From High Up

Flying and Travels

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Quito and a bad magneto

Perched high at 9,300 in between Andes peaks, Quito’s historic center has one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas. Quito and Kraków, Poland, were the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO, in 1978. The central square of Quito is located about 16 mi south of the equator.

We landed in Latacunga, about 2 hours south of Quito, because the landing fees at the new international Quito airport are prohibitive. I was hoping we would catch a glimpse of Cotopaxi, an almost 20,000 feet high active volcano, either during the approach or when driving to Quito, be overcast skies didn’t cooperate.

The first day in the morning, we drove to La Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world), monument and museum marking the general location of the equator. It is so named to avoid confusion, as the word ecuador is Spanish for equator.  Since this is one of the main tourists attractions, they cleverly have couple of areas marked as latitude 0°0’0’’. There is the one that was established in XVIII century by Franco-Spanish geodesic mission, there is also the modern GPS version. After taking mandatory pictures stranding the equator and kissing over it, we returned back to Quito, to visit the historic center.

We stayed in Mansión del Angel in Quito, a boutique hotel that used to be the home of an Ecuadorian tobacco tycoon and which has been completely restored.  The staff was wonderful and they were very helpful when we had to return to the hotel after our airplane engine troubles (read on).

The next day, we drove to the market in Otavalo, the largest outdoor market in South America. Strolling among the stalls, we bought couple of small souvenirs and than stumbled upon a colorful painting, which we both liked very much. The usual and mandatory haggling over price didn’t yield much, we only got 10% off, so we walked away. After making a tour, we came to our senses and realized how ridiculous it was to walk away from something that we both liked so much over basically misplaced ego – that the vendor didn’t want to lower the price. Considering what we were already spending on this trip, this was below noise level. We went back and bought it. That is after all the true meaning of the word souvenir. We will now remember Quito every time we look at the painting.

This was what we thought the last night in Quito and the next day we drove back to Latacunga to fly to Guayaquil, which was out of the way further South, but is Guayaquil the only place in the whole country with avgas. After a normal run-up, I was in for rude surprise in climb. The engine was unusually rough, shaking quite a bit during climb and the CHTs were rising much too high for my liking. I decided to return the airport. Redoing the mag check on the ground caused the engine to quit on the left magneto.

This wasn’t exactly the most convenient place for engine troubles. It was Sunday, nobody knew if there even was a mechanic on the field and we weren’t yet completely sure about the root cause. The airport is located at 9,000 feet, in a valley, surrounded by Andes rising up to 20,000.

After a mandatory call to Cirrus whisperer and guru Jim Barker at Aviation Vibes in Wisconsin, the consensus emerged that it was indeed a bad mag, after eliminating the competing hypothesis of bad ground wire. Great, now we just need a new mag. In Ecuador, at almost deserted airport on Sunday. Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen, so we returned to Quito, all the time on the phone in feverish search for the part. It became quickly clear there was none in Ecuador and we have to import it. There is an outfit called Aviall that specializes in rescuing AOG (Aircraft on the Ground) with spare parts worldwide. The website says:

We understand that there’s a real sense of urgency when it comes to aircraft repairs. It can lead to a tense scenario — especially if a plane is grounded until parts can be replaced. That’s why Aviall offers 24/7/365 AOG service. With our global presence and counter–to–counter delivery, we get our customers the parts they need to get the plane back in the air — fast.

That sounds perfect, so I call them:

Me: I need magneto in Quito, Ecuador.
Aviall: Sir, do you have an account with us?
Me: I don’t.
Aviall: You need to first open an account. Our customer service department is closed on Sunday and they are the only ones who can open an account. No, I cannot take your credit card, you need to call back on Monday.
Me: I’ll have somebody with an account order that for me. What about shipping?
Aviall: Let me check, I’ll call you back. <calls back after 30 minutes>. We can ship it with Fedex.
Me:  What about customs?
Aviall: Uhm? <Blank stare, if I could see it>. I am not sure.

This is a company, which website boast about helping hundreds of aircrafts. Except not on Sunday and not in Ecuador. Back on the  phone with Jim who has the mag in Wisconsin, but how do we ship it? Couple of phone calls later, we realize that using something like Fedex will cause the part being stuck in customs for an undetermined amount of time. Perhaps air cargo? There is a Delta flight leaving Minneapolis at noon on Monday, arriving to Quito at midnight. Jim tries to contact them, but he is unsure about customs. I check other flights and find an Avianca flight leaving Quito at 5:20 am, arriving Miami at noon and return flight leaving  Miami at 5 pm and arriving Quito at midnight. Jim calls Pete Lo Bello from Advanced Aircraft in Miami and Phil has the part. I buy a ticket and and order a taxi for 3 am Monday morning.

That just leaves us with the task of finding a mechanic. José in Cali knows a mechanic in Quito. We call Augustin and learn that yes, he works on piston aircrafts and says he can replace the magneto and time it. He doesn’t speak English though.

On the way to the airport, the taxi has a flat tire, but the driver has a spare and I manage to catch the flight first to Bogotá and than to Miami. Getting out of immigration at about 1 pm, I wait at the curb and Pete’s son arrives with the mag, hands me over the box and leaves. I’d rather put it in a bag to raise less suspicions at customs in Quito, so I try to open it, but really need a knife. At the airport’s shop, a clerk looks at me as at a simpleton: Sir, we don’t sell knives at the airport. The fact that we are outside the security zone doesn’t seem to register with her. She is willing though to open the box for me, using her own, presumably security cleared knife.

That was a bad idea, taking the mag out of the box and putting it in my bag will certainly cause it to be damaged in transit. I look for another airport shop with packing tape, reseal the box and go to the luggage shop. They have a canvas bag that fits the box. I check in the bag at Avianca counter for the return flight. Pete has a friend in Quito who might help with the mechanic. I call Javier, who is a pilot, but he gives me the number for Xavier, who owns a maintenance shop in Guayaquil. Xavier can send in a mechanic, but only on Monday afternoon. The mechanic would have to fly commercial from Manta, where he has a scheduled job in the morning to Quito and than drive to Latacunga. In the meantime Xavier calls Augustin to chat with him about what needs to be done and calls me back to reassure me that Augustin is fully capable of doing the job. I decide to stick with Augustin.

With all these calls, it is already 4 pm and I board the return Avianca flight to Quito via El Salvador. Arriving to Quito at midnight, I anxiously wait at the baggage claim. Yes, my bag is there. It is black, with red FRAGILE stickers, because I recently read a travel tip that fragile items tend to come out first. Approaching customs, I see that they put everything through an X-ray machine, but the agent is chatting with the second agent and not even looking at the screen, which shows big black hole with my mag in it. I grab a taxi and arrive to the hotel 22 hours after departure. It is now 2 am Monday morning.

Wake-up at 6 am and we leave the hotel at 7 am for a 2 hours drive back to Latacunga. Skies are clear and we can see the famous Cotopaxi volcano on the way, maybe a good sign?

Augustin is waiting for us, we drop the cowling and he starts to work to remove the bad magneto. Each time he unscrews something, I can’t stop wondering if he will know how to put it back. The mag is off in short order though, he puts the new one and we need to time it. On a TN aircraft, to get to top plugs, one has to have either a special wrench, which we don’t have or to remove the intercooler. We don’t have the former and I don’t like the latter, so I call Jim and he says to just use bottom plugs. I am also able to confirm that the mag was indeed bad, turning the drive shaft doesn’t turn the plastic gear and that we replaced the correct mag. Augustin puts everything back, I do a ground mag check and engine works on each mag. I do a short test flight in the pattern, lean the engine and it is fine. I would like to make a longer test flight, but I don’t have that much fuel. The only place with avgas in the whole country is Guayaquil, our destination. Augustin charges us gringo fee for the 2 hour work, but we are just happy to have a flyable airplane and pay him cash without usual haggling. He seems a bit surprised.

We hop in, open our IFR flight plan to Guayaquil and take off. Leveling at 16,000 we enter IMC, but the temperature is positive so no risk of icing. When I try to lean the mixture, the engine starts shaking violently. Not a pleasant thing in IMC over the mountains with 20K peaks around, so I return full rich. My fuel reserves are dwindling down dangerously, but the fuel totalizer doesn’t know I will be descending from 16,000 feet to sea level. We land in Guayaquil at 4 pm on Tuesday afternoon with 20 gallons. That’s pretty good, we are only 54 hours behind our schedule, but I am exhausted so we stay for the night. Fifty hours to locate the part, bring it to Latacunga, locate a mechanic and replace the part. I am proud of the pilots’ and mechanics’  help network that made it possible and I silently thank everybody who helped me, but in particular Jim and Pete.

We have a dinner at the malecon and walk around a city a bit, the waterfront building are nicely illuminated.

 

Long Goodbye in Cali

Emboldened by how simple it was to depart Popayán, we decided against using the handler in Cali. As Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman: BIG MISTAKE. We drove to the terminal and started to run between offices. Remember, Cali is a big city  (pop 2.4 million) with important airline traffic and we are talking about two large terminals.

  1. Flight plan office, where we got bunch of papers to fill, including General Declarations (gendec). I had mine, but Michael had to fill his.
  2. Operations office, where the said paid papers where copied several times and handed back to us.
  3. Immigration, located in international terminal. The immigration officer, who was sitting in a booth where they check your passport had no idea what to do with is. We didn’t have airline tickets, no charter papers. Eventually, he figured out that if he stamps all our papers sufficient number of times, we would go away, which indeed we did.
  4. Customs, downstairs in the international terminal. The officer actually knew what to do with us, filled in some additional paperwork, gave us more stamps and we walked away back to the domestic terminal.
  5. Police office, where a very nice police officer wrote a letter for us that we are requesting leaving Columbia, which we signed. She put a wrong date, perhaps still having in mind her Valentine day, which was the day before and which was scoffed at as a debutante mistake by subsequent officials. We also got some new stamps and left behind copies of gendec.
  6. A weird office at the ground floor with no clear purpose, which was closed and nobody was there. After 15 minutes a stately matron showed up, took one of our gendecs and stamped the remaining ones.
  7. Back to the operation office, where we paid $55 and got a receipt, with full name, address, phone number and email. As you can imagine, typing those for two airplanes took some time.
  8. Back to the flight plan office, where we filed flight plans, got a photo taken and that was it.

That was it for phase one, there was still phase two. We drove back to the Aeroclub, jumped into airplanes and taxied to the international terminal ramp. We parked there and waited. After couple of minutes a guard showed up, curious what we were doing there. He called a police officer, who showed after couple more minutes. Everybody conferred what to do with these unexpected visitors and eventually decided all four of us should go inside the international terminal, to the same place as in step 3. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the shift changed so a different immigration officer had the same bewildered look on her face, trying to figure out what to do with us. Eventually, she entered our passports into a database, we got the required stamps and passed through.

The most sad thing is that up to this point, all this running around and stamping was not serving any useful purpose. Nobody was checking anything, not even that we were pilots or have airplanes in Cali. This is what happens when bureaucracy runs amok.

After going through security check (good thing we left all our dangerous knives in the airplane) and explaining to security guards why we do not have boarding passes, we returned back to the airplane. Shortly after the narco-police came over with a dog. We unpacked all suitcases from the airplane, so that the dog could sniff them. He than jumped into baggage compartment to sniff there. Since the tarmac was quite hot and it was hurting his paws and the baggage compartment was in shade, he really didn’t see a reason to get out. I remembered a story of a friend who had a brand new Cirrus and a police dog who urinated on his seats. This fellow was however well behaved and after mandatory handshakes (with police officers, not dogs), all that troupe left and victory, we could take off. Oh, but not so soon. It turned out that they took our flight plans with them. Why would police need our flight plan, which curiously was in a single copy is inexplicable. Michael taxied to the gate and requested a copy, I didn’t want to shut down the engine and just left, I had it already entered in my iPad.

Ah, but that could have been a mistake. It turns out that you have to send back stamped flight plan and gendec to the handler who processed your entry into the country, who forwards them to the authorities so that the authorities know you left the country. The fact that the said exit was entered into dozens of forms and computer screens was obviously insufficient. Luckily, I took iPhone snapshots of both documents and could send them.

I suppose that after reading all this, I don’t have to convince you to take a handler when in Cali. All the people we interacted with were nice and were clearly doing something, it is just that the whole process is absurd.

We arrived at the airport at 8:30 am, we took off at 2 pm. This photo tells it all.

This systems employs dozens of people shuffling papers around and doing nothing useful. It also sustains handlers business, since nobody in his right mind would not use a handler in Cali, and if fact in most of Colombia airports. In fact, handling fees and various airport fees were substantially higher than what we budgeted. In the view of authorities, private airplane owners are rich people and each country goes out of its way to milk these cash cows as much as possible.

Here is the kicker. On our return flight from Ecuador, we stopped in Cali, I know that Einstein said that doing the same over again and expecting different result is the definition of insanity, but this time we did hire a handler. It isn’t a fair comparison, because it was what’s called a technical stop. We flew from Ecuador, took fuel, departed for Panama, so we didn’t really enter Colombia. The whole process, including bathroom stop, refuel and flight plans took 20 minutes.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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