After two days of enjoying scenic Port Vila, I headed to the airport the next morning at 5:30am. The very capable airport manager arranged customs, fee payment, and fueling surprisingly quickly. Around me, the pilots and ground crew were laughing nervously as I started up the engine and obtained my clearance. I gave a thumbs up to my new friends as I taxied between the tightly spaced aircraft to the run-up area. The airport was quickly coming to life and I was fortunate to be one of the first aircraft granted permission to take-off. I back-taxied and zoom climbed away from the airport. At 9000 ft and 50 miles off the coast of Vanuatu, I diverted south in a giant arc to avoid another volcanic plume which had drifted south-east from Vanuatu.
While planning for this trip, I was warned of the $3000 landing/parking fees at Nadi, Fiji, so I bypassed the island and continued east between cloud layers towards American Samoa. I was disappointed to not see the many tropical Fijian islands below me. I crossed over Bligh Water, made famous when cannibalistic local Fijian tribes chased Captain Bligh through this passage in 1789.
Lycoming engine leaned to 5 gph. Approaching overcast Viti Levu, Fiji en-route to American Samoa.
Magic hour. 60 nm from American Samoa.
In only a few minutes, the sun dropped below the horizon near the equator. Explanation. I have never experienced such a sudden transition from daylight to darkness. As I approached American Samoa, the control tower at Pago Pago switched on the airport landing lights to the 10,000 ft runway. Just before landing, "May's" landing/taxi lights lit up hundreds of frogs crawling and hopping over the runway. I worried about a frog prop strike as my two bladed propeller only clears the ground by 9 inches. Somehow, I avoided dicing hopping frogs or running over them as I landed and taxied up to the main terminal building.
American Samoa and Pago Pago International Airport had historic significance with the Apollo Program. The astronaut crews of Apollo 10, 12, 13, 14, and 17 were retrieved a few hundred miles from Pago Pago and transported by helicopter to the airport prior to being flown to Honolulu on C-141 Starlifter military aircraft.
"Apollo Splashdowns Near American Samoa". Tavita Herdrich and News Bulletin. Retrieved July 7, 2010.
"Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal – Kevin Steen". Eric M. Jones. Retrieved February 23, 2011.
The 10,000 ft sea level runway at NSTU, Pago Pago, American Samoa.
This is also the runway where Babar Suleman and son, Haris Suleman departed at night in stormy conditions and crashed their Beechcraft Bonanza in to the ocean off Pago Pago. My handler was on duty that night and witnessed the crash. I could tell he was still very upset by the experience and he begged me to not take off at night. I listened to his advice and departed early the next morning.
Suleman accident report:
Photo credit: Pinterest
Back to Basics - Refueling an aircraft using a siphon.
Upon landing at Pago Pago, I was bluntly told my reserved aviation fuel (AVGAS) was no longer available. I was in shock and needed to scramble to find an alternative fuel source unless I wanted to remain in surprisingly expensive American Samoa for months awaiting fuel shipped from overseas. The only other fuel supplier in American Samoa sold me 110 gallons of questionable AVGAS for $31/gallon. I was in a predicament, felt ripped-off, and running low on money.
Due to the uncooperative nature of the primary fueler, we were not allowed to use their pump located at the airport. With the extraordinary assistance of Prichard Airport Services, 110 gallons of AVGAS was slowly siphoned in to the aircraft tanks using a fork lift, Baja fuel filter, and 1" vinyl tube bought that afternoon at Ace Hardware. The three hour messy ordeal required re-priming fuel multiple times without the use of a manual fuel transfer pump. During refueling, the fellow in the yellow safety jersey spit out a mouth of AVGAS while re-priming the siphon.
I opted to not to use auto fuel as it had not been tested with my engine and fuel delivery system.
Photo credit: Prichard Airport Services