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Taking the Metro: Skippers Perth - Ravensthorpe

When my sister invited me to join her and her family for Christmas in Ravensthorpe, she also suggested that I could fly. That wasn't a bad idea as the drive would take about six hours, compared to a little over two hours (including travel to and from airports). Besides, on a previous flight the aircraft had been upguaged and I still wanted to log the Metroliner.

Booking online via Skippers Aviation's web site was easy enough. Although the booking engine shows various fare classes, I have never seen any of the lower fares being offered on the Ravensthorpe route. There is always one rate: take it or leave it. The next screen showed that the scheduled aircraft was to be the expected Metro. Once the selection had been made and payment details entered, the itinerary and tax invoice was sent by email.

The fare can hardly be described as cheap. Ravensthorpe is about 242 nautical miles or 448km by air from Perth and the flight has a block time of a little over an hour. By way of comparison, it is possible to book a return flight to Bali for two hundred dollars less, though it needs to be borne in mind that the cost can be spread over a greater number of seats.

By pure coincidence, the taxi driver turned out to be Eileen, the sister-in-law of my former next door neighbour. We caught up on all the news and were soon pulling up outside the terminal. Skippers Aviation has its own dedicated terminal in Valentine Road, away from the Qantas Domestic terminals, with plentiful parking and a taxi rank.

There are several check-in desks inside and plentiful seating to accommodate passengers on charter and RPT flights. There are no restaurants or cafés but a number of vending machines are to hand and, at peak periods, a snack truck operates a thriving business outside.

A look across the apron showed some of the Dash 8s in the fleet and a number of Metro 23s. The aircraft that would operate the day's flight was being fueled in readiness. Meanwhile, a Fokker 100 departed on a scheduled mining charter to Laverton.

Flight: Skippers Aviation HK1938 PER - RVT
Aircraft Type: Metro 23 | Seat: 04A
Aircraft ID: VH-WBQ
STD: 12:15 | ATD:12:00
STA: 13:20 | ATA: 13:18

Boarding was announced a few minutes early. The boarding pass was scanned and passengers led across the apron to the waiting Metroliner. At the bottom of the aircraft steps was an Eski from which passengers could help themselves to a bottle of chilled water.

According to Skippers, the Metro 23 is a new generation regional turbo-prop offering cabin comfort and payload capacity exceeding any comparable aircraft in Australia. In reality, the 19-seater SA227-DC has a compact cabin compared to the Beechcraft 1900D. In the latter one can at least stand but on boarding the Metro passengers need to duck and the curved walls tend to cause passengers to lean toward the aisle in flight.

Once the passengers were boarded, the flight crew made their final preparations for departure. Hamish and Kendrick were up front. They welcomed everyone and advised us of the expected flight time, reminded us to keep our seatbelts fastened and to read the safety instruction cards that could be found in the seatback pockets.

The engines sprang to life and ran for a while to warm up. The man on the ground gave clearance and the aircraft began to move forward. We passed the Metro that was parked alongside before passing a couple of the six Embraer 120 Brasilias that are in the fleet.

Bravo Quebec entered lane Whiskey, passing a number of Avro RJ and BAe146 operated by Cobham and a couple of Fokkers 100 with QantasLink, before entering Runway 21.

The Metro 23 paused while the engines revved faster, the sound becoming more strident. Breaks released, the aircraft rolled forward, gained speed and lifted into the air shortly after passing the cross runway. Soon it had crossed the airport perimeter and was over the Kewdale freight yards.

Passengers on the other side of the aircraft could enjoy fine views of the Swan and Canning rivers and over the city of Perth. My side offered views over the southern suburbs, before the aircraft banked to turn inland.

As the aircraft passed first over State forest, and then entered the Wheatbelt, I amused myself by examing the the wing, engine housing and propeller. The latter was manufactured by McCauley. Powered by two Garrett TPE331-12 turboprop engines, the Metro 23 can reach 248kts (459km/h) and has a service ceiling of 25,000ft (7,620m). Today's flight would reach about 19,000ft.

The seat pitch is OK if you aren't too tall. I noticed that some of the other passengers were streching their legs into the aisle. The load on today's flight was low - about eight passengers.

Generally hazy conditions impaired the views below. I passed some time leafing through the inflight magazine. This featured articles about the Margaret River region with its wineries and a story about a travelling vet. Of interest to me was the page detailing the aircraft that make up the Skippers fleet.

As we passed over country punctuated by salt lakes and the occasional town - including Quairading and Newdegate - I recalled an incident involving the aircraft.

On 22 August 2012, at about 0604 Western Standard Time VH-WBQ, departed Perth on a charter passenger service to Granny Smith aerodrome with 15 passengers on board. The first officer (FO) was designated as the pilot flying.

The aircraft arrived at the aerodrome and joined the circuit. When on downwind, the landing gear was extended, with the crew confirming that the three green down-locked lights (‘three greens’) were illuminated. When on approach, at about 500 ft, the crew again confirmed the landing gear was extended, with ‘three greens’ observed. Shortly after, the FO once more confirmed they had ‘three greens’.

During the landing flare, the left wing suddenly dropped when about 1-2 ft above the runway. The FO immediately applied right aileron in an attempt to counteract the wing drop and the aircraft touched down. On landing, the crew observed the landing gear door warning light illuminate. The captain assumed control of the aircraft and taxied to the parking area.

After shutdown, the crew inspected the aircraft and determined that the left propeller had contacted the ground. The aircraft sustained damage to the left propeller blades and spinner, and the left landing gear doors. The operator examined the aircraft and believed that there was an uncommanded retraction of the left landing gear on, or just after touchdown, which resulted in the left wing dropping. Right aileron was applied, which raised the left wing, and with the forward momentum of the aircraft, the left landing gear extended. The crew could not recall hearing the landing gear warning horn activate during the landing.

Following a thorough examination by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) the reason for the uncommanded left landing gear retraction could not be determined.

There was no reason to suspect that anything similar would happen on today's flight. As we neared Ravensthorpe, the clouds thickened. The First Officer announced that we were about to descend and reminded us that we should have our seatbelts fastened. He expected to have us on the ground a few minutes earlier than scheduled. The aircraft reduced altitude and entered the cloud, remaining shrouded for several minutes. Various beeps sounded as the aircraft continued its descent.

Suddenly I could feel that the Metro was ascending, shortly afterwards emerging into clear sky. The flight continued and I guessed that we would be approaching from the east, rather than the western approach originally planned. Bravo Quebec droned on and passed in and out of clouds as the flight crew sought a suitable approach.

Eventually we were below the cloud and lining up with Runway 24. Below were paddocks, punctuated by bush reserves and the creeks that feed into the Jerdacuttup Lakes. The earlier than scheduled arrival was now looking more like being a few minutes late.

Landing gear was down and locked as we passed over the threshold. A slight thud as the wheels touched and the engines changed their tone as the aircraft decelerated. There are no taxiways at this local airport so landing aircraft must go to the end and turn around. The sky looked dark but it stayed dry.

On the ground, my sister and brother-in-law, S & G, were waiting to collect me. They were able to capture some shots of Bravo Quebec taxiing in, so we have a combination of views from inside and outside the aircraft.

From inside the aircraft, I could see my sister and her husband waiting, although I had spotted their Landcruiser while still on the runway. The Metro turned about for easier departure and once in position, Kendrick opened the door which also serves as the aircraft steps.

Meanwhile, Hamish was filling in the paperwork closing off the flight down and preparing for the return flight to Perth.

Permission was given for passengers to leave and, as I did so, I took the opportunity to capture a couple of shots close up. I also managed to have a brief conversation with Kendrick about the changed approach. To have continued on the original approach would have required an instrument landing which, in the situation, was not an option. Still, I'm not complaining about having to spend an extra few minutes in the air.

I enjoyed the flight. The aircraft may be a bit old, having been first registered in January 1996 and come to Skippers Aviation on the 27 October 2008. The cabin certainly shows signs of wear but mechanically the plane is in good condition, and I guess that's the most important thing.

During my stay in Ravensthorpe, S & G needed to pick up a prescription. No problems. We jumped in the cruiser and drove to Esperance, two hours to the east. Esperance is a port city and boasts some beautiful beaches.

We also spent a day exploring the Fitzgerald River Naptional Park. The entrance from Hopetoun is dominated by East Mount Barren, with views over Culham Inlet.

There are numerous accessible beaches and headlands, each prettier than the next. Rocky shores have been eroded over the millennia, creating bays and inlets. The colours of the water are wonderful to behold.

Hamersley Inlet is a popular attraction, offering picnic spots with BBQs and camping sites. The road is now sealed but used to be formed gravel.

There is plentiful wildlife but animals often keep low during the heat of the day. This little fellow was willing to pose for a photo. The southern heath monitor (Varanus rosenbergi) spends most of its time on the ground, but if chased may climb up the nearest tree. Feeding on frogs, reptiles, birds, insects and carrion, it grows to 150cm. It can be distinguished from the commonly named "race horse goanna" or Gould's monitor by the bands continuing across the tail. Gould's monitor has a pronounced yellow or white tip to the tail.

From "Fitzy" we continued across farming country, through salt lakes to Newdegate - where we stopped for an ice cream - to Lake King. The road between the two towns runs almost due east and includes a 60km straight stretch. Unusual for the time of year, Lake King still holds plenty of water, following last February's rain - which washed part of the road away - and more heavy rain in November/ December.

The town of Lake King has been spruced up in recent years. It now features an interesting collection of "home made" tractors. In place of the more common Fergusons and John Deere, the local pioneering farmers built their own as they were easier to come by, maintain and cost less to run. How's that for inventiveness?

Christmas came and went, to be followed by New Year. In my next report I shall include some highlights and the return flight to Perth. I hope you will join me.