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Is It A Bird?

by Jack Michaelson
So you just came for a holiday? It is so often the case that we need to get away from it all for a while.

When you come to a strange country you never quite know what to expect.

You may be surprised by the local customs. You may be excited bythe different scenery. You may be elated by staying in a hotelwith all those extraordinary facilities. You may be a person wholikes to holiday away from the crowd and find yourself a quietretreat in the mountains or you may be one who decides to see asmuch as possible and travels the length and breadth of your chosenholiday spot. Whatever happens you will be in for surprises,both expected and unexpected.

Indonesia is a country of surprises. Around every corner theunexpected awaits you. Back in the days when most of the worldhad converted their rail systems to diesel locomotives Indonesiantrains still belched cinders from those amazing last blackmonsters of the steam era as you traveled on the excellent railsystem of Java. Sadly no more. Indonesia, like everywhere else,now runs steam excursions for "enthusiasts".

Only last week I was traveling, as I often do, in Java. Mydestination was Bandung in West Java and from there I was to flyon to Palembang in Sumatra. I had booked my seat on a Merpatiflight.

Merpati is an interesting airline. Because they handle most ofthe "milk runs" of the Indonesian archipelaGo they are often muchmaligned. They run many types of planes. Until recently theyrelied on a fleet of Fokker F27 Friendships and a number ofsmaller Twin Otter aircraft to serve the smaller airstrips. Theywere the National feeder carrier.

Suddenly they were included with Garuda Indonesia in a groupingand rationalisation of services. Ports which had been servicedby both airlines in competition were now only serviced by one andMerpati was given control of Garuda's aging Fokker F28 fleet. They now ran F27's, F28's and Twin Otters plus the locally madeCN253 which is a new addition to their fleet as well. It allmakes flying Merpati a bit of a guess. What plane will they usethis time?

Arriving at the Bandung airport for my flight to Sumatra I lookedout in the morning mist and surveyed the planes which werequietly waking up after a heavy night on the apron. One seemedbigger than the rest. "Is it a bird?" I thought, "Is it a plane? Its a Hercules!" It was not covered in camouflage, it wasnątloading tanks or paratroopers but there it sat with its rear dooropen and Merpati's colours painted all over it.

Time to board through Gate 1. A stroll across the tarmac took meunderneath the huge wing with the prop area roped off and youcould enter through the front or back door. I took the front.Duck the head a bit to enter and up a step. There sits theFlight Engineer. I slip on the step. "Watch your step!" says theengineer. "Is this what a Twin Otter looks like when it growsup?" I asked.

Inside it looked like a passenger plane. Six seats across withloads of room. Big! Down the passage a bit was a five seatsacross bit where there were no windows. That was over the wheelwell. I sat there. The back door closed. The engines revved.The hosties practised putting on their lifejackets, they shouldbe good by now. We were up and away.

Those of you who, like me, have a hankering for the good old daysmay remember what a "real" Herc is like. The noise isunbelievable. It rattles, and the engines whir and thehydraulics squash and squirm. Merpati's Hercules is not likethat. It is relatively quiet and they bring you a lolly at takeoff. Every time my small daughter sees Merpati's tail paint on atarmac she says, "Daddy! It's the lolly plane!"

I thought about it. We had just taken off from one of thehighest airfields in Indonesia. Sempati's F100's are limited inthe load they can carry into such an airport. (It has somethingto do with the air being thinner.) I remembered in anothercountry in the good old days having been on a DC3 about to takeof from such an airport. Every passenger, their dog and theirluggage had been weighed. It had all been added up (probably withan abbacus, it was before the time of computers) and we weredeclared overweight. Not only did the last passenger have toleave the plane but we all had to sit there while they unloadedthe baggage to find his suitcase.

No such problems with the Merpati Herc. It can take off from thesmallest or highest runway in Indonesia fully loaded. Ninetyfour happy passengers and their 20 kilos of baggage and their 40kilos of hand luggage and you still feel safe. After all, inthe good old days every passenger brought a tank on board withhim.

My friend the Flight Engineer wandered through to see that wewere all comfortable. I decided to ask him about his plane. "Howmany Hercules have been converted for passenger carrying in theworld?" I asked. "You're in it," he replied.

The first of two Hercules given to Merpati by the IndonesianGovernment this one was converted in Greenfield, South Carolina.It has been operational as a passenger plane now for just overone year. A second Hercules is presently undergoing conversion.

The conversion was completed by LACI a division of the LockheedCorporation. Foster Edwards of Dallas, Texas did the Interiordesign while the engineering was done by Clark, also of Dallas. It was given ten trials and then three test flights before itsfinal acceptance test by Merpati. It was issued with an FAAair worthiness certificate in Georgia, U.S.A.

The plane in which I was flying was a 1981 model. It had all thelatest in navigation and communication equipment. It had twosets of pressurization, one for the passengers and one for thecrew. It flies at a ground speed of 300 nautical miles per hourand can land on the shortest runways because of the reversethrust of its engines. Its seems to come in faster than aconventional aircraft but the reverse thrust of the propellerscan pull it up very quickly.

It is serviced by Merpati at their aircraft service facility atJuanda, the airport of Surabaya. On its flight back from thestates its longest leg was from Oakland, California to Honoluluwhich took eight and three quarter hours in the air.

Merpati has already trained four crews for the Hercs and isready to receive its second passenger Hercules in April 1993.

When you fly Merpati you never know what your aircraft will bebut the inclusion of these unusual craft in their fleet willprobably bring back memories to many a tourist who has done hismilitary service in the "good" old days.

What a wonderful idea.

Note: The Merpati crews were trained first by the Indonesian Air Forceand later in a flight simulator located in Moriba in Georgia.

This article first appeared in The Archipelago Vol.1 No.7 Copyright Jack Michaelson 1992.

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