Wednesday, October 13, 2010

MGD at night, for the coroner

Sometimes i get some interesting flights which happen at odd hours. One happened yesterday, where i had to pick up a body for the coroner from Maningrida. I departed at 5pm for the 80 minute, 200nm flight in the baron. There was a lot of weather around, and this is why the flight was done in a twin, rather than the C206. We normally do coffin runs, or these sorts of flights in the C206 with the seats removed, but as per company policy and overall safety, we only do flights of this nature at night when there are thunderstorms around in twin engine aeroplanes.

Yesterday wasn't bad weather for myself as such, lots of rain, a little bit of cloud and dodging bigger cells, but for some of the other poor GA warriors flying last night, they were in the thick of it, without weather radars asking for help from centre, and requesting vectors to avoid the big storm areas. There was a big line of storms stretching around 150nm long, between Katherine (Tindal) and Oenpelli. All the jets flying to Asia were going up to 40nm right of track to avoid this line.

So picking up a body in a body bag sounds pretty gnarly, and by all means isn't my favourite thing in the world, but it's amazing how you generally don't think about it when it's in the plane with you. The only difference with this body was that for the first time i could actually smell it, and it wasn't overly unpleasant or anything, it was just a strange smell, once i landed and it got a bit stuffy in the cabin; so i couldn't work out what it was straight away, and obviously i eventually registered the source!

Flying IFR at night in marginal weather without a radar is definately not fun, however up here in the top end, the monsoonal storms aren't overly aggressive, or long lasting either, unless a tropical depression/cyclone develops. They are very isolated too and the flashes of lightning can be seen everywhere, making the worst of the weather reasonably easy to avoid. This is not always the case when there is embedded storms, but this doesn't happen all to often.

Straight after take-off i was handed to approach, who vectored me around some inbound vfr traffic from the north. I was actually passing 6000ft by the time i flew downwind to Darwin airport. I am then transferred to the class E frequency of 129.85. Class E in Australia means IFR traffic is seperated from other IFR planes and is radar monitored. We are given traffic infomation about VFR traffic only. If i was below 8500 (Class G) then i would only recieve infomation about IFR and VFR traffic and it would be up to me to avoid them and take suitable action. Mostly around Australian airports, Class E extends around 90nm above 8500ft. Its lower level beyond this becomes FL180 and anything below this becomes Class G. Up in the top end we are radar identified till around 140nm out of Darwin at 9000ft, and about 100nm at 8000ft.

From leaving Class E, i then get transferred onto centre 124.1 (Class G), which is patched with a lot of other frequencies, and covers a large area. As i get around 50-60nm out from Maningrida, i transfer to what we call the "MAF" frequency. Well, i call it the MAF frequency, because Mission Aviation Fellowship, which operates out of East Arnhemland, always make their CTAF and traffic calls on Brisbane Centre. There is no law against or for this, but when the frequency is busy with IFR traffic, it can be hard to get a radio call in, on top of hearing VFR traffic heading coastal at 5500ft to some unknown Aboriginal community blah blah. It's their company policy though, so i guess they are just adhering to what they are meant to do.

Anyhoo, this frequency for me is 123.4. This is patched all the way down to Tennant Creek, across the Horn Island in the Torres Straights, and basically pretty close to Cairns. It covers a lot of area, and is always cool when i hear some of my mates who fly out of Alice Springs and Tennant Creek on the airwaves. Maningrida, and virtually all the places i fly into (apart from Tindal) are all on CTAF procedures. Maningrida has the CTAF frequency 127.5. Maningrida also gets VHF on the ground, so no need to use HF radion for a change!

So i waited on the ground for a bit in MGD until the body arrived. It was in a big precession, with about 10 cars, and probably over 200 people accompanying it. They do a ceremony as they load it into the plane which is quite amazing/odd to watch for the first time. Mostly everyone is really respectful and are quite gracious to the pilot for these jobs, but i have seen people start smashing their heads into the sides of the planes and causing possible damage, so i always keep an eye on whats going on. Yesterday ran as smooth as it could, and the police at MGD were good blokes who helped me out.

Departure and return to Darwin was uneventful, despite going through a lot of rain and cloud, and having lightning going off in the distance. All in a days work i guess!

I do have photos of some of the events, but i don't know how disrespectful it is to post some of it, so i might just keep them hidden for now.


  1. Oh man would that annoy me! What possible reason could MAF have for doing CTAF calls on the centre frequency? I'm surprised CASA approved that in their ops manual (who am I kidding, i'm not surprised at all, but they shouldn't have lol).

    I can understand broadcasts when entering a VFR lane for example, but every single CTAF call?? seriously? The traffic affected should be on the CTAF frequency anyway.

    Unless of course I am missing something :|

  2. Great post, thanks Mike. It's really interesting to read about some of the radio and airspace procedures out in central Australia, and about the usefulness of class E, compared to my own perspective as a VFR-only CPL-in-training in that it offers me nothing much more useful than G does, other than a change in frequency and greater clearance from the hard stuff down below!

  3. Hi guys, thanks for reading! Yeh MAF make these calls as they lost a plane and pilot semi-recently, and so they made it company policy to make these broadcasts. I personally don't see the point of it, CTAF is there for a reason.. But i guess its how they operate and want their pilots to do their procedures. They don't usually make CTAF calls, but they make departure and tracking calls mainly.

    Brendan, good luck with your training! Glad you find this stuff insightful. I often don't know what to write about so its nice to hear a positive comment. But i was in your shoes being VFR in class E and never really understood it all.

    All the best!


  4. Hi Mike,

    Just found your blog - linky from Aviatrix, I think. Reading through your archive 'll give me something to do when I'm at a loose end ;) I had a quick look earlier today - toothache made sleep difficult - and some of your photo's are really good.

    Re the photo's mentioned above, ask the family? I'm sure you will be able to get their details - they would probably be grateful of a set themselves. Just a thought...

    Kind regards,