Our Pacific skies—A retired aviator’s diary: Mike Feeney
When I was a mere lad back in the 60s, the Aussie/TPNG Dept of Civil Aviation approved me to carry out the training, checking and supervision of new chums on various aircraft types, but mainly on Cessna 185, C-206 and the new and somewhat strange “push-pull” C-336. I was also authorised to fly to any airstrip in the country without having been previously checked-out into it. This enabled me to undertake charter trips to anywhere and also undertake long survey flights for Army or Administration personnel during which one could never be sure where one would end up. The C-336 was particularly suitable for these jobs as it had a far longer endurance than the other types.
Looking back now over the decades, I believe that the training I provided was thorough and unstinted. Before a trainee’s first flight into a region and an airstrip we would sit together with a map and a sheet of paper. I would describe the operation and pencil in the route through gaps and passes pointing out the names and features of various rivers, mountains and villages. Particular stress was placed on identifying features of the entrance to blind valleys up which the airstrip was located. To enter a wrong valley and then find that it was impossible to execute a 180° escape turn was unthinkable. It was a terrible irony that in the 1990s I had to investigate the fatal crash of a young NZ friend who did just that in a Cessna 185 when he was new to PNG.
On the sheet of paper I would draw a sketch of the airstrip viewed as from final approach. At the threshhold I would draw a big wall with a slot in it; rather like a letter-box. I placed great emphasis to the trainee that he absolutely must be able to fly the aircraft through that slot at the target airspeed and in the correct configuration. If they could achieve that then the aircraft’s energy was such that a safe flare, landing and roll-out was assured.
The photograph of a PNG airstrip above provides an indication of just how vital it is to have the approach profile established, all checks out of the way, the aircraft configured and the target airspeed nailed as a go-around is out of the question. When there is extensive cloud cover, the valleys must be treated as a maze of tunnels; many of which are blind and from which escape may be impossible once entered; other than by landing and departing again in the direction of exit.
Each critical highland airstrip had its own particular approach decision point beyond which it was not possible to execute a missed approach; unless the machine was very light. These points each had a distinctive landmark.
I stressed that the aircraft must be flown over the airstrip to study the windsock and to check that the strip was clear of vehicles, machinery, pigs and people and so forth. As the airstrip was often the only handy level piece of ground, it was not uncommon to find a football or cricket match in progress or even an inter-tribal skirmish underway with arrows flying across the airstrip. The thought of being tempted to make a straight-in approach, passing the decision point and then finding people all over the airstrip was not to be countenanced as one would be faced with the prospect of having to steer the aircraft off the side of the strip.
I tried to impress on trainees that, after overflying the strip, they should try and fly a consistent pattern by selecting “key-hole” points around the downwind and base turn segments. By flying through these “windows” at a certain altitude, airspeed and flap configuration, they would assure an appropriate profile was followed which would ensure that they rolled out on final in an ideal state to assure a precise approach to the threshold “slot”. I also stressed the importance of completing all pre-landing checks and radio comms. early so they could focus totally on their stick, rudder and power control. I tried to influence them to not “fiddle” around with things in the cockpit and keep their hand on the throttle(s). I recall one chap who had developed the habit of making a power change and then putting his hand on his knee until the next adjustment. This made me very uneasy as he tended to be just a tad late in applying power with the result that the aircraft’s sink rate was greater than appropriate.
The advantage of trying to fly a consistent pattern within a confined valley was particularly useful when one was faced with a need to use an alternate airstrip when weather conditions prevented one reaching the planned destination. PNG cloud can form very rapidly forcing one to “race” to a closing gap to find a another airstrip on which to wait it out. A pilot could find himself flying the partial circuit through forming wispy fractus; not dangerous as long as one kept it tight and precise.
I chuckle to myself now when I remember trying to engender a mental imagery of the spatial concept of approach profile control by getting the trainees to imagine a line through the sky like a cable or rail onto which they would hook their aircraft and track precisely to the slot at the threshold.