Stranded in Johor…

Stranded in WMKJ – Johor, Malaysia. 2020

“Bangkok Control clears Hotel Serra Tango Oscar Mike, present position direct to Bangkok…..Welcome back.”

The welcome part was of my own imagination, but I could not have had a warmer welcome from the Thai controllers and allowed myself to believe I had actually managed to pull off the rescue of my pride and joy Jetprop.

Let’s roll back a little. What rescue?

In a spectacular example of poor timing I decided to fly my Jetprop to a propeller overhaul facility from Bangkok (VTBD) to Johor (WMKJ), Malaysia rather than ship the propeller there, as it was an easy 800 Nm trip. I mean what could possibly go wrong?

Convid-19, that’s what. Every seven years the Thai Civil Aviation Authority (CAAT) – the Thai equivalent of the UK CAA/US FAA, mandate that all constant speed propellers on certified aircraft must be overhauled regardless of condition or at TBO whichever comes first. This is a hard calendar life limit.  There is no concept of on-condition, or FAA part 91 type ops here.

HS-TOM’s propeller was due by July 2020. The previous time the overhaul was due in 2013, I shipped the propeller to an overhaul shop in Australia. This was a painful and expensive process which I cunningly thought I could avoid by flying the aircraft directly to a nearer facility instead.

The inbound trip on February 25th 2020 was uneventful and I left Johor the following day via commercial flight to Bangkok having supervised the removal of the propeller; congratulating myself on my efficient planning allowing me to conduct the annual Dugong survey flights whilst the Jetprop was grounded.

Little did I know the nightmare that was about to unfold. At that time, in my mind, Covid-19 was a background nuisance that would have minimum inconvenience and blow over just as quickly as SARS and MERS had.

In the middle of March I began to feel uneasy as it was becoming evident Covid-19 was impacting globally in a way I had not anticipated, so I began to make tentative plans to return to Johor before the threatened lockdowns were enforced.

I arranged to go and collect the aircraft on March 23rd only to be told by the overhaul shop a few days prior that Malaysia had issued a Movement Control Order, a civilian version of Marshal Law, locking down the whole country, and prohibiting foreigners from entering. I was further informed that my propeller was still on the overhaul workbench, some 90% complete but that the shop was now closed until further notice.

Thailand followed suit on March 25th, locking down and closing all its borders. I naively drank in the propaganda that it would all blow over in a month or so, until common sense dictated to me that this was fast becoming a new normal and that it would be months or even a year or more before free travel would resume in any meaningful way. My Jetprop was stranded without a propeller for the foreseeable future.

Compounding this situation was a USD 1K per month hangar fee, and a looming CoA expiration later this year.

I tentatively began putting feelers out during June and July to see if there was any feasible way to organise a recovery mission. It soon became evident this was going to be a complex operation, requiring cooperation from both the Malaysian and Thai governments. However the first obstacle was actually travelling to Johor from Thailand since all international scheduled flights direct from Bangkok had been cancelled.

We were now at month 6 of the Jetprop just sitting there and I began to get anxious about what state it was going to be in after all this time.

An unlikely ray of hope emerged in early August from World Fuel Services (WFS) based in Singapore who normally provide all my fuel uplift orders for international refueling stops. During a casual conversation with my account manager during which I explained my plight, he suggested I engage their flight planning services as they had some recent success obtaining permits for technical stops in Malaysia and Singapore. Around the same time I heard that a local Thai TBM700 owner had charted a Thai registered Cessna Mustang to take him from Bangkok (VTBD) to Seletar airport, Singapore (WSSL) in order for him to recover his TBM700 which had also been stranded there for the past 5 months following scheduled maintenance.

Suddenly the impossible began to feel possible.

Through a mutual friend I contacted the owner of the TBM700 to find out the logistics of his recovery.
He provided a lot of detail, especially regarding getting cooperation from the Thai authorities, and upon hearing of my own situation kindly offered to fly me to Johor providing I covered all his costs.

Armed with the first problem of actually getting there solved, I began tackling the Malaysian and Thai lockdown restrictions. True to their word WFS obtained a special exemption from the Malay government allowing me to enter and leave Malaysia as ‘Ferry Flight’ crew without having to quarantine for a 24 hourr period; providing I had a Covid-19 test both prior and after landing.

Things were definitely looking up. The Thai side proved cooperative until the Don Muang Airport Health Authority got involved and insisted that immediately upon my return to Bangkok I would have to quarantine for 15 days at a Government approved quarantine hotel.

In the meantime I discovered that there was a Thai registered Cessna 210 stranded at the same propeller overhaul facility in Johor, so I contacted the owner to see if he would be interested in travelling with me to recover his aircraft and share the costs. Luckily he agreed and so we began getting all the paperwork and various agency permissions in place for what was a three aircraft mission.

September 17th 2020 saw us depart Don Muang International Airport (VTBD) in the TBM700B and arrive safely in Johor (WMKJ). The TBM700B refueled and returned to Bangkok, whilst I and the C210 owner began getting our aircraft ready.

I had elected to stay one night since I did not feel comfortable rushing the re-installation and subsequent testing of the overhauled propeller. I also wanted to have sufficient time to assess/address any other maintenance issues that arose trying to get my aircraft airworthy again.

The C210 owner had chosen to return the same day to avoid having to quarantine upon his return to Bangkok.

My first inspection was very promising. No fluid leaks visible externally, and no evident corrosion (Johor is very near the coast). Luckily prior to leaving the aircraft in February, some sixth sense made me disconnect the onboard main batteries, and this move saved them. Upon powering up the avionics, both batteries reported healthy voltages and all the avionics powered up without sqwalks.

The first problem popped up when I was informed by the Johor airport authority that due to me staying overnight I would have to take another Covid test immediately and wait in my hotel for the results some 4-5 hrs hence, effectively writing off the first day I was there. Fortunately I had prepared the aircraft with the local mechanics sufficiently for them to re-install the propeller in my absence and I had satisfied myself that on the surface at least the aircraft was airworthy so the day was not completely wasted.

I managed to negotiate returning to the airport at 6am the following day so that I had sufficient time to test the propeller and return the Jetprop to service.

The C210 departed some three hours later only to return back to Johor after its transponder failed. This was a very serious setback for the owner since he did not have permission to remain overnight in Johor.

A couple of hours of frantic activity yielded some compassion from Malaysian ATC who agreed he could file VFR without a transponder providing he did not fly above 1,000 Ft. This was less than ideal given the lateness of the hour already and the forecast convective activity enroute (we were in the middle of rainy season). He re-launched and managed to sweet talk Thai ATC giving him an IFR clearance without transponder at FL080 from the Malay border to Bangkok. He landed safely some 6 hours later. His stars were in alignment that day.

As arranged I arrived back at the hangar the following day and took my time carefully pre-flighting the Jetprop. Everything checked out, including the newly overhauled propeller which looked superb.

Once the propeller shop mechanics arrived we buttoned the Jetprop up, and I did an extensive ground run. No sqwalks, in fact everything was working remarkably well. The propeller had been statically balanced on the workbench, but in addition I was offered a dynamic balance which I declined since it would have delayed my departure by 3-4 hours. I had been tracking a nasty Tropical Storm that had been working its way toward Thailand, and was anxious to get going.

I took off without incident and was soon established in the cruise although it became solid IMC for most of the flight. The weather radar was not painting anything, so I started to allow myself the feeling of relief that I had managed to pull off the recovery.

Landing in Bangkok on schedule, I was greeted by the Covid squad and had to leave the aircraft to be disinfected as I was escorted straight to the quarantine hotel, from which I am writing this tome.

A fraught time overall, with a very fragile plan, any component of which could have failed that would have resulted in an even more complicated nightmare emerging, but it did work and I am extremely grateful to a lot of individuals who took pity on me and went out of their way to help me. A true happy ending.

I will be ‘released’ from quarantine on October 3rd…..

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