Pago Pago to Christmas Island (Kiribati)


02/07/2008


I got up early as I had arranged with the hotel to be taken to the airport at 5.00 am. I wanted to be airborne early enough to make sure that my landing at Christmas Island would be in daylight hours.

Some days earlier when I was planning this flight, I could find no trace of the “approach plates” for Christmas Island in the package of airfield information which I had for the South Pacific Islands. They had either gone missing or had never been included. I had immediately sent out an email to friends at “Earthrounders” asking for help and had received the information I needed from Flemming Pedersen who had just finished a “round-Africa” journey lasting several months (see http://honeymooney.com) and was now back home.

I had made sure that Romeo Tango was fully fuelled a couple of days earlier and Nick, the BP refueller, had been particularly helpful in making sure that the last litre was squeezed into the tanks. I also had the necessary paperwork to leave and all I had to do now was check the plane and go. Well, it turned out to be bucketing with rain and I got absolutely drenched to the skin. It was still dark and I felt a bit miserable, soaking wet out there on the tarmac, doing my checks with the aid of a torch. I decided to delay my departure to give myself a chance to dry out, and waited for a half-hour in the shelter of the small open-air terminal. By this time the first crack of dawn was appearing and the rain had almost stopped, although there was a strong gusty wind. I made my preparations and then called Faleolo (in Apia, Western Samoa, almost a hundred miles away). As there was no manned control tower here in Pago Pago, Faleolo would handle my departure. They gave me my clearance and asked me to call them once airborne. The procedure was to then transmit my intentions to any other traffic around Pago Pago but of course there was none at this time. Made the required calls and then departed on the easterly runway, immediately turning south-east as per the official procedure in order to avoid the 2000ft-plus mountains immediately to the north-east of the airport. After 2800 feet the procedure was to turn onto course, and I was on my way.
Climbed through some rain and clouds and then contacted Faleolo again. Transmission wasn’t clear and I couldn’t understand the request they were making to me about the next reporting point. Fortunately an Air New Zealand flight (Air New Zealand 27) somewhere above offered to help out and repeat the transmission, and I then clearly understood the message. Felt a bit stupid, though, as it was the very first reporting point that I had filed on my flight plan..!

Faleolo soon requested me to change to HF radio on primary frequency 8867 with 13261 as the secondary frequency. Reported to them at the first reporting point (called DARMA) but reception was weak. I was then asked to contact Auckland on the same frequency. Tried several times but then switched to the secondary frequency and made contact. Managed to report to Auckland again after an hour-and-a-half but then was unable to contact them for 2-3 hours. During this time I was monitoring the fuel situation and the indications were that I would have over 80 or 90 litres remaining at destination, provided there were no diversions necessary. This was enough for between 2 and 3 hours flying so it looked safe enough. At the critical point (where I would have to return to Pago Pago if the fuel situation wasn’t good enough) all the indications were good and I carried on. During the flight the engine coughed a couple of times (once when using the left hand fuel tank, and once when using the right hand tank). Some small amount of water may have been a possibility from the heavy rain in Pago Pago, perhaps, but it had all seemed OK when I had checked.

I was unable to contact Auckland for some time, although I tried primary and secondary frequencies. Then came a strong transmission from San Francisco radio saying that Auckland had been trying to reach me and required a Position Report and an “Operations Normal” report. I gave these and San Francisco then requested that I stay with them. (San Francisco was over 4000 miles away, but I assume there were repeater stations perhaps on Hawaii or somewhere else – must check this, out of interest).

I had been unable to contact Christmas Island by telephone or email for some three weeks but people on Pago Pago had assured me that that was normal and the airport would be open. Also, my flight plan had been accepted and I felt that everything would be OK. I had advised them many weeks earlier of my intended arrival and my fuel requirements and they had indicated that there would be no problem but I would have liked another confirmation.

Anyhow, as I approached Christmas Island I picked up the signal from their NDB (radio beacon) from 60 or 70 miles away, and took this as an indication that they were expecting me. The radio beacon is meant to be turned on “by request” but Flemming had advised me that a week’s notice had been required when he made his stop here some years ago. I made a radio call, and was answered at the second or third attempt. I had the impression that they were not expecting me, as there were questions as to who I was, where was I coming from, and did I need fuel. But all very friendly, and the controller said he would arrange for customs and immigration to come along. (I would probably be the only plane that day, so I thought this was excellent service!).

Landed on runway 8 (ferry pilot Rob in NZ had said that I would land on runway 8 as the wind is so predictable there at that time of day and year). Taxied up to the small building/shed that serves as the terminal, avoiding the worst of the tufts of grass that were sprouting from the surface. Opened the door and moved the liferaft out onto the wing so that I could exit the plane. Stepped out into the heat and the silence and unbuckled my lifejacket, and it just felt great to have crossed the equator and to be back in the Northern Hemisphere again. (OK, it’s only 2 degrees north of the equator, but it marked another turning point in the journey).

I heard the sound of a motor bike in the distance and a friendly face was soon asking what I required and where was I going. Customs and Immigration then turned up and the necessary paperwork was completed. The immigration lady then offered to take me to the Captain Cook hotel (the only hotel on the island, I believe, although there is some local accommodation). The island was much bigger from the air than I expected. We left the airfield and then went through the village of Banana. The main population (about 5,000 total) lives in London, on the other side of the lagoon, but I didn’t get to see this part, as my plan was to leave early the next morning to take advantage of the good weather and go to Honolulu.

There were 4 of us for dinner in the hotel – the other three were Americans working for the Kiribati government. The staff provided some singing for our entertainment during the meal. The hotel facilities are very basic and I could see the first problem for me would be how to file a flight plan for the next day. I had tried to do this with Faleolo the day before but they thought that Christmas Island should be able to do this.

The satellite phone proved its worth again. Contacted Raynor at Skycare in Auckland and she found a number in NZ where I could file a flight plan. Did this and they said that they would ensure that it was entered into the US system. Also phoned Sue in London (UK, not Christmas Island!) and she said that she would call me back in the morning (evening her time) with whatever weather she could pickup regarding that part of the Pacific. What would one do without friends? Went to bed early after making arrangements with the hotel to be taken to the airport at 6.00 am.

Flight Data: 1272 nautical miles in 9 hours 50 minutes