Summary: Today we going on a journey to the South Pacific to talk with John Laming about his experiences as a pilot for Air Nauru. John recounts some interesting stories about his time as a Captain flying a 737-200 with Air Nauru including many interesting tales of passengers he was able to carry over the years.
Background – Air Nauru at the time was a state funded airline propped up by the wealthy government using money from phosphate exports. Despite Nauru only having a population of around 8,000 people Air Nauru remarkably was able to service a huge number of destinations. The airline operated many of these routes unprofitably with an average load factor of less than 20%, John notes that many of the flights he captained has only a handful of people on board.
Inevitably in the early 1990s the phosphate on Nauru ran out and the government was no longer able to fund the loss making airline causing it to cease operations. The airline has since relaunched on a more commercial footing servicing a smaller number of destinations based out of Brisbane airport.
Getting Started – John left the RAAF to avoid a desk job, to ensure he could keep flying.
Nauru – Nauru was making $100 million US dollars a year in phosphate exports, the locals were provided royalties split between a small number of residents. Nauru had an old Japanese runway which was used at the time and had the occasional Douglas DC-4 would operate out of Nauru on charter and a few Business Jets (Falcon 20s).
An Aerial View and location of the map of the tiny island nation of Nauru
First Aircraft – in 1974 Air Nauru bought a Fokker F-28 Fellowship that ran down to Melbourne, Brisbane, Tarawa, Majuro, Guam, Japan and Hong Kong. Eventually they bought 737s, the crews were interviewed by the Ansett Chief Pilot. The pay at Air Nauru was Ansett equivalent plus a 3% loading. Most of the pilots were ex Air Force.
Boeing 737-200 – The aircraft was specially designed to be operated out of unprepared aerodromes, they had special padding on the flaps and a gravel protect kit to deflect gravel and debris from the engines.
Air Nauru Boeing 737-200
Training – Pilots were sent to New Zealand with New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC) to do their course for the 737.
Navigation in the South Pacific – John notes that there was no GPS in those days and there was no ETOPs. Often there was no radio reception, a lot of the Non Directional Beacons (NDBs) were unreliable as they often ran out of diesel. Often the weather forecast was 24 hours out of date and the VASIS would not be serviceable.
Emergency situations – On one flight from Nauru to Fiji the engine had a loss of oil contents and he had to close one engine down and return on one engine. John had a radar failure and nearly flew into a typhoon.
Thunderstorms – John discusses how some of the storms which were common in the South Pacific.
Photo of the ‘Anvil’ in a Thunderstorm
Photo Credit – Griffinstorm
Navigation – John used the 1 in 6o rule on earlier models of aircraft he flew.
People John Met on flights – The flights were generally not full and John would regularly hand over to the first officer and talk to the passengers.
United States Marines – John met an ex US marine who was involved in major battles against the Japanese at Guadalcanal (Modern Day Solomon Islands) who was returning to say thank you to Jacob Charles Vouza who served heroically with the United Stated Marine Corps in the Guadalcanal Campaign during World War II.
Intoxicated Passengers – John notes that it was generally safe to let passengers come up to the cockpit except you had to ensure they were not drunk. John managed to get the passenger to return to his seat by showing him the radar which he tilted down to show red flecks which indicated that a thunderstorm was close by.
John also met a US veteran from the battle of Tarawa.
Air Nauru loosing money – Once a week they would fly to Japan from Nauru, often with only 2 passengers onboard. Despite the pilots being well paid the air hostesses were not.
Mary Bea – one of the flight attendants from Malaita island in the Solomons and was suspected of being a witch by the other flight attendants.
John eventually ended up leaving as he had concerns about the safety aspects of the airline when the Nauruan Government started cutting costs.
John ended up working for Dragon Air based out of Hong Kong and Hapag Lloyd based in Hamburg, Germany.
The airline now has an improved safety culture and operates on a more commercial footing.
Nauru International Airport – RW 12/30
A list of Air Nauru’s extensive routes during John’s time at the airline
Short final – Nauru International
Air Facts Blog – The journal for personal air travel, by pilots for pilots.
Johns Articles on the Airfacts Blog – The page which lists all of John’s articles on Air Facts.
Johns Book – Tall Tails of the South Pacific – Click here to buy John’s book.
Private Pilots Rumour Network (PPRUNE) – A forum for professional pilots.