Friday, August 3, 2012

Air Rally 1996 Jakarta to Mataram


This happened a long time ago - in July 1996 to be exact, but it remains without doubt the best flying trip I ever did. I did not keep a diary then but with the aid of my flight log entries, some salvaged but faded photos and fleeting visions in my foggy mind, I shall attempt to reconstruct the adventures I had. I hope you will enjoy this story.

A notice was put up in the Royal Selangor Flying Club's (RSFC) lounge of an invitation by the Indonesian National Armed Forces - Air Force (TNI-AU) to the club to send participants and aircraft for an Air Rally from Jakarta to Mataram and back to Jakarta. Board and lodging as well as fuel will be fully borne by TNI-AU as long as we were in their airspace. This was one of the numerous celebrations held in Indonesia in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of the Indonesian republic. The rally was to stretch over 4 days but this did not include the time needed for us to get to Jakarta from Sempang and vice-versa. In fact it took us 9 days altogether.

I was pretty excited about it as I could do a lot of flying and in a new environment too with all costs borne by somebody else except for the positioning flights. In addition there were also spot landing and flour-bombing competitions at Mataram airport which all could enter. A rough calculation came up with a total of 17 hours for the positioning flights to Jakarta and back to Sempang. When spread over 3 pilots, each will bear about RM1,500 of the total cost - not a bad deal at all. So I registered for the ballot and was lucky enough to be among the 8 or so pilots chosen. We could not send more than 3 aircraft as the other aircraft did not have long range tanks. So it was decided that two C172's and a Piper Chieftain would be entered for the Rally. The Chieftain belonged to an RSFC member and could accommodate 8 including a crew of 2. This aircraft also carried 2 engineers and parts and supplies for all our aircraft.

The two C172's would each have 3 pilots on board as they would be fully-fuelled and carry some limited personal baggage. For a 9-day excursion with no place where we could do our laundry, to tell us to bring along only 3 sets of clothes each was indeed cruel but we really had no choice. I shall however spare you the details on how we fared on that aspect of the Rally.

Each pilot made his own flight plans for all the legs and would take turns to fly the 16 legs altogether:

03-07-96 KL-JB-Palembang (WIPP)
04-07-96 Palembang-Jakarta (WIIH)
06-07-96 Jakarta-Cirebon (WICC)-Semarang (WIIS)-Jogjakarta (WIIJ)
07-07-96 Jogjakarta-Malang (WIAS)-Denpasar (WADD)-Mataram (WRRA)
09-07-96 Mataram-Denpasar-Surabaya (WRSJ)-Semarang-Jakarta
10-07-96 Jakarta-Palembang
11-07-96 Palembang-JB-KL

We gathered at Sempang just before dawn for an early departure primarily to beat the usual afternoon thunderstorms. Some RSFC officials were there to send us off. As usual there were stragglers on the other two aircraft and last-minute adjustments had also to be made to their aircraft by the engineers. 


We also saw that the Royal Malaysian Air Force (TUDM) were sending a team of two C402's and a PC7 for the same Rally. The C402's were being prepared for flight not far from where we were. I was assigned to 9M-AYQ and was rostered to fly the Palembang-Jakarta sector. It was almost 1000hrs and we decided to leave for Senai first and wait for the rest there.




After a quick breakfast cum lunch at Senai airport, we cleared Immigration and Customs and was allowed to depart for Palembang via West Point with a target altitude of 8000ft. It was past 1300hrs. 

Just south of Singapore, we went smack into a cumulonimbus at around 6000ft. It was a rough ride with no visibility and the stall warning was going off all the time as we were hurled around inside the cloud. Finally, we came out into the sunshine and resumed our climb to 8000ft. A hand-held GPS on board guided us back on course after losing our way in the cloud. The flight went smoothly after that as we passed island after island off the east coast of Sumatra.

About four hours after our Senai departure, we landed at the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Airport, Palembang and was greeted by the TNI-AU officers who served us tea and took our passport for Immigration clearance. They spared us the Customs check. I could see immediately that this was a well-coordinated event and spoke well for the TNI-AU.

The airport was relatively quiet and there were some domestic traffic at the other end of the airfield from us. We were parked on the military end where I could see only a parked white Alouette III. 

Subsequently the other two RSFC aircraft arrived followed by an MD3 Aerotiga owned by SME Aerospace and an Aerospatiale Trinidad flown by the owner from Singapore. All were headed for the Rally as well.




That night the TNI-AU gave us a nasi padang dinner at a cosy restaurant followed by a quick city tour and we put up the night in the Officers Mess which was really Spartan by any standard.

THE PALEMBANG DRAWBRIDGE - The centre span is raised when ships need to pass underneath.

To Jakarta

We were up early the next morning (4 July 1996), had a bland military breakfast at the Mess and were transported to the airport where we refuelled the aircraft and submitted our flight plan for Jakarta. The pilot of the MD3, a previous buddy of mine at the RSFC, invited me to co-pilot the aircraft for the whole of the Rally and having not flown that aircraft before, I jumped at the opportunity.

The MD3-160 was a new low-winged basic and aerobatic trainer designed by Max Datwyler (a Swiss) who sold the design to a Malaysian company, SME Aerospace. The aircraft went into production in Subang and an initial batch was delivered to TUDM. The company was negotiating with TNI-AU for the sale of some units to them which explained the purpose of the aircraft participating in the Rally.

Powered by a Lycoming IO320 piston engine, I felt that it was a well-balanced aircraft with sensitive controls - just perfect for aerobatics. The bubble canopy and the low cockpit sill reminded me very much of the F16. The cockpit was wide and spacious compared to the C172. The bubble canopy also meant that I would be fully sunburnt in just a matter of hours. Seating was side-by-side with a joystick each and a common throttle lever in the middle. The aircraft had a fixed undercarriage and a sliding lever ahead of the throttle served as a nosewheel lock. This lever was pushed forward to lock the nosewheel steering after takeoff and pulled back to unlock it before landing, which makes it a good procedure trainer for retractable gear aircraft.

TNI-AU airmen thoughtfully put meal packs in every aircraft for the pilots and this practice was repeated at every refuelling stop we made throughout the Rally. These meal packs proved their worth as the Rally progressed because we had to have our meals while the aircraft were being refuelled.

We headed southeast in a loose formation bound for Jakarta. The scenery was captivating once we approached the southern tip of Sumatra. Just after crossing into Java, I saw a towering volcano right under us with a town hugging its foot and the sea at the town's edge. It was an unforgettable sight but I could not take pictures as I was doing the flying. It was the beginning of my experience with high mountains and volcanoes which abound in much of Indonesia.  Malaysian mountains are not as striking to look at and mainly below 6,000ft.

We arrived at Halim Perdanakusuma airfield in Jakarta in less than 3 hours, the last half-hour searching through thick smog for a visual approach and straining to avoid other traffic arriving there for the Rally. Slowly the other participating aircraft arrived including the two C402's and the PC7 of TUDM. 

 The TUDM's two C402's and the PC7 can be seen together with 9M-AYQ.

Halim is a military airfield with some civilian traffic. It is used mainly by transports and choppers. We had some time to see the sights in Jakarta that evening and put up the night in the Officers Mess at Halim. The next day (5 July 1996) was spent on parades and ceremonies as well as briefings for the Rally.


We were now set to begin the rally from Halim Airfield in Jakarta to Selaparang Airfield in Mataram on Lombok Island. After some flying competitions at Selaparang, the rally would then continue with the return leg to Halim via a different route.

Rally Rules

How does one win the rally? It's quite simple really. There were 23 aircraft competing, each with a different engine type and capacity and their sizes varying from a two-seat kitplane to a twin-engined 10-seater. To put them on an equal footing, each aircraft's actual flight time to complete the two-way course is compared to the theoretical time the aircraft would take to fly the same distance based on the manufacturer's claim of its maximum speed. Thus one is not really competing with each other but with the manufacturer's claimed performance.

Race Day 6 July 1996
We did not have sufficient rest to begin with but start time was scheduled for sunrise. Wake up time was 5.00 am. We showered, had a quick breakfast of rice, some fish and a slice of watermelon in the Mess and then bundled ourselves into the bus which took us to the air terminal. There we had our blood pressure checked for safety reasons. Mine was rather high but the doc said I could fly anyway. This pressure check was a daily thing throughout the rally and I never once had my pressure down to normal, what with the unearthly waking hours, the long flights, the unfamiliar airspace and the rush to win. 

Then we had our flight briefing covering the rules and the all important weather forecast for our route. At the ramp, we waited for our turn to refuel the aircraft.


When all aircraft had been refueled, they began taxiing to the start line on the runway, the slowest first. They were then flagged off at 5-minute intervals. Our MD-3 was somewhere in the middle and when our turn came I rolled down the runway and climbed towards Cirebon which lies 103nm to the east. My captain wanted to test how the aircraft would behave at 15,000ft and so for the rest of the rally we maintained that altitude where the distance permitted. We found minor deterioration in performance at that level as the aircraft was fairly new. Although aviation doctors often say that pilots may suffer from hypoxia above 10,000ft,  both of us did not feel it at all. Most of the competing aircraft flew well below us and it was a new experience for me to look down on them.

Cirebon is a small airport located on the northern coast of Java about halfway between Jakarta and Semarang and we reached it in about 1 1/2 hours . Upon spotting it, all pilots began to dive towards it. The earlier one got in, the faster one could take off again. Aircraft jostled for position on the glide slope with many cutting into the path of other aircraft. There could have been accidents but somehow they all landed without incident. It was obvious the airfield had not seen 23 aircraft coming in at any one time. The controllers totally gave up and the pilots just had to sort themselves out. Upon landing we had to park our aircraft in a tightly knit bunch as there just wasn't enough space on the ground. All the aircraft had their engines running and I had to jump down from my plane while my captain kept our engine running as well, weave around the spinning propellers of several aircraft and get to the stand where the marshall stamped  our ticket indicating that we had stopped there. The late arrivers took off first as the earlier arrivers were being blocked by them.

Off we went again soaring up into the beautiful sky of West Java heading eastwards to Semarang 110nm away. We flew along the coast and the mountains were far inland to our right. There were many villages along our route and after an hour landed at Semarang, which is the largest city in northern Central Java. We were parked in the military part of the airport and thus could not see the civilian terminal.


Lunch was served in the usual paper box that was similar to the packs loaded into our aircraft each morning. We sat down in the departure lounge of the military terminal and ate the contents of rice, fried chicken and vegetables. 


After our aircraft had been refueled, we took off for our next stop which was Jogjakarta. This was a dogleg sector as it involved traversing the island from the northern to almost the southern coast, a distance of 49nm. There were majestic mountains along the way including the volcano Mt Merbabu (10,318ft). After about 1 1/2 hours we landed at Jogja airfield in the early evening and were provided with a wide selection of snacks and tea laid out in the lawn in front of the military terminal. Jogja is the cultural centre of Indonesia and among its attractions are the two most famous monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan and the kraton (royal palace). We were housed in the cosy Hotel Sahid in the city which had soothing gamelan music performed nightly in its lobby.



The next morning (7 July 1996) we refueled and left Jogja eastwards for Malang, a city situated amongst the mountains 135nm away. It took us 2 hours to get there and to our surprise TNI-AU had arranged for a carnival at the airport with thousands of the city folks coming out to see aircraft displays and getting free rides on a TNI-AU CN-235 twin-engined transport that had accompanied us from Halim. We had a hearty lunch served at the terminal and wandered around the control tower. It was quite a long break this time but there was no quiet place that we could rest as crowds were everywhere.

We refueled and finally we took off for Denpasar, a roughly two-hour easterly flight along the south coast of Java. The terrain was mountainous and we wondered how the low-powered tiny kitplanes that were also competing were managing at the lower altitudes. This was a most scenic sector because we passed some beautiful volcanoes and mountains out of Malang and then there was the sea on our right with huge surfs visible from 15,000ft above.


One of the competitors made a big mistake in reporting that a plane had crashed into the sea without  going down to check. It could have just been a boat but the TNI-AU quickly sent a C130 search plane and we found out later that there was no missing aircraft and it had cost the Indonesian government a lot of money on the search.

There were no signs of inhabitants for more than a hundred miles and a volcano was spouting smoke along the way. As we neared the eastern edge of Java we had to cross a range of high mountains before we could see Bali Island.


We crossed the Bali Strait and descended towards the legendary island. Denpasar airport was busy as usual but our 23 aircraft were allowed to land one by one while the airliners were told to wait. We refueled quickly and took off again one by one for our final stop Mataram 52nm further east. We could hear on the radio the complaint made by an airline pilot to ATC (Air Traffic Control) that there was no NOTAM (notice to airmen) issued on the possible interruption to flights on that day. Many airline flight schedules were affected and I could imagine some passengers missing their connecting flights elsewhere.


Mataram is the capital of Lombok which is an island that was being developed into a second Bali but without the tourist traps and neon lights of the latter. The beaches, mountains and padi fields were just as scenic but it was obvious that a lot of work needed to be done to attract tourists there.  There were few hotels of reasonable standard. One can say it was a poor man's Bali.

We landed at Mataram and parked as close to each other as possible due to the small ramp area. A bus took us to our hotel which was probably the best there then. After a whole day of flying, it was a restful night for all the pilots


The next day (8 July 1996) was filled with local flying competitions such as spot landing and flour bombing. In between my captain decided to do some flying in our MD-3 and I joined him in the left seat. We went sightseeing around the airport and landed. After a short break, my captain decided to demonstrate some aerobatics. We started on full thrust, tore down the runway, lifted the aircraft to about a foot above the ground and maintained that height until nearing the runway end. We then broke into a 90-degree vertical climb until the airspeed dropped. At about 250ft above the ground we entered into a left yaw until we were pointing straight down at the ground. After the airspeed had recovered at about 150ft we rolled 90 degrees to the right and then lifted the nose up to resume normal flying. The ATC chipped in "Hebat Pak!" (awesome) over the radio after we landed. Later in the afternoon, we again conducted an aerobatic session performing loops, Immelman turns, barrel rolls and generally having a good time above the airport.

For lunch we were treated to a sumptuous buffet at a hotel on the famous Sengigi beach. The bus then took a detour to show us some of the sights including the old sector of Mataram. The streets and buildings were almost replicas of Melaka which is not surprising since the Dutch had ruled both places.


As for the flying competitions held throughout the day, the Malaysians ended up with only one prize (for spot landing) which was won by a TUDM PC-7 pilot. 

Return Leg Mataram- Halim 9 July 1996

It was again an early morning start and as in Halim, we were somewhere in the middle of the queue for the flagoff. 


A one-hour hop found us back in Denpasar where we refueled and took off again for Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia, on the northeastern tip of Java. The terrain was mountainous all the way until we reached the Bali Strait. 


Surabaya airport was, as in the case of most of the previous stops we made, divided between the civil and military. We parked and refueled on the military side and noted that there were numerous old planes and helicopters parked over on the civil side. There was also a large naval air complex on the military side.

Refueling over, we took off for Semarang which we stopped at on the outbound leg. This time we had a long break there including lunch. A couple of the pilots joined me on a quick trip to see the city. I found it to be clean and modern with four-star hotels, shopping malls and international fast food outlets.




Having refueled our aircraft we departed for Halim, a 2-hour flight along the same route we took on the way out but this time bypassing Cirebon. We arrived at Halim rather late in the afternoon and were put up in a hotel on the outskirts of Jakarta where we had a good dinner before going to bed.

Early the next morning (10 July 1996), my captain on the MD-3 had to attend to some business in Jakarta and would fly the aircraft home a few days later. How I missed that lovely aircraft. I then became a passenger on the ten-seater Piper Chieftain that was part of our team. 


 We took off from Halim and tracked for Palembang, bypassing the busy main Jakarta airport of Soekarno-Hatta. Relieved at not having to fly, I slept most of the way.

At Palembang, we had lunch and I was requested to co-fly one of the RSFC aircraft home after refueling. This I did and we landed at Senai for another refueling as well as immigration/customs clearance before taking off on our last leg to KL. We landed in the late evening and went home to our families who had probably worried about how we had fared over the last eight days.

I am grateful that this opportunity had come my way and I had gained so much experience from this journey not only in the flying aspects but also in the people and culture of Indonesia, its military life and above all in the beautiful and varied landscape that we had traversed.


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