Monday, October 17, 2005

IFR = I Follow River?

Flying into Kuala Lumpur last week for our base check, we were given a treat, flying overhead the Malaysian capital. Weather was the best it could be, but being used to Kinabalu weather, looks pretty gloomy! Our descent flight path puts us slightly to the southeastern side of Kuala Lumpur giving us a spectecular view of the whole city. I managed to capture this shot (left) of KLCC Twin Towers. Sure ain't look that big from here which by the way, is NOT the tallest anymore as the Taipei 101 has taken away the title as the tallest in the world. Passing through, we could also catch the whole Petaling Jaya area as well as Subang Jaya and the old Subang Airport before making a left turn for finals Runway 14L. On finals, on our left, another magnificant setting, the country's administrative centre, Putrajaya. Touching down in Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) makes it a spectecle itself. This airport looks really amazing, the only thing lacking being traffic around the apron. But I remembered was only a handful of them 2-3 years back, so I could say there are some improvements going on around here. I've definately been flying too long in East Malaysia.

Anyways, pondering on this issue, I would like to share an equally amazing experience flying into Lahad Datu on the eastern coast of Sabah. Lahad Datu is one of the smaller town among the big four (Kinabalu, Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Tawau). Development rate is very slow here and the runway is only 1371m (4498ft) long, which is pretty short for a Fokker 50. The Twin Otter @ Twotter boys can do better. They can land at runway lengths of only a few hundred meters or about 1500ft! But thats another matter and another story, which we'll hopefully cover next time. Lahad Datu, like all the other big four is a coastal town. Coming in from Kinabalu you basically fly very long finals into Runway 11, which is the standard runway for Lahad Datu. Runway 29 is normally used if IMC or low clouds on finals of Runway 11 which normally happens on the first flight in. Lahad Datu is equiped with one Non Directional Beacon (NDB) navigational aid (navaid) which is a real dinosaur and is normally affected by coastal and mountain refractions giving an unreliable reading. It gets worse when flying into thunderstorm type weather where the needle will point to the nearest storm cell! And that is just the beginning!

We frequently fly into Lahad Datu as no other fleet operates there. (Besides Fokker 50, Sandakan and Tawau are also serviced by 737 from Kinabalu). On average we fly there 9 times daily and sometimes you even do multiple Lahad Datu sectors also known as the "Lahad Datu ding-dong" flights. Starting off from Kinabalu, the journey normally take us over the Crocker Range, flying just above the second highest peak, Mt Trus Madi, which is about 8,500ft high, before continuing outbound over generally flat lands with slight hills and small mountains along the way, as well as the famous Kinabatangan River, which is about where we start our descent into Lahad Datu. That part of the flight is generally simple and easy until the descent phase. Since Lahad Datu uses an NDB for its navaid, which does not tell us how far we are, we will have to use a VHF Omni-directional Range (VOR) navaid from Sandakan. We use the radial from this navaid an apply a simple formula called 1 in 60 rule (associated with trigonometry) to get our distance from Lahad Datu. Imagine, monitoring our descent profile by constantly applying the formula every 1000ft! It sure can be mind boggling especially when coupled with bad weather and poor visibility and flying with inaccurate navaid into an airfield with a short runway. How's that?

Normally on a good weather like most of the time, we use visual points on the ground to judge how far we are and what height we should be over that point. The most promenant mark will be the Quarry, which is situated next to a river. The Quarry (above) should be on the right of the aircraft and you should be around 3,500ft overhead this point (some say 4,500ft and some say 2,500 depending on the person). Sometimes you could already see the airfield from here. If not, the basic rule of thumb is to stay left of the river as the right side would be high terrain and you definately wont wanna descent through that! The next cue will be the bridge at which you should be 2,000ft to the left of the aircraft. Heading straight (below) brings you towards the airfield identified by a green roofed factory which is to the right of the runway end and also the water tank (the small white dot to the right of the green roofed factory) on the finals of Runway 11, where we should be overhead at around 800ft. Once establiashed on finals, its all text book from there onwards. Positive landing gets the brownie points here as you dont really want to float to long on this pretty short runway! Once on the ground, you'll be greeted by a small but effiecient group of ground crew consisting of an aircraft technician (from Kinabalu base, flies in and out of Lahad Datu daily!), a couple of traffic staff to guide passengers to the terminal and unload baggages from the aircraft. It is almost similar to an experience you would encounter while flying into the rural interiors of Sarawak on the Twin Otter, but as I say earlier, their experience is on another level. Every one knows everybody there like a small family or small community. Sometimes you can even see passengers checking in at the last minute or a passenger walking back to his house on foot! There is a road right next to the main apron and you would normally be the local hero when you fly there. Starry eyed kids, big and small, will be seeing off their relatives or family members and when you taxy out, they would wave back at you. A simple wave goodbye normally ends this adventure as its time to go back to Kinabalu. There is a daylight limitation in Lahad Datu because the runway is not lighted. So, we must leave before sunset unless you want to nightstop in Lahad Datu. So if you ever get a chance to fly into Lahad Datu, do remember the landmarks and try to spot them. Alright thats all for now, catch ya next week. Ciao.


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