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Waiheke - Auckland - Nuku'alofa (Tonga) 14 February

As forecast we woke up to a gorgeous day in Waiheke. The forecast looked good both for Auckland and Nuku'alofa, 1082 NM away. From the satellite IR image there was a band of clouds and humidity streaming southeast from tropical cyclone 'Claudia' NNW of Auckland which we would have to cross about half way to Tonga. 'Claudia' itself was at least 400 NM away from our route Auckland to Nuku'alofa, so not a major worry. We were entering the South Pacific hurricane belt and we are going to be in that belt for 5 weeks. And we were right in the middle of the southern hurricane season which lasts from December to May.  A major hurricane 'Waka' hit Vava'u in Tonga 1 January 2002 and made lots of damage. But we intend to keep a lot of fuel on board at all times so we can quickly escape if necessary. We have read  Margi and Gérard Moss's book 'Freedom of the Skies' and their ordeal with hurricane 'Val' in Western Samoa in December 1991.

There were still tasks for Flemming on the computer before we could leave, which resulted in an hour's delay in getting away.  Ray drove us to Waiheke airport.  It was an emotional goodbye, after three months of companionship.  I knew I was going to miss his reassuring presence in the co-pilot's seat. Also, I wouldn't be able to work on the computer from the front seat as the laptop would get in the way of the controls.  That had been an excellent way of passing the time on the long flights and took my mind off worrying about flying over long stretches of water. We will miss your company, Ray, and looking forward to seeing you again at the homecoming party in Geneva!

The 10-minute flight to Auckland went without a hitch - a positive start to the long day.  On landing, Flemming immediately phoned BP for refueling to be told that they didn't accept normal credit cards and didn't accept local or US cash either! Local pilots have an account with them and pay by 'swipe card'.  We hadn't had problems refueling elsewhere in any major airport in the world, so weren't prepared for this.  Flemming asked the BP guy to find a solution while we completed  formalities with the pleasant woman customs and  immigration official. She was most helpful in completing the formalities required for re-export of the fuel tank and various aircraft parts which had been been temporarily imported by Gateway Cargo Systems. We had paid a NZ$ 806 deposit for the temporary import and needed to complete this formality to get the money back.

To solve the fuel problem, the BP guy phoned Stephanie of Sky Care, an FBO at nearby Ardmore airport.  She kindly agreed to use their account to pay for the fuel, and drove over to meet us at Auckland , accepting a cash payment. All that took us just an hour and a half, and we finally took off at 10.30 a.m.  The first three hours went smoothly.  We enjoyed the blue skies and clear views of Waiheke Island, the Coromandel peninsula and Great Barrier Island before heading out over the vast ocean. After losing VHF contact we were transferred to Auckland Radio on HF and several routine position reports were made on HF using our assigned South Pacific frequency of 8867 kHz with no problem.

Then I felt the need to use the in-flight toilet facilities.   I could see that we would soon be in the clouds that had shown up on the satellite image so preferred not to wait until we were battling against a rainstorm.  Flemming reached behind my seat for the plastic 'potty' and then all hell let loose.  Apparently the landing gear up-lock hadn't been properly engaged when he retracted it after take-off.  Suddenly it popped out of its up-lock and jerked forward with a big bang and such force that it bent the aluminium kneeboard for  Flemming's charts. Thank god Flemming did not have his hand between the gear handle and the kneeboard as he would have been seriously injured. The maximum certified gear down speed is 105 knots indicated, and we were cruising at 130 knots indicated at 11'000 feet. At this speed, the large aerodynamic force on the inner gear doors made the manual landing gear handle slam up against  its down-lock fitting and  the kneeboard in a fraction of a second.

Flemming then slowed the plane down to 80 knots where the gear can be comfortably retracted. While accelerating the plane again, he discovered a 'low voltage' warning light and quickly determined that the alternator was no longer producing any current. What had happened? Was there a short circuit created by the aluminium kneeboard? In any case all electrical equipment got switched off, and the two circuit breakers for the alternator circuit were checked and found OK. Should we fly back to Auckland to get it repaired? Then Flemming switched the alternator field circuit breaker off and on and the alternator immediately delivered power again. What most likely happened was that the kneeboard had hit the 'Master Switch' or the  'Avionics Master Switch', switched all power off and on rapidly. This had created an overvoltage spike which caused the alternator voltage regulator to trip on overvoltage.

This alternator problem reminded me of another very scary alternator failure in December 1987.  It was night and  IMC at 8000 feet over Reims while we were en route from Geneva to Southampton. That time we flew with a flashlight illuminating the instruments and used a handheld VHF radio. We landed safely in Southampton, and Flemming cried with relief.  This time it was my turn to shed the tears, not really from relief, but from the nasty jolt I'd been given.  It made me realize how vulnerable we really were, in the middle of the big, wide ocean - and the fact that I'm not qualified to fly if Flemming had been seriously injured.

But everything was now back in working order and we decided to proceed to Tonga. And I finally got to use my plastic 'potty'. Flemming found a pair of pliers in the toolbox and bent the kneeboard back in shape. It was then time to make one of the regular reports to Auckland: Auckland Radio, HB-DVN on 13261. Auckland: HBDVN go ahead. Us: 'Auckland, HBDVN reporting normal operation at this time maintaining 11'000 feet. Will report MOMTA at 0055'. Auckland: 'HBDVN roger'. The whole ordeal had lasted about 10 minutes.

Then we entered the clouds that had shown up on the satellite image.  The band was pretty thick and it took over an hour for us to pass through the clouds and rain showers.  Fortunately, the turbulence wasn't bad as I was still feeling pretty shaken by the ordeal.  It was a relief to finally break out of the clouds.  The shadows of the small puffy clouds ahead looked reassuringly like small islands, but the first real island we saw on our left was just a rock, about half an hour before we sighted Tongatapu.  What a pleasure to  fly over a forest of coconut palms and know that we had made it!  Flying time was 7 hours 40 minutes - the longest flight of our trip so far.

Wilson, the security guard who doubled as taxi driver, gave us a warm welcome and called the immigration officer to meet us on the apron.  He was also very friendly and let us use his phone to call a hotel.   (No mobile phone signals here). We had been told to expect big people in Tonga and, sure enough, both of them were quite large fellows.  Wilson drove us slowly into Nuku'alofa. Hot and sticky, I was in dire need of a cold shower, but decided that this was south sea island pace and I'd better get used to it.  In fact, he couldn't drive any faster as the speed limit here is 65 kms on rural roads and 40 kms in town.

We checked into the Villa Mackenzie, run by Kiwis John and Moira Forde - a very pleasant guest house with the luxury of our own private bathroom.  We had chosen well - this was the Friday night watering hole of just about all the expats in Nuku'alofa.  Fortunately, though, today was Thursday as we were too exhausted to talk to anyone. We just summoned up the energy to go out for a meal before we crashed out, grateful for the air conditioning.

The first task the next morning was to contact BP for the barrel of AVGAS that we'd reserved by phone and fax from Waiheke.  Flemming went to the BP office to pay for the fuel and to arrange for the barrel to be delivered to the airport that afternoon.  They assured him that someone would be at the airport the next day to help pump the fuel into the plane before we departed for Lifuka in the Ha'apai group of islands.

The Tongans love to have their photos taken.  At lunch at 'Friends Café', I just picked on a good looking man wearing the traditional grass skirt over his sarong and asked if he would mind stepping outside so I could take a picture of him.  He was delighted!  Then we hailed a taxi and met Stan 'with the van' as he's known.   Stan is a 'returnee migrant' who moved to the US with his parents as a child and decided to return to Tonga at about the age of 30.  He has five children with his wife Seini, another returnee from the US.

Stan took us on a tour of the island.  In the space of a few hours, we took in the monument marking the spot where, in 1777, Captain Cook landed from his ship the Endeavour; burial mounds of ancient royalty called langi; and Ha'amonga'a Maui, a curious arch also known as 'Stonehenge'. Nobody knows when or why it was built, although there are some interesting theories.  We just made it to the blow holes in the south of the island by sunset.  The picture here only captures one of a whole series of them.  The most interesting part of the tour, though, was seeing the local people and talking with Stan about his life.

Back at Villa Mackenzie, we ate fish and chips and met several of the expats. Paul Kelly, a retired Air New Zealand pilot, who is now a consultant for Royal Tongan Airlines, gave us some tips about the islands we would like to visit in the north.   We also chatted with Angus Macdonald, the Australian High Commissioner, who was posted in Geneva before coming to Tonga, and knew some of my colleagues at IOM.  He was with his wife Sue and Geoff and Jenny (didn't catch their surname) who are trying to promote the sustainable development of tourism in Tonga.  Not an easy task I believe.

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Departing Waiheke for the Pacific

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Waiheke island

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Great Barrier Island

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On final for Nuku'alofa

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Tongan man with traditional grass skirt

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Flemming and our driver Stan Brown

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Flemming at the Cook landing monument

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Beating sea cucumber
with a rock

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Polynesian fishing boat

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Angela at 'Stonehenge'

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Nuku'alofa rugby team offers car wash for fund raising

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Sunset by the Tongatapu
blow holes

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