Written by Steven Tingle
Pilot Brad Blevins could not see what he was looking for, but he was certain it was there. Flying a Pilatus PC-12 over the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea, Blevins was twelve thousand miles from home and several thousand feet above some of the most remote and least explored territory in the world. In the adjacent seat Creig Rice, a retired Air Force pilot with over twenty years of F-16 flying experience, turned the aircraft around to make another pass over the target area, a maneuver he would repeat many times during the day. In the rear of the aircraft a scientist from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory collected data streaming from a Multi-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar MB-SAR.
The Radar can penetrate through dense foliage, in this case essentially pulling back the blanket of merbau trees, climbing palms, and over two thousand species of ferns that cover the valleys and mountains of the island of New Guinea. The data would later be downloaded to computers running algorithms programmed to differentiate man-made objects from those occurring naturally: a fuselage versus a fallen tree, a section of wing versus an out-cropping of rocks. The goal of the mission, sponsored by the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) and Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), was clear: Gather information to aid in the search for and recovery of unaccounted-for World War II aircraft in Papua New Guinea (PNG). And ultimately, the remains of military personnel missing for over seventy years. But before the first search flight could be flown, a single-engine prop was going to have to be fitted with five racks of experimental radar equipment and flown halfway around the world.
In 2003, the Department of Defense combined its military recovery and identification operation into a single command, JPAC. Located on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, JPAC conducts global search, recovery, and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts. One of the biggest obstacles of recovery efforts in the Pacific Theater is the dense foliage of the jungles and rain forests. But advances in foliage-penetrating radar systems have opened new possibilities for locating lost planes and subsequently the remains of pilots, crew, and passengers.
When federal funding was approved for a mission that would test the effectiveness of foliage penetrating radar in the aid of JPAC’s search and recovery efforts, the timing was incredibly tight. It was now early October 2013 and the mission was to be completed before the end of the year. Closing the window even further was the weather. Papua New Guinea’s rainy season begins in December, which would severely restrict safe flight conditions. The joke in New Guinea is that it rains or nine months, then the rainy season starts. To ensure at least thirty days of good weather, search flights would need to begin in early November. Which left less than a month to select an aircraft, integrate the MB-SAR into it, and transport the whole thing twelve thousand miles to Papua New Guinea.
The Pilatus PC-12, a pressurized, single-engine turboprop with a range of 1,700 miles, offered the best combination of size, power, availability, and cost. “Putting that type of equipment in any airplane is a complex issue,” says Scott Terry, founder and CEO of Tempus Jets, the company contracted to select the aircraft and perform the systems integration. “There are structural, electrical, avionics, and communication issues that you are dealing with that have to be tested, either through analysis or by test flight. And it all has to be done while staying within the original type certificate, or capability, of the aircraft.”
The complexities of the integration began with installing the five racks of MB-SAR equipment into the PC-12 and routing adequate power to the radar. This required tapping into the PC-12’s existing electrical system to draw power away from other areas of the aircraft. The Tempus engineers had to confirm that all of the receivers, transmitters, and black boxes were mounted properly and had correct power coming to them to operate efficiently. The next challenge was the placement of the MB-SAR’s antenna, which measures 2’x2’ and resembles a mini fridge. To minimize the drag on the aircraft, the engineers integrated the antenna into the PC-12’s cargo door, which could then be removed and transported to Papua New Guinea in a larger aircraft. Next, custom software was written to ensure that the aircraft and sensor systems would communicate properly and collect accurate data in regards to the aircraft’s location. Other challenges included form and fit architecture, structural and avionics modifications, and certification issues, which had to be approved by the FAA.
“When an aircraft is originally designed, it’s not contemplated that someone might cut a big hole in the door and install an antenna that’s blasting energy microbursts,” Terry says. “You don’t know how it’s going to affect the airplane’s communications or the aerodynamic handling or what effect it will have on weight and balance. Integrating these types of systems into any aircraft, especially one as small as the PC-12, is a very elaborate process.” By the end of October, Tempus Jets had done what some had deemed almost impossible—integrated a complex sensor system into a PC-12 and had it certified by the FAA as airworthy in less than thirty days.
On November 2, just two days after a successful test of the aircraft’s sensor systems, Tempus pilot Brad Blevins and Creig Rice, a pilot for EH Group, another contractor involved with the mission, took off from Newport News, Virginia, and began their journey of flying a single engine prop halfway around the world. Their destination: Papua New Guinea. One of the most isolated and dangerous places on the planet.
Located in the southwest Pacific Ocean just below the equator, the island of New Guinea is the second largest in the world after Greenland. Despite its proximity to mostly flat, arid Australia, New Guinea has many parts that are covered with dense rain forests and nearly impenetrable jungles. A spine of mountains known as the New Guinea Highlands runs east to west across the island with the summit of Mount Carstensz, named Puncak Jaya, rising above sixteen thousand feet.
By the early 1900’s, the island of New Guinea was divided into three sections, with the western half controlled by the Netherlands, the northeastern section by Germany, and the southeastern section by Britain. But the island’s interior regions remained relatively unexplored until the 1930s when Richard Archbold, grandson of John Dustin Archbold, an early oil refiner and former president of the Standard Oil Company, used his considerable inheritance to sponsor a series of expeditions to New Guinea for the American Museum of Natural History.
In 1933 Archbold financed and led an expedition to southeastern New Guinea to collect plants and animals for the museum. He quickly found the logistical constraints of the island- its remote location, enormous size, and dense jungle landscape- prohibitive to the conventional exploration techniques of the era, and so he began to consider the advantage airplanes could provide. Three years later during his second expedition of the island, Archbold used a Fairchild 91, a small flying boat, to explore the southern territories, but the plane was lost during a storm while anchored at Port Moresby. For his third expedition of New Guinea, Archbold upped the ante and purchased a PBY-2 Catalina, a commercial version of a U.S. Navy Patrol Bomber with a range of over four thousand miles. The airplane’s wingspan exceeded one hundred feet, and its pontoons allowed for takeoffs and landings on lakes or rivers. Archbold named his plane Guba, which menas “sudden storm” in New Guinea’s Motu dialect. At the time it was the largest privately owned airplane in existence. Despite having led three successful expeditions to New Guinea, Archbold was eager to continue exploring the island. But the escalating activity of World War II hindered his plans.
A month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces began landing on the north coast of New Guinea. The island was important to the Japanese, as it provided a consolidated area to launch attacks on Australia. General Douglas MacArthur began building up Allied forces on New Guinea with the goal of dislodging the Japanese. In April of 1944, the Americans made their first landing in the Dutch-occupied territory of western New Guinea during a mission named “Operation Reckless.” The strike disorganized the Japanese and secured the territory’s capital, Hollandia, for the Allies.
Over the course of the war, more than two thousand American pilots and crew were lost in New Guinea, and today over 250 planes still remain unaccounted for. The U.S. military has always tried to recover its dead, but the logistics of the island have impeded recovery efforts there. The dense jungles make land-based expedition difficult as well as obstruct traditional air search efforts. Plus the island is dangerous. In 1969 New Guinea was divided into two provinces: Papua and West Papua. Nearly 80 percent of the seven million residents of Papua New Guinea live an almost prehistoric existence and speak over sever hundred native tongues. The Economist ranked Port Moresby, the capital and largest city, 139th out of 140 cities for livability. The average life expectancy in the country is sixty for men, sixty-five for women. With poor health care, poverty, and crime a daily way of life, gang culture runs rampant through the urban areas of PNG, while in the rural tribal areas of the country’s interior, rumors of headhunting and cannibalism are not that far-fetched. According to the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website, prospective visitors to PNG should “exercise a high degree of caution” and even “reconsider your need to travel.” A Terry explains, “Both environmentally and culturally, it is not a very forgiving environment.”
Planning a flight for the East Coast of the United States to Papua New Guinea is fairly simple—a stop in Los Angeles, then on to Hawaii,, followed by Guam and finally PNG. But with a range of only 1,700 miles, the single-engine PC-12 required a flight plan with multiple refueling stops and considerations for emergency landings. “I’ve flown F-16s for a little over twenty years,” Rice says. “And when you’re flying over the ocean, you have other planes with you and a support structure in place so that if something bad happens, you know you’re going to be taken care of.” Blevins has considerable experience flying over the Atlantic but acknowledged the complexities of “going the other way” across the Pacific. “I’ve moved PC-12s back and forth to Africa several times,” he says, “But this is a little different. You have to really plan for anything that can possibly happen.”
After departing from Newport News, Rice and Blevins landed in Salina Kansas. Their next stop was Seattle’s Boeing Field, followed by Ketchikan International Airport in Alaska, which due to its short runway tucked between the mountains and the freezing cold ocean is regularly listed as one of the world’s most “thrilling” airports. Then it was on to Homer, followed by Adak. “It isn’t the end of the world,” Rice writes in his blog of Adak, “but you can see it from there.” Adak is the westernmost municipality in the United States and the southernmost city in Alaska. The city is a former U.S. military base and during its peak housed over six thousand naval and Coast Guard Personnel and their families. The base closed in the late ‘90s and is now in caretaker status with a population of around three hundred. Due to bad weather, Rice and Blevins spent the night in Adak, and Rice’s blog shows a picture of a sign tacked to a garage door near their accommodations stating, “Strictly No Caribou Processing in This Unit.” “You know you’ve arrived with you see a sign like that.” Rice says.
From Adak the next stop was Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a city located near Russia’s largest submarine base. “That leg of the trip is about the extent of the range of the aircraft” Blevins says. “And there’s nothing in between but one U.S. military base that’s restricted.” According to Rice, some of his friends have compared these long, isolated legs of the trip to Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight from New York to Paris. “It’s not quite that extreme, because the airplane is very capable,” Rice says, “but it’s closer to that than flying an F-16.”
As the PC-12 approached Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Blevins says he and Rice looked at each other, then turned around and looked at the racks of radar equipment crammed into the back of the aircraft. “I just thought, ‘Let’s get in and out of here quick.’ “ A few cold stares were the worst Rice and Blevins experienced while refueling in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, but they were both grateful to soon be back up in the air and on their way to Chitose, Japan. From Chitose they flew to Kagoshima, Japan, then on to the Philippines, where they landed in Manila just one day after Super Typhoo Haiyan devastated portions of the country. On November 10, Rice and Blevins left Manila and flew to Davao in the Philippines, then on to Biak, Indonesia, and finally to Port Moresby, PNG. During their five-day journey, the two men had flown 51.7 hours, traveled 11,987 miles, crossed eight time zones, and visited five countries. And they’d done it all in a single-engine prop with a 1,700-mile range.
Once in Port Moresby, Rice and Blevins met up with a team of researchers and scientists led by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. The Pc-12’s standard cargo door was replaced with the antenna-mounted door, and for the next month, Rice and Blevins flew nearly every day, sometimes for up to twelve hours, over the Northern, Central, and Morobe provinces of PNG. “We’d take off just before sunrise and fly until about one in the afternoon,” Blevins says. “The humidity is so high that you get op-up thunderstorms and a lot of convective weather, but in the early morning the winds are calm and the skies are clear.” If the weather was good, the team would fly a second mapping route in the afternoon. To ensure the MB-SAR collected accurate information, each target area was mapped twice, the second route flown perpendicular to the first. Blevins likens it to the crosshatched mowing pattern of a golf course green. After twenty-nine days, the team had mapped almost thirty thousand square kilometers, nearly seven percent of the entire country.
During the mission, Blevins, Rice, and the other team members lived in two guarded compounds. The accommodations included kitchens, and the team occasionally, and with escorts, ventured out of the compounds to procure fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. On Thanksgiving the team was invited to the residence of Walter North, the U.S. ambassador to Papua New Guinea, who was given an overview of the mission and the image-processing technology being used. Despite having only one day off during the mission, Blevins and Rice were able to squeeze in a little R & R. The two took a dive trip to explore a coral reef off the coast, and Blevins played golf at Royal Port Moresby Golf Club, where he was partnered with the wife of an oil executive who was accompanied by two armed guards. Blevins asked them if their presence was necessary. “They told me sometimes the locals jump the fence and try to steal your clubs,” Blevins says. “It made for an interesting round of golf.”
With the mapping portion of the mission complete, the data are now being analyzed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. The results will be processed into maps showing the possible locations of downed aircraft. It is an ongoing process, but those involved are encouraged by some of the early results. The next step will involve site verification by teams on the ground with the ultimate goal of recovering the remains of Americans lost during WWII. For Rise and Blevins the project was an opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces who served in what was, and in many ways still is, a forgotten corner of the world. During WWII the 80th Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the “Headhunters,” few missions out of Port Moresby. The Squadron’s emblem depicts a native New Guinea tribal warrior with a ring through his nose and blue pilot goggles pushed atop his head. After their month-long mission in PNG, Blevins and Rice have new respect for these pilots who flew over such treacherous terrain without the aid of the navigation and safety technology available today. For Scott Terry the mission was an opportunity to combine creative engineering and experimental technology with the hopes of helping to bring closure to the families of those soldiers lost so many years ago. “This mission has a higher purpose,” he says. “This is a noble cause.”