Lord Howe makes for stunning scenery, even before landing at its tiny airstrip. The island itself is a thin strip of land, its most famous landmarks being the majestic rise of two breathtaking mountains and an aquascape of the world's southernmost barrier reef.
As soon as we landed we turned on our phones but they found no signal whatsoever. Thankful for the satellite phone backup, we were able to connect to the number for the airport's fueler, only to have it go unanswered.
Our redemption arrived in the form of a young couple and their small daughter, who traipsed down the airport access road for a closer glimpse at our airplane, which is quite different from the usual Lord Howe arrival of QantasLink Dash 8s. The couple shared that Gower, the resident refueler at Lord Howe who is named for the island's Mount Gower, typically spends this time of day out milking his cows. Considering that our arrival was about the most exciting thing to happen on Lord Howe that day, we weren't surprised to find Gower exactly as promised, keeping to his cow-milking schedule.
"What time would you like the fuel tomorrow morning?" Gower didn't break from his milking ritual for these formalities.
"Seven AM, I guess."
So much for that quick refueling; we'd be staying the night on Lord Howe Island.
The entire planned routing
Before bunking down for the night, we prepped for an early start by tracking down the immigration official and making an appointment; leaving Lord Howe for Norfolk Island and Noumea, New Caledonia the next day would mean leaving Australia proper, and there are formalities to finish. Every single person we came across on the Island happily went out of their way to help and accommodate us; the hotel manager even left us her car with the keys in it to use.
First light saw us back at the airport, with Gower refueling and immigration approving our papers. A check of the weather revealed some rain and scattered low cloud ahead, but nothing to be particularly concerned about; it was well above minimums as we flew up and into the early morning sun.
The trip from Lord Howe to Norfolk Island is nearly 900 KM over water, and this would be the first time during our trip we would leave VHF radio coverage. At the top of our climb to 10,000 feet, we neared New Zealand airspace and our Point of No Return (PNR). Radio contact with Brisbane Centre began to fizzle, but we managed to hear the latest weather info for Norfolk.
The clouds grew thicker and lower as we progressed towards Norfolk. There was only bad and worse news, as it was predicted the airport at Norfolk would be fogged in with rain for our arrival time, and direct voice communication with Air Traffic Control was lost as we neared the Point of No Return (PNR). The PNR is the point at which a decision must be made to continue on or turn back. We were torn without access to the latest on the developing weather, and it was time to think on our
Turning back after the Point of No Return
Long-haul aircraft are pretty much all equipped with a system called ACARS. ACARS is a digital datalink system for transmission of short messages between aircraft and ground stations via airband radio or satellite. Knowing this, I switched my secondary VHF radio on to “The Numbers," slang for 123.450 Mhz, a global chat frequency on which airplanes may communicate with one another without clogging up ATC frequencies. Some airlines monitor this frequency on their standby communications radio, so I thought it was worth a shot trying to get an overflying jet aircraft to help us out by using their ACARS to download the latest weather.
As fortune would have it, Jetstar flight JQ3, an Airbus A330 flying from Sydney to Honolulu, was monitoring and replied to our request. Now armed with the latest weather information, grim as it was, we were confident in our decision to turn back for Lord Howe Island.
Although we'd already said goodbye to Lord Howe, our return only renewed the island's hospitality. One of the airport crew let us borrow his motor scooter to again haul Gower out from his cow pasture, and we hopped on his computer for the latest weather maps and aviation forecasts.
Four hours later, after a brief wait back at Lord Howe and some more fuel, we once more set course for Norfolk. The descent ended up perfectly timed with sunset, and we flew an instrument approach into runway 27, breaking visual at about 1500'. The grim weather which has turned us back earlier in the day was still visible ahead on the horizon, and it confirmed we had made the correct decision to turn back at the PNR.
Flying with a view of Ball's Pyramid, the tallest volcano stack in the world, off Lord Howe
As far as Australian immigration is concerned, Norfolk is an “external territory," meaning we had to once again fill out paperwork and pay fees (including $50 just to have the runway lights turned on). Enthused by our successes and the smiles we'd encountered through the day, we made a quick turnaround on Norfolk Island for our final sector that night, to Noumea, New Caledonia.
Sunset was well past and, on reaching our cruise altitude, the sky cleared to showcase the most magnificent view of the Milky Way. Switching off the instrument panel lights only enveloped us further in the blanket of stars. We were now more than 500 KM from the nearest land, over an ocean calm as a millpond, and out of range of ground-based communication. And to thinkthe adventure was only beginning.
Next up, we'll be In the thick of it, island-hopping from tropical paradises to World War II historic sites, and some which are both.
[Photos: Joe Corrigan]