Into the Bush – The Pikangikum First Nation

…0612 hrs – ‘Navajo Quebec Lima Charlie’ is wheels up from Runway 18, heading northwest to St.Andrews to begin a long day of charter flying. Ceilings are 2000ft AGL and an early morning tailwind lets us clock a constant 200 knots over the ground.  The Prairies are still asleep and it takes us just 8 minutes to make a full stop from base to St.Andrews – an auspicious start for sure!

The mission today – Ferrying a mechanic from St.Andrews to the Pikangikum Indian Reserve to repair a school generator which is the only source of electricity for the school. Pilot In Command is Luke Penner, who has been flying into northwestern airports for more than 12 years now. He tells me flying into the bush is a different experience altogether and I cannot wait to see it firsthand.

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Early morning at St.Andrews

With clouds hanging low, and the sun beginning to just make its presence felt ,St.Andrews at this hour is nothing short of serene. Parked on Apron 2 we wait for our passenger who arrives beaming with energy, albeit a few minutes late.With the tower closed, and traffic next to none – the radio crackles ‘Quebec Lima Charlie rolling 18’.

Takeoff is uneventful and we make a direct turn to a north easterly heading , setting course to our destination. Luke tells me most of this leg would be in IFR conditions and that checks out when we encounter IMC on our climb out! There’s cloud everywhere and zero forward visibility. At this point, Luke is flying only on his instruments without any external visual references for orientation. The climb to cruise takes a bit but we breakout of the cloud layers and settle between two layers offering a decent tailwind. In cruise, we are clocking over 195 knots. Enroute radio calls are made and our expected arrival at Pikangikum is just over 40 minutes from now.

Surprisingly, this is when Luke starts to plan his arrival into our destination, beginning to run through the approach plates, frequencies and the arrival procedure. A weather check at Kenora tells us an RNAV approach into 09 is the best option and the aircraft is configured accordingly. Pikangikum area is reporting ceilings as low as 800ft AGL with light rain and no icing. The descent and majority of the 15 mile final would be once again all IMC. A quick glance at the passenger cabin reveals that our only passenger today is fast asleep, unknown to all the activity happening in the cockpit. With no intentions of waking our passenger from his nap, we plan a descent at just over 470ft per minute. We intercept our initial fix just as planned and continue on approach. The radio is silent and there’s no traffic except for a runway inspection vehicle on the ground. Luke tells me to look out and call on visual contact with the ground. We keep descending, crossing 1000ft and there’s still no visual reference. Our decision height is 200ft, which technically means that we overshoot if the runway isnt visible. Just at about 800ft, I catch a fleeting glance of some trees and barely able to control my excitement, I yell ‘GROUND!!!!’ A second later, the curtains are lifted, and terra firma greets us with a gravel runway lined up straight ahead. Landing is without surprises and we taxi to the apron.

Pikangikum First Nation is from one of the First Nation Reserve’s in Ontario and has a population of just about 2500 people. Located north of Red Lake, the reserve is home to four native Indian clans which rely on air transport.

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The Terminal

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Navajo on Final

There’s hardly a sign of population with dense vegetation and lakes everywhere. Makes me wonder how do people here earn their livelihood. The airport is nothing but a gravel runway and apron. Using the word terminal for the makeshift shelter with steel benches is an exaggeration. The mechanic heads out without giving any confirmed time of his arrival back to the airport, it could be an hour, or a day!

We now sit in our airplane, with its windows frosted looking at other Chieftain which seems to have gone technical. I complain to my pilot of the lack of activity at this airport. And almost as if supernaturally, the airport gets offended and we have a Caravan on final. Following the Caravan is a Super King Air. Minutes behind the King Air is a Beech 1900D. Within 20 minutes of our arrival at what looked like another planet, we have planes everywhere. The charter aircraft are flying in convicts and judges for court day at Pikangikum. More King Airs, followed by a couple of Navajo’s. The apron now doesnt seem to have any place left for parking except a concrete stand in one corner. And why should that stay empty – Perimeter’s Dash 8 comes in and the apron is now full. Interestingly, all convicts flew in, in Caravans and all the jury in King Airs – hierarchy indeed. One of the Navajo’s bought the maintenance crew to work on the grounded Chieftain. This is as busy as it can get in this isolated corner of the world.

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Convict Caravan

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Wasaya Dash 8F on a cargo run

Waiting for our mechanic is uneventful and activity happening around does help in passing time. One big saving grace for pilots flying into this airport is Wi-fi in the terminal building.

Just about 5 hours after he left, our passenger is back and beaming as always. The generator had a broken valve which jammed and broke the piston. No repair possible today. Time to fly back!! 5 minutes later, Luke announces intentions on the radio and we are airborne off Runway 09 at Pikangikum. Our return leg should be similar to the arrival, except that, there is a line of thunderstorms right ahead of us blocking our way to St.Andrews. Luke compliments the Wi-fi and how its enables him to check radar and echo tops on the ground allowing to plan a better course before even taking off. As expected. our return leg is a 40kt direct headwind, letting us barely do 145kts.

We settle for cruise over a thick layer of clouds and sun is shining in all its glory. Luke briefs us on the upcoming weather and to stay fastened as it is likely to get bumpy. We look ahead and can clearly see a wall of isolated thunderstorms growing right infront of us. The lightning detector is turned on to give us a synthetic picture of lightning and thunder in those menacing cumulonimbus clouds. Approaching the thunderstorms, we make course corrections, turning away and carefully weaving our way through those growing monsters. We cannot fly over them, or under them , allowing us to only penetrate these laterally. Even though those CBs look pretty calm from the outside, within them they have the energy of multiple nuclear bombs. Cockpit stress increases in these conditions increasing workload on the pilot. Experience compensates for the lack of a weather radar and we fly past through all of it without too much turbulence.

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‘Plus’ signs indicating lightning

Arrival into St. Andrews is tricky again because of multiple rain shower cells on all sides of the airport. Turning and avoiding all unnecessary weather, we have our runway in sight. The controller clears us for landing, right behind a Cessna on short final. ‘Quebec Lima Charlie’ gently greases the runway and we are back to civilization!! Our mechanic leaves for home and so do we. The fourth and final leg takes us 12 minutes and the welcome sight of our base apron greets us.

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Flying into such airports makes one appreciate the luxuries that often go unnoticed. The luxuries of something as simple as electricity which one takes for granted. Nonetheless, it is a learning experience like none other and its always good to see a new airport!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trip Report and Review – Business Class on Vistara UK813 IXB-DEL

Introduction/Background

Vistara, a joint venture by the Tata Group and the Singapore Airlines, began operations in January 2015.From day one, the airline promised to revolutionize the entire air travel experience in the domestic aviation scenario in India.Motivated and driven by the tagline ‘Fly the new feeling’, Vistara aims at delivering a unmatched product in the Full Service Carrier segment.

I had been really wanting to try this new airline from quite some time, because of many reasons. Some of them were a. 9W and AI lacked in some areas in the FSC tally b. Having traveled in Kingfisher Airlines, I really wanted to once again see a carrier with a product similar to it,if not better c. New Airline.
Plans to fly Vistara materialized a little later than I’d expected, but nonetheless, something I really looked forward to. Expectations were high, partly because of reviews from other travelers/reports and partly because, two of the most reputed  organisations in their sectors – Tata and SIA have joined hands to give birth to Vistara.

Planned Routing was as follows:
UK868 DEL-IXB via Guwahati (Premium Economy)
UK813 IXB-DEL (Business) Airbus A320 VT-TTJ

The Flight(UK813 IXB-DEL  Airbus A320 VT-TTJ)

  1. Online Booking and Website-The online booking experience was seamless and quick. After choosing the flights, the booking gets done in four steps.The website is user friendly and easy to use. In my opinion, the homepage can be given a better design, the present one is a little too ‘in-your-face’ for my taste.
  2. Check In and Boarding – This is where it gets interesting. The scheduled departure of UK813 is at 1420hrs from Bagdogra. I had left my room at around 1135hrs and planned to reach Bagodgra airport by about 1230hrs. Having done the web check-in a day earlier, I did have a lot of time to spare (…or so I thought). Just about 8 kms short of the airport, there was a traffic jam of more than a kilometer with many people standing outside their vehicles. Somehow, the taxi driver managed to bypass quite a few cars but couldnt go really far. Upon little investigation, we got to know that an accident had occurred at one end of a bridge and there was absolutely no way this jam would clear anytime soon.By now it was almost 1220hrs and the driver told me that this was the only approach road to the airport. The only other road, route rather, would have me traverse more than 45kms to get to the airport, and included crossing a dry riverbed. We made the call and decided to take that road, time was passing by rather fast, the distance wasn’t. I finally managed to reach the airport at 1350hrs!! During this time, I received four calls from the Vistara manager at Bagdogra who continuously kept asking me of my whereabouts and had kept the flight open till I reached. I was the last passenger and he personally accompanied me through the entire security check and boarding process and ensured it went well.IMG_6439
    Business Class seats on Vistara’s A320 VT-TTJ.
  3. Pre-Takeoff – From the minute I stepped into the aircraft, there was an aura of a certain perfection which  I had noticed during my first flight with them as well. Vistara offers 8 seats in the Business class cabin in the standard 2-2 layout. Just a couple of minutes after taking my seat, I was offered the welcome drink – Guava juice.
    Not the most pleasant looking drinks, but refreshing without a doubt.WP_20160605_14_20_48_Pro
    Guava juice.Thereafter came the cold towel, which was offered after boarding was complete and the ladder was being detached.Quick taxi thereafter and we were airborne at 1425hrs sharp.Noteworthy, here is the fact that, procedures at Bagdogra do not involve pushback and the aircraft makes a right turn out of its parking bay on its own power, with the total time to runway of not more than 4 to 5 minutes. The lead FA and IFM of the flight was serving the Business passengers.Responsible for making the safety demonstration announcements in English and Hindi, she also was supposed to collect our towels and drink glasses and be seated after all this in less than 4 minutes.
  4. Cruise – Just after the captain notified the cabin to begin with the service procedures, we were given the food Menu.IMG_6417IMG_6418IMG_6419On offer today for the vegetarians was Chanar Kofta and Masaman curry. Non vegetarians had the choice of Za’atar Chicken or Fish curry served along with vegetables and rice.Without any second thoughts, I went for the non-vegetarian option – Za’atar Chicken. Here’s what the entire meal looked like.IMG_6425
    The meal was delectable and well-flavored, the chicken was tender and nicely marinated. The flight attendant served another offering of bread – Oregano this time.Each meal was served individually to each passenger in the business cabin and there was no cart used for any service. After the middle eastern delight we had a choice of juices (Orange,Mix-Fruit and Apple), aerated drinks, Tea and Coffee on offer.IMG_6432
    Orange Juice it was! Do take note of how the glass is placed right in the middle of the Vistara star. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t placed this way by chance. The FA deliberately put it there and did it with a lot of poise. Thats the perfection I was talking about.

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    By now, the crew had begun preparations to land at Delhi and very swiftly the entire cabin was prepared for arrival.

  5. Landing – We landed at Runway 10 at Delhi and had quick taxi back to gate.IMG_6453
    Spotted VT-TTL – Vistara’s latest bird which arrived just a day before from Toulouse parked on the remote stand alongside VT-IDU, 6Es latest bird.IMG_6458
    Docking at the gate next to sister ship VT-TTI.
    Before deplaning, an announcement was made asking passengers to lower their window shades so as to keep the temperatures comfortable within the aircraft and prepare for the next flight. Exit was quick as I didn’t have any checked-in baggage.

 Review/Verdict

  1. The service offered, from the start till the end of the flight, is very professional, complete and adopts a no-nonsense approach.
  2. The functioning of the airline, its staff and its operations seem to integrate into one cohesive unit very easily, functioning like clockwork.
  3. The product, atleast for now, seems to be consistent. 9W and AI lack the most in keeping their product consistent across the spectrum.
  4. Major changes have been introduced from the day Vistara began operations – Ticket pricing has been looked into, Premium Economy maybe done away with, IFE and Wifi are being introduced etc.This speaks alot about the airline and shows how they are adapting and surviving in the very niche FSC market.
  5. Lack of IFE wasn’t felt much, probably because it wasn’t a long flight. However, It should be introduced.
  6. Crew are quick,polite, and efficient.
  7. The tradition of excellence adopted by Tata and SIA shows very well in the working of this airline and each detail is taken care of.
  8. Perfection.
  9. The menu and food still have room for improvement.
  10. Overall Rating – 9/10

The airline is growing well and adding aircraft and sectors at a steady pace.Currently operating 11 aircraft over 17 destinations with Chandigarh, Kochi and Srinagar being some of the latest additions. What remains to be seen though is whether Vistara can survive the test of time, and more importantly be able to hold fort in a very dynamic and continuously changing Indian aviation market scenario.

Good wishes to them and I hope they continue to grow at the same pace!