By Dan Telfair
The big news lately was that the pub ran out of VB (Victoria Bitter beer). The pub owner claimed that he was not at fault. He had shipped in $60,000 worth of booze before the wet season started, after which the town was expected to be isolated for three months. ($60,000 worth of booze for a town of less than 1000 people!) Unfortunately, the wet season lasted longer than usual; all the roads remained closed; the Victoria Bitter ran out; and panic set in. A special consignment of VB was ordered from Cairns but, after waiting at a washout for four days, the truck driver gave up and returned to Cairns. Things grew desperate. Just as everyone was about to give up hope, a plane was dispatched from Cairns with a load of Victoria Bitter. When it landed, the entire town was out at the airstrip to meet it and lighten the load on the way back to the pub. Is this a great place or what!?!
We had a drink at the pub; wandered around "town"; took pictures; and returned to do our flight planning; eat dinner; etc. The eating area is separated from the rest of the bar so that diners won't be bothered by drunks. There were no drunks in the eating area, but there were two rather large dogs.
The next day, it was to be off to Cairns. and a return to civilization. I didn't want to go, but I did want to see Cairns and get in a bit of SCUBA diving on the Great Barrier Reef. If it weren't for that, I'd have been content to roam around the Outback until we were due back in Melbourne. Other than a rapidly growing fondness for the Outback and its people, the reason I didn't want to leave was that I dreaded the complexity and regulation of flying into, out of, and around big airports in a strange country. It had been such a blessing flying in the Outback, in and out of small, unattended strips.
After a breakfast at the world renown Burketown Pub, and a ride to the airport, we were off once more. About two hours and fifteen minutes of uneventful flying later, we landed at Georgetown for a potty and leg stretch break.
Our second leg into Cairns became much more interesting than I generally care for. There is rising terrain and considerable hills just before the land drops off to the coast. With coastal weather, there are frequently low cumulus, obscured hills, rain squalls, imbedded thunderstorms, and all the other nasties associated with warm, moist air hitting rising terrain. That is exactly what we encountered. The clouds kept forcing us lower and lower, which had the additional undesirable effect of placing us below VHF line of sight. We lost radio contact with Cairns Approach Control and with the VOR and the ATIS broadcasts. We were entering controlled airspace, with no information as to conditions at Cairns, and without being able to talk to anyone. At that point, we were scud running into rising terrain, with clouds boiling and with rain squalls in all quadrants. We decided to divert to a closer airport - or at least one that would not require further flying into rising terrain and lowering clouds.
We turned toward the intended alternate (Atherton), and switched over to the common air to air frequency in that area. Zia saw the strip first. It is grass, and it had been raining, so I was worried about the field being soft and sinking in - among other things. We took a good look at the strip; announced our intentions; and lined up for a long, shallow straight-in landing with power, in case the surface was really soft. I floated a bit just before touch down, but managed a very smooth landing, and kept the weight off the wheels as long as I could. As it turned out, the ground was solid, and we taxied toward the hangars.
While we were taxiing, we received a radio call from someone, saying that they had been asked to contact us by Cairns Approach Control. It turned out to be a QANTAS airliner that Approach Control had asked to contact us after they couldn't do so! The QANTAS pilot was very nice, and relayed our information to Cairns Approach Control. He also gave me a telephone number and told us that Approach Control had said we should call them. I assumed that, as a minimum, I was going to be chastised for flying into below VFR conditions.
We shut down and went into the local aero club office, where they let us use their telephone to call Cairns Approach Control. They answered immediately and could not have been nicer. After making sure we were OK, they called another QANTAS, on an ILS approach into Cairns, and asked him to check cloud base height on his way down. When he reported that the ceilings were satisfactory over the field, the fellow in Approach Control suggested that we could probably get through if we followed a certain valley route to the coast. When I expressed concerns about flying into controlled airspace and landing at a busy airport, possibly without radio communications, he blocked out a ten minute period in which he cleared me to enter, approach and land without radio communications, should we need to do so. This was at a Class B/C airport!
We did a hurried takeoff from Atherton, followed the suggested route, and broke out over a beautiful coast overlooking Cairns. All the way, Cairns Approach kept talking to us to ensure that we were on the right path, etc. When they were sure we were OK, they turned us over to Cairns Tower for final approach and landing. After landing, Cairns Ground Control directed us to a spot very near the pedestrian gate 'so we wouldn't have to carry our bags too far.'
While we were shutting down, a gentleman driving a Cairns Airport Safety Officer van pulled up. My first thought was: "Oh s--t! Now what have I done wrong!?" It turned out that he came over to give us the combination to the lock on the pedestrian gate, and also to provide a separate frequency for the parking apron coordinator so we would be sure to get whatever assistance we needed. He also loaned Zia his cell 'phone to call the hotel and, when they could not come to pick us up, he called a taxi for us.
While I was worrying about getting a violation for flying into controlled airspace in below minimum weather, ATC were worrying about getting me safely into Cairns - to the point that they called one QANTAS airliner and asked him to relay messages to me, and another to check on ceilings! While I was worrying that I might have violated some other regulation, the safety officer was worrying that I might not have the combination to the gate. These are the nicest people in the world.
After we finally got checked into a very nice motel, I called for and got a booking on a SCUBA boat going out to the Great Barrier Reef the next day. Then to dinner at a good restaurant, and back to the hotel.
The next day was dive day. I left the hotel at 0650 on a dive company coach to Port Douglas, and went out on a medium size dive boat named Silver Blue with 15 other divers. The water was rough and we had quite a few seasick divers before we reached the reef. We did manage to get in three dives at different locations at Agincourt reef though. I got back to the hotel around 1900 after a long day.
The next day started out well and then went down hill. We went to Wild World, a local zoological park, in the morning and saw our first wombats; fed and petted the kangaroos; posed with a koala, etc. On the way back, we stopped by the airport to check on Tango Sweetie and to visit the North Queensland Aero Club to get some advice on the local weather. It seemed that the low cloud over the hills that we were encountering was the usual weather for that time of year. We decided to try our luck Thursday in order to keep on our schedule. When we went to dinner, I ordered "steak and bugs". Fortunately, a bug turned out to be a sort of small lobster.
After dinner, we returned to the room for flight planning and to problems. There is no way out of Cairns without continuing north or south into more coastal weather or heading inland over the Great Dividing Range. As a great divide, it doesn't amount to much by New Mexico and Colorado standards. Most of the peaks are between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. However, when the cloud bases are down to 1,500 feet MSL, that is quite enough to cause a problem. To add to our concerns, a twin engine plane with a local commercial pilot went down in weather in the surrounding hills that day, killing all four people aboard. I struggled with the charts until around 2200 and finally came up with a questionable plan. The problem with it was that it stretched our fuel load further than I like to do. Flying in difficult weather is one thing. Flying with minimum fuel reserves is another. Doing both at the same time is just not my cup of tea.
The next day was equally unsatisfactory. We got up early to try to make the most of our chances, only to be greeted by miserable low clouds, obscured terrain. and intermittent showers. It was obvious that things were not going to go well early, so we went to a nearby hotel for breakfast while we waited for the weather to improve. At the hotel, the first thing we saw was the front page of the local paper with a graphic picture of the wreckage of the previous day's fatal crash. With that, we decided to forget about flying for the day, and started all over on the planning.
This time, I chose a route that would take us to Longreach, in the Outback, rather than following the coast to Brisbane, where we had planned to meet friends. The new route and destination would give us plenty of possible stops, and an adequate fuel reserve. All we needed then was a decent break in the weather to get us away from the coast. If we could get 50 miles inland from Cairns, we would be home free.
The next day was Good Friday, April 13, and Good Friday vibes apparently overcame Friday 13th vibes. We were up early and, despite a weather check the night before reporting early clouds, the morning was clear. We ate hurriedly, and got out to the airport as soon as we could. We took off just as the clouds were starting to build, and made it out over the range and into the blessed flatlands of the Outback. As we flew generally parallel to the coast, we saw the clouds continue to build in that direction, and were very thankful to be off and out of it.
We arrived at Longreach after a bit over three hours in the air. Longreach is a great little town, and no one who visits the Outback should miss it. The original Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Service (QANTAS) hangar is there - built in 1922 and still as sound as ever. It has been turned into a museum for QANTAS, and for early Australian Aviation. We stopped and spent an hour or so in the museum before we left the airfield. It is well worth the time and effort now, and they have started construction on a really big museum to follow. After that is built, they will turn the hangar back into a maintenance shop for rebuilding museum aircraft.
We caught a ride to our hotel, less than a kilometer away. That was the last ride we had in Longreach. The rest of the time, we walked everywhere, including into town, to the Outback Museum and Stockman Hall of Fame, and back to the airport. Longreach is a 'bonza' town. There are only about 4,000 inhabitants, but it is very clean, well organized, and prosperous. Nothing much was open because of Good Friday, but we walked into town anyway. It is very much as Alice Springs must have been in 1948 when Nevil Shute first visited Australia.