Winter in Papua

Now that I’m back flying out of our Timika base in the depths of the Papuan winter, I’ve finally gotten to experience how the weather is on the southern side of the mountain ranges. The answer is pretty much the same as Nabire, wet. In fact it’s actually worse over this side with pretty much constant rain throughout the day and night which along with the hot and humid air causes some very difficult flying conditions; namely multiple layers of cloud.

Winter wonderland, Papua

This layered up cloud covers pretty much everything south of the mountain ranges including of course, Timika airport. The only instrument approach available is a rather long winded procedural VOR approach involving flying overhead the beacon, then flying outbound for rather a long way (8nm which feels like an eternity in the Porter) and then back inbound to hopefully get visual with the airfield. The Porter’s slow speed does help in this regard as even if you only get visual right at the last moment, it’s not hard to get onto the runway from the MDA (minimum descent altitude – lowest altitude you can descend to on the approach) of 570ft.

This of course is the last ditch attempt to get into the airfield. Usually we’re able to get visual with the ground by simply descending down to the southern sector MSA (minimum safe altitude) of 1300ft and then flying visually to make the landing.

Snow covered Puncak Jaya mountain range, Papua
Puncak Jaya peak, Papua

All that layered cloud has however resulted in some spectacular snow fall over the higher ground. It’s quite a strange sight flying in the hot and humid tropics over extensive snow covered mountain ranges. Sometimes I wish the Porter had skis on it so I could land and go play in the snow!

The freezing layer is around 12,500ft at the moment, so almost all the peeks above this are getting snow falling on them. Of course, that freezing level is something we pilots have to be wary of when flying over high ground as the Porter has no icing equipment, other than a pitot tube heater. Just as mountains can pick up snow/ice above that level, so can aircraft.

Unless you can get above the clouds into the clear air, it’s really not a good idea to be flying in IMC (flying in clouds) above the freezing layer, especially with high ground not far below you. Sometimes you just have to go around the mountains to avoid being in that situation.

Large horned beetle

When you do get above all the crap, it’s usually a nice sunny day and your only chance of the day to grab a bit of vitamin D. That’s one advantage we pilots have, no matter how rubbish the weather is on the ground, if you go high enough you’ll always find the sunshine and that’s something I’ll never tire of. I remember the very first time I flew up into the sunshine from Bristol airport on one of my instrument training flights on a typical wet and grey English day. It’s an awesome privilege.

Safety first!

The locals don’t seem to let the weather get to them to much and they seem to carry with life on as usual. Although it is quite amusing chatting to them (well the ones who can speak Indonesian) to hear them bemoaning the rain; seems it’s not just the English who enjoy lamenting the weather then!

Local Papuan children playing to the camera
Papuan boy and puppy

The kids certainly don’t seem to care and are still as enthusiastic as ever when an aircraft comes into their village. It never ceases to amaze me how they all come to watch the aircraft being unloaded and then reloaded again before departing. I guess it’s one of the highlights of their day to see us pilots going about our work. Perhaps I should point them at my blog for more info ;o)

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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8 Responses

  1. Axel Pliopas says:

    Thanks so much for one more story! And…. those are high mountains around there!!!! The airport where I’m flying here in Brazil sits at 2000ft… there’s a city nearby where the runway level is near 5000 and all flight instructors avoid flying there… but, hey, we are not flying a Porter! 😉

    • Matt Dearden Matt Dearden says:

      You’re welcome Axel. I can imagine that most light piston aircraft would struggle for performance at those kinds of altitudes, especially with the heat in Brazil! The Porter is somewhat blessed with ample power thanks to it’s PT6 turbo-prop engine :o)

  2. AV8RKUSH says:

    Thanks for the great blog mate, I follow it enthusiastically! Used to do a bit of flying in Wyoming with 10,000ft + MEAs. Your photos bring back memories…

  3. Really like the style of this cautious passenger! How could you stay serious for flying?

  4. Joe Luxford says:

    Matt,

    Are you still flying in West Papua?
    I am an IFR pilot looking for advice on flying into Timika from Australia via PNG in a Mooney and some more info on Timika.

    Cheers,
    Joe Luxford
    Brisbane Australia

    • Matt Dearden Matt Dearden says:

      Hi Joe,

      I am indeed still flying in Papua although in Wamena now, not Timika. I’ve not seen a non-PK registered aircraft ever come to Timika but I guess it’s possible as they do have immigration and customs facilities there. If you send me a private message I can give you the airport manager’s contact details. You may also want to consider Merauke as I know aircraft from Australia have entered Papua there.

      Good luck!

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