First Flight in Darwin
Last March Aero Circus travelled to Darwin to find out as much as possible about what a pilot can expect when trying for the first job in aviation. We like to fly and we like to try different things. So, we thought we should rent a plane while we were there and check out the skies around Australia’s northern most capital city for ourselves.
Flying small aircraft in the tropics has taken on a somewhat legendary status. This is probably due to the highly volatile weather, the large expanses of nothing, and the general remoteness of the place. What better way to find out what is really going on than to try it out for ourselves?
Real World Testing
In our lead-up article to this trip – The Darwin Challenge – we investigated some of the issues we might face when DIY flying in the north. We concluded that it might be safer to take a chaperone with good local knowledge for our first flight. But as our trip planning evolved, we decided that this would be a great opportunity to see how someone at the standard of a new CPL would handle the challenge on their own. After all, when a new CPL comes knocking on Darwin’s door looking for a job, this is exactly what they will need to do. That is, if they survive the initial evaluations and look, to the employer at least, like someone worth investing in.
So, it happened that ‘almost CPL’ Gavin was to be “the one we prepared earlier”. We figured that most pilots heading to Darwin for work would be somewhere around Gav’s experience level. He has a little over 200 hours total time, plus NVFR and Complex endorsements. Gavin still has a couple of navex’s to complete before sitting his CPL test, but hey, that’s close enough.
To make it a fair evaluation, we had not told Gavin ahead of time that this would be an evaluation flight for him. We didn’t want him doing any extra preparation other than what we thought the average new CPL just arrived in Darwin would have done. That is, bugger all. Could he handle the pressure? Would he tarnish the Aero Circus reputation? Would he even turn up?
In one respect it was a bit easier for Gav as he was just taking 3 mates for a spin rather than trying to convince a potential employer that he was the best thing that would ever happen to them. But on the other hand, those 3 ‘mates’, all being fellow Aero Circus clowns, were not going to let him get away with anything other than perfection (or better). And they were not going to make it easy along the way, either. Cue the annoying back seat pilots.
Our weapon of choice for the flight was a 1981 Cessna 172RG “Cutlass”. While not a high-performance aircraft like the Cessna 200 series, it does have everything else that the typical Top End GA pilot would be flying in their first year. Manual Pitch Propeller Control (CSU in the old money) and retractable gear are the notable extras over and above the humble C172. And plenty of miles/hours under its belt.
Gavin got his complex aircraft endorsement in a Cessna 177 ‘Cardinal’ which is a bit different to the Cutlass. But he did manage to log a few hours in another Cutlass back in Archerfield in the preceding few months. So, he had enough time in this variant to be comfortable with the systems, procedures and handling characteristics.
However, the avionics on this particular aircraft have been updated somewhat from the originals. Most of the analogue (steam) gauges had been replaced with digital ones. Luckily Gavin had also logged a fair bit of time in a 172 with a Garmin 1000 glass cockpit. Our ride for the morning was a kind of hybrid between the old analogue 172 panel and the full glass panel of the G1000. So, all in all, no big deal for our budding airline captain who spends most of his life looking at screens anyway.
Ben Mackney from Flight Standards kindly provided the briefing for us. We had bought our own paper copy of the Darwin VTC a few weeks earlier and had been looking at all the pretty lines all over it for some time. We also studied the Darwin pages of ERSA to get a feel for what we would be facing. But it was nowhere near enough for us to properly understand what we were up against. We needed more. A lot more.
Ben took us through everything we would need to know in order to survive the flight without getting lost or unduly upsetting ATC. It was essentially a complete Darwin orientation for VFR pilots.
On the Ground
Our briefing assumed that we were already comfortable with Class C procedures. Gav has had quite a few encounters with YBCG at the Gold Coast over the years. He tries to gain experience in dealing with Brisbane Centre and friends by planning though Class C airspace on pretty much every flight outside the Archerfield sandpit. He also spends all his spare time listening to Brisbane ATC via LiveATC.net. He likes pizza and long walks on the beach. But I digress.
Darwin is effectively a military base that allows civil traffic to use their facilities. As such it is controlled by the Australian military and is largely staffed by trainees. Most taxiways are named in a bizarre manner. Unlike most civil airports, with your taxi call the military controllers will want to know how many people they will need to pull out of the burning wreck, even if you are a VFR flight. Rather uncivil, we thought.
As most of Darwin Airport is a military installation, you really need to know where you are taxiing. You don’t want to end up in one of the numerous military parking areas. If you do, you will most likely be greeted by armed personnel who are reputed to be somewhat lacking in the sense of humour department. They signed up to play with guns and they are not afraid to use them.
The airspace around Darwin is a motley collection of danger and restricted areas. Almost everything else is Class C. You will need to go more than 30NM from the airport to find any Class G airspace that extends above 2500 feet (over land).
Just for fun, there is a military helicopter base placed conveniently on the undershoot of the main runway (RWY29). There is also a rifle range that the Army uses, sometimes to shoot down stray Cessnas. Or so they say. Good places to stay away from.
With 2 intersecting runways, Darwin makes good use of Land And Hold Short Operations. To use LAHSO, you need to be approved to use it. There are three ways to play:
- Negative LAHSO – If you choose this option in a small plane, you will likely be sent to the ‘naughty corner’. This option is usually reserved for VIP’s where they require the airport to themselves. It effectively means “I am not going to play your silly games. Everyone else can wait while I land.”
- Passive LAHSO – This means you will play but are not approved to participate in the real deal. In effect, the full length of the runway you are using will be available to you, while someone else may or may not be busily LAHSO’ing on the other runway.
- Active LAHSO– you have been approved to use LAHSO to its full extent. You are entitled and able to land and stop or exit the active LAHSO runway before the runway intersection.
Please Note: This is based on our understanding of LAHSO as at the date of publication. All information about this process appears to have disappeared from the AIP’s and other various regulations (except CAO 40.0 which appears to be out of date). If anyone has information about the current regulations, please let us know. We are aware of the 2015 AirServices Safety Bulletin.
You may have been taught to make calls turning Downwind, turning Base, turning Final, backtracking, clear of runways, having my first beer, going to the toilet. The Top End is an environment where virtually every CTAF within broadcast range in on 126.7. This means unnecessary calls can imperil the safety of other aircraft, possible hundreds of miles away. This is because they cannot make a broadcast because of your extraneous verbosity.
If you are in the circuit at an airfield which is used maybe once a week, then keep the calls to a minimum. Leave the frequency clear for those who need it.
When we asked about emergency procedures in the unlikely event of needing to land somewhere on our planned route. For 90% of the flight we would be over uninhabited areas. Ben suggested that the normal rules apply, such as finding a wide road with no poles or wires. But if you did end up amongst the crocodiles, all you need to do to survive is to be at least the second-slowest swimmer. Smartarse.
Planning The Route
As any pilot knows, before you go flying, you always need a good route. This has been (un)scientifically proven to relax you. There is more than enough to do in the cockpit on a low-level scenic flight without worrying about where to go and what to do when you get there. Furthermore, we wanted to file a flight plan that had a little more useful substance than “YPDN DCT RANDOM DCT SOMEWHERE DCT NOWHERE DCT YPDN MAYBE”.
We selected a clockwise route, departing to the west then turning northeast along the coast. At the Jackos Junction VFR waypoint we would turn right and track inland until we met the Adelaide River at Castle Point. From there we would follow the snaking river upstream until we reached the Adelaide River Bridge. This would be our inbound reporting point. Hopefully along the river we would see some crocs from about 1000 feet above. Then it would be eastbound to the VFR waypoint at Lake Dean where we would turn northwest back to Darwin. Total distance is 90NM which should take just over an hour with taxi time.
By the time Ben covered everything we needed to know in the briefing room, nearly an hour and a half had passed. We had the advantage of four brains (Ed: Really?) to absorb the information. It took another 30 minutes for Ben to go through the systems in the aircraft with Gavin and complete the paperwork.
We had been blessed with at least an hour with no rainfall. A thorough pre-flight was done and then Gav ran us through the passenger briefing. For once we had to listen as there were a few things we really need to know about this flight. Finally, it was “all aboard”.
Gavin was pilot in command in the left seat and Instructor Fabrice was, for once, merely a passenger in the right-hand seat. Being away from duties at his usual flying school, Fab was effectively just another Private Pilot like the rest of us.
To help Gavin out, it was decided that Fabrice would provide minor assistance by reading out the checklists. A sort-of co-pilot in a single pilot environment situation. “F/O Fab”, but not on the way we usually mean it. Otherwise he was just a passenger. For this flight, it was all up to Gav. Show us what you have got!
For those who have never experienced Darwin Airport from the ground, it is built on top of an anthill. Or something similar. There appears to be a hump in the middle and from the GA apron area at least, you can’t really see much else of the airfield. It is quite unusual, and for some of us at least, disorienting.
Our taxi clearance took us on a tour of the airfield. The General Aviation area is out in the back corner of the airport anyway, so the taxi distances for most runways will be plenty to get the oil temperature showing on the gauge. On our way to an intersection departure on RWY29 we passed though the international and domestic RPT aprons, stopping to give way to Virgin 737-800 that was heading for the gate.
Lining up on 29, we were soon rolling and off into the grey Darwin skies. Turning right after 500 feet, we passed over the northern suburbs. Apparently, this is the flash part of town, so you probably won’t find too many pilots living there.
After leaving the built-up areas, we tracked along the coast to Jackos Junction, then turned inland. The landscape turned into a green wetland scene that went as far as the eye could see. And beyond, in places.
Eventually we intercepted the Adelaide River at Castle Point. Here the king tides can change the water level by as much as 10 metres. The river winds its way upstream for several miles, snaking through the landscape.
We searched eagerly for any sign of crocodiles in their natural habitat. Alas, the only ones we saw seemed to be hanging around some vessels on the river that looked, from the air, like house boats. They appeared to be jumping for baits hung out from the sides of the boats for the amusement of tourists.
As Mrs Bickerman (Betty White) said in the 1999 classic movie ‘Lake Placid’, “I’m rooting for the crocodile.”
As our amusement with the monotonous landscape waned, the back-seat pilots started to annoy Gavin. Witty and original quips like “Are we there yet?” and “When are the meals and drinks served?” filled the intercom.
Unfortunately, Gavin was all too aware of, and willing to use, the intercom switch that cuts off the back-seat passengers. It seems that our attempts at humour/annoying him to breaking point were in vain. Perhaps the final straw was our insistence on finding the underground pipeline so thoughtfully marked on the VTC as some kind of navigation aid. We were disappointed that he thought that making an inbound call to Darwin Approach was more important than navigating via buried infrastructure.
Apart from being grey and overcast en-route, the weather for our flight was reasonably pleasant. This was perhaps the driest 2-hour period we experienced since arriving in Darwin. There was virtually no turbulence for the entire flight. But as we approached our turning point onto final somewhere over Darwin Harbour, a rainstorm was approaching from the southwest. A quick look at the BOM radar showed cell of fairly intense rainfall coming our way. As Gav turned us onto a long final, a gust from the cell gave us a swift kick up the bum. Despite the heckling from the peanut gallery and the weather, Gav still managed a nice stable approach and a more than acceptable landing.
What We Thought
So, what did we all think of the Darwin Scenic?
As routes go, I think we all have had better. Being based in Archerfield, we are lucky to have plenty of amazing local attractions to fly over. For example, we have the Gold Coast, Moreton Bay islands, Scenic Rim, Darling Downs, Glasshouse Mountains and even the local Ikea carpark.
But the Top End around Darwin is a flat, somewhat monotonous landscape, especially on a rainy, grey Wet Season day. Of course, this was interspersed by amazing winding rivers with 10 metre tides and crocs chewing on unwary tourists. And let’s not forget the underground pipeline.
Perhaps in the Dry Season it would be more attractive. But we were not there for the scenery. We were on a mission.
How did Gavin go in his first flight that originated away from his home airport?
Apart from a couple of very minor things, he did extremely well. Although we are still waiting for the food and drink service. Maybe if we had ordered the vegan option, we may have got it sooner.
Gav obviously absorbed all the information provided during the briefing and dealt with ATC like a seasoned pro. He didn’t need to resort to the ‘unfamiliar’ call to get help from ATC at any time.
And the ultimate test was passed – ATC did not call the flying school to report any misdemeanours.
For the rest if us, it was great to sit back and relax and let Gav take care of us while we enjoyed the flight. Perhaps the real meaning of being a pilot is to be able to step up and tell your friends that “I will take care of you” by doing the hard work while making it look easy.
What lessons did we learn that could be useful for the pilot who is a first timer to Darwin? Plenty, as it turns out.
Read the ERSA for Darwin well ahead of time. Like any Class C aerodrome, it contains a lot of information. When unfamiliar with any airfield, we always find that it helps to have a paper printout of the airfield layout from ERSA or even better, from the AirServices Departure and Approach Procedures (DAP) website. The latter has much more detail. This will allow you to visually follow taxi instructions on the ground and can assist with approaches to the various runways that may be thrown at you. The advantage of paper over electronic is that you can draw your projected path on the paper as well as making relevant notes, such as for ATC instructions that need to be read back (and followed).
Class C Procedures
Plenty of practice at Class C aerodromes beforehand will help greatly. If you come from a CTAF environment, the step up to Class C will take much more effort and practice than if you usually fly out of a Class C or D aerodrome. As always, regularly listening to LiveATC as much as possible will increase familiarity with the radio calls.
There is no substitute for local knowledge on this one. However, the more you are exposed to marginal weather during training, the better. Pilots who only learn in CAVOK conditions are in for a rude shock in the Top End, no matter what the time of year.
Having plenty of time on MPPC and RG aircraft before you reach Darwin will mean one less distraction. That is important when so many other aspects of the experience are going to be ‘new and exciting’.
Don’t go flying in Darwin until you know the basics of Land and Hold Short Operations. Even if you are not approved to use ‘positive LAHSO’, you need to know the other options and when they apply. Otherwise your arrival might be much later than you expected.
If you want to see what Darwin airport and surrounds really look like, we have prepared a short film covering this trip for your viewing pleasure. You’re welcome.