Monday, July 21, 2014

Day 11 - Hall's Creek YHLC to Alice Springs YBAS

We woke up in Hall's Creek to an early breakfast, which turned out to be a bit late because they were delayed opening the restaurant. This made our tour leader Val a bit nervous - she is perpetually harping about getting an early start. Going east and south, it's even more important - we're losing a few minutes of daylight each day due to the increasing south latitude, and as we head east we're losing clock time as we traverse Australia's slightly fractured time zones.

Loading up the airplane, we were relieved to discover that despite Val's tales of vandalism and etc, no one had interfered with the aircraft during the night. Doing preflight delayed us a bit behind the tour airplanes, as Val had gotten there early to preflight both airplanes, but that was fine sicne we tend to catch them up in the air anyway. This time, doing preflight, I didn't find anything of concern (nose gear strut still okay!) but the engine oil was down to 6.5 or 7 quarts, so I put another quart in.

On departure (from an otherwise deserted small airport) we began our climb out and turned mostly south, tracking 169 degrees towards the Wolf Creek Meteor Crater. My pax and I had managed to get the GoPro mounted as usual - we have no idea if it works or not because for some reason I can't get it to talk to my Mac to download images or video. In addition, I've found that the biggest problem I have with the thing is that its battery only lasts for an hour or perhaps 90 minutes, even when doing timelapse photography and not video, so we can't get whole flights. This time, however, the crater looked interesting enough that we were prepared, and we turned it on a few minutes before arriving (although I still haven't been able to check to see if it's working).

We reached the crater while flying at around 3,000 feet. Ground level was approximately 1200 feet, so we were perhaps 1800 to 2200 feet AGL. I orbited the crater twice in a standard rate turn, dropping the wings into a steep turn for a bit so we could look out at it. The crater is perhaps a third of a mile to half a mile across, with greenery at the center where water has collected at the bottom. We could see the visitor's center with vehicles parked near it. After a couple of orbits and some photos, we headed off at around 121 degrees, heading for our lunch stop.

The flight was another 200 NM or so. The ground crept upwards slowly but steadily. We were passing over what is pretty clearly desert terrain - sand, scrubby vegetation, and some interesting ridges of rock looking like they had had the sand worn away from their tops, stretching in parallel straight lines across the surface. The color of the ground ranged from pale yellow sand to the deep rust red of true Australian iron-rich dirt. At one point, an entire sharply defined area of the ground was essentially black- from fire, we were told. The sharp edges were due to roadways being used to anchor firebreaks and allow firefighting access.

Approaching our lunch stop, I was in the lead. This stop didn't have ATIS/AWIS weather - it didn't, in fact, even have a wind sock. This stop was Tillmouth Wells Road House - which is Australian for 'service area'. That's what it is - a petrol station and restaurant on a long road, which happens to have a dirt airstrip out back.

Entering an upwind for my chosen runway, I found that the wind (according to the Garmin magic in SDN) was around 8 knots from 060, so I reported that to the aircraft further back and set up for a landing on what looked to be fairly patchy dirt. Thank goodness we got the nose gear fixed! The strip was a good 3000 feet in lngth, no worry there. We came in on final over a cleared area, with a packed gravel rectangle for parking, and thankfully no emus, galahs, wallabies, roos or other Australian wildlife were occupying the runway (I admit, that had been partly the reason I flew a full circuit).

On landing, I noted some straong round shapes on the runway, as well as piles which...well, yes, they were animal dung. Didn't worry about that much, it's soft, but I wasn't sure what the brightly-colored round things were. I was pretty sure they weren't eggs, but...? Turns out they were small paddock melons, growing from ground vines on the strip. Ah.

We got to the northwest end (that we'd approached over) and I parked on the gravel pad. As we shut down, I hopped out and looked around. The nearest buildings were a good hundred meters away, and no-one was in sight, so I decided that I couldn't wait and moved off a bit to water a patch of Australian dirt. I've discovered that I probably don't have to worry about running out of fuel in a 182 - my bladder has roughly half the endurance of its tanks.

After the other two airplanes landed, I decided I didn't need fuel. The 172s got a top-off from a pair of drums that were hauled out by a forklift - that's their fueling system at Tillmouth Wells, and good on 'em. The rest of us wandered into the road house, where I bought a soft drink and would have bought a meat pie, but my pax had gotten there ahead of me and pinched the last one. So I had a bacon and egg roll. We ate out the back yard of the restaurant, and were attended to faithfully by two very solidly built Stafford Terriers who had come out to greet our airplanes and sniff them suspiciously.

Finishing up, we ambled back to the planes and started up. I waited for the other two aircraft to depart, giving them time not only to get ahead of us but also for the enormous clouds of dust they kicked up to subside, before starting up SDN. I'm getting better at that - getting a feel for the amount of priming the engine likes, and when, and learning how to advance the mixture to ensure a start. Did a checklist, then a final T-check (Fuel selector on both, flaps, mixture, prop, throttle, magnetos). Put in ten degrees of flap for the soft field and warm day, and carefully added power to start the taxi so as not to create vortices and suck gravel into the prop. Managed it, and bumped us over to the start of the airstrip before carefully adding in full power, and we were off.

We only had a hundred miles or so to go for the last leg. Apparently Tillmouth is popular coming in to Alice Springs from the northwest not only because it has dogs and food and fuel but because it is just outside the outer ring of the Alice Springs control area. At thirty miles, after listening to the tour planes do so (I'd managed to slow cruise enough to stay behind them) we called up Alice Springs tower and announced our presence and intentions and requested a clearance. This time, we used 'radial' rather than 'bearing' because Alice Springs has a VOR. They cleared us straight in, and chatted up the tour leader about where she was headed next and etc - they apparently know her. The approach to Alice Springs takes you over a series of ridges - in addition to slight bumps as you come in, it's a pretty approach as you come directly over the tops, and end up flying over a gap to approach the runway which means the ridges rise up to either side of you. Managed to get one picture coming in, hastily, with my iPhone, before putting it away and setting up for final.

Landed at YBAS, called up the fuel truck and got SDN snugged away. We had two nights in Alice Springs; the next day, we went to a desert park to look at local wildlife (including an excellent free-flight bird show where raptors and other local birds swoop a couple of inches over your heads), and in the afternoon walked a couple of local parks centered on chasms or gaps in the ridges.

My pax and I wondered why Alice hasn't expanded to fill the bowl that it sits in - it's around 28,000 permanent population - and discovered that it may be because the outer areas of the bowl are a flood plain. Some years ago local storms resulted in Alice Springs becoming (briefly) an island.

Alice Springs is the middle of Australia. The Ghan - a train that runs from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin on the north - was in town, and we drove past to have a look at it as it breathed gently and waited for its passengers to re-embark. Finally, we had dinner at our hotel restaurant, and I wrote up flight plans and notes for the next day. My pax and I also started discussing our plans for what to do after the tour ends - we have two more days of flying, which will take us to Stawell, Victoria, where the tour is based; after that, we're on our own. One problem is that Victoria and New South Wales seem to have the most weather problems, at least in winter - so what we end up doing will depend on the weather situation, as well as how long it takes SDN to get her 100-hr inspection, which we need to take her back to Camden for. We'll head to Camden from Stawell, completing The Tour Loop of some 4500 NM, and then determine what to do from there. Probably some short trips - a couple or three days, no more - before coming back and handing in the airplane for good.

I'll be sad to lose the freedom of having SDN, but I have to admit, I'm a bit tired - lots of early days - and flying alone is more stressful, since I don't have the tour pilots for local knowledge and planning assistance, so a few more days will be about right. Then we'll spend a few days in Sydney relaxing while waiting for our flight home to the U.S.

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