This is a summary of our trip to Central and South America, if you are planning a flight in a light airplane over there, you may find this information helpful. Please read other posts from individual legs of this trip below.
We flew about 9,000 nautical miles in 59 tach hours (65 on Hobbs), including local sightseeing trips, over 23 days and we are happy to be back home.
Most of the countries require overflight and landing permits, which you need to obtain before departure. You can contact FBO at your destination to arrange them or use a travel coordinator such as Air Journey or Caribbean Sky Tours to get them for you. The latter option is more expensive but gives you a single point of contact to arrange for any routing changes.
In Colombia, if you stay more than 48 hours, but less than five days, you will need operational permit, which is $120 (as of this writing). Make sure you list all the airports you will be landing at, or even might be landing at. Landing at an airport you didn’t list may expose you administrative hassles and fine. If you stay over 5 days, you will need special import permit, which is $416 (in addition to the operational permit), but than you can land at any towered airport. Both expire when you leave the country. Make sure to forward your handler flight plans and gendecs so that they forward them to the authorities to prove you left the country.
At each stop you or your handler will need to file a flight plan and most likely it will be an ICAO paper copy. You need to know all the right ICAO abbreviations. In addition, you will need a General Declaration (gendec). You may want to print several copies with your information, so that the only thing to add is the departure and destination airport and a date. Both flight plans and gendecs will be stamped several times, you should carry them with you to the next stop.
Handling and fees
We significantly underestimated cost of handling, permits, airport and ATC fees, When flying in US, we usually don’t pay any fees. We flew many times to Mexico, we never used any handlers and the landing and parking fees are nominal. The moment you cross the south border of Mexico, not only handlers become often mandatory, but various fees extracted by the administration become a big factor. You will pay landing fee, ramp parking, passenger fee, flight protection, customs notification, flight plan filing, facility use, administration fee, agriculture inspection, agriculture disinfection, communication fee, overflight permit and handling fees. Not necessarily in that order. It is not unreasonable to budget $500-$600 per airport if it includes a handler and an international leg. Consider contacting local flying club to reduce the cost. For example, we were hosted by Aeroclub of Colombia in Guyamaral and Aeroclub de Pacifico in Cali.
Even if you use a US based travel coordinator, get written quotes from each FBO before leaving. If there are multiple FBOs at an airport, get quotes from all and negotiate. Even fees for permits are negotiable.
Pack light and in a way that is easy to take luggage out of the airplane. At each border crossing and some domestic stops, we had to take our luggage out of the airplane, through X-ray machines and back in. While most of the time, there were people to carry luggage between the airplane and offices, I had to take them out and put them back into baggage compartment so that they can fit in.
It is much easier to fly IFR, particularly if you cross borders. Most of the time, ATC is accommodating and they accept requests for routing and altitude changes. They are perhaps less used to pilots unwilling to accept their instructions, so I ended up not asking for permission, but rather doing what was necessary for safety and informing them, which seemed to work better. Here is a real example of VFR departure from Guyamaral, where I had to pick up IFR clearance in the air. Instead of:
N823FW, request 12,000 to maintain VMC
N823FW, unable to maintain VMC at 10,000, climbing to 12,000.
You need to be mindful of MEAs, which over Andes can go pretty high. W86, the shortest airway between Bogota and Popayan has a MEA of FL210. We were sometimes surprised by the number of instrument approaches. An easy airport such as Guayaquil (SEGU) has four ILS (W, X, Y and Z) approaches to runway 21. Nearby SESA as eight, starting from S. You will always get an instrument departure procedure, so study them before to know what to expect. We got an arrival only once and ATC obliged with vectors when we couldn’t find it on the charts.
I bought Jepessen travel kit covering both Central and South America and used them on Foreflight. I also downloaded the free JeppFD, the IFR enroute charts on that app show terrain, unlike on Foreflight.
If you are willing to invest some time in learning VFR procedures, it can be much more rewarding to ignore MEAs and see more of terrain. You should review the AIP (Aeronautical Information Publication) of the country you are flying over. This is something US pilots are often unaware of, but each ICAO country publishes one, usually in their own language.
While credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, we had to pay cash for fuel in few places. Cash was also handy when dealing with our maintenance problem. At least in countries we traveled to, dollars were always accepted. In fact, in Panama and Ecuador, there is no national currency, they use USD.
Distribute cash between yourself and the airplane, so that it is not all in one place. If I had to do this trip again, I would take $3,000 in cash.
Different people tolerate different maximum duration of a leg. For us, we can fly one four hour leg and one two hour leg in a day and I planned for one day of flying and one or two days at each stop. This was for us an excellent schedule, but due to mechanical failure, we had to fly for five days in a row coming back home, which was exhausting.
It is prudent to plan for at least one hour per airport, whether you arrive, leave or just get gas, as long as you use handlers. We didn’t use them on a domestic leg from Popayan to Cali and it took us 30 minutes to file a flight plan in the tower. We didn’t use them in Cali for an international departure to Ecuador and it took us 5.5 hours.
Have all your important documents scanned and available electronically in the cloud, you never know what you are going to need.
- Copies of
- Passport photo page. If you loose them, it will be so much easier.
- Pilot license and medical
- Aircraft airworthiness and registration
- Pages from insurance policy documenting geographical coverage and limits.
- For Mexico, multi-entry authorization, which you get when you enter the country for the first time in a calendar year
- For Colombia, we were asked engine serial number and owner authorization. Our airplane is owned by a LLC and they wanted a notarized letter from the owner authorizing the pilot to fly the airplane to Colombia. We had both of them in our cloud account.
- For Ecuador, they wanted a proof of recent training or that the pilot recently flew as PIC. I don’t remember the exact requirement, but I just forwarded them a copy of my electronic logbook.
- Collect stamped flight plans and gendecs from each stop and keep them.
It was expensive, it was exhausting, but it was a wonderful adventure. I already started to think what next. Maybe Galapagos or all the way south to Ushuaia?