Name withheld by request
We were sitting absolutely still on the runway when it began to rain. The captain was crying and
I wanted to throw up.
A few hours earlier I had been enjoying a perfect Anzac Day poolside in Cairns. I was on reserve as
a regional airline first officer, but as we had no scheduled flights on public holidays, I was certain
my standby status was simply a formality. Then the phone rang: a charter to Tabubil in Papua New
Guinea taking mine workers from Cairns, as their regular aircraft had become unserviceable.
I was inexperienced in PNG operations, and felt somewhat apprehensive. I knew Tabubil was a
short, one-way, gravel runway embedded in the beginning of a valley with a 12,000-foot mountain
range in very close proximity. Tabubil is set in extremely dense jungle fed by one of the highest
rainfalls in the world. No wonder it has such a poor history of aircraft safety – almost 50 lives lost
in two decades.
From the pre-departure weather forecast, we knew there would be passing showers and only one
possible direction for landing, which would see us conduct a straight-in GPS-RNAV or ‘cloudbreak
procedure’ (in PNG CAA terms).
We began our descent, flying over what we deemed our alternate aerodrome. The town of Kiunga
30nm to the south was CAVOK, with flat terrain, but we knew, if we diverted there, that only drum
Jet A-1 was available, and over-wing refuelling of our turboprop was no easy feat.
With the cabin secure, the aircraft fully configured and the captain flying, I advanced the propeller
levers to full fine, my duty at the final approach fix. Looking outside, we were in VMC but on top of
a thick layer of stratus cloud. I was unsure if we’d even enter cloud before the minimum descent
altitude. We reached the MDA and then the missed approach point without even entering cloud.
We could see nothing of the aerodrome. The go-around was uneventful. At a safe altitude, we
discussed our options. We had plenty of fuel and Kiunga was available. We also discussed a
second approach, as we knew the showers were moving through fast.
We flew another missed approach and were again manoeuvering safely on top of cloud visually.
The 12,000-feet monster at the end of the valley was shiny to look at as it popped out of the
cloud. After the prior discussion with the captain I was comfortable that we’d then divert to
Kiunga. Instead he asked my opinion on manoeuvering visually, north of our position to the south
of the mountain range, to ‘get a closer look down the valley through the passing showers’.
I immediately felt uncomfortable. Two missed approaches are enough in my opinion. Moreover,
while on the missed approach, I had heard a Twin Otter taxi, backtrack and line up on the
reciprocal runway. Manoeuvering further north we could see passing gaps in the fast-moving
stratus, with occasional glimpses of the six lead-in strobes in the valley. What occurred next left
me frozen in shock. The captain disconnected the autopilot and immediately put our turboprop in
a steep descent through a gap while yelling ‘I’m visual!’
I could not believe what was happening. I felt betrayed and cheated. We’d agreed a plan of action
and this moment of impulsiveness had intervened. The tension in the flight deck increased
instantly. The captain loudly called for full flap and landing gear down while he pushed the plane
into a steep descent. Having been a skydive pilot, I thought my days of steep, rushed descents
were behind me. I then had a horrifying realisation: the Twin Otter! I yelled at the captain: ‘there’s
a Twin Otter taking off and we’ve told him we’re on a missed approach!’
The captain was in a state of tunnel vision. He yelled at me to ‘tell them to get off the runway,
we’re landing!’ Five minutes of sheer terror had begun. ‘TRAFFIC TRAFFIC!’ then ‘CLIMB CLIMB,
TCAS CLIMB’ screamed our onboard Traffic Collision Advisory System. I could see the target on my
TCAS indicator climbing and coming straight at us. ‘This cannot be happening’ I remember
thinking. ‘TCAS wants us to climb, we have thick cloud above us; we are visual now, committed to
this narrow valley where the chart says circling prohibited!’
The captain reduced the descent rate and we became visual with the Twin Otter. It was close. Very
close. I will never forget the look on its pilot’s face. Our steep profile was interrupted, and now
couldn’t possibly land straight in. We were committed to the valley, there was no plan B.
I’ve never been without a ‘plan B’! We were visual but there were walls of stratus cloud
everywhere I looked. And, I knew with certainty, large rock walls looming just behind the clouds.
The captain levelled out and began screaming over and over again, ‘I’m visual’. Overhead the
aerodrome, he put our turboprop into a 60-degree left-hand turn. The Enhanced Ground
Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) sounded its first of many warnings. ‘BANK ANGLE! BANK
ANGLE!’. Out of my window I could see nothing but cloud. I thought we’d entered it.
In desperation, I did the only thing I could think of. I turned the weather radar to terrain mode, fed
directly from the EGPWS’s onboard GPS. There was close terrain, with glimpses of yellow and red
Things turned quiet for a moment. We’d returned to wings levels on a close, pseudo downwind
when the captain began another steep descent. The flight had become single-pilot ops by this
stage. We were now visual, although very high. Another acute left-hand turn and the EGPWS came
to life once more. BANK ANGLE! BANK ANGLE!, followed by SINK RATE! SINK RATE! We turned
final, with an extremely high descent rate. I remember screaming ‘we are way too high!’
Intonations of SINK RATE! SINK RATE! PULL UP! PULL UP! accompanied our very short final. At a
few hundred feet we were back, momentarily, on a normal profile. The captain reduced the rate
of descent and flared the aircraft and we touched down very hard, followed by a bounce. Another
bounce, then full reverse thrust, and our aircraft showed off its short field capabilities.
We were sitting absolutely still on the runway when it began to rain. I didn’t want to say anything.
The rain was pelting down, like a theatre curtain after a command performance. I had begun my
after-landing scan when the captain asked me to ‘say something!’ I sat in silence as I mustered the
courage to look at him. He was crying. I said nothing. We taxied to the terminal in silence. A chime
from the intercom: the flight attendant said the passengers wanted to congratulate us on getting
them on the ground safely. I felt sick to my core – all I wanted to do was throw up.
The passengers disembarked and the captain disappeared to the terminal for an hour. The flight
attendant was really shaken. She later told me she’d been rehearsing her impact drill and
commands as she thought – correctly – that we were in serious trouble.
We were lucky that day. No mission is worth those sorts of risks. Yes, over-wing refuelling post
diversion would have been a headache, but not nearly as big a headache as flying into a
mountainside. Crew resource management can swing in an instant, so always be on the lookout!