Sunday, June 1, 2008
Nauru—For The Birds
This island nation once operated the world’s hardest-working 737
My chance to fly Air Nauru came 10 years ago. I had contracted to pick up a Fijian-registered 58 Baron in Tarawa, Kiribati, and return it to California. The airplane had been flying back and forth from the international airport at Nadi to a small strip on the island of Vanua Levu, a few miles from a resort hotel. The Air Pacific captain who owned both the airplane and the hotel had decided the job could be done just as well (and a lot cheaper) by the Twin Otter commuter that serviced the island.
Accordingly, I flew an Air Pacific 747 to Nadi, stayed an extra three days to pick up a Fijian pilot’s license (hey, it’s a tough job) and finally boarded one of Air Nauru’s twice-a-week flights to Tarawa.
The airplane was overbooked, but the captain, a friendly Australian, volunteered the empty jump seat in the cockpit. (Remember, this was pre-9/11.) The Boeing looked brand-new; it was completely immaculate inside and out, though the panel betrayed it as an older-generation 737. As it turned out, the sole remaining Air Nauru airplane was totally crewed and maintained by Qantas (out of Melbourne, Australia).
It was the copilot’s leg to fly, and the captain and I commiserated about common friends, destinations around the South Pacific and airplanes in general. As we drifted northwest toward Tarawa, looking down from 35,000 feet on a myriad of ring atolls, dazzling coral reefs and the bottomless blue Pacific, I couldn’t help but reflect on the differences between my kind of flying and airline travel. The Boeing sailed smoothly with rock-solid stability, cruising far above the occasional weather at 460 knots (compared to my normal 160 to 200 knots). It was relatively immune to the turbulence I so often counted as normal at levels below 18,000 feet.
As we tracked on toward the Kiribati Islands, the captain told me a little about flying for Air Nauru. He had been flying under contract for a few years, and he loved it. He said the airplane was easy to handle and had good short-field characteristics, an important advantage on some abbreviated Pacific island strips. The legs were mostly short and Pacific weather was generally benign, except for the occasional typhoon. The route structure had contracted considerably since the glory days, and he knew most of the approaches by heart, all factors that made the flying comfortable and fun.
Perhaps the most amazing detail about Air Nauru was that the single Boeing was flying an average of 100 hours per week! In fact, it was more like 100 hours in six days, as most of the seventh day was dedicated to maintenance and a 100-hour inspection, usually conducted in Melbourne. (The latter inspection is a requirement for ICAO signatory countries.)
That means the 737 was being operated about 17 hours a day (obviously with multiple crews), six days a week. It took six dedicated, two-man crews to keep the airplane in the air for a full 5,300 hours per year. Now, that’s impressive utilization. I put 110 hours on my Mooney last year.
The Baron turned out to be a dud. The ferry tanks and the HF radio didn’t work, so I wound up flying back to Nadi the following day and then back home to California while the folks at Tarawa got things sorted out. I returned two weeks later and flew Air Nauru one last time from Nadi to Tarawa, as luck would have it, with the same crew.
As the lightly loaded Boeing leaped out of Tarawa and headed back to Pago Pago, I couldn’t help envying the crew their first-class ride across the Pacific. I’d need at least 15 hours the following day to make Honolulu, and by that time, they’d probably be home in Australia or relaxing by the pool at Pago Pago’s Rainmaker Hotel. The path not taken.
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