Rendezvous point was Denver, Colorado, USA, Pilatus Facility, Sunday April 12. Supap came from Thailand, Eric from Canada, and myself from Manila connecting in Vegas. A freak weather phenomenon hit Denver Sunday on a spring morning—Blizzard and heavy snow! All flights to Denver were cancelled.
This was not good but for Supap and myself, our word is our bond and meeting time and point has been made and shall be fulfilled. Supap wanted to beat jet lag and was ahead a day and was already snugly checked in at the Renaissance Marriot. I was stuck at the Las Vegas airport trying to decide whether to drive, take the train, or wait for the airport to open.
All I know is that I have to be in Denver as promised. Just before dinner, thought I would check and take a chance on the last flight. I did make it and it was actually the only flight that was able to get in for the day! As I landed, everything was white and heavily covered with snow. Denver terminal was like a refugee center. People were covered with jackets sleeping in the floor and everyone was stuck. Talked to Supap before departure and he said that he would definitely pick me up at the airport. As I got out of the terminal, I had to rush back because it was freezing and wind was blowing hard. Very few cars were driving thru the ramp and those that did were all SUVs or serious four-wheel drives. I was almost sure that Supap was stuck somewhere other wise he would not be late. I positioned myself near the door at the airport ramp and jumped out every time I saw a light approaching. This by the way was at around one in the morning. I choose to position myself next to a heater and was actually ready to sleep over. However, our word was our bond and I knew Supap would be there come hail or snow. After several disappointing jumps to the ramp, there was a small white Hyundai driving up half covered with mud and snow. Sure enough, it was my buddy, Supap! He was stuck in snow, he did not have a phone, had to walk several miles to the tollbooth to get help, was accosted by the police, and was on the road for four hours!! But this is the friendship we have established over the years and we were always confident that we could depend on each other. Eric, on the other hand, had no choice except to postpone for the next day.
The mission: To fly home Supap’s brand new Pilatus PC 12 SN 609 back to Thailand by April 21. Tropical flying will always be fun for us but winter flying for equator bound beach bums like us would be like MI-3. Swiss born Eric residing in the Yukon would really be an asset for the trip. He definitely had his share of snow but he continues to enjoy it. He has done 52 Atlantic crossings but this was going to be his first pacific crossing.
Supap gave me the opportunity to do the acceptance flight and enjoyed flying the PC12 tremendously. It was a dream-come-true! With unused beginners luck from Las Vegas, I was able to cream it at the Denver Jeffco airport. The Swiss trait of precision was very obvious on the acceptance of the aircraft. All the small “squaks” we have noticed were corrected immediately. Documents were turned over and we did a nice photo shoot the next day before departure. The Pilatus did look good with the snow-covered mountains in the background. Martha Geisshuesler, Pilatus Vice President and CFO, treated us to Denver steak the night before in the fancy Castle restaurant. However, the Denver Kobe beef was a far cry from the real Japanese beef.
Disappointed with our steak, we decided to fly and visit our good friend Mike Kelly in Kansas. Mike takes pride in saying that Kansas is known to have the best American steaks. We flew eastward instead of westward just to have steak and buy Supap’s favorite American wine! We got in just in time for the quick wine shopping and went straight to dinner. I could not imagine how we would fit everything the next day. I swear we should have been over gross after the several boxes of wine that Supap got. This was my excuse for drinking them every night! We were just trying to reduce our payload. Dinner was at the Plaza III-one of the top five Steakhouses in America. Yes, it was worth the trip.
We were up early next day for a long flight to Whitehorse, Canada. We had to make a refueling stop and entry at Lethbridge. Lethbridge was a small town and for a while the landscape was just flat land and then the runway and town just stood out in the fields. The customs people gave us a warm Canadian welcome and was amazed that we all came from different countries and were traveling back to Asia in this single engine airplane. I’m sure that not too many airplanes pass thru this place going all the way to Asia.
We flew IFR but on a GPS direct course to Whitehorse FL260. Practically no traffic at our level and we can hear from the radio that only tail draggers were reporting very low and just a few commercial flights at FL350 and above. Whitehorse is near the point where the Rocky Mountain and the McKenzie mountain ranges meet. The weather was excellent except that as we approached Whitehorse, it was snowing and visibility was limited. Twenty miles out, we were given clear to land- Yup, definitely not a busy airport this time of the year.
As soon as we landed, the snow stopped for a while and we had a great time taking photos of the snow covered airplanes and taxiways. It was the first time I saw so many planes on tundra tires, skis, or floats. There was practically no one else in the airport. We enjoyed the drive to the hotel with Eric telling us bits of history and comments on everything that we saw. The Swiss driving a GMC Yukon was our guide in Canada.
The original plan was a quick aerobatic flight in Eric’s Yak and floatplane ride to the River Lodge next day before we left for Anchorage. However, the weather was not cooperating. We drove instead but enjoyed the postcard view of the lakes, rivers, and trees. Imagined how the Indians and early trappers survived in this cold weather. Whitehorse is like a bear. It is a sleepy town during winter but becomes a busy tourist destination during the three months of summer. Today was definitely not summer weather so I was ready to be a hibernating bear. However, I was too excited to see what was out in the frozen wilderness.
No service for my cell phone so it was a good excuse to forget office worries. Eric’s lodge by the river end was something like you see in the movies. It had a very romantic setting. I will not mind getting married again to come over for a honeymoon during summer or even winter. All the rooms had a big glass window (or wall?) facing the river. Each room had a Jacuzzi with a good view. I can imagine having coffee in the deck with the sun rising and everything green during summer. This place is a “must return to” in my diary. Besides honeymooning, hunting and fishing will be the major activity while in the lodge. I was already counting how many piggy banks I have to break so that I get to go back on a hunting trip. For sure the PC12 will be too small to carry back the bears and moose and 6o pound river trout that we will be catching. Of course, we need to have the taxidermist work on them so we can bring them home in one whole piece and show off to our friends.
Memory sticks of cameras were running out and we wanted to get to Anchorage before dark so we had to cut short our sightseeing trip. The approach to Anchorage was very scenic. The mountains at the end of town where the runway ends made one feel mystified with these snowy mountain ranges. Dinner was Alaskan king crab at the top of the Hilton. The magnificent views were never ending.
We were always too tired every evening after a hearty meal so early retirement to our rooms became standard the past days. No one had the energy to walk around and explore specially since we were flying four to five hour legs daily and the cold and chilly air was not very encouraging.
Supap and I wanted to see some wildlife and Grizzly bears. We decided to make a side trip to Kodiak Island where they are supposed to have the biggest bears. Even from a couple of thousand feet above, Kodiak looked very pretty. As we landed, the snow-covered hill at the end of the runway was very dramatic. We rented a car to drive around and we were given the junk of the year. However, good company and view compensated for the junky ride.
While taking photos at the marina, we met some friendly locals and they said that there were several orca sightings and there were also a lot of seals by the bridge. If there are seals, then we expect some killer whales lurking around. We were worried that our rent-a-junk might fall apart in the bumpy road but we made it. As we stepped down, we saw this big fat seal sunbathing in the dock near the road. He did not look like he was going to swim in the water with the orcas close by. We decided to take the seal’s photos instead and have lunch at the Japanese restaurant close by. This was the closest we got to nature-fat seal and fresh sashimi. For us Asians, the Japanese rice was so good so no left over for that fat seal today.
That afternoon, we flew straight to Nome to prepare for our big northern pacific crossing to Russia. Again, from Kodiak, we flew over nothing else except snow and ice.
Nome was freezing for me. We took a taxi and met our first Eskimo girl in the cab. Supap’s usual friendly approach of inviting everyone for dinner did not work on the father of the Eskimo girl. He thought Supap was trying to get his fat daughter! Oh shucks, now we had to eat by ourselves again. We asked around and wanted dinner at the most popular place in Nome. This was called Fat Freddie’s. Santa Claus will certainly not be giving us gifts this coming Christmas. We had reindeer steak and king crabs again. The reindeer was probably one that got shot on Santa’s “engine failure on take off” check ride. The king crabs were king in size but not in taste and the rain deer steak was probably nicknamed Eskimo reindeer jerky. Eric was so hungry so he had no choice but to chew on it for the next hour or so. We decided to walk back to the hotel that was about three blocks away. Just one fourth of the way, I felt my ears were becoming crisp and frozen and decided to make a run for it. I made it and now I understand why they invented earmuffs.
We were up very early and decided to go to the next most popular diner in town. Just when we thought that the trip was going so well for us, weather forecast was the first issue upon arrival at the Nome FSS station. 80 Knots headwinds all the way for the 1,400 nm leg, heavy snow, low ceiling, and visibility of “0” at UHPP! There was no way we’ll ever make it. Incidentally, we did not have a snow survival suit so if we ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing whether on land or sea, we will be frozen in a couple of hours and can only hope that the next global warming comes really soon.
We were panicking because we had clearance to land in Russia only at Petropavlosv and only on that day. We were lazy and did not want to get a Russian visa so we cannot stay in Petro and have planned for a quick turn around flight. Eric looked at alternate solutions. I was trying to get hold of a phone card to call Russia and Japan since my phone still did not work in Alaska. I had to let them know of our predicament. I charmed my way to the old lady at the FSS station into using their phone to call my Russian handler to see what alternate plans he can suggest. A quick refueling stop at Anadyr will be most logical since it is en route. However, after talking to our handler and informing him we do not have a visa and permit to land in Anadyr, he said “Don’t dare do it even as an emergency unless you want to stay in Anadyr for the next thirty days!” Uh-oh that is definitely not going to be an exciting adventure. Another Nome FSS personnel overheard what I told Eric and said, “ You better believe him! Two years ago there was a single engine Piper Arrow that passed thru here headed for Japan and made an emergency landing because of headwinds and lack of fuel and from what we know, it is still in Anadyr.”
Anadyr was definitely not the alternative plan. Eric suggested to go south into another American base in the Aleutian group of islands called Adak, refuel, and continue on to Petropavlosv and on to Sendai in Japan. Sounded like a good plan since we were gaining daylight as we were headed west. We can still make our arrival appointment with Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association of Japan. This route will be much longer and we will have to fly over water for a very long period of time. But what the heck, if we make an emergency landing anywhere, we will freeze to death anyway. Now at least we can contribute to the growth of the shark population.
We took off and prepared ourselves for the long flight. We had beef jerky, chips, a lot of cookies, fruit and nut preserves, some water and even, chewing gum, so we were okay for another 24 hours of flying. We will be flying for about fourteen hours and would have been up for 22 hours by the time we got to Sendai. En route, we played around with the moving map and Jeppesen Flitestar program. Eric gave me some airport names and we checked on navaids and availability of fuel. The island of St. Paul was on the way and it would save us about 200 nautical miles. As we called control to see if we can revise our flight plan, a small commuter pilot butted in and said there was no fuel and that we should try St. George island. St. George was too small that it was not even in the map but the flite star and Jeppesen data card on our KMD 850 gives an ICAO locator and says it even has an ILS. So St. George here we come! As we turned final, I asked Eric if this was a dirt strip because it was just black. He said don’t think so but as we got closer to the island, we realize that the runway was just gravel. There was not a single tree, there was no tower, and the whole place looked like it was deserted! I was beginning to think that we have made a very bad decision.
However, as we stopped taxiing and walked to the one and only structure, some folks greeted us and confirmed that there was fuel and that they will arrange for us to refuel as soon as the truck arrives and this would be about fifteen minutes. Eric went inside the hangar and he wanted to activate our flight plan for Petro. He also wanted to get weather. I needed to advise our handler of our delayed schedule. Believe it or not, the wall phone on the dirt floor hangar in this “out of no where” airport was able to do all of that for us. I was a bit embarrassed and wanted to ask where we can pay for the long distance call. Eric said it was part of the FSS service. Even that sounded logical to me. What do you think?
There were no toilets in the area. It was freezing and we were inside the airplane for about three hours already. The locals said we can just go to the back of the hangar and there… I contributed to the growth of St. George’s wild grass. I even melted some snow on the grass.
Supap thinks this is a CIA airstrip. As for me, all I want to do was get out of there as soon as we can.
Weather in Petro improved. Our delay was not so bad after all. I made sure that the Russian authorities were informed. I did not want them to exercise their Mig 29 and Su27 skills on us as intruders in their airspace. They might even charge us the fuel after they have identified and forced us down. True enough, we saw the Migs parked outside in the snow-covered ramp as we landed.
After take off, we were ready to eat. Eric was looking for the nice cookies but Supap gave it to the good-looking immigration officer. He also gave away all of the dried fruits. All he left us were the beef jerkys. Now we know why he stayed in the plane!
Believe it or not, we were only about two and a half hours late for our planned arrival in Sendai. We had Ari Yamagata, AOPA-Japan vice president and good friend, and Dr. Mikio Takeuchi as our welcoming party. Ari-San came from Tokyo and prepared all the document formality while Takeuchi-San had flew in commercially from Hokkaido just to welcome us. He was to take the flight back soon after he greeted us. The weather was perfect but we were a few days late for cherry blossoms. Of course, this was the best season in Japan for me.
Everyone has warned us of the horrific cost of Japanese fuel, nav, landing, and handling fees but we were just happy to be there away from snow and just be with friends.
We had the best dinner at the Park Hotel. We had Sendai beef, which is almost, if not better than Kobe beef. The lobster and the abalone were fresh and Japanese rice made the difference. Eric now agrees that beef in Japan is better than that of America—except, of course, Nome reindeer steak!!
Next day was a feast on congee and grilled salmon for Supap and myself while Eric stuck to his cereals, yoghurt, and bacon. We were doing a quick flight for Chofu, the general aviation airport closest to Tokyo and where all of our other AOPA-J buddies were waiting for us. Everyone made an effort to meet us. Tomioka-San, an old friend and regular visitor in the Philippines, Noriko-San, secretary of the organization, Imahashi-San President or the group, Nakamoto-San who flew in with his brand new R44, and many others. They all came to Chofu just to welcome us. After a prolonged photo session and welcome greetings, we were off to the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi- a favorite place of mine.
Dinner was at the Italian restaurant on the top floor of Dr. Utsumi’s hospital. We were so happy to see all our friends who have made an effort to join the welcome party. We even had a “show and tell” session while eating and Fukumashi-San had side lessons for Nippongo that we will never forget. While Eric talked about the SN 609 trip from Switzerland to Denver, I in turn, narrated our fun experiences en route and showed them the few pictures we took on the way. Supap, of course, closed it with an invitation for everyone to fly to Thailand. This will be our next project and it could very well be the biggest fly-in in Asia. It was a great evening and we ended with Aoki-San’s traditional Japanese “ipponjime” clap of wish of good luck and good flight.
An invitation for a drink after the party with Tomioka-San and Kazama-San was something we could not refuse since we were already in the Roppongi area.
Great nightlife in Tokyo but we would rather spend it on another airplane than just a few drinks. Tommy-San always brings a fat bag with plenty of cash. Now I know what the cash is for!
Breakfast was nice croissant and jam at the lounge and we were off to Okinawa. The AOPA-J members were at Chofu airport to send us off. Each had a gift and again plenty of pictures to be taken. Ari-San joined us to help in our exit documentation. Korue-San wanted to fly to Okinawa from Kagoshima to meet up with us but he got stuck with a patient. Flight to Okinawa was nice and easy. No excitement at all so I was sleeping most of the way after partying all night.
Naha was the turf of our good Tomadachi Kawamitsu-San. Sure enough he was at the tarmac upon our arrival. He emphasized that he can move around the airport and process all documents because of his “Face Value”. Can’t imagine going thru Okinawa without him being around. This was our last Japanese stop and a must to have sushi. Sake was overflowing and after a picture taking competition with Japanese girls between Supap and me, everyone was drunk and ready to sleep. I had myself dropped off at the shopping area of Okinawa to get myself some original Okinawa beach T-shirts to show off on my next Boracay trip.
For the past nights, from Nome to Okinawa, I was working on our landing permits into Macau and over fly permits from Taipei and China. The authorities were very slow at processing the permits and we were running late for our target date in BKK. We decided to go via the Philippines and rush the over fly permit via Vietnam and Cambodia. We know people here so processing can be much much quicker than places where we don’t have friends.
My kiddos prepared a nice Welcome and Congratulations banner for Uncle Supap and his new Pilatus. We had Champagne pouring and lunch party at the hangar. Supap’s Filipino friends as far as Clark drove all the way to welcome him back to the Philippines and to greet him an advance Happy Birthday. After the blowing of cake and showing off the plane, the afternoon was spent on repacking all of Supap’s junk in the airplane. We gave 609 an Air Ads airplane spa scrub, bath, and polish. Spike helped uncle Supap dispose of all his electronic gadgets and was hoping to inherit his excess inventory.
Supap’s Philippine advance birthday dinner was at the Mandarin. Our other aviation friends like Archie King joined us. We exaggerated our Eskimo girl stories and gave everyone a good laugh. We are hoping the flying stories will entice Archie to get himself a jet soon. It was hard to end the night but had to go because of an early start the next day.
We were airborne for Bangkok at seven as planned. Flying direct via Ho Chi Min and Phnom Phen. We have flown the PC12 for about 48 hours now. It could truly be one of the best single engine turbo prop. I like the range but only on a high cruise setting but that is good enough and besides being in a small airplane for more than five hours is not something we would like to do. I love its solid heavy metal appearance and structure.
The cockpit and instrument set up is organized like you were flying a big jet (Although the instrumentation makes it feel like an old jet and not the new generation ones. Sharp in the nineties but not in 2005.). Handles and knobs like the flap, landing gear, and throttle all feel very big and serious- I really like that. However, the heater at the cabin was not heating the cabin when it was cold and the air con in front was not cooling when we were in the tropics. A balance of the two should be worked on by Pilatus. The trailing link landing gears make even stupid pilots like me look good. But the aileron control especially on slow speeds takes the light but solid feel away from the PC12. I miss the positive controls of the King Airs. Not having manual trim wheels feels like something is missing on the airplane. Small modern stylish cabin seats were comfy and fitted for Asian built. Feels more European than the old American bulky and fat seats. Okay I can’t be too picky. I’m not the customer, I am just the critical observer.
“N595PB clear to land”. We were on final approach to Bangkok. Pilatus 609 will be in its new home. N595PB will now be HS-SMC. Supap will not be just the friend and pilot but will be “Khun Supap” and the only Thai civilian private pilot that has gone around the world with his airplane. Even Eric and myself might be titled “Khun”.
It is always sad to be on the final approach of any venture, adventure, and even life. We will always remember our fantastic take offs, fast and high cruises, low passes with magnificent pull-ups! We will always remember the fantastic trip we had and wish the trip would continue on. By the way, the reason for the target date in Bangkok was Supap’s birthday celebration. Wish I had the same birthday present—Happy 53rd Birthday Supap!