A Cirrus, a Diamond and a fuel stacked RV-4 team up over the Tasman for an (almost) boys’ own adventure, calling in at Lord Howe and Norfolk along the way. Surrounded by a vast ocean and dubious company, Shelley Ross gives thanks to God and advanced technology.
“Are those guys wearing ... snorkels?” I peer harder across the distance between us and the Diamond DA40 which we’re just catching up to. Sure enough, they’ve seen us coming and the two lunatic pilots up front are now sporting beaming grins and thumbs up as we get closer. Dead set, it’s lucky we know them, for if anyone else caught two grown-ups flying a plane wearing blue plastic goggles and snorkels there’d be some white coats and cuffs produced quick-smart.
Have to be in it
It’s a flying adventure that may not be on everyone’s Bucket List, but when all the planets are lining up to make it happen you’d have to ask yourself why not? And so it was on that balmy morning in Autumn that I found myself strapped into a life jacket at 9500ft above the Tasman on the way to New Zealand, 216 nautical miles from my bed and a nauseating hike from anything resembling a nice dry airstrip.
This was the halfway mark between Bankstown Aerodrome and Lord Howe Island. Pretty committed, I’d say. If things were suddenly to turn pear-shaped in the engine department out here, (which I admit was pretty unlikely in this brand new Cirrus we were in) really, what are you going to do about it? If your number’s up, your number’s up, I say, and all the onboard safety equipment in the world would not prevent that scenario ending in tears, so I embrace my philosophy in life that it’s infinitely better to take the dare than die wondering.
It’s now been over an hour since we soared overhead the last wave off Manly beach. With the unfailingly consistent view out the window of water, water and more water, I for one was ready for a distraction. In the right-hand seat for this trip, I was itching for stuff to do. (My flying had not passed muster when offered the controls during the climb. It was a new Cirrus SR22 G3 for heaven’s sake - can I help it if the poor bloke can’t afford a proper control yoke like I’m used to in real aeroplanes?)
Anyway, moving on, I felt it was time to crank up an air-to-air photo shoot. Now, who else can we find out here ....? Aah there we go, up ahead in the distance, and closing fast I’ve got to say, a lovely shiny Diamond DA40 and a beautiful canary yellow RV-4 - right on our flight path. “Peak hour at 12 o’clock” observes my pilot, David Green. “I’d better slow down if you want some shots.” You’ve gotta love the cockiness of a Cirrus pilot.
David put on the brakes and slowed us down to a sedate pace to keep abreast of our safari companions. Meet the deep-sea diving crew, Steve Duroy and Darren Friend in Steve’s Diamond and, revelling in flying his own home built RV-4 on its maiden overseas safari, solo pilot Phil Ayrton. The stamina crown on the trip would go resolutely to Phil, flying the return crossing on his own, with one radio and no auto-pilot.
It has to be said that Phil slept very well each night we were away. But now, with the TCAS screen assuring us that we three aircraft had the sky to ourselves, I settle down to clicking away on my camera. Down below, the liquid miles are vanishing behind us as our position on the magic magenta line claws ever closer to our first destination of Lord Howe.
The game plan
In the lead-up to flying across to New Zealand in single engine light aircraft, the obvious attraction was safety in numbers and now that we were here, all five crew members appreciated the comfort of having the others if not always in sight, then always within radio range.
If you are leaving from Sydney or thereabouts, and your intention is to end up in NZ, the options for your crossing are limited. Conveniently situated approximately one-third and two-thirds of the way across the ocean respectively, the islands of Lord Howe and Norfolk are the only real choices for refuelling, leg-stretching and refocussing. So that was the plan. Originally we wanted a night on each island, but the price of accommodation on Lord Howe was just plain ridiculous; Capella Lodge, for example, wanted $1200 per person per night.
Okay, so that’s an ultra luxury property, but it’s the only place that replied with an availability. Although very busy, the island was not booked out, but the properties tend to hang out for a minimum stay of five nights if they can get it. I guess, apart from transient pilots and dismasted yachtsmen, there isn’t a big call for a single night’s shelter in this remote and tropical paradise. We also had to scrutinise their cancellation policies which, given the renowned fickle weather of this island, could well have been an issue.
So the revised itinerary was to leave the Sydney coast at around 0700 on day one, land for an early lunch and refuelling stop at LHI and get straight back into more flying that afternoon, to get to Norfolk Island by mid-afternoon.
The plan was then to spend two nights on Norfolk, giving us a rest day from life jackets, headsets and jellybeans, and an opportunity to look around. Early on the third day, we would fly on to the northern tip of the New Zealand mainland, landing at Kerikeri, just inland from the Bay of Islands and the closest airport that offers Customs and Immigration entry services.
That all worked. We scored good weather and, at 160kts, each leg took a little over three hours so the distance is comfortably achieved in a single day, even if you’re cruising at more like 130kts. The first two legs are around 485nm each and the last leg a little shorter.
It was late morning when the view out the front finally began to centre on the increasingly familiar and unmistakeable image of Lord Howe. Rising 850 metres out of the sea, the majestic Mt Gower and her smaller side-kick, Mount Lidgbird, began to shape our first glimpse of dry land.
By the time we were circling overhead for some knockout views from every angle, each pilot had received valuable info about the on-ground conditions from LHI Maritime and made the required CTAF calls.
Once you’ve hopped out of your aircraft at Lord Howe and finished kissing the ground, you’ll start to appreciate what a gloriously beautiful part of the southern Pacific this is. Apart from a fairly useless pointy rock they call Ball’s Pyramid 12nm away, the island is an isolated volcanic land mass only 11km long and barely two km wide. (Cripes, I’m glad we didn’t miss it.)
Pandanus, Banyan, and native Kentia Palm forests give it that tropical feel and the pace, from what we saw during the couple of hours we were there, is seriously laid back.
With very few cars allowed on the island, and a top speed of 25kph anyway, you start to get the picture that you’re here for a chill so you may as well chuck the iPhone back in the bag, grab a pushbike like everyone else does and set about getting that blood pressure down. (Your mobile phone won’t actually work anyway since the locals rejected the offer of civilised telecoms.)
They don’t do crowds at Lord Howe, so during your stay you are bound to have many of the tranquil bays, beaches and back roads to yourself. All the water sports that you can think of, and that you’re so bad at, are available, plus challenging bush treks, fish feeding and reef walking. Check out all the options on the net, starting with www.lordhoweisland.info.
Man of many hats, Andrew McKay, who is the Customs guy and local copper, was extremely friendly and helpful in showing us around the island and dropping us off at a great café in town for lunch. He even organised LHI Maritime Man, Clive Wilson, to give us a lift back to the airport. Thank you gentlemen. By the way, the landing fee at LHI is $50, cash only.
From my point of view as a passenger as we trekked on across the Pacific, now on our way to Norfolk Island, the over-water viewing held little interest. After all, it’s just water. But that’s just the point; the best outcome for this particular sortie is a very boring and uneventful crossing. What was going on in the cockpit was infinitely more absorbing.
An ocean crossing doesn’t come without its inherent risks, so any instrument that aids with situational awareness and thus leaves you with more headspace for unexpected in-flight situations has to be your best friend.
The Perspective avionics suite in the Cirrus offers state of the art technology; the information available at the press of a button is extraordinary. Don’t worry about the fact the old school pilots managed it all with a magnetic compass, ASI and altimeter; all very clever but they didn’t have a choice.
A word from the pilots
Says Darren Friend, (who’s an experienced flying instructor at Curtis Aviation when he takes his snorkel off): “Go for the best avionics you can afford. A G1000 with SVT (Synthetic Vision Technology) like we had in the Diamond sure gives some peace of mind, just in case you pass your PNR (point of no return) and then the weather changes to below VMC or IFR minimas. Definitely use autopilot if you’ve got it, to reduce fatigue, and make sure you know your aircraft’s power, pitch and mixture settings to give best range.
“And with a crossing like this,” he goes on, “wait out any bad weather. Try not to get sucked into get-there-itis. Before your departure, check early and often regarding what the weather is likely to be doing at Lord Howe and Norfolk when you get there, and don’t underestimate the effect that strong forecast winds could have on your landing.
“If you want to do a scenic around LHI or NF, do it at the end of each leg, as you are at your final destination and can use any excess fuel to tour around and take pics. Don’t do it as you depart; you want to leave as much fuel for the over water leg as possible.”
Most of the contact numbers you’ll need for weather, special procedures, customs requirements etc will be found in the ERSA, but here’s how David Green began his research into the planning:
“I sent an email to Andrew at Customs on Lord Howe (email@example.com) and let him know that we were going to be flying through and he replied with the necessary forms to be filled out for the departure/return flights. I also sent an email to NZ Customs (NTC Operations Centre: NTCOperationsCentre@customs.govt.nz) and they sent the required forms for entry.
“The standard entry point into New Zealand is Auckland, so you need to make sure that you have approval for entry via Kerikeri. Any additional info you’ll need is on the net. I spoke to both LHI and NF about our arrival and departure a number of times in the weeks leading up to the trip, and also inquired about fuel.”
Lord Howe now has a VHF repeater station which allowed our little fleet continuous VHF reception from mainland to LHI and out to about 100-150nm from LHI at 9000ft AMSL.
Norfolk CTAF could be picked up from about 100-150nm out, so there was a little gap of no reception in the middle of this leg that required position reports via airliners in the area, who were more than happy to assist and usually couldn’t help themselves enquiring what we were flying and what we were up to.
Approaching LHI, we contacted Lord Howe Maritime (126.4MHz) and received actual on-ground weather conditions at the airport from resident Clive, who was extremely helpful.
Pay particular attention to the airspace fine print when flying into the New Zealand Oceanic FIR, where hemispherical rules change and the QNH setting becomes 1013hPa at the GPS waypoint of TEKAP, rather than the Area QNH you’ve been using in Australian airspace.
Fuel management is a critical part of the planning for this trip; says David. “In the Cirrus, I generally plan at 175 TAS with a fuel burn of 55 litres/hr. During the crossing we had a TAS of 160kts and a fuel burn of 50 litres/hr at around 60 per cent power so we could fly in convoy with Phil in the RV-4. The G3 has a 350-litre tank with a range of over 1000nm plus reserve so we had enough range to get to the islands and return if required.
Our safety equipment included the Cirrus’ built-in ballistic parachute, life jackets, a hired four-man life raft from M.O.S.S. Australia with emergency provisions, a fixed 406MHz EPIRB in the airframe, two 406 GPS-equipped handheld PLBs, food and five litres of water on board.
Hmmm, interesting. You know how they say some destinations suit the newly-weds and others the nearly deads? Well, on first impressions, I thought Norfolk might just squeeze into the latter. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely beautiful; it’s just very quiet. (Who in their right mind closes Duty Free shops, in fact all the shops, at midday on a Saturday?) So my suggestion is to dive into the island’s history.
After a bit of digging, you’ll learn that the island is marinading in the legacy of a spicy convict past, to which the passage of time has lent a tangible element of pride for its current residents, who’ll all tell you they’re direct descendents of the Bounty mutineers.
During the era between 1788 and 1855, Norfolk became known as one of the harshest and cruellest of Australia’s penal settlements. Things were looking up by 1856 when the last of the convicts had gone and the island was settled by the descendents of the mutineers and their Tahitian wives who’d come here from Pitcairn Island.
So hire a car, grab a map and get going. The winding roads all through the hills offer breathtaking views across the island; and you can’t turn a corner without being dwarfed by the massive tree ferns and Norfolk pines. After about nine minutes, you’ll be automatically doing the special Norfolk one-finger wave thing the locals do when driving past each other.
If you can manage that while dodging the cows that call the roads their own, then that’ll be a good thing. Apparently it’ll cost you something shocking if you misjudge their next move and hit one.
Spend your day working up an appetite for the menu at Norfolk Blue restaurant; nestled in a beautiful tropical setting 10 minutes from town and probably the best feed of local beef you’ll find on the trip. (That’s another good reason to give those meandering prime cuts space on the roads.)
Clamber through the stone ruins of the colonial penal settlement down at the picturesque waterfront town of Kingston; walk out onto the old whaling wharf and don’t miss a visit to the first-class museum in the Arthur’s Vale Historic area.
The final leg
From here, you’re on a long final for mainland New Zealand. Brace yourself for the onslaught of Kiwi accents filling your headset, Maori names on the map you’ve got no hope of pronouncing and the very probable prospect of the Land of the Long White Cloud earning its reputation at some point while you’re airborne over her 70 per cent mountainous land mass.
Crossing an ocean from one country to another, with friends on both sides of your aircraft as the miles and the hours tick by, has been a very special experience for this bunch of pilots. It has put to the test a great deal of training in aircraft systems and instrument familiarity, fuel management, weight and balance and performance tables, and the not inconsequential technique of bladder control.
It’s a fine balance. Weather will be your biggest variable; give the forecast your utmost scrutiny and make sure you pick up the phone and make use of the on-location contacts in ERSA to help you form a realistic picture of what to expect around the time you’ll be arriving.
Whether you spend the whole time terrified or relaxed, it’s going to be a memorable experience, certainly raising the calibre of entries in the log book. But be prepared; you know the legend goes that your engine is going to run a whole lot rougher over water.
Larry Quintal, Deputy Airport Manager
Ph: 0011 6723 22445; E: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.admin.gov.nf/
Met office, Norfolk Airport: 0011 6723 22079
Tourism infomation: www.norfolkisland.nf
Accom: Hibiscus Aloha Apartments; Ph: +6723 22325;
$150/nt twin share
Norfolk Blue Ph: 0011 6723 22068