Proficient Pilot

Around the world, chapter two

January 1, 2005

Retired TWA Capt. Barry Schiff flew around the world once a month when he was with the airline's international division.

Our charts return us to the reality of the world below. We have passed over Makung, an island that separates Taiwan and China, and are paralleling a buffer zone protecting the Chinese mainland against trespass by uninvited aircraft. The chart advises us to be alert for erroneous navigational signals from China that could lead us astray. It also states that "an aircraft infringing upon the territorial rights of China may be fired upon without notice." We veer away from the mainland.

Nearing Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport, we lower the nose and prepare for a most unusual approach. The instructions on the approach plate are confusingly similar to an Aresti aerobatics diagram. Upon reaching the Cheung Chau beacon, we descend through nimbostratus clouds while flying graceful figure eights using the beacon as a pivot point. Inbound to the airport, we slip out of the overcast and peer through heavy rain. We must now fly 15 miles at 750 feet above the churning sea. Visibility is one mile but ahead the Stonecutters Island radio beacon urges us to continue. We enter Victoria Harbor, our screaming turbines seemingly unnoticed by those aboard the junks below that plod and heel through wind-swept waters.

Crossing Kowloon Beach, we begin a gentle right turn and strain to see the aiming point, a large orange-and-white checkerboard on the side of a 300-foot-high hill near the approach end of Runway 13. We finally see the illuminated checkerboard dead ahead. We bank right to avoid the hill and descend toward man-made canyons and through torrents of turbulence. Tall buildings reach for the sky, probing for our belly. Wings level at 200 feet, we are lined up with the 8,000-foot-long concrete ribbon projecting into the harbor.

Hong Kong: a sweet-and-sour mixture of Chinese antiquity and British colonialism; a place where you go broke saving money; where you can sip bird's-nest soup, a glutinous compound made from bird saliva.

On the ground, I purchase a "survival kit." This contains canned groceries to obviate my having to eat anything cooked or grown in Bombay, our next layover point. The food there can incapacitate the delicate Western stomach with something certain to baffle the medical world. The water there makes Mexico's seem like Evian. Anyone who insists on drinking tap water in India should first hold a glassful up to the light to see if anything inside returns your stare.

High above the South China Sea, we listen to the high-frequency receiver. Instead of hearing controllers, there is only Radio Beijing's version of Tokyo Rose spewing her daily dose of political pollution.

Navigation and communication difficulties occur over Southeast Asia. I recall attempting to contact Hong Kong Control when the frequency was jammed for 10 minutes with what seemed like China's answer to Wolfman Jack. These problems seldom last long but are annoying. The Chinese invariably are blamed for them and anything else that goes wrong, even the aft toilet that won't flush.

The 100-nautical mile flight across Vietnam takes only 13 minutes and begins over Qui Nhon. Broad beaches of inviting white sand characterize the scalloped coast. From our perch, Vietnam seems a paradise. But looking carefully, we can still see bomb craters, pockmarks on the face of the Earth, on the face of man.

We sweep across the muddy, swollen Mekong River and the rice fields of Cambodia and Thailand as we prepare for a stop at Bangkok. While approaching one of the two parallel runways, I marvel at the golf course that lies between them. Like the rabbits that dwell between the runways at Los Angeles International Airport, the golfers at Don Muang International Airport must be stone deaf. Three hours later, we are over the southern extremity of Burma gazing at pagodas so large they are visible from seven miles above. Ahead is the Bay of Bengal and on the other side, India.

We descend toward Bombay's Santa Cruz Airport, where holy cows are free to wander. The landing lights spike the blackness, and we pray that the runway is free of cows this night.

After passing through customs, we are confronted by a group of consummate beggars, pathetic, destitute children ranging in age from 2 to 5. But we are prepared and pass out handfuls of candy to these scantily clad urchins.

Later, our crew bus rattles through unlit streets, weaving once to miss a toddler straying in the night. People are asleep in gutters, on sidewalks, and in doorways. An airline crew normally is jovial, but on this ride, we are in silent depression.

The monsoon rains have begun their seasonal assault, dampening my spirits come morning. It is raining so heavily that it might be easier to swim from the terminal to the aircraft than to walk; any three raindrops would fill a coffee cup. It is so hot and humid that unfolding the wilted charts in the cockpit is like unraveling cooked spaghetti. The runway lights have not survived the deluge and are replaced with flare pots. As we gather speed, the flickering candle lights become blurs. Visibility through the wall of rain is almost nil, and we curse the windshield wipers, which are more noisy than effective. The wings flex, and we are airborne in a flying Noah's Ark.

To be concluded next month.

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