Sunday, August 3, 2014

Lessons Learned during Outback Overflight

This post is a catch-all for things that I've learned about flying in Australia as an American over the course of the trip. If you're considering or planning a flying trip to Australia from the U.S., I hope this helps in some small way.

  • Make sure you've checked and tested your credit cards for functionality. Turns out that avgas fueling points are much more finicky than regular merchants about credit cards. It's possible that US debit cards don't work here - or maybe mine just don't. In any case, they also generally only take Visa and Mastercard at the pumps - if they take anything other than an aviation fuel carnet. If you're somewhere with fuelling personnel, they may be able to take American Express, but it's not likely. If you bring a MC/Visa, make sure that it is chip-and-PIN - while I was in Australia, a deadline passed for all Australian cards to be required to have chip and PIN - signatures are no longer accepted.
  • Do your paperwork well in advance. Although I was fortunate enough that my Certificate of Validation came through in time, I nearly was tripped up by the English Language Proficiency requirement and by the time it takes to process the application. This is complicated by the fact that CASA specifically tells you not to apply for a CoV with a 'starting valid time' farther in the future than three months. Ideally, it seems, the best thing to do would be to come to Australia without flying solo and use that trip to do paperwork, sync up with your rental agency and take care of all the other tasks - for me that wasn't an option (Airborne Aviation tells me that they have several clients who live in SE Asia who maintain permanent Australian ASICs using Airborne's office as a mailing address). If you'll be in Australia more than once, I strongly recommend you consider starting the paperwork on the previous trip. My ASIC did not show up - because although I had the application in in good time, CASA had told me that the immigration check for my arrival would be automated and take around 24 hours - but when I got here, they admitted that it sometimes takes Immigration up to 14 days to respond to their requests, and until they had that confirmation, they couldn't process the ASIC.
  • The ASIC is more necessary than it seems. Nearly all airports in the ERSA are listed as 'Security Controlled.' While this isn't really true (some of these, no names mentioned, were deserted and had the 'security gate' held closed with a simple gate latch) it's also true that some small airports are staffed by very serious and zealous security types. If you don't have an ASIC, it's possible that you can get away with asking them for a temporary authorization based on 1) your status as a foreign pilot 2) your Certificate of Validation and Aviation Reference Number and a copy of your ASIC application and 3) the fact that you landed an airplane there rather than trying to gain admission from the outside. But don't count on it.
  • Different people at CASA will give you different answers to the same question - and it's not at all clear whose answer is 'controlling' - and perhaps none of them are. Get all answers from CASA in writing - email is OK, make sure they give you their names and contact numbers in the message - and make sure you bring paper copies of all your applications and email correspondence with you. Worst case, you can refer inquirers to the CASA personnel who answered you. No guarantee this will work, but it shows you're prepared and doing your best, and even among Security personnel here in Australia, that seems to count for something. Also familiar is their willingness to believe that the government agency has given incorrect answers, especially when your claim is backed with evidence.
  • If you get in trouble or get confused, the key phrase when talking to ATC is 'Unfamiliar - foreign pilot.' They seem to be quite cheerful and pleasant about helping you through confusion, so long as you're not trying to use this to bull through procedures.
  • Every emergency kit in a small plane should include several metal hose clamps of various sizes and some thick rubber hose of various lengths. :-P Make sure you have the proper tools to at least open your cowling.
  • The paper charts here are a bit confusing - there are several types of chart, with information distributed across the types (WAC, ERC Low/High, VTC, VNC). Make sure you buy a PCA - the 'planning' chart that tells you which charts apply where. Unlike the US, there isn't a diagram on each subchart for this. I strongly recommend the OzRunways application (for iOS, may be coming for Android) - it is a joy to use, and has all these map types and more in it, so you're not switching charts to find things like field elevation, CTAF frequencies, airway paths, and the like in flight. Obviously, have the paper with you and within reach - but electronics can make the paper easier to manage. Oh, and - OzRunways has a free thirty-day trial period, which includes all charts - so don't download and play with it until you're ready to activate your 30-day window, if you want to save some cash.
  • The ERSA (Australian equivalent of the AFD) is an excellent resource, and includes flight procedures for popular scenic routes and restricted/prohibited areas (indexed by area ID number) as well as straight aerodrome info.
  • If you get a local cellular SIM or phone, get Telstra. So far, we've only been completely out of Telstra range once in flight, and we're almost across to Broome. Vodafone didn't fare nearly as well. Telstra had, when I was there, a certification called 'Blue Check' which indicated that phone did better in remote areas.
  • Get onto AirServices NAIPS. Most of what you need to do vis-a-vis flight plans, weather, NOTAMs and the like can be done online. As soon as you have an ARN (Aviation Reference Number) you can get a free account on the AirServices NAIPS website (like DUATS). Get an Australian pilot to run you through the basics if you're uncertain about how to use it - there are docs online on the site, though. I made a homepage link to it on my iPad.
  • The local iOS app 'AWIS' is very handy - it's just a directory (by airfield code/name) of the automated weather (AWIS) phone numbers, and will dial them from the app. Dial, hold the cell phone speaker up to your headset mike - or better yet plug it into your AUX if your airplane has one - and bob's your uncle for finding the local QNH and winds. Not all AWIS stations report cloud cover/height.
  • NAIPS is the Airservices website equivalent of DUATS, and works well. You'll need an Aviation Reference Number to sign up, so you'll have to wait until your first round of applications goes through.
  • If you rent a plane 'wet' with fuel carnets provided, make sure they have a BP carnet included. I had Mobil and Shell, and while those seemed to be OK in NSW/QLD, up in NT and WA, BP ruled the roost.
  • Victoria should be avoided during the winter. The weather there can be a real PITA - it comes north and east across the Great Australian Bight, and can blanket the area south of a line from Adelaide to Sydney with clouds, rain, fog and other crap weather with not a ton of notice, for days on end. Stay north of that line and the weather seems to be mostly clear, blue and mild during July.
  • Get out of the Sydney Basin while the getting is good. When weather does come up, especially wind and cloud, you'll find yourself stuck behind 3500-4500 foot hills all around Sydney which cause nasty turbulence above them during windy days (and low Class C airspace floors over them) . If you have an extra day or two at the start of a trip, get out of that basin - get as far as Dubbo to the northwest or Griffith to the southwest, or further if you can, to avoid getting stuck like I did. Essentially, get past the hills.