Landing in the clouds

Turbulence, thunderstorms, heavy rain, strong winds, limited visibility, VOR approaches down to minimas, screaming passengers; all in a week’s work here in Timika, Papua. But I enjoy every second of it! With views like this above the clouds, what’s not to like?

Above the clouds with the Papuan mountains poking through

The weather this past week hasn’t been the nicest but one day in particular stood out. Last Friday. The morning started like any other with a typical low stratus cloud layer over the whole southern area of Papua. No rain however, so I expected it to clear by mid-morning with the sun beaming down on it all from above.

I love flying above the clouds. And I mean just above the clouds. Flirting with them as the wheels skim along their tops. It’s about the only time I get much feeling of speed in the Porter! It’s always a sunny day above the clouds. Even back in the UK it was such an awesome feeling departing on a grey autumnal day and punching through the layers to be greeted with crystal blue skies and a bright, yellow sun. It’s something I’ll never tire of.

AMA C208 departs over the clouds forming underneath Ilaga airstrip

Upon returning from Ilaga (my destination that morning) I got a report from one of the AMA Porters that the weather was closing in back in Timika with building thunderstorms. Very strange at 7am in the morning. True enough, as I got closer and began descending into the murk, my weather radar was not a pretty sight; littered with red/purple cells all joining together.

Timika has a procedural VOR approach for both runways which is the best option of getting into the field should the weather turn nasty. The Porter is not the nicest aircraft to fly near thunderstorms and true enough we were in for a bumpy ride as I flew the approach. The passengers certainly didn’t enjoy the ride and the 33kts of headwind didn’t help speed things up either! I got visual just before flying overhead the VOR at the MDA (Minimum Descent Altitude – the lowest height an aircraft can legally/safely go down to on a non-presicion approach like a VOR approach) and setup the aircraft for landing.

Wind just a tad brisk
There is a runway in the murk ahead if you look closely!

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to keep a Porter flying when you want to land, it’s a strong headwind. Sure enough I was pretty much hovering over my touchdown point as I tried to land. Once on the runway the airspeed indicator was still registering 35+kts airspeed in the gusts. That requires some careful taxiing in a Porter with it’s super high-lift wing and easy to weather-cock tailwheel configuration.

–oOo–

Alama is a airstrip we’ve been trying to get to for nearly a week without success. The occasional weather reports were giving a mixture of rain/cloud which closed out the valley it’s located in. Any attempts made to get in hadn’t been successful due to the weather.

View along the valley out of Alama
Rather cold and wet up in Alama, Papua

Finally, a couple of days ago I got lucky and managed to slip my way in through the rain and clouds completely visually. It was rather cold and very wet however and not the nicest place to unload and reload an aircraft. Luckily the locals are always pretty happy to help out with the hard graft.

The final highlight of the week was getting into Tsinga. This is fast becoming one of my favourite airstrips thanks mainly to it’s 15 minute flight time and dramatically positioned runway atop a knife-edge ridge. The strip itself is pretty straightforward and plenty long enough for a Porter.

View of the Tsinga approach in good visibility
Same approach photo with added clouds over Tsinga, Papua

It’s pretty common to arrive at Tsinga and find it’s covered in clouds. The airstrip itself is at 6500ft and in a bowl surrounded by higher terrain. The bowl is fairly large and there’s plenty of room to fly around within and vacate should you not be able to land on the airstrip. Provided you can see enough of the strip to land safely, it’s not as crazy as it looks landing into a cloud.

Parked up in the clouds at Tsinga, Papua
View down the airstrip at Tsinga, Papua

It does make for some interesting photos of the clouds covering part of the airstrip. Of course the risk with landing with clouds rolling over an airstrip is that it could totally close out and leave you stuck there waiting for the clouds to disperse, preventing a safe departure. Pretty tricky to take-off from an airstrip if you can’t even see from one side to the other.

Luckily that day the clouds held off and I returned back to Timika without issue. The return trip is even faster as it’s pretty much a continual descent back to the airport. There’s not many places you can depart from and have to start a descent almost immediately!

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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1 Response

  1. LavanyaLea says:

    Fantastic!!!! I think all the bush flying makes you a much better pilot than those airline pilots! Nice blog, I really enjoy reading 🙂

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