Thursday, January 31, 2019

Random Details

by Carolyn

No doubt, Jack will have a final post with all kinds of flying details, but I've also got some odds and ends to share...maybe things you've always wanted to know but were afraid to ask??

1. Yes, I did have to get a haircut! By the time we got to Brisbane, Becky and I were desperate. We wandered downtown and found a newly opened salon with a price point ($20) that worked for us. The stylists spoke Korean, and we didn't, but it's not brain surgery, so all is fine.

2. We are all coffee addicts. Hotels offer various Nespresso machines or French presses. Some only have instant Nescafe. In Maldives when we said we wanted milk in our coffee they put hot milk in our thermos and then added instant coffee.
Mixing Nescafe and hot water on the ramp
3. All the bottled water carried on is ultimately is converted to full “travel johns” that are carried off.

It works
Water from around the world

4. Some countries scan bags coming OFF the plane (looking for biological material or contraband), some scan our bags going ONTO our plane, some airports require we pass thru metal detectors, one even gave us a pat-down. You just have to smile and be patient.

5.  Every stop required refueling, which involves unpacking the luggage compartment to get a can of Prist fuel additive. Several stops required re-positioning the airplane (pushing it somewhere).
Getting the prist

Refueling Banda Ache 

Refueling San Juan Island

Refueling Tureia 

Refueling Nuie
6. Most of the countries we visited and most of the places we stayed have perfectly safe tap water for brushing teeth, etc. but sometime in an abundance of caution, we'd use bottled water.

7. We had to always think about our next meal on flying days...procuring food, often both breakfast and lunch, but finally got it figured out: “Save those leftovers! That's your lunch tomorrow.”

8. But then you must throw away all fruits, meats, and vegetables when you land in a new country!

9. Becky and I were able to have Happy Hour a couple of times on the plane, with glasses made from plastic water bottles.
10. Staying more than one one night in the same place is a luxury!!

11. Not all internet is created equally. Easter Island and St. Helena Island were the slowest at 3G and you had to purchase it in 30 minute increments.

12. Most of the time upon landing we were ushered into an FBO, but sometimes we had to deal with a commercial terminal. Not all FBO's are created equally (Banda Ache, your bathrooms need attention!)
Santiago, Chile - A
Guayfile, Equador - C+
13. There is nothing to compare to the joy of FREE GUEST LAUNDRY! But, we frequently had to wash clothes with shower gel in the bathroom sink.
Who knew the sight of washers and dryers would be so exciting!!
14. Jack does get up and rest occasionally because he has a great co-pilot!

And, there are so many cool things I saw that never made it into a blog:
A waterspout in Seychelles
Nutmeg grows on a tree inside a thick fruit and is wrapped in red mace, another spice.
This was in the airport in Uluru, Australia
This was in our bungalow in Easter Island
We only spent two months on this trip...and it's a really big world!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

St. Helena Airport Tour

By Jack

On January 19, Josh and I spent the afternoon at the St. Helena Airport/FHSH getting a "behind the scene" tour of the met office and the control tower. Many thanks to meteorologist Tim Baker and ATC specialist Bernard Msengeti for hosting us to this most unique operation.

Tim and Bernard have a great view from their "offices"...

The Met Office

We started in the met office with Tim explaining his work and schedule. The St. Helena met office is operated by the UK Met Office and Tim works for the UK government. There are a handful of remote  meteorological offices run by the main UK Met Office and UK based meteorologists "bid" on temporary assignments (generally six months at a time) at those exotic locales...St. Helena, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and Rothera Base in Antarctica to name a few. Tim has served in Gibraltar and St. Helena on two tours.

As mentioned in a prior post, the forecast the St. Helena Met Office produces goes way beyond the typical terminal area forecast (TAF) we receive at home. A normal TAF is produced for St. Helena, but there are also regular three day outlooks and specific detailed forecasts for each day a flight is scheduled to arrive.

A sample three day outlook...

The detailed forecast for our arrival date...

And the normal TAF for our arrival date which does not seem very useful in comparison to the other two forecasts...

Tim gave us a very detailed telephone briefing the day before our flight and explained that due to the topography around the airport, there often can be low clouds over the center of the airfield yet the approach ends of each runway can be mostly clear. Thus, there are occasions when the formal report of the cloud base taken at mid-field shows low cloud, but arriving aircraft can clearly see the landing zone at the end of each runway. This can create an unusual situation where arriving pilots report the runway in sight yet the plane cannot be seen from the control tower or the met office.

Another very unique feature of the St. Helena met operation is the use of LIDAR (Light Detection & Ranging) to evaluate the wind conditions on the approach path to the runway. LIDAR is a form of radar that uses a laser pulse rather than radio waves to survey the atmosphere. For the St. Helena airport, the LIDAR is located at the end of the runway and focused up at an angle of three degrees along the normal approach path. Using the LIDAR equipment, the wind speed to or from the LIDAR unit can be displayed at a continuous range from the end of the runway out several miles.  Wind shear is, in effect, a rapid change in wind speed or direction over a short distance. Using the LIDAR some types of wind shear can be detected directly.

For example, in the image above one can see a rapid change in the relative wind velocity off the approach end of runway 20 (LIDAR pointing north - azimuth 359 degrees true) at about 11:40 UTC from a positive 5 m/s at about 400 meters from the end of the runway to a relative velocity of about negative 5 m/s around 600 meters from the runway.

When we landed on January 17, I reported to Tim that we had experienced some light wind shear on short final. He said he had expected as much from the LIDAR display. Pretty neat. Using LIDAR for wind shear detection is not a common technology and is employed at only a few airports around the world (the Hong Kong airport being one).

The Control Tower

After the very interesting met office briefing, we went upstairs to the control tower "cab."  The twice weekly SA Airlink flight was due to arrive in about an hour and we were invited to observe its arrival from the tower. This turned out to be more exciting than expected.

ATC specialist Bernard Msengeti gave us a tour of the tower and the equipment they use which is mainly fairly typical for a air traffic control tower. Displays of wind (center and each runway end), clouds, visibility, VHF radios, an HF radio (rarely used we were told), and telephone links to Luanada Oceanic which controls all flights until they are "handed-off" to the St. Helena tower.

The view from the tower is impressive...

As the Airlink flight approached the airport, the clouds were not clearing as rapidly as expected.  The flight crew asked for the same RNAV DME LOC Rwy 20 we had used two days prior and Bernard cleared them for that approach.

As time passed and we knew the Embraer 190 aircraft should be close to the runway, but we could not see anything but broken clouds. Then we suddenly saw the plane break out of the clouds about 400 FT above the runway, but well to the left of the normal approach path.  We saw the plane start to turn right in order to align better with the runway, but it almost immediately executed a missed approach and disappeared back into the clouds. Tension in the tower increased as the crew reported the missed approach and said they were circling around for another try using a visual approach.

The go around looked wise to us given their low altitude and being so far to the left of the runway centerline. Attempting to salvage the approach probably would have been difficult and unstabilized.  We aren't sure why they were so far off course, but guess they were attempting to maneuver visually in order to keep the runway in sight through the broken clouds and just could not maintain visual contact along the extended runway centerline.

As they circled around for a second attempt, we could not see them at all. Clouds were pretty solid over the center of the airfield and the control tower. However, as mentioned above, due to the unusual topography around the airport, it is not uncommon for visibility from the tower to be more restricted than what pilots can see on the approach path.

So we all waited in the tower to see how this approach would work out.

After a few minutes, we saw the plane on final approach at about 500 FT above the runway and well aligned. We can't be certain, but from our perspective it looked like the crew would not have seen the runway until on short final. This time the plane got over the runway normally, but "floated" down the runway just a few feet off the pavement without touching down. At about the halfway point on the runway and with the wheels still not down on the pavement,  the crew executed another go around. At this point the tower was quiet and you could cut the tension with a knife. No one knew if the plane had enough fuel for a third attempt or would need to divert to Ascension Island over 700 NM to the north.

Once again the go around looked like a wise move to us. With less than half the runway remaining to get down and stopped, it was just too risky to continue the landing attempt. This is especially true at St. Helena given this note in the pilot briefing information about the airport...

At some airports in the unfortunate event that an aircraft runs off the end of the runway, there is a nice extended area of relatively level ground on which to stop.  The plane may be damaged, but everyone is likely to walk away. At St. Helena there is a 1,000 FT shear cliff to the ocean very close to the end of the runway.

Smart move by the AirLink crew to go around given the risks of not getting stopped in time.

Everyone in the tower was waiting to hear if they were diverting to Ascension Island or going to make another attempt. After a couple of minutes the crew called and requested the RNAV DME LOC Rwy 20 approach again (not the visual). We all assumed this would be their last attempt before a diversion would be required.  Fortunately, this third approach attempt worked out well with a perfectly normal landing. Everyone in the tower breathed a little more easily. We knew the passengers on the plane were likely pretty shaken-up and later heard several came off the plane in tears. But, they were there safe and, from our perspective as pilots, the AirLink crew had made the right decisions with the two missed approaches.

The FlightRadar24 track of the January 19 flight...

Having had enough excitement for the day, we bid Tim and Bernard goodbye and headed back into town. The next night we hosted Tim and Bernard's ATC colleague Bramwell to dinner in town which was a lot of fun (Bernard was invited but not available for this last minute get-together).

The next day (January 20), we had to depart St. Helena and start our four day "sprint" back home to Austin.  We wished we had had more time in St. Helena as it was most fascinating and friendly place.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Flying Luanda, Angola to St. Helena, South Atlantic Ocean, Part 2

Luanda, Angola to St. Helena

The flight to St. Helena on January 17 was the "big" one which we had been planning for months. At 1,186 NM ( 1,363 SM) it was not a particularly long flight by the standards of this trip and the enroute weather was close to ideal with clear skies at our cruise altitude favorable winds aloft.

No cruise level weather to worry about...

We conducted the flight at long range cruise (LRC) power setting which while slower (about 210 knots or 240 mph) is more fuel efficient.  By operating at LRC, unlike our flight to Easter Island, we had an alternate for St. Helena - the equally remote Ascension Island/FHAW 700 NM (805 SM) to the north. So, the enroute portion of the flight was not the big challenge. Landing at St. Helena was potentially a very big challenge.

As described in the prior post, St. Helena has the potential for significant wind shear and the lowest minimum descent altitude (MDA) on any instrument approach is 773 FT above the runway although the MDA on the most commonly used approach (RNAV LOC DME Rwy 20) is 867 FT above the runway. While we did have an alternate, we did not have enough fuel to execute multiple approaches at St. Helena and still go to the alternate with adequate reserves. So, if we missed one or maybe two approaches, we'd be diverting.

The good news is the UK Met Office has a dedicated forecaster on-site at St. Helena who can provide a highly specialized and personal weather briefing for any flight arrival. The forecast produced by the St. Helena Met Office goes way beyond the normal Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) we get back home. The forecast we received (generated specifically for our flight) the evening before launching for St. Helena is shown below.

I especially like the probability ratings provided in the forecast. All in all, this forecast was about as good as it gets at St. Helena. Low risk of low clouds or reduced visibility and not much chance of wind shear. The wind forecast is typical for the St. Helena airport which almost always sees moderate to strong south easterly winds. We got this forecast the evening prior to the flight day and also had a detailed telephone briefing with the meteorologist on-duty, Tim Baker.

We also made arrangements with Tim to get an update on the forecast the next day in Luanda before departing for St. Helena. Tim also agreed to give is an update enroute (via our InReach satellite communications device) just prior to reaching our "point of safe return" - the last point on the flight plan when we could turn around and go back to Luanda (although we would still have the option of diverting to Ascension Island).  On the ground at Luanda, Tim said there was no significant change in the forecast and we launched for St. Helena around 10:55 local time for the expected 5:30 flight (at LRC).  We even had a forecast for a nice tailwind along the route (about +15 KTS) which was great considering that the route normally has a much smaller tailwind component this time of year.

The departure from Luanda and climb to cruise altitude was all normal with good VHF communications. Luanda is a very large and spread-out city...

A while after reaching cruise altitude, the Luanda controller on VHF gave us a HF frequency on which to contact Luanda Oceanic for the rest of the flight to St. Helena (St. Helena resides in Luanda Oceanic airspace). We had a note in some of our preflight material saying HF communications with Luanda were very poor, so prior to leaving the VHF frequency we also got a direct dial phone number for Luanda Oceanic in case we could not establish communications on HF.  We never were able to contact Luanda Oceanic on HF (nor did we here any other aircraft successfully establish communication with them) and thus made all our position reports via satellite phone until establishing VHF communications with St. Helena tower about 250 NM east of the island.

Josh making a position report on the satphone...

After establishing VHF communications with St. Helena tower (almost an hour prior to landing), we  were cleared directly to the initial approach fix (UTAPA) for the RNAV LOC DME Rwy 20 approach which we had requested.

Based on our experience at Robinson Crusoe Island and the advice of Tim (the St. Helena metrologist), we planned to conduct the final approach at a four degree glideslope rather than the normal three degrees.  This would keep us a little higher on short final potentially reducing the time we would be exposed to any windshear which was typically reported at 400 FT above the runway and lower. Also, if we did encounter some wind shear, we'd have some extra altitude to "trade" for airspeed if needed.  Because the visual glide slope indicator (VGSI) for runway 20 is set for the more typical three degrees, we computed target altitudes at specific distances from the runway which would yield a four degree approach path.

As we started the approach, there were scattered to broken clouds, but almost as soon and we turned to the final approach (actually offset five degrees, so not exactly aligned) on the localizer, we glimpsed the runway through breaks in the clouds. Below about 1,000 FT above the runway, we were in the clear and kept focused on maintaining the correct glidepath to the runway. The glidepath to runways perched on a cliff like this one can be difficult to "eyeball," so we kept track of our computed altitudes for the four degree glidepath. As expected, the visual glide slope indicator showed us as high (four white lights) since it was set for three degrees.

As we got close to the runway (below about 500 FT) we encountered some light turbulence, but nothing bad. On very short final (within about one-half mile of the runway), we encountered some light wind shear in the form of sinking air. I added a little power to compensate and also lowered the nose a bit trading some altitude for airspeed. As a result, we intercepted the normal three degree glidepath on very short final which was fine...that was why we came in a little steep.

As reported in this post, by a remarkable coincidence someone on the ground made an excellent video of our arrival (have posted both of these video before, but they are so cool to me!)...

YouTube link:

And Becky made an excellent video compilation of the video from the ground and out both sides of the plane from inside (also posted previously)...

YouTube link:

The landing worked out well and we turned off onto the ramp (video below taken by the airport manager)...

YouTube link:

As mentioned previously, the St. Helena airport, which is owned by the St. Helena government, has had some less than flattering publicity over its short life. The government saw our flight as a bit of positive news and arranged for the Governor of the island, Lisa Honan, to meet us on arrival for a short conversation and some photos.

The government press office later interviewed us and did a press release that was published in the local newspaper.

For a short period we were fairly well known on the island. A couple of folks even recognized us as we were touring around for the next couple of days. I hope our flight did something in a small way to increase confidence in the future of the airport. If even a relatively small plane like ours can make a routine flight to the island, hopefully that helps show that the airport has the potential to be used more frequently and for a variety of purposes.

So, that is the story of the flight to St. Helena. Two days later Josh and I spent the afternoon at the airport getting a "behind the scenes" tour of the metrology office and control tower which I will report on in the next post.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Flying Maun, Botswana to St. Helena, South Atlantic Ocean, Part 1

By Jack

On January 17, we undertook one of the most interesting and, in some ways, challenging flights of the trip...the 2,078 NM (2,390 SM) flight from Maun, Botswana/FBMN to St. Helena/FHSH with a fuel stop in Luanda, Angola/FNLU.

Maun, Botswana to Luanda, Angola

The flight from Maun to Luanda was easy and uneventful other than it took us almost an hour to contact Luanda Control after entering Angolon airspace. Evidently Angola does not have any VHF communications outlets in the southwestern part of the country where we entered. It was severe clear and early in the morning so we were not worried about traffic conflicts and just kept trying until we reached them.

Weather for the morning hours was forecast to be excellent which turned out to be the case.

Getting a visa to enter Angola is ridiculously difficult, but they have an exception that allows "crew" to remain in the country for up to 72 hours without a visa. Although we did not intend to overnight in Luanda, just in case something unexpected happened, we wanted the ability to stay over. Thus, prior to leaving home, the Becky and Carolyn got pilot licenses (student level), uniforms, and air crew ID badges so that they could legitimately be counted as crew for this part of the trip. They looked sharp in their second officer uniforms with two stripe epaulets on the shoulders.

Once we landed at Luanda, we were pleasantly surprised by friendly and efficient service and a very nice "VIP" waiting area.

Josh is the "fuel master" for the whole trip and always handles the fueling process including discussions with the handling staff.

Once again we were the smallest airplane on the ramp, even in Angola. The Luanda general aviation ramp was full of big jets.

We wanted to arrive at St. Helena as close to our ETA as possible because the airport was normally closed on Thursdays and they had opened it especially for our arrival. So we had planned our arrival at Luanda to allow plenty of ground time so we could launch for St. Helena right on time. That all worked as planned and we even had some time to relax in the comfortable waiting area before taking off again.

The St. Helena Airport Controversy

Before describing our flight from Luanda to St. Helena (in a separate post as this one is getting long!), it is worth mentioning that the construction of the St. Helena airport was (and continues to be) very controversial. Google "St. Helena airport controversy" and you can read many views of the airport both pro and con. I will attempt to summarize the issues without taking a side.

Prior to the opening of the airport in 2016 at a cost to the British taxpayers of more than $300 million USD, the only way to travel to and from St. Helena was a five day trip aboard the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena. The "RMS" (as locals called the ship) made the round trip to St. Helena from Cape Town, South Africa approximately once a month. Thus, committing to visit St. Helena involved a minimum of ten days of travel and typically a one month stay. While the time on the ship was reported to be enjoyable, it was expensive and required a big time commitment. Thus, tourism at St. Helena was modest.

St. Helena is Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom. The UK government and taxpayers provide substantial subsidies to the government of St. Helena in order to maintain basic services an acceptable standard of living for the 4,500 residents.

According to this report, the total subsidy is about $35 million USD annually which included a subsidy for the operation of the RMS when it was in service. Furthermore, the RMS itself was nearing the end of its service life and there would be an additional cost to the UK taxpayer of about  $80 million USD to replace it.  Over the long term, a ship would likely need to be replaced every 20-30 years (the RMS was retired after 28 years in service) while construction of an airport was thought to require less on-going capital investment as compared to a ship which eventually "wears out."

Thus, the economic rationale for building the airport was that it eventually would result in an increase in tourism on the island boosting the economy enough to allow a reduction or, over the very long term, elimination of the subsidy to the St. Helena government. Constructing the airport also would avoid the cost of replacing the RMS at least once and perhaps multiple times over the life of an airport.  Cargo would still need to arrive to the island by sea, but the plan was to do that with a pure cargo ship (as opposed to a hybrid passenger/cargo ship like the RMS) on a contract basis. The goal was to reduce or eliminate the UK taxpayer subsidy for the shipping operation.

In the end, a majority of the islanders ("Saints" as they are known) supported building the airport (according to this report) which was consistent with a 2002 referendum on the matter. The UK government agreed to fund the construction of the airport and construction contracts were signed in 2011 and the airport was certified as operational in 2016.

But then the winds started blowing the wrong way - literally.

Wind Shear

Many island airports are susceptible to wind shear problems due the nature of the topography of an island. A volcanic island (like St. Helena) with steep and uneven terrain is even more likely to create undulating air currents which can make approach and landing difficult.

The runway at St. Helena is especially challenged for several reasons. First, the ends of the runway sit on a shear 1,000 FT cliff over the ocean. This rapid change in terrain in such close proximity to the runway combined with almost constant moderate to very strong winds can "mix up" the air substantially causing wind shear.  We have flown to island airports with runways perched 100-400 FT above the ocean (most recently Robin Crusoe Island as described here), but a 1,000+ FT cliff is dramatic.

To complicate matters further, there are hills protruding to the east of the runway in the face of the prevailing southeast winds that create additional disturbances. An interesting video animation of the combined effects is shown below.

YouTube link:

Another graphic from this study illustrating the issue...

The study goes into a lot more detail, but suffice it to say wind shear was known to be a potential issue before the airport opened. After the airport was completed and trial flights arrived, the issue became even more acute as dramatically illustrated when a Boeing 737 in British Airways livery made to first test flight with a large commercial aircraft to the island...

YouTube link:

About 00:18 into the video above during the first (intentional) low pass of the runway, you can see the wings tips flex substantially as it encountered wind shear. On the second approach the crew intended to land, but aborted the attempt due to windshear. On the third approach they landed, but there was a lot of "wobble" on short final approach and the landing appeared to be hard.

After this and other early trial flights, the opening of the airport for regular commercial service was put on hold in order to do more detailed studies of the wind shear conditions. The initial press from this delay was very negative as some people interpreted it as meaning the airport may never be usable for normal passenger flights.  Fortunately, these worst case concerns were not realized.

After pausing the opening of the airport for more detailed study of the wind shear conditions and test flights with other aircraft, the airport finally received its first regularly scheduled commercial flight on October 17, 2017.  The "solution" to the wind shear issue was a combination of 1.) detailed meteorological studies which allow more accurate forecasting of wind shear conditions permitting rescheduling of flights on particularly tough wind days; and 2.) use of the Embraer 190 aircraft which is better suited to handling turbulent conditions and also has a better ability to land "downwind" on runway 02 which is not as susceptible to wind shear.

Based on reports Josh and I heard from airport officials, the pilots of the Embraer 190 aircraft now operating a twice a week schedule there consider the wind shear a manageable issue and have not cancelled flights solely due to wind shear concerns. However, flights have been cancelled due to low clouds and reduced visibility, especially during the 2018 southern hemisphere winter season.

So, while the airport is not completely "out of the woods" in terms being able to support a highly reliable commercial airline schedule, much progress has been made especially as it relates to the wind conditions.

My take is the issues with low clouds can eventually be mitigated with more precise instrument approach facilities. Right now the approach typically used by commercial aircraft (see below) only allows aircraft to descend to 867 FT above the runway (minimum descent altitude or MDA) as compared to 200 FT or less at a typical commercial airport. If visual contact with the runway is not attained at MDA, the aircraft must "go around" and either try again or divert to an alternate airport. In the case of St. Helena, the closest alternate airport is Ascension Island/FHAW which is 700 NM north. While I am not an expert in instrument approach design, my guess is approaches with lower "minimums" can be designed perhaps requiring special equipment and flight crew training.

Well, that is way more than most normal people would want to know about the St. Helena airport. In the next post I will describe our flight to the airport (spoiler went just fine with no wind or weather problems) and an enjoyable afternoon we spent touring "behind the scenes" of the airport operations.

Final post: Facts, Figures, and Appreciation

By Jack With RTW 3.0 (westbound) officially complete, I thought I would offer some facts and figures regarding the journey and final words...