BERNIE LEIGHTON | Airline Reporter
WHILE Port Moresby may not be a holiday treat, it is certainly better than it has ever been since independence. But if you want a tropical holiday, you are going to have to leave the ravenous guard dogs and car jackings of Moresby behind.
Being a huge World War II nerd, I figured my best bet was to head out to either Kavieng (on New Ireland) or Kokopo/Rabaul on New Britain). Both these islands were invaded by the Japanese in 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But first I have to tell you about the fun one can have at the domestic terminal of Jacksons International Airport.
The airport is chaotic, and there is no air conditioning. To keep machetes and buai out of the terminal there is pre-screening before the sterile area. Check-in opens at least three hours prior to departure to deal with the seeming unending lines of people going back from Moresby to their home villages, and the infinite tonnage of excess baggage.
But it all ends up being worth the hassle.
Domestic security is fast; after all, you’ve already cleared one layer. Get some random scribbles on your boarding pass and head to the departures hall.
This has, well, it has sort of a cafe and what some may describe as racist mobile phone advertising. Then again, the people of the PNG Highlands are extremely proud of their heritage, so I think it is just foreign over-sensitivity sparking any controversy.
Boarding is done via a walkway – covered, thankfully. It even had plenty of holes in the screens to allow some quick photos to be taken — something I always appreciate.
Air stairs were a given. It’s a Bombardier Q400 out of Canada!
I was surprised that Air Niugini has equipped their Q400s with a business class cabin. It is variable depending on the aircraft, but this one had eight seats, identical to those in economy, but with larger pitch and different seat covers.
Furthermore, only half of those eight seats were sold and hot meals are served. I was also surprised to see that PX has opted for two lavs aboard their Q400s.
Again, if I had known, I probably would’ve booked business class. PX is an airline that actually understands the concept of value. The hot meal up the front smelled excellent.
Take off out of Moresby was exciting.
Navigation on domestic flights within PNG is all procedural. There is one primary Air Search Radar on a hill adjacent to Jacksons International Airport. On the Australia-facing side (towards the south) it has a range of 120 miles.
To the north, it is nothing but mountains. Some of these mountains are in excess of 15,000 feet. The pilots are not sure if the search radar even offers a valid scan in that direction, but if it does, it doesn’t extend too far past sixty miles.
You do not want to crash here. Well, you don’t want to crash anywhere, but crashing here is worse. Search and rescue (SAR) is done by private companies and the Australians. It is unclear whether or not the PNG Defence Force Air Wing is actually operational at the moment. I know that they do use two hevilift chartered helicopters, but am unclear if they are used for SAR.
If that was not enough, one must remember that all of PNG exists within the intercontinental convergence zone or as some refer to it, the ITCZ. In practical terms, the ITCZ is a line of constantly building and collapsing thunderstorms that traverse the equator.
This means you can expect a good deal of convection. It would probably be a smooth flight, at least early in the afternoon above 30,000 feet. But where’s the fun in that?
My ride that day was P2-AXS, one of PX’s newest (of six) Q400s. They are all marketed as NextGen – this one most certainly was, but the ex-SAS ones are not. Another thing of note is that because of the procedural navigation rules, the second alternate airport for diversions is always back to POM.
The first hour and twenty minutes of the flight to Kavieng was perfectly smooth. The last twenty minutes were met by what the captain described as “some weather.”
I was expecting the worst – I had my barf bag at the ready even. But no, I’ve had much worse flights flying over the Rocky Mountains in the same aircraft. It was just annoying. Slightly scary as Kavieng has no precision approach equipment, but things were definitely VFR (visual flight rules) once we descended below the cloud deck.
Kavieng itself was an airstrip built by the Japanese after their conquest of New Ireland. Until a few years ago, the runway was 100% vintage Japanese construction. Sadly, but probably for the best, it has since been resurfaced. For high altitude navigation assistance, Kavieng does have a VOR installation, a short range navigation system for aircraft. I was legitimately surprised to see one, as it was almost equal in size to the terminal.
Kavieng, apparently, is where one goes in PNG not just for wreck diving but also for extremely high-end surfing. It is no surprise that the only other foreigners on the flight were checking in surfboards ahead of us.
Regardless, on landing into Kavieng I made the mistake of going to the lav. The lav was clean, fine, and spacious. The mistake was that while I had been in the lav- my friend had snuck his way up the front and began speaking with the flight crew.
It would, then, turn out that he had been moved into the flight deck – so I reckon his experience on KVG-RAB is going to be a lot more interesting than mine.
The slightly backwards heading 35 minute flight was not to Rabaul. That airport was destroyed by a triple-volcanic eruption in 1994. Our flight, technically, was to Tokua airport- near the town of Kokopo. For some reason, people still refer to it as Rabaul- even though Rabaul is a 40 minute drive south.
Regardless, the flight down went very quickly and was quite smooth. Unknown to me at the time, it was because of our skilled flight crew dodging the storms as they popped up on the weather radar.
Unfortunately, due to the cloud there was not much of a view on descent. At least, such was the case for me.
As it always seems to be with PNG runway layouts, there was a slight crosswind on touch down.
Overall, Air Niugini offers some of the best - if not the best - Dash 8 product out there. They know how to cater to their customers, and crew. Fun fact. PX Dash flight crew are the highest paid in the world!
He spent four years in Australia learning about how to run an airline, while putting his learning into practice by mileage running around the world. You can usually find Bernie in his natural habitat: an airport