Nina and I spent ten days in New Caledonia over Easter. While the trip was not aviation-themed, one cannot avoid airports and airplanes when travelling from a very big island to a smaller island and eventually to an even smaller one.
We flew from Sydney to Nouméa in an Aircalin Airbus A320 codeshared with Qantas. While Air Calédonie flies domestic routes, Aircalin connects New Caledonia to international destination such as Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, South Korea and Japan. The Airbus A330 below was about to leave Nouméa Tontouta airport for Tokyo Narita as flight SB800.
We spent a few days driving around the main island, taking in the sights, feasting on fresh seafood, deer meat and untreated tropical fruits and arguing politics with a few strongly-opinionated Caldoches.
For the last part of our trip we entered an Air Calédonie ATR-72 for a 20-minute flight to the Isle of Pines. New Caledonia being a French overseas territory, airplanes are F-registered, such as the two ATR-72 F-OIPN and F-OIPS below and the one ATR-42 F-OIPI above. The ATR-72 is the stretch and re-engineered version of the ATR-42, in the same way the Qantas fleet has both old Dash-8 and new Q400 aircraft.
The last two letters of the tail number refer to the three districts that make up New Caledonia: Province du Nord, Province du Sud and Province des Iles Loyauté.
All three twin turboprops were on the tarmac at Magenta airport that morning, boarding and unboarding a mix of tourists and locals.
The tail art uses traditional Kanak elements. In the middle of the circle is a flèche faîtière, a totem-like pole structure found on the apex of most traditional dwellings in New Caledonia, as can be seen on the traditional hut represented on the left of the rudder.
Magenta airport has a local flying club called Aéro Club Calédonien, with the usual fleet of Cessnas and Pipers but also a Mooney M-20J and a couple of TB-10 Tobago. Not bad at all when you consider that there are only 15 airfields in New Caledonia. Fiji is a bit far, but I wonder how often single-engine airplanes attempt the 100-nautical mile crossing to nearby Vanuatu.
We flew back in a Qantas 767. Tontouta airport has a long runway but no parallel taxiway, which forced our airliner to backtrack the whole length of the runway so that we could depart to the south-east on runway 11.
The airport is surrounded by hills and mountains, so finding an elevated point to build the control tower wasn't too hard:
Tontouta is a joint civilian-military airport, with units of both the French Navy and Air Force stationed at the Base Aéronavale de Tontouta. No jet fighters though, only helicopters and transport turboprops. That's their hangars on the photo below.
The thing that I found absolutely astonishing aviation-wise is that a small airport such as Ile des Pins (NWWE) has a control tower and rescue vehicles on standy at the airport even though it never sees more than four commercial flights a day. By way of comparison, Wagga Wagga airport in Australia sees about 10,000 RPT movements a year and had its tower closed down in 1996.
The stark contrast between these two approaches to the provision of air traffic services stems from the two very different business models Airservices Australia and the French DGAC operate under. Airservices Australia is a government-owned corporation that charges fees, makes profits and even sometimes pays dividends back to the Commonwealth. The French DGAC is a government department and as such is more concerned with spending money than making money. There are pros and cons to each approach obviously.
On a more touristy note, New Caledonia is a gorgeous location with a fantastic mix of landscapes and cultures. It is also poor value for the region and the infrastructures for tourism are not as developed as one may wish. If you're looking for a resort-style holiday on a Pacific island, go to Vanuatu or Fiji.
If, on the other hand, you speak French and want to discover a fascinating place fast approaching a turning point in its short history, New Caledonia is for you. The country is still struggling with de-colonisation and reconciliation and will have to decide in a few years wether to become fully independent or remain a French overseas territory. From our very short stay, we could see that opinions on that last point are very much split.