Having thought the British taxpayer was getting a bit of a raw deal by being charged $850 a pop for getting a Nimrod washed in Muscat, I'm now not so sure. In Singapore it costs $3000 to get your Gulfstream G550 executive jet washed, and they're less than half the size. Jet Aviation take extraordinary care with their customer's aircraft whilst they're in for servicing, the first thing they do is cover the entire interior with foam and bubble-wrap so there's no possibility of a dent or scratch to the interior furnishings. "A lot of our customers are prone to tantrums" I was told.
We've taken to starting earlier than we did at the beginning of this journey. To avoid thunderstorm development later in the day we're now getting to the airport about the same time as the airport staff, just after sunrise. We had a pleasantly efficient send off from Singapore, nicest of all, Jet Aviation again pulled a blinder by offering to pay for our fuel and airport fees, about $200 worth to Seeing is Believing.
We flew Singapore to Jakarta in two legs via Palembang. At Singapore I'd filed my flight plan for 6000 ft and normally do a very slow climb to get there in 30 minutes or so to keep the engine within limits and not burning too much fuel on just going up. Contrary to the detailed departure route I'd been given in advance, ATC wanted me to get to 6000 ft overhead Seletar before we could go anywhere. There was no point in a slow climb so Miles had to hold up the left side pannier again to keep the engine cool. We were then directed straight overhead Changi international before I could head south to Palembang.
I had good comms with Singapore until 100 miles out which was something of a record, and nice because almost as soon as you leave the coast you're into Indonesian waters and there was no one else to talk to.
It had poured with rain all day while I was doing maintenance in the Jet Aviation hangar and Miles was doing Seeing is Believing stuff in Singapore, but lady luck seemed to stay with us and our route was well away from ominously black patches off to our left and right.
The second half of the flight, some 150 miles, was over some pretty scary swamp with the occasional small fishing settlement consisting of huts raised on sticks in sheltered areas of river estuaries. No agriculture, no roads and no possible place to land except in rivers or the sea. I wondered if they get those salt water crocodiles this far north, I don't suppose my shark repellent would have much effect on them. I suggested to Miles that as this trip was his idea, then if it came to the crunch he would be getting the first bite.
Once over Sumatra proper we flew for some way down a beach where one might be able to land though it is mostly Mangrove and looked very muddy. Inland a bit there are farming areas, but what look like roads between fields are actually drainage dykes with no sign at all of any kind of roads, I supposed people just get around by boat even here.
With the early start we arrived in good time at Palembang around lunch time, but somehow we still didn't get to our hotel until after dark. It's a constant mystery to me as much as anyone how time can slide by like this but it's easily done.
First, we're marshalled into a parking spot which is typically within range of a starting 737 so the first thing to do is temporarily get the machine to a safer place. Then you have to find the man in charge, it this case it's Sunday so he's not around and it takes a while to find the man who is going to eventually be composing your bill. Then, as this is a new country, we have to do customs and immigration. For once the customs people at Palembang weren't interested in us and someone sorted immigration out for us without us having to go there - quite unusual; so far so good.
Hangarage and fuel are the next priority. Despite the Notam they gave me at the last minute in Singapore saying there's no AVGAS in Palembang, there is some, but it's the whole 200 litre drum or nothing story again. So far I've managed to refuse this out of principle as we'd be giving more than half of it away, how much longer this can be resisted I don't know.... It depends a lot on what else is available.
So let's leave that problem for the moment and sort out hangarage, or at least some sheltered place to put the machine overnight. In this case they didn't like my idea of putting it in an unused part of the baggage area so it was off to the fire station to see what they could offer. I made lots of friends there, but they couldn't offer much, then someone pointed out a nice little hangar I hadn't noticed the far side of the airport next to the old terminal building. In this new age of cheap airlines there's been a construction boom in new airport terminal buildings and quite often there's an old terminal building complex somewhere else on the airfield though usually they've been occupied by the military, but this one looked abandoned. Off to find someone who could let me use it.
Eventually, yes, no problem, but as it seemed quite difficult to get to, or get back from, it might be wise to fill up first. I took the reserve tank out of the machine and someone got me through the airport to a taxi, but how to pay for it, or the fuel? Luckily there was a row of ATMs in the airport, the first machine rejected my card and spat it out covered in something like very gooey black printing ink, not a good start and it took a while to clean up. Another one worked, I discovered that one has to have millions of Rupiah's - the exchange rate is somewhere between 9500 and 9600 of them to one US dollar.
Everyone looked completely mystified when I said I wanted 'Super'. I thought things would get clearer once we actually got to a petrol station. We went via the fire station who washed out an old fire fighting foam can I could use in addition to my tank so I would need to do only one trip.
As usual the nearest petrol station was miles away. I discovered there is only one make of petrol in Indonesia, nobody had ever heard of octanes so what was I going to buy? When I said 'minimum 95' the closest they could think of was '98' which turned out to be a 98% premix to go in two stroke motorcycles which took some hand waving before they understood that was definitely what I didn't want. Outside the airport very few people seemed to have any grasp of English at all, including my taxi driver, Yanto. I called a contact in Jakarta, and said to her "tell my taxi driver to take me to some petrol the same as you would put in your Mercedes". Yanto, understood well enough and seemed happy, but after the third petrol station it became pretty clear that perhaps there aren't any Mercedes in Palembang, the best they could offer was some pretty evil smelling stuff called 'Pertamax' which, I seemed to understand, was better than 'premium'. After some discussion they let me fill up the plastic can as well as my tank and we were off back the 10 miles to the airport in a very stinky taxi because the plastic can had a bit of a leak.
Then I had to get the fuel through airport security to the machine, fill up, put everything together, get the machine over to the hangar the other side of the airport, unpack all our kit, wait for the car to come. I left Miles in an office writing his blog and took a manager with me for a jolly across the airport in the passenger seat. I figured that I could easily get forgotten over there, but with him, if the car didn't come more or less immediately he would start to get hot and call for it on his mobile.
Then back to the office to negotiate landing fees, parking, handling and whatever else they felt like charging for. We came to a price which was about $120 - quite a lot, but then international arrivals always seem to be twice the price of internal flights. My supply of small denomination US dollars is wearing dangerously thin, but I managed to produce the correct amount... Then problem - my dollars, issued to me by Standard Chartered Bank are the wrong kind of US Dollars; they reckoned they can only accept notes with certain prefixes to the serial numbers - as far as they are concerned all others are forgeries. I had a hunt through my remaining stash of cash but nothing seemed acceptable. With little chance of finding a bank open by now, and in any case unlikely to hand over dollars without a struggle; what to do?
Well, you can pay in Rupiah, they say, helpfully, so it's back through security to the ATM to see if it will give me any more cash. It won't. Never mind, I tell them, let's decide what we've got to pay now, and we'll change some dollars in our hotel and pay you tomorrow morning. Of course this is all part of their plan, because when it actually comes to it, their exchange rate is nearer 9800 to the dollar than the real rate, the balance will be going into their pockets, so you argue a bit more before the deal is done. They will get something out of it, but not a lot.
Finally, to save time the following morning I got the flight plan for tomorrow's journey to Jakarta filled in. Of course they invariably don't like the route I propose, but it's usually pretty easy to correct it to what they want.
Then you have to get through the airport again, find another taxi (Yanto was eagerly waiting for us, I probably over paid him the first trip to get petrol) and off to a hotel somewhere.
All this friendly negotiation took six hours; perhaps a little longer than usual, but nothing very special.
It was dark by the time we got to the splendid Novotel in Palenbang which I can only imagine was the result of some terrible mistake as it was clearly designed to be sited on a tropical beach rather than in the middle of a slum in what seems to be quite a basic sort of regional market town, albeit with 6 million inhabitants.
It was a pleasant place for us to rest up for a few hours, though I was disappointed to discover they weren't interested in changing my dollars either. In the morning we went via an ATM to the airport; it still wouldn't give me any money on my card but luckily it did on Miles'. I made a note that we must get loads of Rupiah in Jakarta as the further we went east thereafter the less likely it was we would find ATM's to bail us out.
The first 20 miles or so out of Palembang the next morning was over the most terrific swamp, water water everywhere. Once again Miles had to hold up the left hand pannier to keep the engine cool as we climbed. Once at 5000 ft and throttled back to a cruise the temperatures settled down and he could let it drop back to its normal position. The land also opened out into big estates, mostly sugar, with landable roads between, and even the occasional airstrip. Then it was 80 miles or so of sea between Sumatra and Java.
The map showed a range of big mountains off to our right, volcanoes probably, part of the 'ring of fire' but they were all buried in ominously big clouds. I would have liked to have gone that way and flown over Krakatoa, or rather Anak Krakatau (child of Krakatoa) since it exploded catastrophically in 1883 with a bang of 180 dB at 100 miles which is thought to be the loudest sound in recorded history.
It seemed pretty clear ahead though, until we got quite close to Jakarta when there seemed to be no option but to head into a terrible dark wall of murk. I got the plastic bags I'd prepared in Singapore over the GPS and radio just before we hit it, but there was no rain, this was Jakarta smog; a thicker soup than anything we'd seen on the trip so far, even in India.
Usually you're not directed to change frequencies from approach to tower until within a few miles from the airport, but here I was directed to talk with Halim International tower thirty miles out. Strange. There seemed to be a lot of chatter in the native language too. They made us fly over a large part of central Jakarta incredibly low which would have been fun if there had been anything bigger than a tennis court to land in, no tall buildings directly in our path though, I could just make them out a mile or so to our left. ATC kept on asking me for position reports, I assumed they thought I might be lost, but I was fairly sure I knew where the airport was and it finally hove into view out of the soup with a mile or so to go.
Concerned that I'd been blocking the approach of what was obviously rather a busy airport for rather a long time, I landed more or less on the numbers and started to turn off on the first taxiway leading to the terminal - taxiway alpha as it turns out. "No no!", yelled ATC, taxiway Delta please. I could only see two others which must have been Bravo and Charlie so we took off again to fly down the strip a mile or so to the military area at the far end. I landed and was surprised to see a couple of microlights there, and then several more came in behind me.
The microlighters were led by Wonwon Maludi whom I'm sure I've met before at a competition somewhere but I can't remember where; these days he's the P&M dealer in Indonesia. One of their aircraft was a brand new GT 450 just like ours, the others were mostly Airborne trikes from Australia.
We shook hands with a lot of air force people. I was thinking we were going to get a nice comfy place in a big hangar here. It was explained the microlights were planning to escort us into the landing but we had caught them out by arriving an hour or two earlier than promised. That explained all the chatter on the radio and requests for position; they were planning to escort me in, but in the Jakarta soup they didn't see me, nor I them. I'm glad they didn't find me too, with no warning at all I think it would have been a bit of an unwelcome surprise at the end of a 4 1/2 hour flight with the last bit at such low level over a city in marginally legal visibility to be suddenly surrounded by half a dozen trikes.
The press were waiting, the plan was to take off in formation and do a circuit, this time taxiing in on Bravo to the main terminal. There was the standard delay while one of their machines refused to start and the circuit could hardly have been called a formation flight but the PR girl had done her job well, as we taxied in, there seemed to be dozens of vultures about. The story even got onto CNN that night.
Eventually the job was done. The microlighters disappeared off back to their airfield and the PR girl said we could go to our hotel now. Hold on a moment, though, what about our aircraft? it can't just stay here between the biz jets waiting to be blown away, we need a hangar.
As usual no prior thought had been put to this problem and against expectation the military couldn't help; too many permissions needed. Mike Grey's man Ujung Suganda came to the rescue but as usual it took some time, but eventually it was safely stowed in a maintenance hangar on the far side of the airport and we got to our hotel. It has a very impressive lobby with lots of steps for Miles to trip over and a great big electricity pylon on the front lawn.
Today, whilst Miles has been off doing Seeing is Believing stuff I've been checking over the machine and consulting with Suganda about the route between here and Kupang which is no mean distance, more than a thousand miles or about the same as it is back to Phuket in Thailand.
As usual you-know-who had slotted a couple of legs into the original plan which were beyond our range so I'd got Mike Gray to change it when we were back in Calcutta. Suganda is the man who actually does the business getting the permissions and also has men on the ground at most places we planned to go.
The plan is to go Semarang, Bali, Bima, Kupang. The problem is that there's no avgas in Bima or any possible alternative airport on that part of the route.
Still not really understanding what it was I put in the machine in Palembang I consulted the local microlighters. It turns out there are three kinds of petrol in Indonesia; 'Pertamax Plus' which is what you put in your Mercedes, but it's only available in Jakarta which explained why there was none in Palembang. Then there's 'Pertamax' which is the horrible smelling stuff I got instead, and is what the Jakarta microlighters said they usually used, and then there's 'Premium' which they said really isn't any good for a 912, they reckoned it's only 80 octane.
Both Suganda and the microlighters thought there was unlikely to be anything else but Premium in Bima. Suganda said that central government has deliberately ignored the entire island of Sumbawa since a failed assassination attempt on President Sukharto in the 1960's and is 'very undeveloped'.
Given there's 300 miles of sea and less than 20 of land between Bima and Kupang I am not keen to experiment with 'premium', but whatever happens we must be absolutely full leaving Bima. Things weren't looking very good; in fact with the prevailing wind from the East or North East it's likely to be a close run thing getting to Kupang at all. There is a possibility we could stop at Waingapu on Sumba, but there's no avgas or Pertamax there either.
It's only two ferries and three days by road to Bima, and we could have sent some there, had we known, but too late now the microlighters said. Maybe we can get a few cans of something there by air force.
Unlikely, I thought. More realistically there seemed to me to be two options:
1: We dump all our stuff in Bali, including Miles' computer and carry as much good fuel as we can get on the machine to Bima and then top it up with the dreaded premium for the long over water flight to Kupang.
2: Miles flies commercially from Bali to Kupang and I carry as much fuel as I can get in the passenger seat from Bali. I use significantly less fuel flying solo so greater chance of having full tanks of good fuel leaving Bima.
There would have been other options had we got the long range tanks which Suganda assures me still haven't arrived with his mate Abdullah in Kupang yet; only four days to go - Jon's head is getting closer to that block...
The other interesting news is that my brother Luke who lives with his family in Queensland's Gold Coast has been doing a bit of research on possible alternatives to the long 450 mile flight from Kupang to Darwin which, because of the prevailing winds, looks tricky even if we do get the long range tanks.
Luke's solution is to go to Truscott in West Australia, not a million miles from Troughton Island where Brian Milton arrived in Australia twenty years ago, and a mere 283 Nm and likely less headwind / more crosswind than going direct to Darwin.
Truscott is apparently an old wartime airstrip which has recently been improved to support oilfield and coastguard operations off Australia's north coast; they've got avgas but no immigration or customs. It's been a long time since I've been to Oz but I recall they can be a bit tricky on these things. I've asked the bank if they could possibly have a word with people in Canberra about the possibilities of us going there.