Day 6 - Tindal YPTN to Kununurra YPKU
Woke up early in Katherine, in the Northern Territories. HAd the now-familiar 6:30 AM breakfast and then assembled gear for the bus which took us back to the airport. My pax and another tour member had gone for a quick walk across the road - because across the road was the bush, essentially - so we met them on the way and headed off.
The first leg today was a hop of around 110 NM from Tindal to Cooinda, by the way of the Katherine Gorge. The mouth of the Gorge is some 10 miles north of Tindal Aerodrome. The RAAF facilities were still shut when we left, so no tower and no Control Zone in effect. We used CTAF for the departure. I went out last, as I was busy programming the Katherine Gorge waypoint into the G1000. We took off and headed out.
The terrain was quite different, today - still very deserted bush, but today we flew over a low plateau with significant rock formations atop it, for approximately 90 NM. We came off the other edge of the plateau and descended into Cooinda YCOO. There were several bush burns going on, including a pair of them bracketing the airfield - and this airfield is gravel, a first for me. I've done grass landings (a couple of them, practicing during the SDN checkout, on a short grass strip) but never gravel. Reminded myself that this trip is about stretching my piloting skills, and read up on the soft field procedure.
Came in to Cooinda second behind VH-ULE, piloted by Val the tour leader. She gave us a field report while we were on crosswind - surface good, a bit soft. On downwind, we passed directly over one of the bush fires, which was a bit of a mistake - there were ten or twelve large birds circling in the thermals generated by the fire. Whoops. Didn't hit any of them - in a small plane, you have to mostly use the force and trust the birds, if you get into them, because they obviously maneuver much more swiftly/sharply than you do!
Came around to base, then final. Came in with full flaps, held it off, and touched down softly - held the nose wheel off as long as possible, then let it down gently. The gravel was soft - I could feel the wheels mushing - but otherwise was very well-behaved. Came to a stop and back-taxied to the apron at the approach end of 09, and parked next to Val.
We were in Cooinda to take a quick boat cruise and have a quick lunch. We had gotten in a bit early, so we walked a km or so to the Kakadu Regional Aboriginal Peoples' Cultural Center. This is a nicely done small museum, displaying Aboriginal history and culture exhibits. Learning that I was 'balanda' (non-Aboriginal) in the local language (whose name I have now forgotten), I also learned that the aborigines in fact had nearly two hundred languages when Australia was discovered by Europeans. Not dialects - languages. They couldn't talk to each other without learning each others' languages. Today, as the aboriginal population contracts and consolidates, there are perhaps fifty of these languages surviving, with the number spoken widely down to perhaps twelve.
Afterwards, we walked back through the 1 km bush trail to the lodge and took a quick bus ride over to the boat dock. The cruise was approximately 90 minutes on the Alligator River. I'm not sure if that's an ironic name, because of course it's inhabited by crocodiles. Today, lots of them! We saw perhaps 14 or 16 of the beasts sunning themselves on the banks of the river, and watched a couple of them fishing - areas of grass near the edge suddenly sliding into motion and several barramundi leaping frantically out of the water, trying to escape as the croc closed in. The crocs we saw were all females, according to the guide - as they were all three meters or less. They were salt-water crocodiles - apparently, salt-water crocodiles can live in fresh water quite happily, and tend to eat the fresh-water crocodiles, which are smaller. The crocs we saw were light-colored, which indicated that they had just come up from the sea. After a while in fresh water, they turn darker. These beasts are quite unconcerned with large, loud tourist boats. They know darn well that they're the top of the food chain, and they can't be bothered to stop basking just because some curious humans with cameras show up.
The birds were numerous and impressive, and almost as fearless. Egrets, Jabirus, Sea Eagles, Whistling Ducks, Magpie Geese, and others. The birds are all over the place, and they stand and fish on the banks, seemingly completely unconcerned by the crocs basking nearly and lurking in the water at the river's edge. The guide said that he's never seen a bird taken by a croc, although the crocs seem quite willing to have a go if a bird is nearby. Even though the croc is a fast-moving ambush predator, the birds are apparently faster. The Jabiru (which is a Portuguese name, despite there being a town here named that) has recently, according to the guide, been renamed the 'Black-necked Stork.' But, he noted, "They stuffed it again - their necks are green, y'see."
We saw a few wildly colorful kingfishers, some spoonbills, and several other species I can't now remember. They were nearly as unconcerned as the crocs by our presence. In the distance, some brumbys (wild horses) grazed on the wetlands, with a flock of egrets sitting on and around them.
The area around Cooinda, we were told, can flood quite heavily. Aparently, in 2007, it flooded five meters due to heavy rainfall - the staff had to be evacuated by airplane.
After the cruise and a quick lunch, we took the quick hop back to the airport and began to preflight for the afternoon's flight to Kununurra, some 275 NM away. The only catch was that Tindal had activated one of their restricted areas - R247 - which meant we had to divert slightly to the north to go around the northern corner of that airspace. I got coordinates for the corner from Val. They other planes pushed back off the gravel parking area in order to start up without pulling gravel into the props, and I did a full preflight - all looked to be in order. Rather than pushing back, we decided to push forward and to the side, onto a grassy area, in the hope that it wouldn't throw gravel as hard. In order to rotate the plane, I pushed down on the tail, lifting the nosewheel off the ground, and swiveled it so we could push it forward. My passenger held up his hand and said "Hey, this doesn't look good."
I walked around front. Sure enough, there was a spray of dark oil running down the nose wheel strut onto the nose wheel fairing. Nope, that didn't look good. I waved back the tour pilots for a second opinion. We popped the cowling off and had a look inside - there was no oil on the engine, and no oil inside the cowling. It was fairly immaculate. That was a relief - it meant it almost certainly wasn't engine oil. I had put a quart of oil in at Tindal, and I wondered if it was overflow out the breather. We pushed the airplane a bit - and the nose wheel oleo strut collapsed entirely, sending another flow of (what was now clearly hydraulic) oil down the fairing.
Well, the good news - it certainly wasn't the engine. The bad news - Cooinda has no facilities, no fuel, no shops, nothing except a small shed for people to wait for buses from the lodge. We had a quick huddle, and the three pilots (myself and the two tour pilots) felt that the best course was to fly on to Kununurra, which is a decent-sized airport and has a few FBOs. They gave me some advice on babying SDN along with the nosewheel low, which I gravely took note of, and then they took off.
The lower prop blade was perhaps six inches off the ground with the nosewheel strut collapsed, which made me a bit concerned. We pushed the plane onto the grassy area, got in, and started her up. I started it as gently as I could, and things seemed fine. I taxied gingerly onto 09, added in ten degrees of flap, and took off, holding the nosewheel off with elevator as soon as airspeed came alive. SDN made some alarming thumping noises in the undercart, but steered fine and came off normally. We climbed out and turned on-course for the restricted area corner waypoint, which I had named CLEAR in the G1000.
As we flew along, we had scattered clouds at approximately 6000 feet. We climbed to 4,500, where I looked wistfully at the clear blue sky above the cloud layer, while we bumped through the haze below - but VFR, my friends, VFR. I remained 1,500 feet clear of the clouds.
As we neared the waypoint turn, I found that visibility was noticeably decreasing. I began to lose the horizon out in front of us, although I could certainly see at least 8 to 10 nm out. I tried to tune in the AWIS system for Kununurra, but we were still far out of range. Finally I realized that in addition to the haze we had been seeing all along, there were a number of bush fires burning on the surface just to the south of our track ahead, and the wind was out of the southeast, so their smoke was being pushed in a thick plume all the way out to the northeast, across our course. It was akin to seeing a white wall fall across the world. I radioed in to the other planes, who were fifteen or twenty miles behind us at this point (SDN is quicker) and they decided on hearing the report to divert to the south, where they still had a better horizon picture. I looked at the winds and decided that there was a good chance of getting around the source of the haze by doing this, so I diverted as well - more sharply south, since I was closer to the fires.
After five or six minutes, the horizon began to open up again to the west and slightly north of west, so I gave it another few minutes and then hit DIRECT YPKU and ACTIVATE and let SDN take us back around to the right. The ride was getting bumpier as well, but I didn't want to climb due to the clouds scudding by above us, so we accepted it as the price of doing business.
We crossed the Victoria River inlet - a wide meander of flood plains and drying silt, with a few channels of water creeping through it - and continued on over formations of striated rock, worn down to low rolling hills with scrubland atop it. The evidence of past bush burns was everywhere - blackened areas with the shocking green of new undergrowth atop it, centered on the burn, looking almost like moldy patches on the tan and reddish sand and rock.
Val offered up bits of tourist information - at one point, we passed over a railway line (the only one we had seen) which she told us was the Adelaide to Darwin line, which had only been completed in the 1990s. A few miles past that, we passed the highway which served the same route. Off to the north of our track, we made out the hazy H-shaped outline of a cleared area which Val explained had been a World War II airbase, which had been abandoned for decades. The taxiways and runways were still visible, if not well defined any longer.
Finally, we caught sight of a line of ridges across our path, and off to the left and ahead the blue glimmer of Lake Argyle, a man-made body of water. Behind that, there was a line of relatively high rock walls, and just over the ridge ahead- Kununurra.
I called on the CTAF, and (as has become our habit) found that the airport which had had zero traffic for the thirty minutes since I came into radio range had an outgoing airplane, declaring its intention to head out on a reciprocal of our own course. I diverted to the north a bit, deciding to enter a long base leg rather than a full downwind for 12 Kununurra, and was rewarded with the sight of the reciprocal traffic climbing out a couple of miles off to the south of us.
Just as I entered base, a C210 called in from 15 miles out with the intention of joining a 5-mile final after a straight-in approach, but we were already on base leg. I asked my pax to read the Before Landing checklist.
"Mixture Full Rich?"
"Parking brake OFF"?
"Checked and OFF."
"Seats, hatches & harnesses?"
"Seats upright, hatches and harnesses secure."
"One Zero One Three hektopascals on the QNH, instruments checked."
"Okay, we're ready."
I was adding in my second notch of flaps by that point, and considering my turn final. I left it close in, to get a steeper approach than I had achieved the last few landings, since I needed to baby the nosewheel. I know that sounds contradictory, but I'd been forced to drag in under power a couple times due to needing to extend my circuit for traffic or because headwinds had been greater than I'd expected. I've found that coming in slow almost always, for me at least, means a higher final descent onto the runway, as I have trouble flaring properly when I'm slow. This time, I had a nice long runway with which to bleed speed in ground effect, and I wanted the nosewheel to have no cause to feel offended - I had no interest in prop-striking my rental airplane.
Came in, flared, held it off, held it off - and got what I wanted, which was a kiss on the main gear only, allowing me to hold the nose off with the rest of my rapidly decaying airspeed. When I felt the airplane start to sigh and sink, I brought the yoke forward to bring the nose down under control, and when I heard the painful THUMP of the nose wheel strut compressing to min height and metal hitting metal, I braked very very gently and let the airplane come down at its own pace. We still made the turnoff for GA parking halfway down the runway - YPKU isn't a small airport.
We had come in a good half hour ahead of the other tour airplanes, so we headed over to the fueling point. Unfortunately, it was labeled 'BP' and we don't have BP carnet card, so I hopped out after shutting down and asked a gent in the BP truck yard, who told me that Shell had a callout presence. Thanked him, and went back to the plane and got the ERSA which indeed had a callout number for Shell Aviation listed. Called, and a terse voice asked if I was 'chasin' avgas.' I said 'Yep.' He said he'd be back out in five minutes.
Sure enough, the Shell truck powered up and swung out towards us just as the tour planes were coming down. We had him fill the plane - I considered leaving it light in case it made maintenance easier, but even with the tanks full, I can lift the nosewheel by just levering down on the fuselage just ahead of the stabilizer, so it shouldn't be a big deal - and I don't like leaving part-emtpy tanks overnight. Condensation.
So. Checked with one of two FBOs on the field - nope, their maintenance dance card is full. I checked the other, but their maintenance crew had gone home for the day, and I was advised to check in tomorrow morning after 7 AM. So that's what I'll do. We're in Kununurra for two days and three nights - so while I might have to miss some of the local attractions (boat cruise on the lake, a tour of the hoochery, a local scenic flight to a set of rock formations called the Bungle Bungles) I stand a good chance of getting SDN fixed up. The hire agency answered my email and said "Just find a shop to do it and have them call us, they can charge it directly back, no worries."
SDN is a brilliant airplane. I won't hold this against her. Right before we left, the CFI checking me out and I took SDN to the local shop because the strut was low, and they put a shot of nitrogen in the oleo. It was winter in Sydney. We left SDN sitting at Cooinda, and the temperature got up to easily 30 degrees C during the afternoon - I'm wondering if she just blew a seal due to overpressure.
Either way, things should be fine. I did a gravel takeoff and a landing, all went OK; worst case, our next stop is Broome which is a fairly big airport, and the tour operator has contacts at a maintenance shop there. I'd fly SDN to Broome in her condition.
That makes me feel like a bit of an actual pilot. Up until now, I've always been hyper-sensitive of anything INOP on the airplane. SDN has a malfed right tank fuel sender, and a dud EGT sensor for one of her cylinders - but I've flown her for five days cross-country now with no problems - and I've done a full cycle with the strut in this condition. I'm quite confident that as long as the weather is decent, I should have no trouble easing her into Broome - unless the winds get high, but the risk over the next few days seems to be mostly clouds and rain showers, not wind. So - we'll see.