Precautionary landing and overnight in the jungle

I’ve always figured if you spend long enough flying over the jungle, eventually you’re probably going to spend a night or two there for one reason or another. It’s only happened to me once before due to a flat battery in a Caravan a couple of years ago but that was in Sumatra, at an airport serving a fairly large town with hotels etc. Long Alango isn’t a big town with hotels etc. In-fact it doesn’t have much other than 30 or so houses and a 385m grass airstrip. So, what happened for me to end up there for a night?

Parked up at the northern end of the airstrip

It all started in the cruise on an otherwise uneventful flight from Malinau to Data Dian with a full load and seven passengers onboard. There’s nothing a pilot of a single engined aircraft fears more than the donkey at the front stopping; especially over dense, mountainous jungle. So, we tend to pay quite a lot of attention to the engine and the various gauges indicating it’s health. The Porter offers the pilot a number of instruments in this regard namely: torque, ITT (inter-turbine temp), Ng (turbine rpm), Np (prop. rpm), fuel flow, oil temp and oil pressure. This last one was to be of special attention to me on this flight as it started to waver and drop into the yellow cautionary range mid-flight.

Now, the P&W PT6 turbo prop engine has a great reputation as being reliable. There’s stories out there of them being run for over 50 hours with no lubricating oil in them at all! However, I wasn’t going to put that to the test on this flight. To me, a lowering oil pressure in a single engined aircraft means get on the ground asap.

Aside from the oil pressure, there were no other signs of any problems from the other gauges nor was there any sign of an oil leak which you’d normally see coming out through the cowlings. However, I was 30 minutes out from Malinau and just 10nm from two airstrips at the time, Long Pujukan and Long Alango, and seeing as I was familiar with the later, I decided best option was to make a precautionary landing there and access things on the ground.

A quick radio call to nearby company traffic and a couple of messages sent to company operations via satellite comms to let them know what was happening, and I started my descent into Long Alango. 5 minutes later I was on the ground safely with seven rather confused passengers who noticed they weren’t in-fact in Data Dian.

Explaining a technical fault and trying not to worry them as best I could in my limited Indonesian, I went about seeing if there was any obvious sign of a problem under the cowlings. All looked clear with no sign of an oil leak, so I got on the satellite phone to our chief engineer who grounded the aircraft there and then, as well as explaining help would be on the way.

This was to be the start of a number of unlucky coincidences that would force me to overnight here. Firstly, the only other nearby aircraft in my company’s fleet that could land here (another Porter) was still in maintenance awaiting parts. So we had to rely on one of MAF’s Cessna 206s to come to my aid. This was all arranged via satellite phone and the airstrip’s HF radio. However, a few hours later that 206 then suffered an alternator failure en-route so was forced to turn back to it’s base in Tarakan.

The track between the airstrip and the village (note shear drop to the right into the river)

And that was that. So, myself and all the passengers made our way to the village to locate some accommodation for the night. Even this 10 minute motorbike ride wasn’t without incident as mine ran out of petrol!

Re-fuelling en-route back to the village
The high-street, Long Alango
Down-town Long Alango
My house for the evening
My room
Bathroom (thankfully Bilan had one in his house!)

The villagers of Long Alango were very kind to us and offered to put everyone up in various villagers’ houses. I stayed with Bilan who works at the airport and usually helps me load and unload the aircraft when I’m flying the schedule. He and his family really looked after me, offering me both a comfortable room and dinner that evening. Luckily my Indonesian isn’t too bad and enough to hold a reasonable conversation, otherwise it could have been a rather long night without being able to chat with anyone!

Town Hall
Inside the town hall
Bridge out of town to the padi fields
Padi (rice) drying houses
All mod-cons in some houses!

The following morning I got word from the HF radio operator that a MAF 206 would be coming at midday with a couple of my company’s engineers on-board. Great! So, later that morning Bilan took me back to the airport to await the arrival of the 206. En route however, we passed another villager who had just killed a pig and was selling chunks of it by the kilo. Well, Bilan couldn’t miss this opportunity so we stopped and he bought a kilo to cook up there and then for a sort of brunch.

Buying some fresh pork
Cooked up pork

Bunch over, we really needed to get to the airport as I could feel the wind was picking up so wanted to be there before the 206 arrived. En-route I caught sight of it flying overhead and noticed it do a go-around. Not good! As we got to the airport he’d just done another go-around and I could see he was climbing away. So we rushed over to the Porter and I got on the VHF radio to talk to the pilot and see what was up.

Tripp, the 206 pilot (checkout his blog here), understandably felt the tailwind upon landing from the south (about 10-15kts) was too much and with the Porter parked at the northern end meant he had to land that way. So I gathered up the passengers, and anyone else around the airport, and we set about pushing the Porter to the southern end to allow an into wind landing from the north.

385m feels reasonably short when you’re flying in/out but when you’re pushing nearly 2 tonne of aircraft on soft grass, it’s very long indeed! With the aircraft tucked as far into the corner of the southern end of the airstrip as possible, Tripp was able to make the landing safely.

MAF 206 landing at the northern end of Long Alango

A quick catch up with Tripp and we got the engineers off along with all their tools and loaded up 5 of the passengers onto his 206 for the flight to Data Dian. Stood under the wing of the Porter, and with the 206 departing to the south into wind, I got an impressive view off the 206 buzzing over our heads as he took-off.

Tripp departing Long Alango over our heads!

The engineers then spent the next couple of hours testing everything to-do with the oil system in the PT6 before giving it the all clear and certifying it fit to fly again. So a quick test flight later we were loading up the remaining two passengers to take them to their intended destination of Data Dian. Once back in Malinau, further examinations of the oil system did not lead to any cause to the indications I had that flight and since then, there’s been no problems to report.

I’d like to thank Bilan and his family for their hospitality and I’d also like to express my thanks again to all the MAF Kalimantan crew for your help over the last couple of days. It would probably have taken quite a bit longer to get us in the air again without your help, so thank you all!

Matt Dearden

Matt Dearden

English born professional pilot, writer, blogger and columnist. Currently flying the Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter in Papua, Indonesia.

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3 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Stay safe matey.

  2. Tripp says:

    Glad to help out Matt! And it worked out great; since I worked on Saturday, I’m off today (Monday), which is my birthday! I guess you got to see how a 206 is NOT a Porter too huh? We get off right at the 75% marker. I’m guessing the Porter is lifting off A good bit before that.

    • Matt Dearden Matt Dearden says:

      Yeah, got a cool video of you departing over our heads! Porter tends to get airborne about mid-way along. With that wind and a light load we’d be wheels up by the terminal!

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