, had organised first class, in-flight catering for our trip: coffee, croissants, muffins, fresh fruit. There was only one thing that I had overlooked and that was the official flight plan. I was intending to head straight to the tower to lodge it at 7am on Friday morning, only to discover that the tower was not going to be manned until 8am. The engineer who looks after the Jabiru called the controller’s cellphone and passed him over to me. I explained that I wanted to get airborne immediately and he said that this was impossible if Jakarta Traffic didn’t have my flight plan and that I would have to wait until he opened the tower at 0800 and faxed my flight plan to CGK. Eager to be underway and benefit from the low winds and good weather of the early morning hours, I asked if we could contact Halim, the second (mainly military) airport in Jakarta. After all, my flight plan was heading that way (east) and not past CGK (west of Jakarta city). He gave me the phone number for Halim and wished me luck. I called the tower there and explained my predicament and was asked to fax my flight plan directly there. Not possible: there isn’t a fax machine in the hangar or in the plane. Please, I said, can’t I give it to you over the phone? He gave in, telling me to give him 20 minutes to file the flight plan for me and instructing me to contact Halim when airborne. The mechanic was dumbfounded, saying that no Indonesian airman would have got away with that! Maybe there is some value in being a foreign aviatrix and not an Indonesian airman?!
The skies over Jakarta were hazy. Halim did not respond to my calls, which I thought rather odd. I checked the frequency on my GPS but omitted to check my own manual records which would have indicated that the GPS was either out of date or just incorrect because I was on the wrong frequency – an inexcusable mistake! We scooted quietly out of the Jakarta TMA, maintaining 3,500 as we had indicated on our verbal flight plan. We laboured through the Jakarta morning haze, slowed by our low altitude and an easterly headwind, past Lake Jatiluhur and Mt Ciremai and then along the coast line towards Semarang. By the time we were half way to our destination we had used more than 60% of our ETE. I was bored with the pace and so, clearly, was Kim. She had resorted to reading glossy magazines and showed little interest in counting the miles until we made our next course change. I had flown along the north coast of Java a few times and had no great need to see it again. After a quick discussion we agreed to turn immediately to 050° and track direct to our final destination. We climbed to 5,500ft and immediately found that the increased elevation and our new heading had added about 10 knots to our speed, which was a blessing, indeed. Despite the fact that Indonesia is an archipelago of some 18,000 islands, there is not a single one of them between the Java mainland and Karimunjawa: we were well and truly over water for a good hour.
Our increased altitude put us quickly within range of WARS and we were able to communicate our intentions to Semarang approach. The seriousness of my omission in contacting Halim became then clear as I realised that our friends in Semarang had no idea who we were, what we were flying, whence we came or wither we were bound (to be momentarily poetic about it!).
"Say again what kind of aircraft?! Destination where?! Current position where?!"
I spent most of that leg of the trip doing *censormode*pit mental arithmetic to be able to respond whenever we were called for our current position which was about every 5-10 minutes. The Jabiru has no OBI/CDI so you have to do the 180-maths calculation from the GPS "course" reading. That keeps you serious and on your toes.
Between responding to tower calls we counted down the minutes and miles until our destination, focusing mainly on the beautiful, puffy, fair weather cumulus clouds to our north rather than on the sea below. We distracted each other with conversation (mine consisted mostly of extolling the superior glide properties of the Jabiru!) and in no time we were ready to make our planned descent. WARS handed us off to WARU and we homed in for our landing.
The airstrip at Karimunjawa is 750m long and surrounded by trees on all sides so you have to dive down onto the threshold after skimming the tree tops on approach. Fortunately the Jabiru is not only economical on fuel but also on landing and take-off distance.
When we tumbled out of the plane at our final destination, we were met by an amazed and motley crew of locals, all wanting to check us and the plane out. When we left three days later, the crowd had multiplied considerably, word having got around that there were visitors in town!
I won’t attempt to describe the islands of Karimunjawa. A few pictures will say it all.
The locals were generous and warm in their welcome. We enjoyed the solitude of many of their beaches.
|We swam with their sharks at feeding time.
Our boat man, Priadi, took us from one deserted beach to another, catching and grilling fresh fish for us while we snorkelled and swam in the glorious blue waters.
The local fare was wonderful, consisting mostly of fish and I bought a selection of dried fish for my staff and friends (oleh-oleh is the local equivalent of pasalubong).
All too quickly Sunday came around and we were due to head home. The weather report was for afternoon storms in Jakarta so we couldn’t while too long in Karimunjawa.
After check-in at the local airport and posing for numerous photos with the local well-wishers,
….we started our engines and sprang immediately forward from our parking position. I grabbed the park brake (there isonly a hand operated park brake on the Jabiru, no brake attached to the rudders!) and pulled it sharply back, waving at the surprised man who had jumped out of the way just in time. We were either completely out of brake fluid or we had lost our discs because the brakes were barely working! I wasn’t too concerned as the Pondok Cabe runway is 3000m and I figured we wouldn’t need brakes if we had to make an emergency landing at sea. So I completed our run-up check while obtaining take-off clearance as we trundled towards our start position and in minutes we were airborne on runway 13.
As soon as we were airborne my heart started pounding as I sensed a lack of power on our climb out. I thought that either the engine wasn’t warm or we were just being slowed by the strong quartering headwind and windshear around the airstrip. Fortunately the roughness cleared as we passed 500 ft and quickly forgot about it.
After exchanging a few pleasantries with the tower we were cleared to contact Semarang. I stayed on the local frequency, however, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to make contact with WARS until we were at 3,000 ASL or higher. While we still had the main island below us, I heard:
"Papa kilo sierra kilo kilo. Dewadaru."
"Dewadaru, PK SKK. Go ahead"
"Ada ditinggalan di sini di Karimunjawa. Ditinggalan."
What on earth…..?! I thought….. and then I replied "Ada apa ditinggalan?"
"Ikan dari mobil! Masih di sini! "
What? They didn’t load my oleh-oleh out of the car and into the plane?! I can’t go home empty handed!
"Ah….Dewadaru, returning to base. PK SKK."
"Anda balik ke sini?"
|Five minutes later. "PK SKK say position."
"On extended right base for 13 landing."
And so we actually went back for our fish! Our landing was right on the threshold and we were able to make the right turn to the apron, despite having almost zero braking power. After collecting our fish we were quickly airborne once again, and the slight catching in the engine and the lack of power were there once more on climb out. I was hoping my first officer wouldn’t notice anything and I was praying that it wouldn’t get worse because there is NOWHERE to put down around the Dewadaru airport other than on top of the mangrove trees or in the sea. Once again, as soon as we were above 500’ the engine was pulling smoothly and with full power.
We said goodbye to our friends on the ground and switched to WARS, requesting permission to climb to 6,500ft while over water. Next time I’ll ask for 8,500: you can neverhave too much altititude over water! Once again we were kept on a short leash and asked for our position every 5-10 minutes. This was great practice for my mental arithmetic as I had to calculate the radial we were on after reading off our distance and course to the ANY VOR near WARS. I watched the instruments with a hawk’s eye while attempting to make light conversation with my passenger. I was truly impressed with the Jabiru’s performance as we climbed steadily to our desired altitude and the islands beneath us gave way to uninterrupted blue sea. Shark infested, too, I dare say. All instruments remained comfortably in the green during our cruise climb and slipped down to normal indications as soon as we levelled out at 6,500 ft.
Kim was becoming more savvy and more courageous on the return trip. In between reading Harry Potter she commented on the appearance of the odd container ship below us: if you had to ditch then it would make sense to ditch near a vessel, yes?
The flight over the sea was beautiful. The skies were clear and the sea below us was blue and uninterrupted by land or islands! I prefer clouds and mountains so I kept my eyes on the horizon and enjoyed wonderful views of Merapi, Merbabu, Slamet and Ciremai (interalia) poking through the clouds on the horizon. This was Gunung (Mt) Slamet:
On the way home things were going so smoothly that at one point I even forgot to press the intercom button when trying to establish communication with Jakarta TMA. Kim kindly
pointed out that I would have more success talking to the tower if I pressed the little red button on the stick. She will make a GREAT pilot one day!
With the aid of some strong tailwinds we were home in record time, even including the return to base at Dewadaru to collect the oleh-oleh! Jakarta TMA looked after us superbly once we were handed over from Semarang, who had also taken great care of us. We were on the radar and we behaved ourselves accordingly. We skimmed past Halim and into Pondok Cabe landing 3.11H after first take off which compared most favourably with the outbound journey of 3.25H.
After navigating the brakeless Jabiru down the slope to the hangar our "welcome home party" helped us unload the plane. The marine lifevests, still in their plastic bags, were removed from the plane and Sugeng asked "Did you wear these while flying over water?"
Woops….completely forgot about that!!
Who wants to join me next time?!
by Captain C.