Tracking Flights

Monday, 19 February 2024

I confess, I spend too much time looking at tracking apps – for boats as well as aircraft, what’s that cruise ship/container ship heading out into the bay from Melbourne? I regularly turn to flightradar24 to track a flight, perhaps it’s a visitor coming to stay with us, how close is their flight to arriving? Or I’m at the airport, where’s the incoming aircraft I’ll soon (I hope!) be flying out on.

Or from London Simon Calder sends me this wonderful air chaos story from Storm Isha which battered the UK on 22 January 2024. Lots of aircraft went round and round trying to find a place to land, or got diverted to airports in Europe where many passengers didn’t have the necessary documentation to disembark. ▼

Here in Australia I’ve been tracking the flights of Nauru Airlines Boeing 737 VH-INU.

▲ I flew on VH-INU back in 2011 when the airline was shared with Air Kiribati and was known as Our Airline, before that it was known as Air Nauru and like so much else about Nauru it had gone comprehensively bankrupt. Nauru is a country which knows all about bankruptcy – which is why it was a good place for Australia to establish its shameful refugee prison camp. On 17 February 2024 Nauru Airlines used VH-INU to fly in some more refugee prisoners after they landed on the coast of Western Australia, north of Broome and just south of Cape Leveque.

▲ I’ve flown up and driven up to Cape Leveque so it’s not quite as ‘remote’ as the Australian media would like to claim. I took this photo flying over Cape Leveque in 2015. Of course ‘illegal refugee arrivals’ is a topic that gives politicians an opportunity to point fingers and froth at the mouth. Peter Dutton, the hopeless leader of Australia’s opposition, shouted that the Labor government in power was completely useless and the arrival of a boatload of 40 refugees was all their fault. Presumably if Mr Dutton had been in power the entire Australian navy would have been drawn up across the Indian Ocean ready to intercept any little boat heading south.

So how did the refugees get from Beagle Bay to the Nauru prison camp? At first glance ‘no idea’ because the government announced it’s all part of their Operation Sovereign Borders they won’t tell us a thing about it. Furthermore the Flight Aware website reports, ‘this aircraft (VH-INU) is not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator.’ How do they do that? Elon Musk and Taylor Swift cannot keep their aircraft movements secret, why can Nauru Airlines do that? In fact Ms Swift has recently flown in to Melbourne from Honolulu (10 hours 58 minutes in her Bombardier Global 6000 – 9H-VTD) and today – Monday 19 February 2024 – flew on from Melbourne to Sydney. Here’s the track ▼

Fortunately when I search a little more flightradar24 tells me that on Saturday 17 February VH-INU travelled Sydney-Curtin 4 hours 17 minute flight, Curtin-Broome 23 minute flight, Broome-Curtin 27 minute flight, Curtin to somewhere 3 hour 52 minute flight, somewhere to Nauru 4 hours 14 minute flight. Presumably Sydney was to pick up the Operation Sovereign Borders prison officers, Curtin is an Australian Air Force Base and ‘somewhere’ is pretty clearly the Amberley Air Force base near Brisbane.

▲ And when they get to Nauru here’s what the prison cells look like. When I visited Nauru in 2011 the Australian government had temporarily decided that their island prison was so shameful they better shut it down, so the camp was empty. Then they decided it wasn’t so bad after all and reopened it, inspiring the British government to think that they should have an offshore prison camp as well and they’d establish it in Rwanda. I hope the Australian government has also told the Brits that it costs A$421,673 a year to keep each refugee prisoner locked up.

Of course 40 refugees on a boat is a tiny number, for a spell in 2023 Legend Airlines of Romania regularly shuttled around 300 Indian holidaymakers (oh no, surely they weren’t trying to be refugees?) from the UAE to Nicaragua from where (one presumes) they would soon be heading due north to the Mexican border. Donald Trump may have fumed about Mexican ‘rapists’ crowding across the border into the USA, but what about the citizens of India? The Economic Times India reported that – ‘A record 96,917 Indians were arrested while crossing illegally into the US between October 2022 and September 2023, latest data from the US Customs & Border Protection (UCBP) showed.’ That figure has grown from 19,883 in 2019-2020, 30,662 in 2020-2021, 63,927 in 2021-2022. Despite the love affair between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin an article in The Economist on 20 January 2024 documented how many Chinese and Russians were also hightailing it to the US borders.

So on 22 December 2023 Legend Airlines Airbus A340 YRLRE stopped at Paris Vatry airport, en route from Fujairah in UAE to Managua in Nicaragua, to refuel. And was stuck there for four bureaucratic days before the French officials sent the Airbus … on to Nicaragua? No … back to UAE? No … they sent it to Mumbai in India! ‘Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said some passengers didn’t want to go to India because they had paid for a tourism trip to Nicaragua. The airline has denied any role in possible human trafficking.’ The Indian passengers, unhappily arriving home in Mumbai, didn’t want to say anything to anybody. The Airbus quickly turned around and flew back to Fujairah where it has been parked ever since.

Please compare those numbers Mr Peter Dutton – 40 on a boat to Australia, 96,917 all by air (I would bet) to the USA.

As well as flightradar24 I often waste time tracking aircraft and airline stories with PPRuNe – the Professional Pilots Rumour Network. On 5 January 2024 the Alaska Airlines flight 1282 ‘door plug’ incident certainly kicked the PPRuNE posters into high gear. So why did the door plug fall out of the 737 Max 9?. Because Spirit AeroSystems, who make the fuselage, did not bolt the door plug into the fuselage? Or because Boeing took the door plug out and when they put it back in did not bolt it in? Or because Alaska Airlines took the door plug out for some maintenance purpose and did not bolt it back in? On 7 February the investigators fingered Boeing, the PPRuNE posters had arrived at that conclusion much earlier.

▲ On 12 May 2023 I photographed Boeing 737 fuselages heading by train from Spirit’s Kansas factory to Boeing, but these would have been for 737 Max 8 aircraft, not Max 9 because they had neither door plugs or the alternative emergency exit doors. Around that time I took three flights with Alaska Airlines, two of them in 737s, although not in the risky 737 Max. I really rate Alaska Airlines, I’ve had good flights and good experiences with them.

I was back on flightradar24 and PPRuNe for another strange incident on 20 January 2024 when a Russian Dassault Falcon private jet on an ambulance flight from Thailand simply ran out of fuel as it was taking a shortcut across Afghanistan!

▲ Amazingly it managed to crash land on a snowy mountain side and three of the five on board survived. Not the wealthy Russian Anatoly Evsyukov 65 and his unwell wife Anna Evsyukova 64 who had chartered the flight. Since the crash was pretty clearly down to simple stupidity, running out of fuel is never a good idea, a PPRuNe comment suggested that it ‘Looks like the survivors are the crew, not Mr and Mrs Unfortunate Choice.’ Fortunately for the unfortunate couple’s son, who had been holidaying with them, the aircraft could only carry five, he safely returned to Russia on a commercial flight.

▲ Finally, and much more comfortably, residents of the Melbourne, Australia suburb of South Yarra have been complaining about wealthy ‘trucking magnate’ Lindsay Fox and his helicopter VH-FOX, here it is with the Melbourne skyline in the background.

▲ Mr Fox uses the sports ground of Melbourne High School to land his chopper when he wants to pop in to Melbourne from his beachfront place in Portsea. I’m close enough to hear his helicopter coming and going, but it’s nowhere near as disturbing as the school’s marching band unpacking the drums and marching back and forth crashing them loudly too close to dawn. For Mr Fox it’s a change from the usual complaints when he tried to unilaterally grab some public beach to add to his private beachfrontage at Portsea.