Thursday, May 21, 2009

China - Ferry Flight.

When I was flying for Zurich based ZIMEX Aviation I volunteered to fly for their new contract in China. The contract was to the same oil company, AGIIP, that I flew for in Algeria.

Two companies, Italian AGIIP and American ESSO, had been granted permits by the Chinese Government to do seismic survey for oil in the Tarim Basin, Xinjian Provence and they required one Pilatus Porter aircraft each. The aircraft were required to ferry staff, freight and seismic data the 350 or so miles between the camps and the base town of Korla.

For ZIMEX to operate in China, they had to go into a joint venture with the Southern China Helicopter Co and we had to carry a pilot from that company on all flights. Without my co-pilot I would have had big problems on the radio and the other handy thing was that I never had to file a flight plan, I just did the figures and my young crew mate did all the running around. Great!

To begin my job in China, I first had to pick up my aircraft from the S. C. H. Co airfield at Zhuhai and fly it up to Korla. On August 3rd 1996, I flew from Christchurch to Auckland and on to Hong Kong, arriving at Hong Kong just after dark. What an amazing experience it was to be flying around skyscrapers to join finals at the old airport and looking at people in the kitchens of their apartments from the window of a 747!

I spent the night in Hong Kong and in the morning caught a 1 hour 15 minute ferry across to Zhuhai, where I was met by the ZIMEX pilot who had ferried my plane to China from Switzerland. The ferry flight from Zurich would have been a great experience as well, through the Greek Islands and right across India. It was unfortunate that it happened on my off-duty rotation, otherwise I may have been able to do it myself. Zurich to Zhuhai took 90 flying hours.

After checking into my hotel, I got taken to the airfield to meet the Southern China Helicopter Co troops and begin the week of mucking around until I was allowed to fly out of Zhuhai. The Porter had to have "Southern China Helicopter Co" painted on the sides, flight planning had to be done, approvals obtained to fly through the various provinces and numerous restaurants to be tried out.

Because we (the other ZIMEX pilot and I) couldn't read the menus, it was a bit hit and miss with us consuming goodies like cat, dog, snake, hamster and other strange morsels that the western palate is not tuned to! Having said that though, the food was very good once we learned how to communicate what we wanted to know; such as "What language does that speak, (pointing at an item in the menu) woof, woof?" Or "meow?" The waitress would laugh and knowing that guilos don't like the good tucker, would exclaim, "Bu, bu, bu!". Bu = no. We still got served cat and dog etc on occasion, but learned to recognise stuff we weren't too keen on. The beer was good!

Well the week passed; interesting, being in China; fascinating experiencing a totally different culture; frustrating dealing with a bureaucracy that Helen Clark could only dream of, but over-ridingly, worrying because it was monsoon season and I KNEW I would be flying IFR out of Zhuhai!

IFR = Instrument Flight Rules which means when the weather is IMC, (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) you can't see anything outside the cockpit and you have to fly the aircraft by following all those very confusing dials on the panel!

Now, don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with flying IFR, the airline jocks do it all the time, but I am a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) pilot which means that I am used to flying in weather where you can see out the window and you only look at the panel to make sure you are not not going too fast and rip your wings off.

To fly IFR you have to do what is called an IFR rating, which entails hours of training with a hood on your head so you can't cheat by looking out the window and having to fly the aircraft by instruments only. Well I'd done all that and passed my instrument rating flight test with a Civil Aviation testing officer, but there is a big difference between flying around with your instructor keeping a eye on things and flying in a monsoon in China with no-one to hold your hand! I worried and worried! A week was too long!

During the week I tried to find out what my young co-pilot knew about flying and IFR in the forlorn hope that he may be of some assistance, but he either didn't understand my questions or didn't want to tell me. I couldn't find out what experience he had at all, but at the end of the day it didn't really matter because it was a single pilot aircraft and I was the pilot in command, so I decided that I would just have to grow a pair and get on with it!

Finally we were scheduled to depart at 0930 Aug 9th. On the 8th I got the Porter (HB-FLE) fueled up in readiness. Just the main tanks because the concrete strip at Zhuhai was only about 350 metres long and the first leg of the flight was short anyway. Though I did get some fuel put in the internal tanks for a bit of reserve and to test the pumps and plumbing.

Tanking up at Zhuhai.

Fuel capacity in ferry mode:
  • Mains - 644 lts
  • External - 486 lts
  • Internal - 472 lts
  • Endurance - 12 hours
Three 44 gallon ferry tanks.

At long last I could stop stewing! Checked out of the hotel, loaded the Porter up with our gear, pre-flight check done, cranked up and taxied to the holding point at the end of the runway by 0925, perfect. Then we waited. And waited. After half an hour I shut down the engine and we continued to wait. I asked Lu (In the interest of privacy I wont name my young friend on here, I will just call him Lu) what the problem was, but apart from the fact we couldn't get a take off clearance, he didn't know. After about an hour of waiting we got told to go home and have another go tomorrow, so back to the hanger we went, topped up the fuel again, put the Porter to bed and away to check back into the hotel and have another wander round town.

I found out during the day that there was some sort of wrangle about our clearance through Lanzhou that needed to be sorted out.

Departing Zhuhai and climbing into the crap!

Aug 10th began with a repeat performance of the previous day and this time, without the waiting, we actually took off! We were away! As I had been expecting, there was an 8/8 cloud cover with a base of about 2000 feet and we were flight planned for a cruising level of 10,000 feet.

Route.* Click to enlarge.

Now that we were airborne my nerves settled down by about 400% and the climb out and getting into the cruise (still in cloud) was pretty 'stock standard' and uneventful with reasonably smooth flying. About an hour into the flight Lu asked, "I fly?" And I replied, "Yeah, why not." I thought, "Now I will find out what he knows!"

Lu flew well for about 50 minutes and maintained track and altitude with ease, which is an achievement since we were 'hand wheeling' the Porter as there was no auto pilot. The other thing we didn't have was weather radar.

Suddenly the shit hit the fan in a big way! We were into severe turbulence and you wouldn't believe the rain, it was absolutely bucketing! The aircraft got chucked all over the sky and when it was at an attitude with about 40 degrees angle of bank and the nose pointing down almost vertical, Lu threw his hands in the air and shouted, "Your control!" And I thought, "Uh huh! Now I know!"

The turbulence didn't bother me that much, it was pretty standard fare where I did most of my flying at Mount Cook back home, but what did bother me was the windscreen was leaking at the bottom, through the seal. There was a river of water cascading down through the radio stack and onto the shelf at the base of the instrument panel. This shelf is one of the very useful features of the Porter. It is about 10 inches wide and runs right across the cockpit at the base of the instrument panel and has a 2 inch sill. This is where you put all your pens, notes, flight log, ash tray and anything else you think might be handy and I now discovered it holds about a gallon and a half of water! Now all our much needed notes and bits and bobs were floating around, soaking wet and every time we hit turbulence the water sloshed out all over our legs.

The moderate turbulence and rain continued for pretty much the rest of the flight, with intermittent bouts of severe turbulence where I guessed we were flying through the odd Cb, but without radar there was no way of knowing where they were or avoiding them. My main worry was the water; I didn't relish the idea of continuing my debut IFR flight with compass and basic instruments only if the water shorted out all my radios and radio navigation gear. But it hung in there. I considered turning back to Zhuhai but for two reasons, decided to plug on. Number one: We were over half way to Guilin. Number two: I didn't want to spend another week at Zhuhai trying to get approval for another flight plan. Six to one, half a dozen the other, we carried on.

We eventually got past all the rough stuff and the rain stopped. On 'letting down' for Guilin, we broke cloud at about 3,000 feet and there was Guilin Airport, through the limestone pinnacles, bang on the nose ten miles away, in sunshine.

I felt a great sense of achievement at having successfully completed my first 'real' IFR flight and remember thinking that the efforts of my instrument instructor, Tom Dick in Christchurch, weren't in vain!

(Stolen off the web - can't remember where from!)

There were two reasons for our stop at Guilin; first, it was only a short leg from Zhuhai which meant we could take off from Zhuhai's short strip with a light fuel load and the other was that Guilin was Lu's home town and our stop-over allowed Lu to catch up with his parents.

Before leaving the airport, Lu and I gassed up the Porter with a full load of fuel, which turned into a bit of a disaster when Lu over-flowed the cabin tanks and about 10 gallons of Jet-A1 sprayed all over our gear and ran down into the fuselage. What a horrible job it was, inside the arse end of the Porter, in 35 degrees and 85% or so humidity, mopping up all that stinking kerosene!

However, after we got that job out of the way, I had a very interesting afternoon after checking into our hotel, wandering around Gulin with Lu showing me the sights. Unbeknownst to me, Lu's parents and uncle were cooking up a very lavish meal for us in their apartment. What a wonderful feed it was too. I love Chinese food and the way they eat; with all their different dishes on a 'lazy Susan', the little bowls and especially the chop sticks that make you pace yourself instead of shoveling the tucker down as we do with a fork. The main dish was stewed Turpin (Turtle), which is very expensive and only cooked for special occasions. I felt very humbled by the effort they went to and the respect they showed me as Lu's friend. There are some very nice people in China.

Basically the highlights of the ferry flight were all on the first day; the instrument flying and meeting Lu's family. The rest of the trip was uneventful with routine flying, except for a couple of hours on instruments out of Guilin the next day and then clear but hazy weather for the rest of the trip. Just long flights and a sore bum!

Day two on 7.8 hour flight. An alert Lu!

Actually I tell a lie. There was one other exciting little incident.

If you look at the map between Jiayquan and Hami, you will see that our flight path is very close to the Mongolian border (white line) .

On this leg we were cruising along with me complacently relying on the GPS and we crossed a range of mountains. Down in a valley in this extremely remote area I saw a group of yurts and some people on horses mustering a mob of sheep. Well, light bulbs flashed and something went ding, ding in my head telling me that things weren't quite as they seemed. I grabbed a chart and discovered that we were about 30 nautical miles into Mongolia!

In fact we'd flown right through the middle of the warning on the chart!

We got out of there "Right smart, oi can tell ye!!"

I assume that when I was dialing all my fixes into the GPS at Zhuhai, that I must have hit a wrong number.

Arrival at Korla on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.


* The solid red dots on the route are where we landed and over-nighted. The red dots with yellow centres are towns or GPS way points that we flew over-head.

There are no stops during each days flying.

  1. Zhuhai to Guilin - 314 nm - 2.8 hours.
  2. Guilin to Xi'an - 819 nm - 7.8 hours.
  3. Xi'an to Jaiyquan - 654 nm - 6.0 hours.
  4. Jaiyquan to Korla - 710 nm - 6.9 hours.


KG said...

Fascinating! And it's a bonus to see one of my favourite aircraft feature here.
I'm putting up a ling to this at CR.

KG said...

grrr..typos. "link"

Nemesis said...

Excellent story! I'll bet all that water in the cabin was bloody cold too!

How was the stewed turtle?

WebWrat said...

"ling". Ah so. Ha ha KG!!Sorry about the late reply KG ... just got back from three days at Ross, chasing that elusive gold! Thanks for putting the link on CR.

Nemesis ... I am a bit of a garbage guts when it comes to food and will give most things a go but I can honestly say that I enjoyed the turpin. It has a texture and flavour similar to chicken. The beauty of the 'lazy Susan' is that you can spin it around and keep the good stuff parked in front of you so you can grab some more! Such was the case with the turpin.

Anonymous said...

Найти лучшее: [url=]digital photo professional скачать[/url]