Pilots Blog, Week 1: Paradise, Giants and an island called Christmas, Part II

READ ‘Pilots Blog, Week 1: Paradise, Giants and an island called Christmas, Part I’ – HERE


I was on my way to Christmas Island. After two relatively trouble free flights, my flight from Pago Pago was all action from the word go. As I climbed into the air from Pago Pago, communications were weak and I found I was constantly battling the radios to try and get a signal. In addition to that, I was hand flying as the autopilot isn’t designed to fly it with these weights. On top of hand flying and poor communications was managing my fuel.

When I finally reached top of my climb into the air, it was about time to begin the first fuel transfer from the ferry tank to the wing tank. This is a task I have quickly taken on with ease, but today with a number of things going on, I needed to be on the ball more than ever, however with so much going on I was given a reminder of just how important this task is.

Part of my job is to burp the fuel tank, which is a process where I massage the extra air out of the tank in order for the fuel to be picked up properly and transferred into the wing tank. Flying up high, you encounter reduced air pressure, so anything with air in it expands. Next time you’re on a flight, get yourself a packet of chips and see it expand as you ascend – it’s a small scale copy of what was happening with the fuel tank, it was expanding so needed burping before I transferred fuel, all routine.

However, I was approaching a region called the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which begins usually around 7-8 degrees south of the equator until about 5 degrees south of the equator.

In the ITCZ often you will encounter some pretty hefty storms and this day was just not going to be my day, I knew it. Whilst managing my communications and hand flying the aircraft, I received a whack in the head with the metal refill cap on my fuel tank, of course as the air expanded. Despite this, I managed to get the fuel pickup in the tank enough for at least one transfer, which I began as I started weaving through the storms around me.

If I had to describe the storms, they were like huge, grey giants battling each other high in the sky while I tried to avoid hitting their feet in my little Cirrus.

I weaved and maneuvered my way through the first 3/4 of the ITCZ, however upon reaching the last quarter I was presented with my biggest challenge. There were two huge cells, bigger than I had ever seen, very close together but covering what I guess to be a 100 nautical mile front. In between them was a gap, you can tell where it is because the towering section of the cloud is the storms, and there will sometimes be surround cloud, which isn’t as intense. So using the skills I had been taught, I went with my gut and made a decision to go through the gap.

About 30 seconds after entering the cloud I broke out again right where I had aimed for between the two cells and ahead of me was a perfect tunnel to escape the giants, on the other side was the end of the ITCZ and perfect blue skies.

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Going for the blue sky between storms!

The remainder of the flight was then as the first few legs had been, albeit with a couple of more hours of hand flying before putting the autopilot on and cruising to Christmas Island, Kiribati.

The island itself was again quite beautiful to fly into and being on the ground was certainly being on island time!

Speaking to the local information service on the radio I confirmed with them that both customs and the refuellers would be ready upon my arrival, perfect.

After putting the aircraft down and taxiing in, I was met by a marshaller, but there were no customs or fuel as had been confirmed not long before. After a little creative negotiating and a few calls from Tiote (pronounced Sett-eh), we eventually managed to get customs and the refuellers in…3 hours later.

Refuelling was a bit of fun, with the fuel coming in drums from a little truck due to the more remote nature of Kiribati. After clearing the fuel as ok to put into the aircraft, using a special test kit, the refueller hand pumped while I nozzled the wing tanks and finally the ferry tank. Following that little experience I headed to my hotel for some food and well earned rest after a long day.

Now remember the remoteness of Kiribati, small pacific island, with no fuel bowsers, just pre-ordered drums. Well, the accommodation was also a little way off the great streak I had enjoyed to that point. But I guess to be expected.

There was a gap under the door big enough that you could have driven a crane through. As well as the half a door, the lights were only partially working and the bed was smaller than me but that’s ok. I was so tired I really didn’t mind and I just needed sleep.

So I went to have a shower before getting some dinner but the showerhead was missing and the taps were broken, so I decided some deodorant would do the trick and headed off to the “restaurant”.

The room I had dinner in, on plastic deck chairs, was pleasant enough and after a few failed attempts at trying to get food (as they didn’t have it) I managed to get some spicy chicken, which I am hoped I wouldn’t regret later on.

I headed back into my room, checked the bed for crabs or any other creature, and fell into a coma for the next 7 hours.

Upon waking up and packing everything away Tiote greeted me and we zoomed to the airport in the little Toyota Starlet. Now when I say zoomed, I mean we entered the Christmas Island rally championship: in position 1, Tiote and Lachie; in position two was Crab Lowndes; and position 3 we had Lightning McCrab. We won.

When I reached the aeroplane I pre-flighted it and ensured everything was set for departure. I jumped in a tried to contact San Francisco on the radio but had no luck. After a few phone calls and eventually talking to the flight information service when they woke up, I managed to get the HF frequencies in use for today and set off for my next destination, the 50th state of the USA – Hawaii!

The flight crossing the ITCZ in the northern hemisphere was much better and the team back home guided me around the storm cells using the satellite feed and satellite data of the weather, it’s important to remember that this whole journey is largely reliant on teamwork! It was actually quite a nice flight with everything going pretty well including communications, and a great destination up ahead.

Hawaii will be a stop where I spend more than two days on the ground, a nice break as I draw close to the end of my first week away!

As always, any questions feel free to comment and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.