Tuesday, December 4, 2007

One-way approach to Tioman island, Malaysia

So there it was: my windscreen filed with lush green jungle, with only the blue roof of a beach house contrasting with the environment. A turquoise blue see below me, and mountains to my left to make sure I wouldn't turn the wrong way. This is the approach to Tioman island in Malaysia, about 25 miles east of the mainland. The island is one of the better backpacking destinations in Malaysia, and can be reached easily in a twin turboprop operated by Malaysian airlines from Kuala Lumpur. I, however, was in a Cessna 172, on final approach to this paradise island.

The approach is unique in several ways, not just because of its beauty. The runway is parallel to the coast, but because of the mountains that make up the heart of the island, it can only be reached by flying a base leg directly toward the mountains, followed by a right turn to a short final, over a couple of 50ft trees and a fence, onto a 2500ft runway that ends in - you guessed it - another mountain. A one-way runway, in effect, and the only one I've ever flown in to. When I flew there, in 2001, the runway had recently been extended from 2000 to 2500ft, by hacking huge boulders out of the mountain, parts of which were still lying around at the circular turning area.

I had practiced extensively before making this approach, and was with an instructor for an airport specific checkout (without which you can't go there). Key to the pre-checkout training was a short-field landing over a 50 ft obstacle (to simulate the trees), with an objective to be at a stand still within 1000ft of the beginning of the runway, after dipping down fairly steeply following the imagined obstacles. I had practiced this at Seletar airport in Singapore, my home base at the time. In practicing, I had managed to break a little too hard, and skidded the old C172's little tires until they smoked. Mental note: remember to raise the flaps before you break next time... Despite all this, I was cleared for my actual flight out there, and found myself staring at the green in my windshield, focusing on the blue roof that signals the start of the slow turn to base.

One of the scarier parts of the exercise is that the prevailing wind actually blows against the mountains, almost perpendicular to the runway, so the turn to final needs to end with the noise pointing sea-ward, to avoid drifting into the green leaves. It reminded me a little of the traffic pattern at Half Moon Bay that I had flown once, except in Tioman you end up much closer to the mountains. The other tricky thing is the commitment to landing. It's a one-way runway for a reason, and at about 150 feet above ground, you have to commit to landing or go around. Below that, there is no go-around option, as the mountain at the other end of the runway is big, and extends into the sea. The go around itself requires a climb straight ahead until above obstacles, then a climbing right turn to the sea, with a chance to do it all over again.

Once firmly on the ground, take-off is in the opposite direction, regardless of wind direction, and requires a taxi-back to the start of the runway. WIth only two scheduled arrivals per day and very little GA traffic in this part of the world, there should be no surprise that this is not usually a problem (although I still find it uncomfortable to be taxiing for a while on an active runway. The take-off itself is not particularly thrilling, although the 50ft trees and the looming mountain make a climbing left turn soon after takeoff advisable.

The checkout for landing at Tioman island consists of a couple of approaches to landing, a couple of take-offs, and - of course - a couple of go-arounds. No touch and goes - go figure. With that in my pocket I flew back, and have returned to Tioman by myself a couple of times since. It is truly a wonderful place to be and relax, with no traffic (all transportation is by boat around the island), warm, calm water, sandy beaches and of course palm trees. The best reason to go there though, is this wonderful little airport with its challenging approach and landing.

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