The first four citizens of Yap who have been awaiting repatriation to their home islands arrived from Guam on Aug. 4 aboard Pacific Mission Aviation’s (PMA) newly acquired Beechcraft King Air B200.
“For safety, we built a barrier between the pilot and the passengers and I’m able to load the plane with no contact,” said Amos Collins, PMA director of flight operations, who piloted the Aug. 4 King Air flight. “We wear masks and gloves and maintain social distancing. But the risk is very low since Palau has avoided the pandemic, too.”
With the recent addition of two King Air B200s to the fleet’s two Beechcraft Excalibur Queen Airs based in Yap, and then moving its one Britten-Norman BN-2A Islander to add to the fleet of three Cessna 206’s that are based in Palau, PMA is rearranging its aircraft to fit the needs and demands of each country.
The airline has also brought in two new pilots for Yap, and two for Palau this summer, so they are in a better position to enhance the flight services.
When he flew into Yap on Aug. 4, Collins was on the last leg of a six-week journey that took him on an all-expense-paid trip to the U.S.— from the east coast to the west coast and back again— thanks to Samaritan’s Purse, the evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization that donated the King Airs to PMA.
During that time, Collins attended a turbine engine specialty maintenance school, as well as did King Air flight training in a full-motion simulator in North Carolina.
He then hopped in the new King Air and, with another instructor, did some real-world flying across the country, gaining experience in communicating with air traffic control and flying instrument approaches.
Along the way, he chose to land at airports where he was able to meet with key vendors and companies that would be supporting PMA in this transition, such as their new insurance company, engine overhaul shop, safety inspectors and training schools.
“The plane looks like the Queen Air,” Collins said. “The ‘flying part’ handles similarly so that learning has been easy. But the big challenge was going back into air traffic control to get clearances, submit a flight plan, talk with them during approaches, and so on. I hadn’t done that since flight school 18 years ago. We don’t have air traffic control when we fly to the remote outer islands.”
All of the automation is new to Collins.
“The Queen Airs have basic ‘team gauges’ while the King Airs have top-of-the-line touch-screen digital instrumentation. Plus, the King Airs have turboprop engines which add an entirely new dynamic of power control. It’s been a steep learning curve and I still feel like I’m learning a lot every day and will continue to do so.”
The first of the two King Airs was delivered to Yap in May after being ferried from Adak, Aleutian Islands, to Russia, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Palau, and then Guam.
Preston Huntting, an Alaska Airlines pilot brought that plane. He worked at PMA for two months while Collins was in training.
Collins then brought the second King Air across the Pacific to Guam via Honolulu and Majuro with the help of a ferry company that moves planes long distances.
One of PMA’s long-term goals is to provide medical evacuations from the Micronesian region to Guam. In past years, with United making regular flights, there was no need for PMA to fly to Guam.
Launching a flight service on Guam entails added expenses and requirements.
The airport authority requires $10 million worth liability insurance to get a landing permit. In addition, a U.S. operator is required to establish a Federal Aviation Authority-approved drug program. Both of these are the final hurdles that PMA will be working toward clearing to be available for these types of flights.
PMA is also targeting medevac flights to Manila, but it would require topping up the fuel and that extra weight would only allow four passengers per flight. PMA also will need to obtain more FAA permits to be able to add that route.
“This whole thing is amazing,” Collins said. “Samaritan’s Purse didn’t just give us two planes, they enhanced them with top-of-the-line avionics. And they also offered to pay for the upgrade training for three of PMA’s pilots and three mechanics. So far we have sent two mechanics and two pilots so we have a credit for one more of each later on.”
One of the benefits of the King Air is that it uses jet fuel that’s more readily available. “In the old days, if we wanted to fly to Chuuk or Pohnpei, we had to stage fuel along the way and stop to refuel before going on to the final destination,” Collins said. “With jet fuel being readily available at all airports, it’s going to make it simpler to reach all the islands in this region and also not worry about contamination of the fuel in drums.”
The other advantage is that the King Air flies faster and carries more cargo weight. Flying to the neighboring island of Ulithi, the King Air can carry 1,000 lbs. more. On longer flights like the one to Woleai atoll 370 nautical miles away, the Queen Air takes approximately two and a half hours while the King Air takes just one and a half hours.
In the future, when the border is open and tourism resumes, PMA will also be able to provide one-hour flights between Palau and Yap for up to nine divers and their gear. If there are up to 18 in the group, two of the planes will be sent up.
Collins has been fielding requests to bring people back to Yap from Chuuk and Pohnpei. “There’s a huge demand, but for now we’re trying to make sure Yap is covered.”
The airline’s church-based mission will continue to focus on providing the “necessary link” between the Outer Islands and the main islands; conducting sea searches and rescue missions; and transporting medical and food supplies into disaster areas.
“That is our primary responsibility,” Collins said. “When that’s shored up and doing well, we can look at providing passenger service to Chuuk, Pohnpei and Palau.”