Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thursday 9 June 2016
From the 12th floor corner suite of the Amora Tapae Hotel Chiang Mai, I look out over this beautiful city toward the mountains to the west and every few minutes I look up from my work because, from the corner of my eye I see a flicker, much as a birdwatcher notices a flash of color or a shimmer in the canopy or a hop on the ground, and I look up to see against the backdrop of the forested mountain a brightly-colored jet slowly descending on the approach to runway 18 of the Chiang Mai International Airport, where we landed yesterday (Wednesday) evening after a flight of more than eight hours across India, north toward Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), around the north end of the Bay of Bengal, over Chittagong, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, the former Burma, and then north up a spectacular mountain valley to Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of northern Thailand.
The flight itself was stressful, not solely for its length, which was the longest of our journey so far, even including Adam’s traverse of the North Atlantic, and will be the longest until he sails across the Pacific on his last over-water leg from Hawaii to California, which he will do solo and which will be the marathon flight of his entire circumnavigation. The flight was stressful largely for the decisions that it required. India was tiring — the heat, the short stops, the fueling from drums, often pumped by hand, the quandaries and calculations over fuel quantities and planning, the worries about food safety (which proved unwarranted whether because we were careful or because the concerns are overblown or because our immune systems have risen to the task), the unaccustomed food that will be unaccustomed even to those who, like me, love Indian food, eat it often, and think of curry as more necessary than salt. Do not misunderstand, at each of our stops in India, the handling was efficient and friendly, notably so in Ahmenabad (pronounced, I have now learned, “Ahhm’-nu-bahd.”). But it was tiring. Did I mention the heat? When we landed in Ahmenabad at eight at night, in the dark, the temperature was almost a hundred Fahrenheit and at Nagpur we spent two hours on the ramp in the middle of the afternoon fueling the airplane from drums when the outside air temperature gauge read 113F. Add the complete lack of shade, the unrestricted, unremitting sun, and the absence of any breeze, and, my friends, you have heat.
Through the offices of GASE and Eddie Gould, we met in India Jaimesh Thapar, a pilot, albeit inactive in recent years, and experienced aviation hand, who shared dinner with us in our hotel and invited us to join his entire family for dinner at his private club the following day. (Jaimesh also intervened, prevailing upon his friend Mr. Seth, of the Indian Oil Company, to save us from catastrophe when we inadvertently left important papers in the airport terminal, but that’s another story.)
That dinner, which occupied the entire afternoon, was one of the great meals of my experience. What makes a great meal? The food, of course, which in this case was a wonderfully prepared feast of Indian dishes. The surroundings, which for us was a colonial-era private club that seemed like a time and place out of the British Raj.
And, most of all, the company, which was utterly delightful in every way, consisting of Jaimesh, his wife, mother, and sister, and his two daughters, one of whom is about to embark on the study of law and the other who is passionate about world affairs, vocal and knowledgeable on the subject and plans to become a journalist. The conversation, after a bit of a slow start as we all became acquainted, soon ramped up into a wide-ranging, energetic, and affectionate discussion of Indian history and world affairs.
We left with a gift from the family of a history of modern India since the partition of 1947, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha, which will add not insignificantly to our takeoff weight but which I will peruse with newfound interest and I hope understanding some weeks or months from now when I begin to digest what I have seen and learned and questioned on this trip. A great meal for all of the things that make a home more than a house and a meal more than something to eat.
So, at the end of a a visit that left us with full bellies, new friends, a warm regard for India, and a desire to do nothing more than savor the feeling and get a good night’s sleep, we found ourselves back in flight planning mode that evening. The flight would be our longest yet, 1309 nautical miles, involving some portion over water and flight through the airspace of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand with the attendant permits and complications. And, whereas weather had not been a significant factor in our flights previously, the weather on this leg was troubling, with isolated and occasional embedded thunderstorms forecast over much of the northern portion of our route for the time of our passage, late afternoon. We have all, those of us who fly in the southeast in the summer, have flown in areas where the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms exists, but the question in flying is always, “What if?” Or, “What are our options?” Or, “What is our alternate?” On our typical domestic flights in familiar airspace under one system and one government and one set of rules, we have options – turn around, land, divert. Here, where every flight is rigidly dictated by allowed routes and permissions and overflight permits, those options are much more limited. Along our route, progressively, we would pass Kolkata, Chittigong, and Yangoon. Neither of the first two are particularly attractive to general aviation and Yangon, Myanmar, is of course the former Rangoon, Burma. Avgas is available at Kolkata and at Chittigong — probably — although it is sometimes far from definite in this part of the world where avgas is rare. (Because there is so little general aviation in this part of the world there is little market for avgas, which fuels piston-powered airplanes. Jet fuel is readily available. Jet fuel, basically diesel oil, would destroy our engine in moments due to lower octane.)
The predicted chance of thunderstorms fell toward the end of our flight path, which was dictated not entirely by us but by the governments and aviation agencies through whose airspace we would fly, both in terms of the route and in terms of the time of day. So as we passed each of the possible alternates, Kolkata, Chittigong, and Yagoon we would be committing ourselves progressively to proceed onward into dubious weather. We could always turn around, but as we flew past each alternate we would have progressively less fuel with which to return. And, with most of the last, northern segment, of our route under the possibility of thunderstorm, we might find that the thunderstorms overlaid not only our destination but our reachable alternates. So, what to do? We spent hours pouring over all of the weather products that bear on the likelihood that occasional or isolated thunderstorms, which were not a certainty but a possibility, might develop and, if they were to, how severe and widespread they might become. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that Adam pulled down charts of the K-factor and lifted index, charts of the CAPE, which suggests the energy available in the air and thus the potential for severe thunderstorms, and satellite photos and TAFs and analyses of winds at various altitudes and everything else we could find. We concluded that the storms, although possible, were not necessarily likely at any given place at any given time and so might be navigable and that, if necessary, we were willing to land anywhere along the route, including Myanmar, and deal with the consequences. We also chose a route that, although somewhat longer, kept us mostly over land or nearly so, rather than a shorter route that struck out over the middle of the Bay of Bengal — where the only alternate is a rubber raft.
As we looked at the weather, we discussed the possibility of confirmation bias creeping into our calculations. It is an insidious process because the more you let it happen, the more certain you are of your decision. It’s not exactly Dunning-Krueger but it works sort of the same way. Like hypoxia, the worse your decisions become, the happier you are about them. Not good. So we continually asked ourselves if we were falling victim to the tendency to keep looking until you find a weather product or an interpretation that confirms the wisdom of doing what you already wish to do.
I am going to violate my rule against talking politics at the airport — even the virtual airport — for a moment and suggest that this confirmation bias bedevils our politics in this era of passionate disagreement based on deep emotions. We seem to choose our politics based on matters of faith (secular faith) rather than logic and we search for and, in this era of manifold information sources, easily find information that confirms our biases rather than challenges them. We even find facts to suit our gut beliefs and our prejudices. Brings to mind the famous remark by the late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” If we are not careful, we can find ourselves looking at multiple weather products and cherry-picking the facts that support the decision we have already made, whether we realize it or not.
So, we agreed on an early departure to avoid, insofar as possible the heat of the day. The overnight low temperature would begin to climb as soon as the sun came up and climb approximately 3 degrees every hour thereafter. Heavily loaded with fuel — remember those alternates — we knew that takeoff and climb performance would be compromised. How much? So we look at the charts. But this sort of flying is off the charts. But previous experience and many calculations persuaded us that an early takeoff on a long runway with no protruding obstacles in the departure path was doable with care and attention to angle of attack. And we needed the fuel for those alternates. We think of alternates in terms of IFR requirements, but there are many other reasons for having an abundance of fuel. Several of those reasons were in our calculation.
Our handling at VANP was efficient and expeditious, very professional, and we were through the security and customs and immigration gauntlet quickly.
Again, don’t try this on your own — unless you do it often, speak the language, have a lot of time on your hands, and have the embassy phone number on speed dial. (Which raises another issue: don’t try this without cell service in every country. It’s just not feasible any more. Whatever it costs.)
Climb performance was, shall we say, modest and the stall warning let us know that it must be accepted as is. Basic aerodynamics are not to be trifled with, or, as Edward Abbey once said, “Nature bats last.” The stormscope showed some returns south of our initial course eastward toward the coast, but nothing ahead and the sky was largely clear above with some modest cumulus below as we climbed, slowly, to our filed altitude of FL170. (We would have preferred FL190, but we were happy to make 170 given our weight. Unlike the U.S. the flight levels — and the standard altimeter setting — begins wherever the owner of the local airspace says it begins, not at the standardized FL180. It’s not unusual for altitudes to become flight levels as low as 6,000.) We advised the departure controller that our climb would be slow. Eventually he asked us if we could make our filed altitude prior to the first enroute fix and, after some quick calculation — and the magic of the Garmin glass panel — we determined that we could. No further issues there.
We passed Kolkata (JSS) in the clear and turned toward the east a bit more to round the north end of the Bay toward Chittigong (CTG). Our path took us across the great deltas of Bangladesh, scene of so many tragic flooding and storm events in recent years — and home to the Royal Bengal tiger.
Settlement was difficult to discern from our altitude, but the vast expanse of flooded land looked clearly impassable and uninhabitable by other than boat. Building cumulus was developing, but nothing that would seem foreign to a pilot who has flown over the Appalachians on a summer day. Nothing rising to FL470 as had been mentioned in the forecasts. Nothing that could not be navigated at our flight level. We never had to ask for a deviation, simply sliding a bit this way or that as necessary. We were non-radar most of the way, anyway. (Interesting question as to whether that makes deviations more or less important to report.) it was beginning to look as if our weather analysis was correct — but we had hours yet to go and the worst weather had been mentioned as possible late in the afternoon. Typical summer weather in hot parts of the world, not unlike North Carolina.
As we passed Chittigong, we were handed off to Yangoon, in the peculiar, at least to us, way those handoffs are sometimes handled here.
Much of this route, by the way, was non-radar. Position reports were routinely requested and supplied. Here again a sophisticated GPS flight management system made the job easy. Controllers wanted our estimated time reaching the next fix and our estimate of fixes farther along the route in GMT rather than in minutes or hours from now. Having that readily displayed was a boon. Comm handoffs were often expressed as, “Confirm contact with Yagoon,” which meant that, once we were able to establish two-way communication with Yagoon we would return to Chittigong and report that we had communication with the next facility. It is complicated by the fact that we travelled through four countries on this one flight. And we were unable to raise Yagoon. Several times we went back to Chittigong and asked for another frequency; we tried several, all to no avail. Even a relay from an overhead aircraft in a helpful Aussie accent — lots of English and Australian pilots flying for national airlines in the Middle East — failed. So we continue on without communication on our flight planned route for many miles, finally reaching Yagoon and being cleared direct to BOMAS, a fix near our final turn north up the mountain valley to Chiang Mai.
Here, suddenly it seemed, the air cleared, the clouds that had at least threatened some menace, turned benign, brilliant white, soft and welcoming. The sun shone brilliantly on the clouds below and pierced every opening to show beautiful forested mountains.
We checked in with Chiang Mai approach and were cleared for the RNAV 18 approach but, as we programmed the initial approach fix, we were offered vectors, which, rather than a vector to the final approach course as one would expect, turned out to be a vector straight to the airport, a descent to cross the departure path at a few thousand, and a clearance for the visual approach and an instruction to join a left downwind for runway 18.
On final, the old city was below us and the mountains was off our right wing and the runway, just as it should be, opened up before us.
There was some confusion as we taxied clear. Chiang Mai parks every aircraft, large or small, nose-in to a gate as if we were all air carriers and, even though we had read all the notes, we were still momentarily confused by the ground controller’s instruction, rendered in an impenetrable accent. We asked for a progressive taxi, which was met with a repetition of the same unintelligible to us command. Finally, as we halted to reconsider, an English voice spoke up on the radio and said, “Turn right.” We still don’t know where that voice came from, but we were aware that an airliner was waiting to push back and I suspect that it was the pilot who, sensing our confusion, decided that he would never get his push back unless he sorted us out.
Our handlers, MJets, nearly jumped on us when we landed, setting immediately to work tying us down to large concrete anchors and bringing the fuel truck immediately to our airplane.
It turns out to be a family affair, father, mother, and a daughter and another young woman all wearing the MJet livery and all working to make us welcome and get us tied down and fueled. After the usual payment in US dollars, the preference of fuel drivers everywhere it seems, we were hustled into a van, swept through customs and security, deposited at the taxi stand with a driver waiting and specific instructions to our hotel. We had barely enough time to swap dollars for a few baht.
And so. I am sitting on the 12th floor of the Tapae Hotel Chiangmai on Chalyapoom Road, overlooking the old city of Chiang Mai, where there seems to be a temple on every block.
A rainstorm blows over the city. The airport went IMC in a moment as the rain came up the valley, visibly approaching through the clean air and sunshine, and in moments more rain was splashing our windows and wetting down the streets.
And within minutes the rain had passed, the sun was out, the mountains in the distance were visible again, and the golden temples glinted again in the sun. From high above I can see ornamental carp swirling in the canal in front of the hotel. I find it so beautiful. One flight after another, one every few minutes, crosses my window, descending slowly past the mountain and visible over the old city all the way to touchdown.
Sometimes late at night or in a spare moment, as many of we pilots do, I will sit at home and go to the internet and watch footage of airplanes making approaches to exotic and beautiful places, challenging approaches or approaches over the beach or through mountain passes or simply to landings in places in the world that I never dream of seeing. Places with strange names and red rooftops and temples or pagodas or mosques. And so now, every time a bright red jet passes my field of view, I look up, watch it float across my view from right to left, from north to south, against the mountain, over the temples of the old city all the way to touchdown and roll out, and I marvel. Here I am. In Chiang Mai, Thailand. I am watching from my window. But I have seen what those pilots are seeing. From down the valley all the way to roll out. I trust you to understand.