From High Up

Flying and Travels

Author: Thomas Daniel Page 2 of 4

Popayán and Cali

Popayán is small, picturesque town about 60 miles south of Cali. Guide books compared its architecture to that of Cartegena, but without cruise ship tourist herds. The later part is correct, there are hardly any tourists. The former perhaps not so much. Although it likes to call itself also white city, due to the color of the most of colonial houses and places in the city downtown, where several churches are located, the city is much smaller and provincial. There are many young people around, because of number of educational institutions, including the University of Cauca (est. 1827), one of Colombia’s oldest and most distinguished institutions of higher education.

We stayed at Dann Monasterio, a nice colonial era building and comfortable rooms, located close to the city center. We went for a walk in the afternoon and an excellent dinner to Camino Real.

The short flight to from Popayán to Cali was very pleasurable. We drove to the airport, pre-flighted the airplanes and than climbed to the control tower. Two very nice controllers were curious about our trip, what we thought about Colombia and Popayán, gave us flight plan form to fill and that was it. No operation office, no running around and waiting and most unexpected of all, nothing to pay.

In Cali, we were hosted by Aeroclub del Pacifico, we got parking spots under shades, which considering temperature close to 30 degrees, was quite important. We had a wonderful lunch with Monica, the owner of the local flight school and Cirrus representative for Colombia and with José, the only CSIP in the country. We also picked up some tips for flying into Ecuador from the local pilots. It was amazing to hear people flying from Cali to Oshkosh in all sorts of airplanes, including a Piper Cub.

Departure from Cali merits a separate post, which I will write later. Our destination for the day was Latucunga, Ecuador (SELT), an airport about 2 hours drive south of Quito. The landing fees at the main Quito airport (SEQM) are about $4,000, which explains our choice.

The straight route from Cali to Latacunga is 305 nm, via G675, however the MEAs are at FL180. Looking at Skew-T diagram it was obvious we would be in IMC and above freezing level, not a nice combination over the mountains. We instead opted to take longer route along the shore, via Tumaco and Esmeralda VORs, before heading East. Although longer (400 nm), that route allowed us to stay at 14,000 feet, below freezing level with balmy 6 degrees and also VMC for almost all the time. However, when close to AROTO, we had to climb to 16,000 for terrain and we got into clouds. The temperature was between 0 and +2 degree, so I primed and used TKS on low settings. Few miles before ORETA, we got switched to Quito approach and received vectors for the approach to Latacunga. One must admire the effort Ecuador put to provide radar coverage in between peaks of Andes, it was unexpected and very much welcomed. I had TAWS on the MFD and it was painting red in front of us even at 16,000. The zoom-in of the final segment shows why.

Notice the OROCA of 18,000 above our route and 21,500 below; the arrival was taking us over a valley between peaks and in IMC, it is somewhat unsettling.

The approach to SELT is also quite interesting, it is not often that the IAF is at 15,000.

You arrive over the VOR, enter the hold and descend. The airport is at 9,200 feet and after turning North, I broke at 13,000, cancelled IFR and entered a very high right downwind for runway 19.  A Cirrus with full flaps and composite prop drops like a brick when power-off, so we had no trouble getting down.

Why did I cancel? Latacunga doesn’t have avgas. In fact the only airport that does have avgas in the whole country is Guayaquil (SEGU). By choosing the longer, coastal route, we committed to fly there and refuel, we didn’t have enough to return to Cali. However, I didn’t want to waste more than necessary by flying out 9 miles before turning back. We landed with 48 gallons left, which is more than enough for a 45 minutes flight to Guayaquil.

Remembering our experience in Cali, we did hire a handler in Latacunga and the inbound processing was a breeze, we got out of the terminal in less than half an hour.

 

Bogotá

We stayed in B.O.G Hotel, a modern and convenient hotel, but not located in Candelaria, Bogotá old town. Quite a few websites and many people told us to stay away from that area at night. Uber and taxi in Bogotá are available everywhere and are very inexpensive, so the location mattered less.

The first day we visited the city with our friend Inès, starting with Museo del Oro. It is a must-visit telling history of metallurgy in pre-colonial times with obvious focus on gold. After a quick lunch we walked to Museo Botero It only has few Botero sculptures, but has many of his paintings and drawing, which I didn’t know much about.  We than tried to get to the Monteserat cable car to admire the city from up high, but it was Sunday and the line was too long.

The next day, we drove back to the airport. The idea was to start with a local scenic flight and than do an oil change, taking advantage of the Aeroclub maintenance facilities. Flying VFR in Colombia is not much different from IFR. You must have a flight plan, you get a squawk code, you are talking to ATC and you must request permission for attitude or heading changes. We drove to the operations office on the other side of the airport, filed our flight plan and paid 240,000 COP ($85) for the privilege. Flying low over Andes foothills was a thrill and we enjoyed the scenery very much. I was happy to have Karel in the right seat working the radios in Spanish. Michael flew 1 mile in trail in loose formation and I had to be careful to announce any heading and altitude changes.

We returned back to Guayamaral safely, but with less fuel reserve that I would have liked and we taxied to the maintenance. At that point, we were already 30 hours after departing home and last oil change. We didn’t replace the filter, just dropped and replaced the oil. I also took advantage of having the cowl off to adjust the manifold pressure.

After returning back to the hotel and some rest, we went to dinner to Leo Cocina and Cava, probably the best restaurant in Bogotá, if not in Colombia. This is a fixed menu dinner, the only choice being between 12 or 8 courses. Somewhat cowardly (or reasonably, depending how you look at it), we chose the eight courses. Half through the eight, I wished we chose twelve. The variety of tastes reminded me Test Kitchen in Cape Town, the New World has definitely a lot to teach to the Old World.

Our next leg was bringing us to Popayan and what should be a simple 1.5 hours flight turned out quite interesting. First, Guyamaral is VFR-only airport and there are no IFR departures. Our IFR plan assumed an IFR clearance on departure and that wouldn’t work. There are however VFR departures, so we dutifully copied waypoint GPS coordinates to Foreflight. Just filing three flight plans in the operation office and paying the fees took 1.5 hours. Suddenly, Mexico becomes a model of efficiency!

The airport is very busy and I waited good 10 minutes to be able to insert a word on ground frequency and get a clearance to taxi for takeoff. After takeoff, we were switched to Bogota approach and instructed to maintain 11,000. This would be bringing us skimming tops of mountains and into IMC and we were still VFR. I was told that VFR in Colombia is a bit of relative term, but I really didn’t like the idea of getting into IMC without a good understanding of where the terrain was. Michael, who was in front of us was requesting higher and ATC was not accommodating, so I decided to assert my PIC authority.

Bogota Approach, Cirrus N823FW request 13,000.
Cirrus N823FW, maintain 11,000.
Cirrus N823FW, unable to maintain VMC at 11,000, climbing 13,000.

and the controller simply acknowledged and switched me to a new frequency. We eventually climbed to 14,000, which was the correct altitude according to hemispherical rules and were mostly VMC between layers, with occasional light turbulence in clouds. Later on, we had to climb to FL180, because MEA on the dogleg before Popayan was that high, a remainder that Andes are not far. Michael was first and he reported that at that altitude he was in IMC and picking up ice very fast, John had FIKI on, so I requested and got FL200 to remain on top. We arrived to Popayan VOR at FL200 and the airport is at 5,600. The VOR Y approach is designed to facilitate arrivals, because you can descend in hold. I did one turn in hold and when Michael landed, I requested and got a descent to 16,000. Few minutes later John went missed, because he arrived over the airport at 11,000 in IMC. At that time, I was close to 8 DME west of PPN and could see the ground through a large hole. Bases were about 9,000 and with airport at 5,600, there was more than enough clearance, so I cancelled IFR, spiraled down to 12,000 and went visual to the airport.

 

 

Cartagena

They call it White City and landing at the international airport, we caught the view of high rises in the modern downtown and the densely packed houses of the old city.

Casa Pestagua, an oasis of calm in the hectic street life of the walled city, as the old town is called, is a restored palace with sumptuous patio and large nicely decorated rooms. The city was founded in XVI centur and its first name was Cartagena de Indias, named after Cartagena, Spain, which itself was named after Carthage in Tunisia.

The first day we stayed in the city, roaming streets in between hoards of tourists spitted out by cruise ships and street vendors selling jewelry, hats, paintings, clothes, sweets. We visited Palacio de la Inquisición, and we were happy to learn that instruments of torture, the main morbid attraction of the museum were removed in 2015. In addition to the history of inquisition in the New World, the museum also covers history of Colombia. In the afternoon, we stopped by the Museo del Oro Zenu, which somewhat rides on the fame of Museo del Oro in Bogota. 

The second day, we rented a boat for a day trip to Islas del Rosario. Warm water, sandy beaches, it reminded me of Bahamas. We had lunch under a tree in Gente de Mar resort.

The flight to Bogota was uneventful except for the arrival. I filed for 11,000 and half way through requested and got 15,000, to stay VMC over undercast. Bogota El Dorado (SKBO) international airport does not accept General Aviation, so our destination was Guyamaral (SKGY), a VFR-only field 9 miles to North-West. However, a cloud deck made it impossible to cancel IFR early and we ended up flying the arrival and approach to SKBO, before breaking off at the FAF.

This is VULAM 3D arrival, which follows W6 from Mariquita VOR. Arriving at VULAM, I was instructed to hold as published and after three turns in hold. got vectors to join ILS Z 13L. Finally, at BOG VOR, we broke out, still at 12,000 and were able to proceed visually to Guyamaral. The airport is at 8,400 feet, so there wasn’t much altitude to loose. This is the second time in all my flying that I get a real hold, first time was 12 years ago in Alaska.

At Guayamaral we are hosted by Aeroclub de Colombia, which operates at the airport. It is a beautiful setting, there are a lot of airplanes, there is a flying school, a restaurant and maintenance facility. Our friend Karel arranged for a wonderful welcome, we could meet local pilots and share flying stories.

 

 

 

 

 

Panama City

We spent 2 days, 3 nights in Panama City, staying in Villa Palma Hotel in Casco Viejo, the old part of the town, with narrow streets, impossible circulations, everything reachable by foot and amplified by he contrast with high rises of modern Panama city center across the bay. The first day we stayed at Casco Viejo, exploring it by foot, its various churches and museums.

For dinner, I stumbled upon a great restaurant called Caliope. It is on a second floor of an unmarked building and a bit hard to find,but the food was outstanding.

The second day, we took Uber to Miraflores Locks, to watch ships go through Panama Canal. There are three locks on the old canal, which can accommodate ships up to 108 feet wide. That leaves one foot buffer to the lock wall on each side. A sail boat and a cargo ship entered the first stage of locks, gate closed and the water level was lowered so that both ship could move the second stage to repeat the process and exit on the Pacific site. It is amazing that the system uses no power, it does use however prodigious amount of fresh water.

Remember that nose shimmy from my previous post? On the way back from the locks, we were passing by the airport and I listened to my friend Michael, who strongly suggested we check that out. We went to the airplane, removed the nose wheel fairing and had the local mechanic check the tension. There was none, the nose wheel was moving freely. It turns out that the cotter pin the nose wheel assembly was broken and the nut loosened. If unchecked, that could lead to loosing the fairing in flight, loss of control during landing or even nose wheel collapse. If you ever stop at Gelabert airport in Panama City, make sure to use Mapiex FBO, they were very helpful.

Departing Gelabert, we requested the canal overflight and we flew West toward Lake Gatun. Unfortunately, it was too hazy to take great pictures. It was an easy 2.5 hour flight to Cartagena and as usual we were staggered at altitude: Michael the highest at 17,000, I started at 11,000, but climbed to 15,000 and John staying at 11,000. Since not many people fly at those altitudes over here, ATC is usually quite accommodating.

 

Flying to Panama

The first part of our trip to South America brought us from San Francisco to Panama City. We left home on a Friday afternoon and flew to Tucson, Arizona. On Saturday early morning we departed for our Mexico AOE in Mazatlan, a pleasant 3:30 VFR flight.

Mazatlan

Mazatlan is a very nice and fast stop. We met the same people who welcomed us in 2014, during the first COPA trip I set up and they remembered us. The whole procedure, including fuel, immigration, customs, flight plans and paying landing fees took perhaps half an hour. However, in spite of the fast turnaround we were somewhat concerned that we might arrive after dark to Oaxaca, our overnight stop. Since Mexico does not allow night VFR and the airport sits in a valley with mountains on both sides, we filed and flew IFR. Due to terrain, the MEAs enroute are up to 16,000 so we flew at 17000.

Little ice

The whole flight was in VMC, except for a thin layer of clouds half an hour before the destination. I suspected that we might get ice if we fly into them, but I saw that we would be skimming tops, so an easy out was to climb up 500 feet back to VMC. As a learning experience, I stayed at our altitude and entered the clouds. Literally within a minute, we had leading edges and wings start to cover with ice. The airspeed dropped by 10 knots and as I was about to initiate the climb, we exited the clouds. Our friend John was flying 10 minutes behind me and he asked how it was. My reply “I got little bit of ice” was, according to him, a big understatement. He also entered the clouds, got all iced up, switched on ice protection, but than descended to 16,000 thinking he would get out through the bottom. Apparently the ice was even worse there, but it ended without any further troubles as he also exited the clouds.

My airplane is turbocharged, but has only basic TKS protection and I would have never entered that cloud if I didn’t see where the tops before. John has FIKI and he wasn’t in any danger neither. I was grateful for the experience, there is not a better learning experience than to see yourself how fast the ice can build up.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca is beautiful town, we didn’t have much time to visit, but we were lucky to be there for the Las Calendas festival. The city is famous for its mole and it didn’t disappoint – make sure you check out the Cathedral restaurant.

As much as Mazatlan is fast, Oaxaca is slow. There is a usual run between offices of the commandante, operations, immigration and customs, with the added twist of the commandante sitting behind a plexiglass window with 5 small holes to talk and single sheet of paper thick slot to pass paperwork back and forth. The operation person wanted to have correct ICAO codes for the airplane, which are so idiotic that most US pilots, including us don’t know them. Usually, I just write whatever they want me to write, the trouble this time was she didn’t know what she wanted.

All together, it took us over an hour, which used to be a norm in Mexico, but many airports are now much more efficient, so that made it slow.

Illipango

The flight to San Salvador, Ilipango airport was uneventful, but we started to hear unfamiliar ATC facility names. Merida Center, Sandino Approach as we overflew Managua, Nicaragua and finally Salvador Control. We were IFR, because it makes border crossing much easier, but upon arrival to Ilipango, I cancelled and entered on extended left base to runway 33. The approach took us over a beautiful lake, but the runway is in mediocre shape and in spite of textbook landing, I got bad nose shimmy. It couldn’t be bad technique, could it? It must have been bad runway.

John decided to fly the VOR-DME arc approach, which involved several step-down fixes and landed 15 minutes after us. We had a handler, who took care of all the paperwork for us, so it was very efficient, we just gave him our passport and a credit card. There is a restaurant at the local club, but on Sunday it was closed, so we had to continue with granola bar lunch. The airport seems to be frozen in time.

Gelabert

The last leg took us from Ilipango to Gelabert airport in Panama City. Salvador Control handed us to Coco Control, but not before giving us an option of either rerouting, which would add 40 nm, or climbing to 15000 feet. At this point, the fuel totalizer was showing 18 gallons remaining at the destination, which was very close to my hard limit (16 gallons). We had about 25 knots left quartering headwind, so I elected to climb, not wanting to add any more distance, and hoping that the wind would turn counter-clockwise with altitude, as forecasts were saying. Plus, of course, we are more efficient higher up. The wind did turn, after leveling off at 15000, I pulled the power back to 15 gph and the totalizer was now showing 24 gallons at the destination.

We passed San Jose, Costa Rica and close to the border Coco Control gave us two frequencies for Panama Center, saying that one might work. Sure enough, I couldn’t raise anybody on neither of them and I did want to talk to them to ask for a small deviation, because our current routing would have taken us 25 nm from the shore. I found the third frequency for Panama Center, who approved our reroute. However, we had to switch frequencies for Panama Center ourselves, because the reception was spotty. Finally we got to Panama Approach and there it became standard US phraseology with American accent and efficient handling. Gelabert is a VFR-only airport and we got a visual approach over the entrance to Panama Canal. Overflying a small hill on short approach, we landed after 4:15 min with 22 gallons of fuel remaining.

The local FBO (Mapiex) was fast and efficient in handling all our paperwork. We don’t use handlers in Mexico, but south of there they become first convenient (Guatemala), than necessary (Salvador) and finally mandatory (Costa Rica).

The next day, I went back to check on that nose shimmy. Cirrus specs are 35 lbs for the nose wheel tension when pushing on the axle, we had nothing. Nose wheel was basically freely castoring. The cotter pin securing a castle nut used to adjust the tension was broken and if we didn’t check it, we could have had nose gear collapse.

Flight summary

All in all, 3200 nm and about 19 hours on the Hobbs over 2.5 days. Tired, but happy, we arrived to Panama City, where we plan to stay 3 days.

Our next legs will bring us to Cartagena, than to Bogota, Popayan and Cali in Colombia.

 

Whale watching in Baja California

In January 2018, I organized another COPA trip to Mexico, this time we visited Baja California. This the 5th year we are bringing gringos to Mexico. The official purpose was whale watching in Magdalena Bay, but everybody knew it was just an excuse to go flying.

We left home Wednesday afternoon and flew to KSAN (San Diego International), Lindbergh field. I prefer that airport to smaller General Aviation airports, such as Montgomery Field, because it is close to downtown. As class B airports go, this is one of the easiest in the country.

On Thursday morning, we flew from Sand Diego to Loreto. My preferred AOE (Airport of Entry) in Mexico is San Felipe (MMSF),  they are by far the fastest and most efficient, unfortunately San Felipe didn’t have fuel at that time. If you plan to use that airport, make sure to call ahead of time to check fuel status.

Loreto is a bit larger and unfortunately, quite more bureaucratic, it took as about 1.5 hours to fuel-up, prepare flight plans and go through customs and immigration. And one point, all immigration officers disappeared, because Alaska Airlines landed. One airplane in our group was asked to carry suitcases to the office for inspection. While the customs officers are perfectly in their right to request that, in my 15 years of flying in Mexico, I was asked for that only once. To return to our airplanes, one has to go through a ridiculously superfluous security checkpoint. In contrast, the large commercial airport in San Jose del Cabo, where we were in November 2017 does not require jumping through these hoops.

On Thursday  afternoon we met all the group in Rancho Las Cruces, a seaside beach resort located on a natural sanctuary of more than 10,000 acres and 7 miles of private pristine coastline. The hotel is situated along the beaches of the Sea of Cortés, about 15 min flight from La Paz.

Most important though, the hotel has its own airstrip. Part of the magic of flying in Baja is just that, park your airplane and walk to the hotel. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of such places now, because security measures are often too expensive to keep strips open. The approach and landing at the strip are not particularly difficult, but they are interesting.

Most of the strips in Baja do not have any terrain around and just looking at Google Maps might suggest the same is true for Rancho Las Cruces. This is where it pays to be more thorough, because here how it looks on Google Earth, looking south-east, i.e from the sea.

Landing towards the West may be impractical due to rising terrain and prevailing westward winds. Landings towards the East requires flying close to terrain in what looks like a canyon, following a dry river bed.

All the participants were provided with information about the strip, with photos of terrain and a video of a Cessna Caravan pilot landing there. They were also advised the strip was challenging and if not comfortable, they should land at the commercial airport in La Paz, which is only one hour by car.

I decided to land at the Rancho’s airstrip and flew along the coast southband, to determine the wind and airstrip condition. Winds were generally from the east at 12-17 knots, depending on the altitude and this, together with the terrain made me decide to approach and land to the east. Here is the video of our landing.

The approach looks very flat in the video, but this is an optical illusion due to the position of the camera.

We spent the next day relaxing at the hotel, trying out local margaritas, catching up with old friends and making new ones. Friday morning, it was time to depart for Magdalena Bay and the winds were again favoring takeoff towards the sea. Since there were people filming our departure, I stayed in ground effect until the departure end, before pulling up. The video below offers the opportunity to admire my soft field takeoff technique from the ground and from the camera attached under the wing.

It was a short flight towards Magdalena Bay on Friday morning, only about 130 nm. Approaching the Pacific coast I became concerned we might be unable to land, due to low level bank of fog and low clouds covering the airstrip. That turned out to be a false alarm, a large hole in the clouds was open over the Bay and we landed without any trouble. In the video below, the camera was attached below the wing, as in the inset for the takeoff video, but it tilted in flight.

Notice a red cement pad at the begining of the airstrip, this is a runup area. You definitely do not want to touch down at or before the pad, unless you want to have your landing gear forcibly retracted.

You might also have noticed that I swerved to the right after touchdown. This was to avoid a flock of birds that were sitting imperturbable at the middle of the runway. I thought they won our little game of chicken and rolled to the right to avoid them, but somewhat predictable, they flew away after few seconds.

There is a short 15 min walk from the airstrip to the marina, but we got a ride in a car and we hoped on a small boat to cruise the lagoon searching for whales. And they were there.

After a quick lunch in a local eatery, we returned to the airplanes for the flight to Mulege, but due to lack of fuel in San Felipe, we stopped en route in Loreto. Without hassles of immigration and customs, refueling and flight plans took about 30 minutes.

The airstrip adjacent to the hotel is in good shape, just make sure you don’t land on or before the cement pad used for runups.

Hotel Serenidad in Mulege is a fixture in Baja flying, it was one of the first places welcoming aviators. Their Saturday night roast pig with live music was quite famous. I called ahead of time to make sure that the tradition is still alive, in spite of being assured on the phone this was still the case, we had a simple pork rib buffet and no live music. But the margaritas were as good as ever – the barman Román works there for long time and he hasn’t lost the touch with his tequila.

After a somewhat wobbly wake-up on Sunday and a delicious breakfast, we said goodbye to the whole group and flew away home. The stop in San Felipe was the fastest I ever experienced – 10 minutes for immigration, customs and flight plans. Hopefully, next time they will have fuel.

 

Planning for Colombia

We started to plan for our next fun flying trip: Colombia, Ecuador via Central America in February 2018.

In a group of 3 Cirrus SR22 aircrafts, we will fly all the way to Quito, Ecuador and back. The whole trip will take 3 weeks and it is awfully hard to select places to visit – there are just too many of them. The overall plan is to fly first to Panama with minimum stops en route, that’s 3,000 nautical miles and it will still take us 2.5 days to get there.  While it would be possible to do it in 1.5 days, this is supposed to be fun. From that point on, we will slow down, spend 3 days in Panama City, 3 days in Cartegna in Colombia, followed by another 3 days in Bogota. Bogota main international airport accepts only commercial traffic, so we are landing in Guyamaral, in suburbs. After Bogota, we are stopping for one day in Popayan and Cali before flying to Quito, Ecuador.

To be more accurate, we are not going to land in Quito, but rather continue to Latacunga and drive back to Quito. That’s because the Quito airport doesn’t like small GA airplanes and charges $4,000 landings fees.  Suddenly, landing fees in Europe I was complaining about in the past don’t seem that high anymore. Since in Ecuador, avgas is only available in Guyaquil, we may have to stop there to fill up after Latacunga, if the winds are very unfavorable.

Returning from Ecuador, we will stop for couple of days in Pereira, Colombia, before heading back to Costa Rica and Guatemala. Final stop before the last stretch home will be in Antigua, near Guatemala City.

Total distance 8,500 nautical miles, about 50 hours flight hours  over 3 weeks.

 

Thanksgiving in Cabo

I flew to Mexico for the first time in 2005 and we’ve been flying there couple of times each year. Baja California is the closest real beach place from San Francisco and I am always surprised how many private pilots are apprehensive about visiting.

To help alleviate fears, I’ve been organizing Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association trips to Mexico for the last four years. In 2017, we had 22 airplanes joining us on a trip to Alamos, Sonora and to Manzanillo. In 2016, we visited San Miguel de Allende, Guajanuato, Morelia and Guadalajara. In 2018, we will be doing whale watching in Magdalena Bay and landing on some fun dirt strips.

End of November starts to be chilly here, meaning temperature may occasionally drop below 20°C, so to escape the freeze, we decided to spend Thanksgiving in San Jose del Cabo. There are two towns at the most southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula: San Jose del Cabo is a bit sleepy, Cabo San Lucas is a party town and there are plenty of resorts in between. Having already passed the prime of our party time, we decided for a more calm place, mostly because of a beautiful hotel that opened there recently: Mar Adentro.

In 2014, we spent Thanksgiving in Acapulco in Hotel Elcanto,  built by the same architect: Miguel Angel Aragonés. This is a truly amazing place. We loved it so much that we stayed in the hotel all four days, without going to town even once!

When we found that Aragonés designed another hotel in San Jose del Cabo, we had to see it.

The flight to San Jose was a bit longer than usual, because we first stopped in Santa Monica to pick up our daughter’s boyfriend. Both were coming with us for a short family reunion. This was right before shortening of the Santa Monica runway started, the first step in the city plan to shut down the airport. It is a shame that such a beautiful airport will close, only because malls and commercial real estate pays more in taxes than an airport. The city council conducted a shameful campaign under false pretenses.

We spent the night in Santa Monica and flew to San Felipe for customs, immigration and fuel. Airports in Mexico are known for their bureaucracy and I used to budget 1 to 1.5 hours for a stop. San Felipe is a notable exception, it took us 25 minutes to refuel and take care of all the paperwork and we took off for San Jose del Cabo (MMSD). This is the large international airport serving both towns, while the smaller (MMSL) caters mainly to private aviators. The incoming formalities were surprisingly simple: take your luggage and go. Well, almost, because I wanted to get fuel and it took a bit of time waiting for the fuel truck.

Mar Ardento didn’t disappoint us. Here is the restaurant, appropriately called El Nido.

At night, the whole structure is illuminated in blue and red. At the bottom right, you can see El Nido at night, from high up. In between the buildings, there is water, with walkways connecting the hotel with the restaurant, pool and the beach.

This time, we were going to town for dinners, San Jose has some great Mexican restaurants, for example La Panga Antigua or  Restaurante Mi Casa.

On Sunday, we drove back to the airport, took care of all the paperwork, which again was quite fast and took off for Loreto. Being four in the airplane, I couldn’t take full fuel and I didn’t have the range to fly back direct to San Diego. But the stop in Loreto was also fast and we took advantage of it to grab a quick bite, before continuing to San Diego, Brown’s Field (KSDM), than back to Santa Monica and finally home, San Carlos.

Yes, it would be faster to fly commercial to Cabo and less expensive, but we would miss amazing views of Baja California and the adventure of flying ourselves in our little travel machine. It is only 6 hours one way.

 

 

 

 

 

Soaring in the Alps

It’s been a long, long time since I flew in a glider so while driving through French Alps towards Mediterranean, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect place and time to remind myself what the joy of soaring is all about.

There are many soaring places in the mountains and I reached out to a friend who helped me identify a few: Saint-CrepinSisteron, Gap, Vinon, Fayence. After couple of phone calls, I had an appointment at Aeroclub Alpin in Gap for a 45 minutes discovery flight.

The Gap-Tallard airport turned out to be a pretty busy place with one main runway 03/21 (3,100 feet),  a “mini” runway 03/21  (1,450 feet) and a grass runway 03/21 (2,300 feet). In one description I read that everything that flies is present there, or almost and I found it to be true. Upon arrival, we had lunch in a very busy airport restaurant and than I walked to the club for my glider ride.

Since it’s been a while since my last glider flight, I didn’t know local terrain nor how one operates at this airport, I hired an experienced pilot and instructor in the back seat to help me get back into the saddle. The first surprise was how they towed the aircraft for the launch by simply attaching it behind a truck. With a wheel dolly attached under one wing, there was no need for any additional help. After a quick preflight, we were ready for our flight in a Grob-103, a glider I am very familiar with.

We launched from the runway 21 and detached from the tow plane at about 3,000 feet AGL. The goal was to reach a nearby mountain, about 10 miles away, shown with the arrow below.

Ten miles doesn’t sound like much, but let’s not forget that a glider doesn’t have an engine and the only way to advance is to loose altitude, which altitude has to be first gained. There are several ways that a glider can climb, all using the fact that air moves up in certain places and if the glider happens to be there, it rises together with the air.

The most common technique, which we used that day was thermal soaring. It occurs when a column of air is heated near the surface and rises, typically until a cumulus cloud that caps the ascent. So off we went chasing one cumulus after another. Once you feel the lift and it is sometimes literally is a bump, which starts raising one wing or the whole aircraft, you enter a tight turn trying to circle within the thermal. That is easier said that done, since you can’t see that raising air, only a variometer (a sensitive vertical speed indicator used in gliders) shows if you are climbing or descending.

In addition to thermal soaring, we also tried ridge soaring, where you use the fact that wind blowing into a hill is deflected up by the terrain. For that, you have to be pretty close to the said ridge, hundred feet or less.

The instructor kept asking me how I was feeling. I forgot somewhat how tight the turns are in thermals and how long they last. The turns together with bumps made me a bit dizzy, but not enough to say anything else than a valiant “Great!”. He was so happy to finally fly with somebody who wasn’t airsick, that what supposed to be a 45 minutes flight turned out to be about three hours. He told me later that he often has to terminate discovery flights after 15 minutes.

That day it took us over an hour to get to our mountain, the gods of lift where making us work very hard. But when we finally got there, it was magical.

Here is where flying a glider is so much fun. You get to fly to much closer to terrain, you have an impression of wearing an aircraft instead of sitting in it, the noise is much less and different and you can never forget how far and how high you are.

Speaking of height, it turns out that gliders in France use meters for height, while power planes use feet. In addition, the altimeter in this particular glider was inverted, with the zero at the bottom, so I first had to think what the arrows were really telling me and than convert it into feet, so that I know what it means. I thought that only French would be devious enough to invent such an instrument, but apparently this is used in gliders in other countries too.

If you never flew a glider, find the closest place that offers the training and get a glider license. In the Bay Area, you’ve got NCSA at the Byron airport, where I used to tow gliders a while back and Hollister Soaring Center. You will learn about flying from that and you will become a better pilot.

 

Courchevel

In July, I was able to fulfill the dream of flying in Courchevel. This is truly one of the most extraordinary airports in the world, located in high French Alpes mountains at 6,000 feet altitude. It is one way in and one way out and you need to have both French mountain rating and a special endorsement to fly there yourself. Since both would take more time than I had, I hired a local instructor from AeroSavoie and a Cessna 172.

The Courchevel runway is 1,700 long, which doesn’t sound much, but in fact is plenty, because of the vertical profile. When you look from the air, the first 134 m (400 ft) of runway 22 does look flat, in spite of having 12.5% upslope and that is because the following 840 ft has a whooping 18.7% upslope.


When you line up for the takeoff from runway 04, you only see the first 370 feet, which does look awfully short, like this.

You add full power, check oil and engine gauges, check the wind and release the brakes. The airplane is barely moving when you reach the descent point, but since the runway drops down after that point, you pick up speed really fast and the takeoff becomes a non-event.

For the landing, the goal is touch down in the first “flat” 400 feet of the runway 22. As long as we are in agreement to call 12.5% upslope “flat”. To do that, you have to aim before the threshold and in this case it also means below the threshold. If you don’t touch down in the first part, the following 18.6% upslope will basically slam into you. After the touchdown, you have to increase power to climb upslope.

I did four patterns with a somewhat young and impatient local instructor, who urged me to correct immediately each small speed excursion. Which I did, except using small corrections, such that to avoid overshooting. You know, smooth pilot etc… We did land safely each time, see for yourself.

Next time I am in the Alps, I’ll do the mountain rating and fly to some other fun mountain strips.

 

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