The sun is shining, the wind is calm and the boat is packed; anchor, lifejackets, survival kit, ELT, sunscreen, fishing rods and 20 odd slabs of thirst quenching beer. However, this is no ordinary fishing trip, nor is this your standard fishing boat. Oh and the load of beer isn’t mine either (boo).
The ‘boat’ I’m driving alongside my first mate, is a 1947 Grumman Mallard flying boat. Converted from its oil dripping radial pistons to more modern-powered Pratt and Whitney PT6A-34 turboprop engines, this ‘boat with wings’ is the perfect craft for today’s charter.
Our passengers are the owners of the beer and fishing rods. They have escaped their fast paced Sydney lifestyles for the quiet untouched vastness of the Northern Territory Arnhem Land. Free of mobile phone coverage, it is the perfect location to getaway from emails for a week of fishing on board their mother ship, Iron Lady.
My journey through the Aviation wormhole so far has taken me from working with my Dad Greg in my hometown of Geelong up to the tropical Whitsundays, into the IFR world in Cairns and then on an overseas adventure flying in Vietnam. With great memories and experiences behind me, I have reached my pinnacle, my “airline” as a comparison for the land-based pilots amongst us.
I’m flying for the small family team at Paspaley Pearling Company, focusing on operating and maintaining these veteran aircraft. The majority of our flights are based around transporting company staff to Paspaley’s main pearl farms located in the North Kimberly of Western Australia. With its thousands of islands and orange rock ridges contrasted against the turquoise waters, the Kimberly is a location almost as romantic in its beauty as the pearls it produces below the water.
When the reprieve of the dry season allows the tourists to flock to the NT, we further operate fishing charter transfers due to the versatility of the Mallard. Our aircraft are also available for charter, freight or specialized water rescue work.
My first officer on today’s flight is Michael Bostock, whose experience in seaplane operations doesn’t start with Paspaley. Michael pursued a career in floatplanes after starting out as a flight instructor, gaining his float rating in Canada, before completing a season on Cessna 185 and 206 aircraft for Simpson Air in the North West Terrotories.
Paspaley have owned these aircraft for over 20 years. They have become one of the essential pieces to the South Sea pearling giant’s puzzle. Manufactured by Grumman back in 1947, the Mallard superseded the tail wheel Goose, however production halted at a measly 59 aircraft, as the much larger Albatross was developed for a variety of military purposes, mainly search and rescue into open ocean areas.
The destination for this group of excited anglers is south of Elcho Island, named Buckingham Bay. It’s well-liked for its intricate network of rivers populated with arguably Australia’s favourite fish; the Barramundi. Guests regularly catch over 80 Barra per person, per day! With rumors that just as many ice cold stubbies are also consumed.
On departing Darwin, our track takes us over the Top End’s vast countryside, passing by the Kakadu National Park escarpment. Floodplains and riverbeds with sun-parched water from the previous wet season intersect the undulating ridges and valleys of rock. Vibrant green waterholes complete the dirt baron landscape. Occasionally small communities pass by our windows, huddled around a gravel or sealed airstrip; connecting the traditional owners of our land to the relatively new age cities of the white man.
It’s Michael’s sector as the pilot flying. The Mallard isn’t pressurized or equipped with an autopilot. To those accustomed to sitting back and having the plane fly itself, hand flying would seem a drag. However all of us who fly the Mallard find the extra hands-on component a saviour from the boredom that can be straight and level flight.
We approach top of descent and I broadcast to all stations east of Arnhem Land along with Brisbane Centre our position and intentions. With the lack of drag associated with the floats of a normal seaplane, we break the 200kt groundspeed barrier most float drivers only dream of.
The true emptiness of Australia becomes evident as our flight nears the ground; nothing but flat shrub and harsh dirt as far as the eye can see. Our descent continues further towards the coast until we spot the fishing boat. We adjust track to overfly for an assessment of water conditions. The wind, swell, tide and floating debris, along with approach and go-around paths are all assessed. All looks favorable.
Michael discusses his landing approach and calls for the pre-landing checklist. Our multi-crew coordination and SOPs are as tight as any airline. I run through the finals checks with him and follow him through the landing. He lines up for our final approach, taking us mainly over land before crossing the riverbank and landing on the longest straight of river we can find on this python of water.
Touchdown. With a flatter nose attitude to that of a floatplane, Michael now concentrates on his wings level attitude all the way until we fall of the step, keeping the Mallards wing floats from touching the water. These are a critical part of the aircraft when moving slowly on the water, stopping our wings from drowning. However they are not designed for high speed skiing and could rip off if they were to touchdown early, especially on rough water.
A flying boat has very different balance characteristics compared to a standard seaplane. It has only one point of contact on the water (the hull), similar to how a bicycle has only one point of contact with the road. The seaplane however with its two points of contact on the water is similar to a car. A flying boat in a turn tips quite easily if the centre of gravity falls either side of that balance point.
Add to this balance dilemma the wing floats that are only a foot or two from the water at touchdown and all of sudden water crosswind landings become a great challenge. The technique is to apply rudder to align the hull with the direction of travel but not add opposite aileron like a normal crosswind landing. Old habits die-hard and this one was a tough one to change.
We run the after-landing checklist and I call Flightwatch on the trusty old HF radio, battling with the squawky sounds of Indonesians to cancel our Sarwatch. With all flight duties completed, it is now time to catch the mooring buoy floating behind the Iron Lady. I take over control, as my role as aircraft captain now turns to boat skipper as I guide our vessel for a slow but steady approach to the buoy.
The Mallard doesn’t utilize a water rudder for directional control; instead the use of beta and reverse thrust on each engine controls our direction. Speed is also controlled this way; remember a floatplane or flying boat has no brakes!
It’s now Michael’s turn to pull out his first officer party trick. The copilot control column is of the throw-over type, so he swings it on its central axis over to my side. The co-pilot rudder pedals are a simple peg design that swing backwards and out to the side. This allows access to a passageway under the instrument panel and dash where Michael can crawl into the nose bay. He then opens the hatch and with the aid of an extendable hook and set of second headset jacks, Michael guides me forward enabling him to catch the mooring buoy and secure us to the line.
On the callout that we are secured, I shut the engines down and gradually pull the power levers further into reverse to catch the pitch locks; an accessory most PT6 installations don’t have. Pitch locks are simply spring-loaded pins that centripetally fall into a groove in the propeller hub to lock the prop in its reverse condition, not allowing the propeller to feather once oil pressure is released from the hub.
With a seaplane on the water, starting an engine in feather can mean an excruciating 15-20 seconds of uncontrollability from the forward thrust of the exhaust, as the propeller slowly moves to the fine pitch setting where reverse is then available.
The tender from the Iron Lady makes its way over to the aircraft for the transfer of passengers and freight. As we unload our mass of boys, beers and bags, a strange floating object passes our view in the distance. As it nears we can make out what it is; a buffalo carcass is being pulled along the river from the incoming tide, followed closely by three hungry crocs. I look at the murky water outside the Mallard’s door only a foot below and hope no one falls in on the transfer!
It is time to head back home, and with a fresh planeload of relaxed and dusty fisherman, the cabin atmosphere is filled with stories of the week’s big catches. Michael is back in position in the nose bay of the aircraft ready to release the mooring. After completing the “Start Checklist”, I fire up the right engine first and once confirmation of a successful start is recognized, Michael releases the mooring line. With thanks to the pitch locks we back away from the boat in an instant. Michael closes up the hatch and puts his yoga skills into practice, curving his body back into the cockpit whilst I start the second engine.
It is now my flying sector, so I get the task of launching this beast into the air. A few radio calls by Michael, a departure brief and completion of the water-takeoff checklist and we’re ready. I hold the column hard back into my chest with full right aileron and right rudder. Leading with the left engine I power up towards the torque red lines, then hand over control of the power levers to Michael with the call of “set power”. In my relatively short aviation career to date, the biggest challenge I’ve had is taming this bucking beast as it fights me onto the step.
As we gain speed, the nose rises up to the sky and at its point of maximum pitch I push the nose forward to commence the transition onto the step. My focus now includes keeping the wings level to stop my floats from digging into the water, as well as maintaining the desired level step attitude, made difficult with the curved nose of the Mallard.
It all seems to have worked out well and when I hear Michael call out our ‘V1’ speed of 83kts for this sector’s given weight, I smoothly but firmly rotate us into the air (‘Vr’ is ‘V1’ plus 2 knots). I capture our ‘V2 plus’ speed to climb us up to our acceleration altitude with a further ascent to 10,000ft to head for home.
Arriving into Darwin, the wind has picked up and unusually swung around to have us landing on runway 29, the only runway with an ILS approach. As the Darwin dry season consists of 7 months of blue skies, we request the full procedure for currency. The ability to fly multi-crew operations in an IFR environment along with the challenging and diverse water work of a flying boat certainly makes this job unique.
I land off the ILS approach and taxi to the hangar. The ground taxi procedure is a captain only duty, not due to Michael’s inability to follow the yellow line, but due to the tiny peg rudder pedals on the co-pilot’s side having no brakes. The addition of ground taxiing was an extra bonus once my command training commenced.
With the passengers safely back into the terminal on their way back to face their mobiles, emails and reality, it’s now time to face our own reality; paperwork and the wash down. I drench fresh water into all the hidey-holes that salt water intrudes whilst Michael takes care of the books. Tomorrow’s flight will be off to one of our pearl farms for a crew change and stores replenishing.
I’m off home now to enjoy what remains of Darwin’s dry season lifestyle, with the blue skies and consistent 32°C weather, combined with overwater sunsets and all food cuisines produced by food vans in an abundance of markets. The wet is nearing however… hand flying around thunderstorms? Bring it on!