Sunday, August 7, 2011

Island Hopping

This weekend we have been fortunate to receive a full length blog post from Norman himself. Whilst he has been waiting for those long awaited permits to allow him to continue to Russia he has managed to find the time to write a fascinating travelogue of his journey through the Japanese islands and also explains the delay that is keeping him in Japan for the moment. Enjoy!

Island Hopping
As I write this entry I am now sitting on the “Mainland” of Japan, which, in the bigger scheme of things, is still of course an island in itself. Since setting out from the “Mainland” of the Philippines, Luzon (another big island), I have been making steady progress by hopping from one small island to another, like so many small stepping stones across this huge watery North East Pacific region.

This has been a very different type of flying than what has gone before up to this point. The vast majority of the time airborne has been heading out over hundreds of miles of Ocean in search of a small speck of Terra Firma (or not so Firma as we are now very much in an active Earthquake Zone…) to land on.
Landfall, but not conducive to a landing!
These small oasis of green, usually surrounded by a wave worn rugged rocky coastline, have all been home to very special Island communities who have all been very curious to learn the reasons why I just happened to have singled out their particular island from so many possible landing spots. The main deciding factors have primarily been geographic and logistical as these small islands with less busy airports suit Gyro flying very well. There is often simply no need for Gyros to land at airports with large commercial infrastructure (unless for clearing entry/exit customs etc.). While being “processed” to go through these large metropolises, it often feels like it takes much longer to just get out to your aircraft than it does to actually fly to your next destination!! Much preferable is the small field where a one minute walk brings you through from car park to aircraft apron and perhaps another one minute walk takes you to the tower to have a pleasant, unhurried chat with ATC about the weather, prohibited airspace zones for that day and check any other Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS) en route…

The normal daily flight range of G-YROX has also dictated exactly which of the small islands have been best placed, geographically. And so, with only a little bit more selection process than simply stabbing a pin on the map, we chose our ideal island locations and flight planned accordingly.
As I set out from Luzon I wondered what sort of reception I might expect from these islands which just a short time before where a completely unknown quantity. Would I get by on islands where much less English would be spoken, could I get fuel, food, accommodation and money ok? I shouldn’t have worried though, as each one proved out my theory that small island communities are usually very friendly, welcoming people, keen and proud to show that their island is a unique, fantastic place (and so they truly are - every one of them…).
Norman suggests that this en-route island could be its own self contained country! It has agriculture, a city, villages and a harbour...but no airfield...time to fly on.
I think it is something to do with a mutual recognition that on a small island everyone has to coexist in a small space, and depend on each other for help and support in every situation. When a new face suddenly appears (especially riding in, atop a yellow mosquito!! As Roxy has been fondly described this week!) there is a recognition that extends this help and support towards the traveller with open arms. Even in Kadena Air Base (the first overnight stop on my Island hopping adventure) there was that sense of unity of purpose (as you would expect from a military base of course) and the Base structure with its many “on Base” facilities formed almost and island community in itself. An Island within an Island so to speak, within the greater island community of Okinawa.

Earlier on that day I called very briefly to Basco Airport on the Butanes Islands 2 hours flight north of the Philippines. This was purely to pick up some additional fuel that I needed to allow me to reach Okinawa.
Arriving at the Butanes Islands, hoping there IS a runway somewhere!
Although I didn’t have very long on the ground there (and stayed strictly “airside” standing on the Apron as I was now flying internationally) the airport officials all gathered around for photographs and questions and I got a fantastic sense that all was harmonious, peaceful and tranquil on this Subtropical outpost.
Just about every Basco airport official came out to greet Norman.
The “airside flower beds” were manicured to perfection as were the numerous flowering shrubs and trees that accompanied them (how many times would you hear that phrase in Heathrow or JFK!). I departed almost as quickly as I had arrived but with a lasting memory that this would be a lovely place to visit with more time at hand.
Norman joins the group shot outside the quaint and tidy Basco Terminal.
The extreme gradient of the runway (you virtually land on the side slope of a very large and imposing mountain) was a whole different story that will have to wait for another occasion perhaps.
The gradient of Basco's runway is not readily visible in this shot but the end of runway terrain certainly is!
Entering Japan formally in Okinawa, I was eased into the Japanese ways and customs courtesy of the extremely kind and helpful US military personnel stationed at Kadena. Instructed to land on runway 23 Right (Kadena has 2 active parallel runways Left and Right) I was very surprised to be met by an obstruction across the runway whilst taxiing to Taxiway Delta. Someone has stretched what looked like a rope with fishing floats attached right across the tarmac. As I got closer it dawned on me what it was, not a net to catch fish but an Arrester Wire to catch flying fish - Fast Jet aircraft to be precise that would have a trailing hook to catch on the wire on landing.
The arrestor gear cable with 'fishing floats' at Kadena.
I had to call the tower to check it was ok to cross over this very thick wire cable (about 40mm diameter - held a few cm above the “deck” by the fishing floats strung along its length at intervals) - “no problem to cross at low speed” was the reply from the tower, which of course may be  easy for a large aircraft (with large wheel diameters to match) but with Roxy’s little wheels, not much bigger than those found on a wheelbarrow, it was a bit more of a “sprackle” (a technical term there for you straight from Northern Ireland!) to climb over. We bumped our way over the cable and quickly taxied on up the hill passed a huge military transport aircraft that could have easily carried 20 Roxy's in its cavernous belly and on to the fantastic reception committee waiting at the aero club apron…
Taxying in at Kadena AFB, Norman and Roxy are dwarfed by the gigantic C-17 cargo plane!
Norman parks up at the Kadena Aero Club apron, his first arrival in Japan.
Norman is warmly welcomed at Kadena by USAF personnel and their families, Japanese servicemen and customs officials as well as members of the Aero club.
Before departing Kadena, Norman obtained permission to have this shot taken with one of the base's F-15 Eagle's.
Onwards the next day towards Fukue Airport, I had to battle a strong headwind for a full three hours in the second half of the flight. It slowed me so much that it extended the flight time by an hour and very much focussed the mind on remaining fuel reserves. I flew low, only a few hundred feet over the water for 3 hours to “keep my head down” out of the stronger headwinds aloft, all the while calculating and recalculating fuel and range figures in my head to ensure we were ok to continue on course. (Alternate airfields en route would have meant a significant deviation of course away out to the east of my track).
Heading north at 272ft above the waves with an indicated airspeed of 97mph that has been reduced to 74mph by the head wind!
Many tiny islands dotted the route from Kadena to Fukue, but none of them appeared to be desirable as a landing place.

The island eventually hove into view and I was very relieved to again have some green stuff passing below the fuselage as I crossed the shoreline.
Norman arrives at the island of Fukue-Jima with its Volcano on the horizon.
Coming in to land on runway 03 at Fukue Airport.
A lovely welcome reception awaited on the apron with the Airport Manager taking time out to personally take care of me throughout the evening. We had a great chat in my first proper Japanese bar/café and my first impressions were that if all the islands turned out to be so relaxed and easy going then I would be having a very pleasant trip indeed through this region.
The Fukue Airport Manager (centre with arms crossed) and his team give Norman and Roxy a warm welcome.
And so it turned out to be, Oki Island was the next hop where the reception party would even bring out a huge welcoming banner!

The flight track to Oki took me close to the Japanese Mainland for the first time. I was struck by the almost manicured appearance of the countryside - no piles of rusting old farm machinery littering up the back yards of the Farmhouses. All available flat land had been turned into very neat and orderly rice fields, with terraces correcting and making order of any unruly land that didn’t happen to start off flat. Even the choice of main crop, Rice, has a uniformity of character that, when observed from the ground, has no untidy straggly corner bits or bits damaged by wind as you would get with Wheat or Maize, it all remains neatly at the same height and colour while it is growing and maintains a very smart and tidy image…. Even the country lanes get in on the act, having a very smart set of white lines down both sides that compliments the dark grey ribbon of tarmac that is forced to turn and twist around the undulating terrace clad hillsides.
Part of the inpenetrable tree canopy seen during the flight from Fukue to Oki.
I was clearly flying over a singularly “different” place. One with a much defined identity and unique landscape that couldn’t be mistaken for any other country visited so far. This was in stark contrast to the gradual changes that I saw within the Tropical Jungle settings of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. When seen from the air, rural, grass roofed, houses in all these countries can appear very similar, Jungle is Jungle is Jungle. But Japans heavily commercialised landscapes suddenly and abruptly changed all that and give me short notice that I was now heading northwards into colder climes and would have to slowly leave the heat and humidity of the Tropics behind.
Norman was amazed by the tenacity of nature and the way the trees have managed to establish a foothold on this tiny rock sticking out of the ocean mid-way between Fukue and Oki.
Arriving in Oki, the spectacle of the large Welcome banner being marched across the airport towards me was quite fantastic! The reception was equally fantastic and much lively chatter through interpreters, Elisabeth and Rika (who proved to be quite the double act!), continued as while we almost ceremoniously pushed Roxy towards her sleeping quarters in the Fire Station building. Chatter, that would continue on to the mechanised  Sushi Bar where the little train track of sushi dishes whizzed past us ready to be caught and eaten. Oki is a fascinating Island of very rare species of plants and animals, although sadly I didn’t spend long enough there to see its many sights other than in photos - a sea stack called Candle Rock looked particularly spectacular. Another place I thought would be good to return to some day for a longer visit.
Nortman and Roxy arrive over the fence at a very green Oki Airport.
A great welcome greeted Norman from the many people who had turned out to see him arrive.
Norman, wearing an 'I Am An Eskimo' T-shirt, poses with the Oki airport fire-crew who looked after Roxy during the overnight stay.
Onwards from Oki, the last island hop took me to Shonai Airport on the Mainland... This jaunt across the sea was to set a few pulses racing, though I should point out not mine… the flight was fairly uneventful over the water except the one notable occurrence that the SPOT tracker, decided to deactivate its tracking function mid flight. One green indicator light was flashing away on the SPOT unit (not two - as should have been the case) and it took some time before I realised that not both lights were flashing….once I realised I manually reset it and it worked fine again for the rest of the flight. Sincere apologies, for all those who had become worried on the lack of SPOT signal. I was simply unaware that anything was actually amiss at the time….
Norman 'gracefully' disembarks from Roxy as he arrives at Shonai Airport.
Shonai Airport has proved to be just as friendly and hospitable as their island neighbours and my Shonai English speaking “team” (for there are many!) have really taken me under their collective wing to help guide me in “all things Japanese”  so to speak. (Some of these adventures have already been highlighted by our recent blog entries from the Shonai and Tsuruoka area).
Norman toasts the generosity and hospitality of the Japanese people in the traditional way...with Saki, whilst at a night out with 'Shonai Team members' Aki Takano and Mr. Muraoka.
And so, I am now waiting for the necessary flight clearances to enter the very remote Russian Far East and also flight clearances to allow me to leave Japan. These two sets of clearances have then to coordinate together which can be very tricky in this part of the world… Also, of course, I’m watching the all important wind and weather forecasts in preparation to head out to sea once more. This last very long sea crossing before the Bering Sea will see me flying right across the Sea of Japan and making landfall in Vladivostok, Russia. I imagine there will be a similar “quantum leap” in the landscape as I experienced flying into Japan and I will definitely find myself suddenly immersed in yet another very contrasting and no doubt slightly confusing place with a whole different culture to get to grips with…Russian Style!!

I hope everyone reading is ready for a spot of “Borsch” (cold Beetroot) soup on the Menu?
Cheers N.     
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I think you will all agree, a fascinating, informative and entertaining blog from Norman. We at the Gyrox Team would like to thank Norman for taking the time to write such a great blog piece and we look forward to reading more from his personal experiences.
Hopefully, the permit situation will sort itself out very soon and we can continue to follow Norman and Roxy as they continue on to the next big adventure…Russia.
The Gyrox Team
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(Unless otherwise credited, all images on this blog are the property of GyroxGoesGlobal and may be used with prior permissionfrom
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  1. Terrific Blog Norman.
    So interesting and informative, with your usual humour thrown in for good measure.
    Ariel photos are magnificent.
    I can bet you also enjoyed the view along the West coast of Japan, while some of us were holding our breath, waiting for Spot to show us your true position.

    Love Roxy being called a Yellow Mosquito, liken to Larne's Yellow Bumblebee.

  2. absolutely Fantastic and great pic next to the F-15! Last year we heard that Norman would be accompanied by a Russian official in the rear seat, is this still true??

  3. Hi Luckychap.
    It is true that if things go according to plane Norman will have to carry a Russian official in the rear seat on a number of legs through Russi. This will of course mean that he wont have the extra fuel tank in the rear seat which will cut down the length of these legs.

  4. Great Blog Norman. Good to seethat you are mobile again, and hopefully will get the necessary clearance for the Russian leg of the trip. Safe onward trip mate , and hopefully we'll see you soon landing at good old Sandy bay.