Tuesday, February 23, 2010
To Korea, With Luck
Four legs, 52 flight hours in one of the world’s most comfortable—and slowest—turboprops
There’s weather ahead, however, ever-present along the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), or more simply, the “itch.” It starts at about 12 to 15 degrees north latitude with tropical cumulus clouds building well above 10,000 feet. Accordingly, I request FL100 on HF, and San Francisco ARINC approves my climb. No other idiots out here today at low altitude. I’m not above the clouds, but at least I’m high enough to more easily circumnavigate the worst of them.
Predictably, the second leg goes quicker. I’m on the ground in Majuro after only 12.3 hours, landing at 4:20 p.m. local tomorrow, 25 minutes ahead of curfew, after an average speed of 161 knots. Like Hawaii and most other Pacific islands, Majuro’s runway is built practically right on the water, elevation six feet. Rising sea levels from global warming (whatever the cause) and the threat of tsunamis must make the Marshall Islanders nervous.
I fly the next leg to Guam, a mere 1,630 nm due west, punching in and out of rain and scud most of the way. I drift above a series of tiny islands, most of them coral ring atolls, visible through breaks in the clouds. Again, I start off at 6,000 feet, the minimum IFR altitude to take maximum advantage of the low-level wind, then drift up to 10,000 when I’m able.
The weather in Guam is precip and yuk, the remnants of Typhoon Nida, and I’m forced to fly the length of the island, make a 180 and shoot the only instrument approach of the trip. The Caravan touches down after only 10.5 hours, a 155-knot average speed.
Most of the time, Guam is the Hawaii of Japan, only 1,400 miles southeast of Tokyo but possessed of a warm, humid climate. Tumon Bay has a dozen high-rise resorts, and they’re full of Japanese tourists much of the year. I camp at the Hilton for three nights to wait for Nida to dissipate.
The final leg of the trip is 1,730 nm from Guam to Seoul. The route crosses southern Japan, tracks above the Sea of Japan and up the Korean Peninsula. I’ve flown this leg before, and though I’ve never encountered the spectacular headwinds our bomber crews witnessed during WWII, I’m careful to top every tank, just in case.
Good thing. I climb out of Guam at 8 a.m. with clear skies forecast most of the way to Korea. I’m surprised to find a slight push at 6,000 feet, again nudging the Caravan toward 145 to 150 knots. Piece of cake, I think with foolish optimism.
I make landfall at Kushimoto, Japan, just after sunset, cross the island of Honshu and run headlong into the headwinds I was afraid of. As I start out into the Sea of Japan, groundspeed drops to 130, then 120, 110 and, finally, 100 knots. I stagger on toward Seoul, concerned but not alarmed about fuel.
The Chelton suggests I’m fighting 60-knot headwinds. My speed finally stabilizes between 90 and 100 knots for the last four hours into Seoul. I’m forced to climb to 8,000 feet across the mountains of South Korea to comply with the MEA, and at that level, I’m reduced to only 90 knots for the final hour of the trip.
What was planned as a 12-hour leg turns into 14 hours for an average speed of 124 knots, the slowest hop of the trip. Thank God for Ziploc bags.
There must be easier ways to make a living, I muse, as I feather the prop and shut down the big PT6A turbine for the last time. The roar out front winds down to a whimper, I pop the door, drop the boarding ladder and climb down to Korea. Seoul is cold, about minus-10 degrees C compared to Guam at 25 degrees C this morning. A day later, I ride a Korean Airlines 747 home to Los Angeles in 11 hours even. Is that fair?
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