My first DAY OFF since I agreed to join this crazy adventure!
Of course this is an April fool and hasn't been much of a day off, I've been trying to get up to date with the story and do a bit of planning for the next part of the trip to Singapore. Oh, and I haven't had a passport for a while.
First problem: you-know-who had instructed Mike Grey our clearances man to arrange clearance over Burma from Chittagong in Bangladesh to Rangoon and thence to Bangkok. Only problem is it's 420 Nm which is way beyond our current range. It would have been much more sensible to have gone into Northern Thailand via Mandalay as each leg is a reasonable length.
Options are therefore:
1) Hope our Mike Grey persuades the Burmese to change our permission (apparently not easy in such a short time).
2) Head for Rangoon but stop for some emergency reason in Sitwe or Thandwe and refuel, but my book says neither has fuel or customs so there would inevitably be a delay, perhaps long enough to eventually get into the papers at home.
3) File a flight plan for Rangoon as cleared, but put Mandalay as alternative and go there because of 'weather' or something, and then either go to Rangoon or do the same thing to Chiang Mai. Again there's a risk we might end up as news for all the wrong reasons but at least if we got to Chiang Mai, John Kemp who helped me run the UK national paramotor championships outside Milton Keynes a few years ago lives there now and has geared up all the local microlighters to give us a hand.
I can't say either option is ideal, but hey, tomorrow's another day and we're off to Dhaka in Bangladesh.
We got up at some unearthly hour to get to Bombay airport in time to get back to Bhopal. Air India this time, I'm told we went via Delhi but I was asleep the entire flight. I left my passport in Bombay with Jon so it could be taken to Delhi to get a Bangladesh visa. They promise it will be got back to me in Calcutta; in the meantime I've got to survive with some photocopies of the photo page and my Indian visa...
We arrived back in Bhopal at 8 am. There's no rest for the wicked and I immediately set to work doing an oil change, refuelling the machine, getting paperwork ready, and, in an attempt to get a bit more economy changing the pitch on the prop and a jet on the mixture control. This had to be done in time to do a test flight and flypast for photographers and then get back into town to join the events laid on for us in the early afternoon.
As usual things didn't go smoothly. I was given a very difficult security man to escort me around the airfield but the chap at the Indian Oil depot was worse and point blank refused to sell me any avgas because I didn't have a fuel card - something you usually only need to refuel your jumbo. Then I heard the familiar sound of a 912 starting up. The Indian Air Force cadets had a Zenair in the next hangar. They pointed me at the third hangar the far end of which was, they said, was the aero club. It took a protracted negotiation with my security man before I could get there. Yes, we have fuel - problem solved; except it took another protracted negotiation with security before I could actually taxi round there to fill up. In the mean time a man came from the bank with a fist full of Rupees, but no, security can't allow him to ride in the passenger seat round to the aero club....
This was another milk churn job so again difficult to judge exactly how much it was to fill up, they estimated 69 litres which works out as 19 litres an hour from Ahmadabad to Bhopal. I can't believe a 912 can consume such a lot....
ATC is closed over lunch so at 2.30 sharp I was ready to test fly my new prop setting. The plan was to do a few fly-by's of a temple a mile or two away for a bunch of journalists standing there. At the last minute the State Governor's pilot appeared and asked if he could ride along, something a bit different to his King Air. Why not, I said, but after another protracted negotiation, security wouldn't allow it.... My 2 deg pitch change means we've now got just over 5000 rpm at full power, up from 4600. Hopefully a 'freer running' engine will be a bit more economical.
The net result was that I was running late for the first event of the day in town, a cavalcade. I vaguely understood this started at the bank in town. I instructed my driver to go directly there rather than via our rather nice hotel which was once a Maharaja's palace.
Of course I was wrong, it ended at the Bank, not started, but by the time I found out my driver had vanished so I was put on one of those three wheeled scooter taxis they have here for a fairly scary breakneck tear across town to the hotel. Actually the thing only went up hills at walking pace, but the driver put it in neutral for some steep down-hills and I swear we were nearly on two wheels at the roundabouts. Miles says that Indians must have a lot of friends because they're always tooting at each other.
The cavalcade was something else. They didn't seem to mind that I was a bit late but I was immediately fitted with a sparkly red turban and placed next to a similarly beturbanned Miles standing rather precariously on the front seat of an army jeep shaded by a giant Standard Chartered Bank umbrella screwed into the back. We then set off with an escort of maybe 20 balloon clad motorbikes in front and a dozen cars behind to wave at the masses for an hour or so. The driver was clever enough not to sweep the umbrella off in a tree and Miles didn't fall out. Considering the front of our jeep was wrapped entirely in a huge Standard Chartered Bank banner I was amazed the thing didn't overheat. At one point I had to warn Miles not to wave his carbon fibre stick quite so enthusiastically as there was a good chance he would hit the terrific spaghetti of overhead electric cables and get a shock. Quite what the locals thought was going on I can't imagine; it was all rather extraordinary.
We got a brief breather in the bank and then off for 'high tea' (their expression) with the State Governor in his palace. I nearly had to go in my socks as I thought I should have shiny shoes to see the governor so someone took them to a shoe shine wallah and didn't come back for ages. The state Governor is the most important man in town and you don't keep him waiting. My shiny shoes were rushed back just as we were getting into the car.
Once Mr. Balram Jakhar the governor of Madhya Pradesh - an extraordinarily tall man - was installed on his throne Miles did a short version of one of his inspirational talks. It seemed to go down well with the Governor and 20 or so of the local Nabobs. High tea consisted of cucumber sandwiches and some really excellent tea. They're good at tea, the Indians.
Next morning we were off to Raipur a reasonable 275 Nm, though no fuel there, the Governor's pilot had warned. I was more worried about the flight after, to Calcutta, nearly 400 Nm, beyond our range, but set in the schedule by you-know-who and the Indians are being very fussy about our clearance. I reckoned we could probably divert to Ranchi to refuel but given the paperwork this might generate there was a risk Miles might not get to Calcutta for the engagements they'd set up for him there. It was therefore decided the less risky solution would be to fly him from Raipur to Calcutta commercially and I would continue solo. The double advantage of this would be that I could probably make it quite easily by myself without having to stop for fuel.
It was again a long hot climb up to Flight level 095. At least it was quite smooth. There's something wrong with Miles' computer which wasn't telling him anything so it must have been a pretty boring four hours for him.
No airport since Ahmadabad has had radar so I've still no idea whether our transponder isn't working or it was their radar. Certainly the Air traffic Controller at Raipur was of the bossy variety and tried to make us park about a mile away from the terminal in the middle of nowhere. I refused. Eventually he let us park on the apron so we could at least get out and negotiate. Things got better after that and we were soon firm friends. In fact after Miles had left on the plane to Calcutta he radioed the crew to make sure to take special care of him and after landing they came out of their cabin to shake hands.
I was left with the problem of parking and refuelling at Raipur. No hangar was available so I put it in front of the fire station tied to a couple of trees and sheltered by a big wall. I was promised there wouldn't be wind from any other direction, or perhaps they said the wind wasn't coming from any other direction. Anyway there was not a lot else to do.
Next problem was fuel. There was indeed no avgas at the airport and the nearest petrol station was 10 Km away. The simplest solution seemed to be to remove the reserve tank, go to town, fill up, come back and pour it in the main tank, and then go back to the hotel with the tank, returning with it full the next morning. There was some confusion about ordering the complimentary car from my hotel in town (unfortunately not the Hotel Babylon, which was the nearest and must have been worth staying at, if only for the name.) Eventually it appeared the car had come to the airport, and then gone away again when it didn't find me in the tower doing my flight plan for the morning.
I was lucky really, it was getting dark, the last flight had come and gone and the airport was rapidly emptying of everyone except the security staff. There was one taxi left, so I took it. It had no brakes, just a sort of nasty grinding sound, and lights which went out from time to time. The driver fiddled around under the dashboard to get them going again as we tore towards cattle, cyclists, rickshaws, ox carts and other street clutter tooting a very sick horn madly and only slowing down when a crash seemed inevitable.
Of course it was a struggle getting back into a dark airport but a nice policeman came with me and helped refuel the machine. To finish things off, the hotel's dining room was closed by the time I got there, but room service provided something my bowels are still complaining about a bit. Luckily I came equipped with the strongest kind of Imodium. Last night it was a good thing Miles and I weren't sharing a room though.
It was a five and a half hour flight for me to Calcutta, or Kolkata as it's now spelt. (took me a while to find the frequencies in the book as the map says Calcutta TMA Etc.)
As usual it was a soup the whole way and I didn't see much though the change from brown to green as you get to the Ganges delta starting about 50 miles from Calcutta is very distinct.
Hangarage was promised, as usual they tried to make me park in the middle of a vast expanse of concrete along with a few executive jets. Finally I was told to follow a car to a huge and obviously disused jumbo jet sized empty hangar - except I had to park outside it. When I made a fuss even the airport director was summoned - but going inside was impossible - not their authority to give. Ring the owner I asked - they did. Air Sahara (another of India's new cheap airlines) wanted 1 Lakh of rupees a day... That's 100,000 rupees, or about $2,500. Everyone agreed that was ridiculous but could do nothing to help. Of course nobody could give authorization for me to put it in the India Coal hangar next door either, so it's tied to the giant hangar door now and I've promised the India Coal hangar guard a handsome reward tomorrow if it's in the same shape as I left it....
Fuelling was interesting. First a great big Jet A1 tanker came, and went away, then a car towing a trailer with drums of (expired) avgas came, then the tanker came back again. They attached a hose to the big outlet on the drum, and an air line from the truck to the small one. The tanker revved, the drum swelled, and avgas squirted out at a terrific rate from every joint. I was billed for 70 litres, though probably 10 ended up on the ground and over the machine and onlookers due to the almost completely uncontrollable method of delivery.
Still smelling strongly of avgas I was taken around to arrivals in a very creaky bus but actually escaping this time wasn't so easy. My photocopied passport failed me at last; I was intercepted by the immigration people and they didn't like the look of them at all. Fortunately I was joined by some chaps from the bank, the argument went along the lines of: "say you were flying from Raipur by Jet Airlines, would a foreigner have to show a passport on arrival?" Answer: "No". "Then why does he have to show one then?" "Well, because it's an international flight". "But it's not an international flight, this flight is just from Raipur to Calcutta". "Yes, but it's a foreign aircraft with a foreigner in it, so it is international…." Etc. Etc.
Having seen all this before, I let them carry on and set to doing something useful by filling out my flight plan for the next leg to Dhaka in two days time; my actual passport with the Bangladesh visa was apparently in town somewhere, just nobody knew where, but if they weren't going to let me go without it I supposed it would turn up eventually. After about 30 minutes and with the help of a few press cuttings they relented and I was released.
Easter holidays started yesterday. I miss them quite a lot.
Tim Farr, one of my neighbours at home and a bit of a Burma expert reckons that option 2) above is probably the best, mainly because the areas one might be going over towards Chiang Mai are considered a bit sensitive whereas Sitwe and Thandwe aren't. Unless Mike Grey produces some magic I would think this is what we will do.
To be continued....