Saturday, January 12, 2019

Flying Broome, Australia to Singapore and the Saga of Seletar Airport

By Jack

[Note: This is a long post mainly intended for hard core aviation geeks. Click on any of the images to see them with better resolution.]

On January 8, we undertook the second longest non-stop flight of the trip...the 1,614 NM (1,856 SM) flight from Broome, Australia/YBRM to Singapore/WSSL over parts of Indonesia and the Java Sea.

This flight was through an equatorial region known for lots of moisture and clouds. While the satellite image and forecast for the flight showed some enroute weather, it was mainly scattered high clouds and a few thunderstorms that could be topped or circumnavigated without much trouble. 

We were able to arrange an early (0530 local) outbound customs clearance with the friendly Australian Border Patrol folks and thus were able to depart Broome by about 0600 local.  

In general, weather is typically better in the morning hours rather than afternoon as the heat of the day has not had much time to fuel thunderstorms. That is not always the situation, but is a fairly safe bet. Thus, departing early on this day of flying through a tropical region was a benefit. While we brief the enroute weather well, unless there is an unusual situation (large tropical storm, etc.) at the altitudes we use in cruise (FL300 or 30,000 FT for most of this trip), we can usually either fly over or around enroute weather. However, if the weather is very bad at the destination or departure airport, your only option is to wait or, in the case of a destination airport, divert to another airport. 

The big challenge: Seletar Airport

Josh and I knew the big challenge for this flight would be the arrival at our destination airport - Singapore's Seletar/WSSL airport. We had flown into Seletar once before on our 2015 RTW, but that arrival turned out to be fairly straightforward (story here). Today's arrival at Seletar would be much different. 

We spent a long time briefing the arrival at Seletar because it is an unusual and challenging airport for several reasons. One reason for the challenge that we did not expect until a few days before the flight was a massive diplomatic battle between Singapore and its neighbor to the north, Malaysia (more about that later). 

Seletar is essentially the only general aviation (GA) airport in the country of Singapore. The main international airport, Changi/WSSS just eight nautical miles to the southeast has very limited parking for GA aircraft and is essentially unavailable for typical GA flights. With Singapore being a major trade and financial center for Asia, there is a lot of demand demand for GA flights and dozens and dozens of large business jet are parked at Seletar most all the time. The airport also is a hub for aircraft maintenance activity with major facilities owned by Pratt & Whitney, Airbus, GE Engine Services, Bell Helicopter, and Fokker. 

Suffice it to say, Seletar is a very busy airport .

However, due to airspace constraints, Seletar is a VFR (visual flight rules) only airport meaning there are no instrument approaches. Every arrival must be visual or the airport closes down. 

Adding even more fun to the equation, Seletar is sandwiched in very busy airspace. There is an off-limits military airport just three miles to the west, another military airfield five miles to the southeast, and one of the busiest international airports in Asia just eight miles to the southeast. To top things off, there are residential areas within two miles of the airport than must be overflown at a minimum of 1,500 feet for noise abatement. 

The combination of all these factors means there is a very constricted area to maneuver for landing around Seletar.  While there are no instrument approaches, visual approaches (weather permitting) are strictly prescribed with detailed charts (a few presented below for the true aviation geeks). 

As if things could not get more complex, the north end of the Seletar airport is located just a mile from the border with Malaysia. Singapore and Malaysia have an agreement allowing Malaysian airspace to be used for approaches to Seletar. For example, in the "joining procedure" shown above, traffic from the Kong Kong NDB approaching Seletar could descend to as low as 1,500 FT on radar vectors before arriving at the airport making the airport easier to spot in poor visibility and putting aircraft at a fairly reasonable altitude to make the visual approach using normal descent rates.

This all changed in early January 2019 when Singapore announced it was commissioning an ILS (instrument landing system) approach to runway 21 at Seletar. For complex diplomatic and historical reasons I do not fully understand, Malaysia objected to the establishment of the ILS approach. Singapore took the position that they had the right to establish the approach under prior agreements with Malaysia. With the ILS set to "go live" on January 2, Malaysia responded by establishing a large block of restricted airspace up to 6,000 FT just north of Seletar which effectively made the ILS impossible to fly and also made visual approaches much more difficult (as we learned). 

This dispute resulted in Singapore issuing a most unusual NOTAM just seven days before our arrival. 

Here are some more details of the dispute. 

We had been looking forward to having the option of using a nice ILS approach for our arrival. Now it appeared not only would there be no ILS, but we would be restricted to no lower thousand 6,000 FT until practically over the airport since the only visual approach route was from the north over Malaysia due to the other airports and the high buildings of the city to the south. 


We needed to be on our "A game" for the arrival to Singapore. 

Arriving Singapore

As we descended into the Singapore area, of course the weather could not have been clear-and-a-million. It was a typical tropical afternoon with scattered rain showers and a ceiling of broken clouds.

Given the density of traffic in the airspace, deviating for weather down low over Singapore is not always easy. While none of the weather in the area was dangerous - just garden variety afternoon rain showers - we wanted to give our ladies as comfortable ride as possible. We had the onboard weather radar on with the range reduced down to the 10-20 NM range for maximum effectiveness. As we were being vectored to the north of Seletar for landing on runway 03 (which would require a tight circling pattern to the south of the field), the controllers did a good job keeping us clear of the rain (some "painting" red on the radar). In just one case it looked like we were heading for a fairly intense rain shower and asked for a small deviation which they quickly approved. 

The general arrival path was to the east and then north of the main Changi International Airport.

About five miles northeast of Seletar, we were turned over to a controller that evidently is completely dedicated to vectoring traffic into the visual pattern at WSSL. She was professional, but spoke quickly and expected us to know the local procedures. 

As we passed about three miles north of the airport we were still at 6,000 FT in order to avoid the new Malaysian restricted airspace. Carolyn and Becky later commented that looking out from that altitude so close to the airport they had no idea how we would land. 

Being so high so close to the airport and knowing flying a very wide pattern to lose altitude would not be an option, we elected to configure the plane for landing (gear and flaps down) while still at 6,000 FT. Having all that extra drag proved helpful allowing us to descend quickly without gaining too much airspeed. 

However, once established on downwind at approximately mid-field we were still at 3,000 FT (assigned) and thus way too high to do an even somewhat stabilized approach directly to base and final. 

We aren't sure, but we think the 3,000 FT restriction had something to do with the fact that the controller was vectoring us over the airspace of the military airfield just to the west of Seletar. It also may have been because there were two training aircraft in the pattern doing touch and goes and she needed to keep us above them. Regardless, when the approach controller finally turned us over to the tower we were still at 3,000 FT and just 1-2 NM from the runway on downwind. A normal pattern obviously was not going to work. 

The tower controller almost immediately told us to "enter the overhead pattern for runway three." We hesitated responding for a moment because that is not a common instruction back home. We asked her to "say again" and she evidently sensed our uncertainty and told us to "fly across the runway and enter upwind."  About that time I recalled from some of the airport briefing materials that an overhead pattern was basically doing a big 360 degree descending turn over the airport as described below.

After it "clicked" what the controller wanted, when she cleared us for "a visual pattern" as we turned upwind I knew what to do. Already fully configured for landing (from 6,000 FT), we executed a wide 270 degree descending turn over the top of the airport to line-up on about a 1.5 NM final. I asked Josh to keep an eye on the AOA indicator while I kept my eyes mainly outside on the runway.  There were two other aircraft in the pattern, but the controller's instructions kept us well clear of them which allowed us to focus on flying the unusual pattern. It actually worked out pretty well in terms of altitude and airspeed on final. 

The landing went well and we were instructed to "exit echo three, right on echo pappa, left on echo charlie four, to stand bravo five five." With Josh's careful coaching, I managed to get to the "stand" (parking spot) without looking to lost. 

Whew! We shut down and were greeted by four staff from our handler and two vans. One van quickly whisked the ladies away to the brand new GA terminal building (an $80mm facility) where they quickly cleared customs and enjoyed the VIP lounge (complete with food, wine, and liquor) while Josh handled refueling the plane (we always try to refuel on arrival) and I got our bird "buttoned-up" for our two night stay.

What's the moral of this long story? 

When going to a challenging airport like Seletar, brief until you think you can't stand it anymore and then brief some more. For this particular arrival, having two pilots in the cockpit was crucial. After doing it a few times perhaps with a plane like the PC-12 that can slow down and fly at a leisurely approach speed, perhaps one pilot could handle it well. But first time to an airport like Seletar is definitely a two pilot operation in my book.

Overall, a rewarding day of flying. After a day of rest, we will head off across the Indian Ocean to the Seychelles

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