The world's most accessible active volcano

4 October 1991 Vanair 523 Port Vila to Dillon's Bay
4 October 1991 Vanair 523 Dillon's Bay to Tanna

Now, this was going to be different. Travelling on a scheduled flight which proves to be an Islander, an aeroplane with eight passenger seats will never be a run-of-the-mill experience. As we walked across the tarmac to climb on board, we wondered how it was going to be. We also knew that the flight would be calling in at Dillon's Bay, an airport not noted for being a major one. The flight took off, and we saw clearly the southern part of Efate, the island on which Port Vila is to be found, and as it disappeared into the distance, the bright blue of the Pacific. After a few minutes more, Erromango came into view. Erromango is an island with a sad history, the blacker side of white man's colonisation of the world, and there is very little to be seen there these days. Roads are not much in evidence, but neither is anything else. As we turned in from the sea, we saw a flattish line cut in the vegetation. This was Dillon's Bay airport, or airstrip, at which we came to a bumpy landing on the grass.

On this day, the airstrip was dry, and the grass was short, but one man we spoke to there described his first encounter with Dillon's Bay. Apparently he was with a pilot who had spent many years in Papua New Guinea. This pilot, reaching Dillon's Bay on a wet day, found the airstrip had muddy patches and grass two or three feet high, and described it as the worst airstrip he had ever seen. I gather that this is quite a statement, considering what Papua New Guinea's terrain is supposed to be like. Everyone I have spoken to, who has been to Dillon's Bay, has some story to tell about the place. However, since then I have met a man who worked as an accountant for Talair in Papua New Guinea, and some of his stories leave me to wonder whether Dillon's Bay is really so bad after all.

Dillon's Bay has one tiny terminal building, at which various people were waiting, including five prospective passengers for Port Vila. The pilot wondered why Port Vila had not been notified of this. It seems that their radio telephone hadn't been working. So he tried to call Port Vila and Tanna on his radio, but without much success at first. Eventually he contacted Tanna and found that the flight was almost full back to Port Vila. So he was only able to take two of the passengers. Vanair conditions state that they have no responsibilities to you if you don't get to fly on a specified flight or to a specified airport, so these others were stuck.

Soon, a discussion started to determine who would be the lucky two. A medical evacuee and a white man were the first nominations, but the white man stepped down in favour of another man who, although not an official evacuee, was paying his own fare to Port Vila for medical treatment. After a few minutes more, we took off from hot, sunny Dillon's Bay, a take-off just as exciting as the landing had been a few minutes before. This brief stop meant that I could now add Erromango to the list of islands where I had trodden.

Others who have been there have other stories to tell, some describing a take-off which nearly didn't happen, others telling that they might have risked being off-loaded if they hadn't stayed in their seat on the aeroplane throughout. Flying with Vanair is, indeed, more of an experience than most flying I have done so far.

Erromango is visible from Tanna, so it did not seem nearly as far from one to the other, and we arrived at Tanna, an airport whose runway has a definite dip in it about half an hour later. It was still bright and sunny as we came to a stop, and entering the small terminal building there, we met some people I knew, who would be travelling back to Port Vila on the aircraft's return flight.

From the airport, our transport was waiting to take us straight to Yasur volcano, the main purpose for most people's visits to Tanna. As we reached the ash plain and the foot of Yasur, the tracks became progressively more bumpy. From the end of the track, it was perhaps a five minute walk up to the rim of the volcano. If you go there, wear warm clothes, and go at dusk, so that you can see Yasur by day and by night. In days gone by, it was sometimes possible to persuade the pilot to fly over Yasur for a better view, but this is a request unlikely to be greeted at all favourably these days. Flying over the Victoria Falls is exciting in a small aeroplane designed for the purpose, but a scheduled service is unlikely to be quite so enthusiastic. The unpredictable turbulence caused by an active volcano is not likely to be a good thing, especially for the small aeroplanes run by Vanair.

After this much excitement, it was back to the hotel by the four-wheel drive truck. The next day, we would see more things in Tanna, before our return to Port Vila.

5 October 1991 Vanair 522 Tanna to Port Vila

The return journey from the hotel to the airport was very much in the Melanesian way, resulting in a certain doubt whether we would get there in time. There was of course no problem. We arrived at the airport and checked in, and waited. We were interested to notice that the scales at check-in seemed to weigh about five kilograms lighter than the scales at Port Vila, but nobody seemed to mind.

When the aeroplane, a Twin Otter, arrived, about half an hour late, there was a further delay as a huge amount of cargo was unloaded. While this was happening, I chatted to the pilot, whom I knew socially from Port Vila. He mentioned that earlier in the day he had made an extra stop at Dillon's Bay to pick up the passengers from yesterday. I was pleased to hear this, because I was wondering what had become of them. The pilot, on the other hand, was wondering whether either of us would like to sit in the co-pilot's seat. Well, as it turned out, my travelling companion did, so she sat up in the front. Meanwhile I looked out of the window at the sights on the way back, including views of northern Tanna, Erromango including Dillon's Bay, and then later the offshore islands of Efate and the approach to Port Vila Bauerfield airport. It had, altogether, been a good couple of days.

11 October 1991 Vanair 506 Port Vila to Espiritu Santo

My son, Matthew

In all fairness, there is little to be said about this trip, which was on board one of Vanair's Twin Otters. The check- in procedure was easy and straightforward, the flight left on time and arrived in Santo about an hour and twenty minutes later. For most of the journey, the weather was clear, giving a view of the ocean, but there was some cloud. I really struggle to say anything worthwhile about the flight, except that it was my younger son's first flight, although he had flown round the world before being born.

In international terms, the airport, or indeed the island on which it stands, is called Espiritu Santo, but everybody in Vanuatu, almost without exception, calls it Santo. Even the tickets read Santo, but then, they said simply Vila, rather than Port Vila.

13 October 1991 Vanair 505 Espiritu Santo to Port Vila

We arrived at the airport in such good time for this flight that the airport was deserted. Gradually, the airport filled up, as the passengers and crew arrived at the small airport. The aeroplane was full on the trip, a rather gloomier journey than the outgoing flight, probably because it was later in the day, and the weather was cloudier. Even so, we made good time, arriving at Port Vila at the time we expected. This short flight is, I am sorry to say, hard to describe in an interesting manner. Vanair is that sort of carrier: efficient at getting people from A to B, but not an airline that inspires much emotion.

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