22 March 2014

Real Tonga's MA-60 - A passenger's review

A big THANKS to Peter White for this post on his recent travel on Real Tonga's MA60... I must admit, I am jealous and would love to try it out for myself!

In January 2014 I had the chance of flying return on RealTonga's Xian MA60 from Tongatapu to Vava'u so wanted to take some time to share my experience. 

The MA60 has had – in my opinion - unfair negative publicity (mainly politically motivated), below is my point of view.

I have deliberately withheld from posting this for several months as I think was only fair to wait for the (inaccurate and scaremongering) media coverage of this plane to pass over. 

Even though I am a born and bred New Zealander, I have for the better part of the last 10 years been a staunch supporter of Tonga and its people, including the MA60 fiasco last year. 

I am very well-travelled, spending a lot of work and leisure time in Europe, North America, Australia and the pacific including Fiji, Cook Islands and Tonga.  

Having travelled to Tonga from New Zealand 9 times in the last decade I can assure you that Tonga is a place I would be proud to call home and if people would just lose their prejudices they too would see it is an amazing and hugely untapped country.  The gifting of the MA60 should be nothing but good news for the Kingdom.  

Aside of my love of Tonga I have a strong passion for all things Aviation.  I have been involved in aviation and had a pilot’s license for over 12 years. 

During my visits to Tonga I have flown on the following aircraft:
  • Yarbin Y-12 - Airlines Tonga
  • Embraer 120 - Airlines Tonga
  • Convair 580 - Chathams Pacific
  • Metroliner - Chathams Pacific
  • Britten Norman Islander - Chathams Pacific
  • Xian MA-60 - RealTonga
I do not want to make this article about the history of aviation in Tonga, but will concede that Chathams Pacific set the bar high.  They are the only Airline in Tonga's history that was profitable (albeit hard work) and left the market without going out of business. 

They left Tonga a year ago, forced out some say, when RealTonga, owned by Tevita Palu (Palu Aviation – among other businesses), was started and set to operate the MA60.

You are all aware of the media frenzy around the MA60 and RealTonga. I just want to say don’t believe everything you are told.

Our Trip

My group of 5 booked in July to travel to Vava'u from Auckland in January 2014.  Our Air New Zealand flight was scheduled to arrive at 11:40 on Saturday 4th, so we booked a 14:00 RealTonga flight to Vava'u. 

Via e-mail in September we learnt that our chances of making our connection to Vava'u looked dashed.  We were told that our departure time to Vava'u had been bought forward to 12 noon.  How could we make a 20 min connection!

If this happened we would be spending the weekend in Nuku’alofa as this was the last fight for the weekend as airports are closed on Sundays. 

After some polite and prompt correspondence with RealTonga staff I was advised to not panic and the flights will be rescheduled to meet the international arrivals and they will contact me in due course. 

Early December I received an e-mail advising our flight time has been moved (back?) to 14:00 Our connection was looking safe!

The Trip

We flew an uneventful Air New Zealand A320 service from Auckland landing on time at Fua'amotu International Airport.  The flight was full and the service was excellent. 

After clearing customs and getting our bags we took at $5 taxi ride to the domestic terminal. 

With many locals travelling for the holidays the terminal was busy (by Tongan standards) but the staff were efficient and we were served in 10 minutes.  Our checked in baggage for the group was overweight by 30KGs.  Old memories of Airlines Tonga and offloaded bags came rushing back.  I was pleasantly surprised when the check-in agent advised, "that's fine, and it should get up on this flight". So we paid the excess baggage charges and went plane hunting. 

Unlike the international terminal, plane spotting here (for the few that are around) can be awkward. 

The best I could do of our plane was this desperation shot thru a wire fence:

Our plane to Vava'u.  RealTonga Xian MA60 A3-RTL

Time raced by and before we knew it we heard our boarding call at 13:40. 

After talking to the powers to be, I was lucky enough to be allowed to fly “up front” in the observers’ seat!

As we boarded the aircraft I was pleased to see even at 6'3" I did not really have to bend down while walking down the aisle. 

I have to admit that I did have some preconceptions about the aircraft and was very impressed to have these corrected when I saw how modern and spacious the cabin was.  The seating was 2 – 2 and the cabin fit out was well made and robust, reminding me a lot of an ATR-72 or a Q300 in both look and build quality.

I was taken to the cockpit where I was introduced to Sam the Captain and Chris, the first officer.

I was given an extremely professional and detailed safety briefing and then asked to stay seated until in the cruise.
Start-up of the Garrett (American) APU and Pratt & Whitney Canada Turboprop engines was straight forward and the subsequent pre taxi, run-up and pre-take off checks were completed efficiently and by the book.  After a few minutes, at 14:10 we were airborne out of runway 11, on route to Vava’u.

Once we reached the cruise I was invited to leave my seat and given a detailed overview of the aircraft.  Again, this cockpit feels that of any western airliner. Everything was in English. Everything was modern.  Everything was serviceable.  Someone coming from a similar sized twin would have no problem transitioning to this aircraft.

Yes, there is no glass cockpit or EFIS (Which the MA600 does have) but it has reliable, tried and tested (Rockwell)Collins avionics. What else do you need for Island hopping?

The aircraft is equipped with weather radar, full auto pilot (excluding auto throttle) and aside from traditional NDB, VOR, DME, Cat II ILS it equipped for RNAV/RNP approaches. Good news when Airports like Vava’u only have non-precision NDB navigation aids.

While in the cruise we discussed in depth the training undertaken by all RealTonga crew. It reassuring to know the detail and requirements the instructors put the crew through.

We also discussed the “list of rumours” that I had collected from the internet about RealTonga and the MA60.  One of my all-time favourite rumours was when the MA60 is going to Vava’u it does not have enough fuel to return to Tongatapu if unable to land in Vava’u due to weather so would need to ditch on the sea.  As I suspected (and any sane man would think!) this was a lie.  Sam detailed the fuel loading with me.  We had enough fuel at the current burn rate for 3 missed approaches in Vava’u then a return flight to Tongatapu still with the reserves left.

All the myths and rumours we discussed had similar endings!

It turns out that Sam has thousands of hours flying aircraft like the ATR and 737 and Sam came down from the Marshall Islands well experienced after flying Dornier’s and other turboprop twins.

The flight rocked on by and soon we were at the top of descent, approaching Vava’u.  I took my seat again and let the pilots brief for the approach and landing.  As we descended through 5000 we went visual for runway 08.

Even with a brisk crosswind the approach and roll out was perfect, but the oleos on the landing gear will always (in my opinion) make for a hard landing.

Beta/reverse thrust was engaged and we came to a stop in about 700 meters.  Well before the displaced threshold of Runway 26 – great STOL performance.

After taxi and shutdown we spoke for a while, said my thanks and went and enjoyed my holiday!

Vava’u – Kingdom of Tonga

If you have never been… Go!  Vava’u is amazing! Natural and unspoilt is  a little know haven!

Army Island
Dinner time!
Nuku Island, Vava’u.
Home Time
Anyway, Cyclone Ian later, it was time to head back to Tongatapu.  Flights had been disrupted in the wake of Cyclone Ian, but when it came to us leaving our flight was only an hour late.

This time was I flying “in the back”.

Check in was fine and then our plane arrived

And off we went

Leg room was reasonable, the same space at Air New Zealand’s ATR fleet.  My knees never touched the seat in front of me.

It has all the “mod cons” you would expect and the truth is, if you were not an aviation geek it looks, feels and smells like any normal western airliner.

Take off was impressive – even for 100% load factor.  Lined up full length runway 08 and would have been airborne in less than 1200 meters (Runway 08 has about 1700 meters usable for take-off).

My view on the flight to Tongatapu:

An uneventful 50 minutes later we were on the ground in Tongatapu.

A great holiday in Vava’u and a fantastic and positive experience with RealTonga and the MA60.

So a few questions I ask myself:

Would I fly RealTonga and the MA60 again? Yes, absolutely.  The air crew were nothing short of professional.  Their procedures and checks and briefings, not to mention their airmanship was first class.

Would I recommend (or let) my family and friends fly on RealTonga and the MA60? Yes.

Can RealTonga last as an Airline in Tonga? I hope so.  I have nothing but praise for Tevita, Tele and their team.  I know not everyone shares my experiences.  At the end of the day the locals don’t mind a flight delay, but a tourist does. Keep the operation tight over the holiday season and they can do well.  Communication is key. Talk to the customer.

Do we need to be afraid of the MA60? Not at all.  While the plane is not going win any technology or beauty prizes it is well engineered and all key systems (Instruments, APU, Engines, Prop etc.) are western and the same we find on any normal turbo prop aircraft this size.  It is designed to be safe, rugged and practical. This is what it is.

But what about the rumours it is not certified in NZ/AUS/UK/USA? It is because there are none in operation there. 

But why has NZ Issued a travel advisory for Tonga?  I don’t know! New Zealand has not issued any travel advisories against any of the other 20 countries which fly the MA60. If it was the plane would they not ALL have travel advisories?

Ok then, what about its “track record”; I hear that it has an issue with (insert issue here)?  If people did some research and did not believe everything that they hear or read you will see that the bulk of the incidents are pilot error.  

Most of the airlines that have MA60 incidents have had incidents in other aircraft types and some are even banned from European airspace!  It is the operator you need to worry about, Not the plane - it is built like a tank!

An example of this is LionAir and their 737s.  Do we stop flying the 737 because of the unusually high incident rate they have? No. It is not the aircraft.

Look at accidents from other popular aircraft:

Landing gear incidents of the Dash 8 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash_8_landing_gear_incidents

For some more info on the MA60 in Tonga look at http://ma60tonga.com/

Final Words
If you want to go to Vava’u. Go. Don’t get the bad press about the plane stop you.

If I had the choice of flying on a 40+ year old Convair or Metro or a brand new MA60, give me the latter any day.

Remember island time. Things do happen a bit slower in the islands.  Relax and enjoy the ride.

Thank you to Tele, Sam and Chris for making this all happen!

Thanks for reading,


Peter White

New Zealand


  1. Phenomenal write up. Thank you very much for the time and effort that you have put in.


    1. No problem at all. Just wanted to even the debate up a bit and put across another point of view.


    2. Hi, your flight deck photo clearly shows the EFIS. Don't know anyone who said the machine would have to ditch if no landing achieved up north. They just can't carry full payload to operate. Parts are a big problem for this machine, almost unobtainable.

    3. The cockpit compassion was largely against the MA600 and its full Glass Cockpit (http://cdn-www.airliners.net/aviation-photos/photos/7/8/5/1826587.jpg).

      The comments about ditching was made by "someone in the know" (apparently) on RealTonga's Facebook page before it got taken down.

      Parts - Yes, could be interesting unless they are going to hold a big store.

    4. They already have containers of spare parts in Tonga for the MA60.
      Go to tonga-broadcasting.net>Video Gallery>Local News>November 2013
      On the 12 November 2013, 4 minutes into the video it says that they already have 4 containers of spare parts and more will be arriving later.

    5. Awesome Kiwi. Thank you. It was a question that I never got to ask, so good to see that they appear to have comprehensive spares!

  2. It sounds great but you tell that to the insurance companies because...no independent certification no coverage. The government (Tonga) should don't the homework before they allowed this so call free aircraft to ruin the Tourism. Good to see Tonga PM change his tune and agreed with NZ to pay for a independent body to certify MA60

    1. Scaremongering and hysteria ruined toursim, not the plane or the government. The MA60 is insurable.

    2. The main wing spar is made from solid magnesium, manufacturers designed the aircraft to last 12 years under perfect conditions.
      It IS a new aeroplane, but it will be much more difficult to maintain adequate structural strength than on an ATR or Convair. Especially with the Pacific conditions where corrosion is a huge issue which magnesium is highly susceptible too.

    3. I've never heard of a wing spar being made out of solid magnesium before but I do know they are producing wing spars out of titanium.

      Huge, 3D printed airplane parts in China

      3-D printing adds wings to aviation

    4. The wing spar on this type are magnesium, an attempt. to save weight.
      A couple of our engineers went to China and did a maintenance course for the MA60. No where near as tough as the antonov it's based off, like most things produced in China it is designed to be disposable. Should serve Tonga well for a few years yet but it's structure won't last. Palu will likely run out of people to borrow money off well before then.

    5. @Anonymous, why don't you stop hiding behind anonymity and give yourself some credibility, Particularly if you continue make statements about people you can't backup.

    6. I have heard from a VERY reliable source that all of their spares are second-hand and some are actually scrapped off other dismantled MA600s. I had not heard that the spar is magnesium, although I wouldn't put the manufacturer as I have also heard some scary things about the tail on that aircraft. That in initial testing, it shook violently during ground runs. Not sure how they fixed such a problem, except for strengthening/adding more weight.

    7. Some of the spares are second hand some aren't.

      What is the issue with second hand spares?

      As long as they are serviceable it is no problem. "2nd hand" parts is big business and an extremely common worldwide practice with airlines including Air New Zealand and Chathams.. where do all the Convair, Metro and DC-3 Spares come from?

      If I recall correctly Chatham's have frames that they use just to salvage 2nd hand Conviar parts off.

      The Airforce did this with the NH90 as another example.

      Why do you need new when you can have overhauled or low time spares?

      I don't know a single operator that only uses new parts.

      I also have not heard the magnesium theory and there is (like a lot of the claims) no evidence to back it up.

      The tail, sounds like more rubbish to me.

      Better stop flying the Boeing 787 because I have heard bad things about is batteries causing fire.


    8. There is no reason for an aircraft this new to source 2nd hand parts. You have to ask the question, why are there low time 2nd hand spares. There are many Part 121 operators that use only new parts, including here in NZ. Having said this I have no issue with secondhand parts.

    9. We (armchair critics) don't know with certainty where the parts are from and what is and is not brand new. Really anything is speculation.

      I have been told that all "consumables" are new, as with the APU and Pratt parts. Most of the avionics spares are new. Interior and trim is a mixed bag.

      Cost vs Benefit? (of new vs. 2nd hand)

      This aircraft was (apparently) gifted - so, normal commercial acquisition process might not apply. The old say goes, don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

      At the and of the day, it is only 2nd spare parts and some of the SE Asia operators have put enough 2nd parts into the market from their flying escapades! haha

  3. The EFIS screens look to be the same type as on the 1900's.

  4. Hi,

    Thanks for the article I had heard bad things in the media about the airline...

    Not sure if you are still monitoring this post but I have a slightly different question on timing and connections in Tonga - are the flights from TBU to Ha'Apai supposed to 'connect with the last flight from Auckland to TBU which lands at 1:20pm on a Saturday? The domestic flight departs at 2:30pm which seems really tight - do they send checked baggage through and if so how is this arranged?

    Is it likely that the flight will wait if the Air NZ flight is delayed?

    Also were you able to email the Real Tonga staff? On their website i can only see numbers to call and no email contact.

    Thanks in advance.