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.
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.
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.
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-Crepin, Sisteron, 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.
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.
In July we had an opportunity to fly from Paris to Bilbao and visit Chateaux de la Loire on the way back. What a treat. You may want to skip the first part if you are not a pilot.
Our friends Denis and Sophie took us to Bilbao and Denis was brave enough to let me fly his immaculate Cirrus SR22. With tail winds, the flight from Toussus le Noble, a GA airport close to Paris, to Bilbabo took 2:30. We flew IFR, because crossing the border (yes, they still have borders between France and Spain) would require a flight plan and squawk code anyway. Denis was working the radios and although I am fluent in French, I had initially some trouble understanding the phraseology. In fact, IFR is easier in such circumstances for a visiting pilot, because you get more hand holding. Denis Cirrus is N-registered, which would allow me to be a PIC based on my FAA license – my EASA conversion, which I would need to use to fly any European registered aircraft is VFR only.
The air was calm at 9,000 feet and the sky clear, except until we were close to Bilbao. An overcast layer forced us to fly an ILS approach. The airplane has dual GTN650, a DFC-90 autopilot and and Avidyne screen, the setup I am very familiar with, so I didn’t think I would have any trouble flying this approach. Denis had Jepessen approach plates, which I reviewed and didn’t see anything unusual. Here is the plate I found online, it is not Jepp, but the information is similar.
If you just load the approach as usual, you will have trouble identifying 4,900 step down fix from BLV, because it is not in the navigator database. Might be that’s why the approach plate says DME required! The easy solution is of course to set up BLV (or IBLV) as a waypoint on the #2 GPS, so that you can see the distance. Otherwise, during the approach, you will have to do the subtraction BLV 15 – BLV 12.9 to figure out that fix is 2.1 nm from FAF. After Denis suggested setting up #2, I was already very high on the glideslope and technically, we should have gone missed. But this was gentleman IMC and the ceilings were high enough, so we continued and landed.
The DME is in fact mandatory in Europe for approaches like that and they do not support using GPS in lieu of DME, as we do in US. In fact, even ADF is mandatory if the approach plate says so. I saw weird panels with the latest Garmin Perspective and 30 years old King ADF box squeezed in the middle. Somebody should tell EASA that we are in the 21st century.
Handling is mandatory in Bilbao and we paid about $200 between handling fees, landing fees and various taxes. Think about it the next time you complain about that $25 a FBO charges you if you don’t take fuel.
The main Bilbao attraction is of course the Guggenheim museum.
If you’ve been to Southern California, you might think they did copy Disney Hall in Los Angeles, but that would be the same as saying that Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is modeled after Disneyland (I actually did hear that exact thing being said by an American couple strolling through the castle). Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Bilbao in nineties and the museum opened in 1997. He followed with Disney Hall, which was opened in 2003.
The Bilbao puppy next to the museum is endearing and we probably took thousand pictures of it.
We departed Bilbao IFR and this time I was also manning the radios – in English, because I don’t speak Spanish and with Denis help. We soon were switched over to French controllers and I continued in English, but than we decided to land in Poitiers and refuel and somehow, we switched to French. It was actually relatively easy – speaking French is a definitive advantage if you fly there. A LPV approach was a piece of cake.
Chateaux de la Loire
After Poitiers, we continued VFR at 1,500 feet, to visit Chateaux de la Loire. It was bumpy, but worth it, we saw Loche, Chenonceau, Amboise, Blois and Chambord.
The last leg of our Africa trip brought us to Namibia. We flew commercial from Cape Town to Windhoek and rented a nice 4×4 Toyota pickup truck. If you ever plan to drive in Namibia, rent a car like that. Although many dirt roads we drove are in excellent condition (for a dirt road), a small city car will not be comfortable there.
Toyota is built like a tank and didn’t care about any potholes. Otherwise, you may end up like the car on the left. This is in a place judiciously called Solitaire, our hotel Moon Mountain Lodge, was located about 20 km south of that place, about 4 hours drive from Windhoek. The lodge is built on a side of a small mountain, part of Naukluft Mountains.
It was about 45 minute drive from there to Sossusvlei, where dunes are, but we were happy to stay away. The lodge is small, away from crowds, sunset and sunrise light over the desert were beautiful to watch.
The park opens at sunrise and we drove in the dark to get there before 6 am. While technically Sossusvlei (pictured below) refers only to a salt and clay pan surrounded by red dunes, located in the Namib-Naukluft National Park of Namibia, the name is often used to refer to all surrounding area.
The area was created when the Tsauchab River was blocked access to the ocean by sand blown from the North and forming immense dunes – the biggest one is 388 meters high – that’s 1,300 feet for metric-challenged, several hundred millions years ago.
There is an asphalt road from the park entrance to the parking area for regular cars, about 40 km. On the way, you pass Dune 45, which many people climb – we didn’t.
Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, the main interesting areas are about 5 km past the parking and you must have a robust 4×4 car, because you will drive on the sand (otherwise, there are shuttles). We passed some people who were stubborn and stuck. Once you climbed the dunes, you can have fun going down, here is Ania descending the famous dune called Big Daddy.
After returning back from the dunes, we drove another 5 km to see Sesreim Canyon, created when flood water descends over plains and in the afternoon, we took a scenic flight all the way to the ocean, which is still about 50 km to the West. Dunes, which when they meet the ocean are still over 100 meters high, stop abruptly creating sand cliffs. The whole area is called Skeleton Coast, because so many ships wrecked here navigating this remote area.
Magic flight and I promised myself that we will return here and I will fly all the length at that coast myself.
We did a bit of a road trip to return back to Windhoek the next day, via Swakopmund, driving through the Kuiseb Pass. You drive through the desert, but it keep changing every 100 km, from savanna to sand desert and amazing rock formations.
This is the last post about our 2017 Africa trip – unforgettable experience.
It was a rude shock to fly squeezed in a tiny economy seat for our flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, after enjoying luxuries of Cessna’s seats for so long. We suffered. After arrival, we rented a car and drove to our Airbnb apartment, with fabulous views over the town.
Next day, weather was nice and we drove to Cape of Good Hope. This is the name that sounds beautiful in every language. Cape de Bonne Esperance, Przylądek Dobrej Nadziei.
There are so many reviews of Cape Town, I will not bore you with another saw this and that. Instead, let me recount our Cape Town culinary experiences.
This is a bit of touristy place, but the food is fun and the show is exciting. The Gold Restaurant serves Pan-African kitchen with bits and pieces from all over Africa. As always, we attacked the dinner in sprint, but it turned out to be more of a marathon and by the time the main dishes arrived, we regretted the early fast pace.
The food is only half of the fun at Gold, dance and music is as good. We didn’t dare join the dancers on the scene, but many other patrons did. I wish I had their rhythm.
To show we are not just another pappy and mammy and to express our wild side, we got face paintings.
Greenhouse restaurant is in Constantia, about 45 min drive from downtown. It was dark by the time we got there and it rained, we started to have doubts about the wisdom of driving so far for a dinner. The doubts disappeared when we saw the menu.
We couldn’t believe we had doubts after the first dishes arrived. Presentation, quality, taste, everything was impeccable.
We’ve been to Bernard Loiseau’s Cote d’Or in Saulieu, to Michel Guérard’s les Prés d’Eugénie in Eugénie les Bains, to Paul Bocuse in Lyon, to Marc Haeberlin’s Auberge d’Ill in Illhaeusern, to Arnaud Lallement’s Assiette Champenoise in Tinqueux, to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville and to Joshua Skenes’s Saison in San Francisco. I write it only to establish credentials, so that when I say that Luke Dale-Roberts at Test Kitchen is as good or better, as exciting, as interesting and surprising, has as many or more variety of tastes as these 3-star Michelin restaurants – you know that I have solid basis for comparisons.
We live close to Napa Valley, well known wine country, so we were curious how Cape Town wine country compared. Here I am at work, deep into comparative research.
We drove from Cape Town to the town of Stellenbosch and continued East. By pure luck, we stopped at a beautiful winery (Graff Estate) for light lunch and wine tasting. The area is magical in its beauty and I wish we had more than one day to visit it.
These were our two last legs of the self-flying safari, first flying from Maun to Gabarone, which is the Botswana capital, a 338 nm, 3:50 flight.
I veered a bit to the East, to overfly the salt ponds, local pilots told us we could spot amazing sights of flamingos over those ponds. We were unfortunately out of luck, it was just saw salt ponds and desert. The restricted areas you see on the chart are only up to 1000 ft AGL, the big one is over the Kalahari Desert. I love that name Kalahari, in retrospect we should have flown over it, low.
We landed in Gabarone and it took a while for a fuel truck to come over. Ania needed to go a restroom, so off she went to the terminal. It is actually quite easy to get in from the apron to the terminal, you just go through a door. Getting out though, when you don’t have a boarding pass, a passport nor any document actually is a different matter. After I got my fuel and parked the airplane, I donned my reflective vest, took my pilot license and passport and went to look for her. A severe looking security officer admonished me for letting passengers wander alone on the apron, I apologized profusely and recovered my slightly irritated wife from the police station where she was detained.
Here is an important lesson about flying in Africa: you better have a reflective vest. I didn’t have one in Maun and after watching Marie, a fellow pilot admonished by another full of himself security screener for not having such an important security item, I promptly stole one from the van driver – it served me well in Gabarone. Before my next trip to Africa, I’ll get one with Cirrus Airlines – Pilot embroiled in large letters. That and a pilot shirt with epaulets are must have around here. Also, you gotta marvel at the logic of having us to throw away bottled water before getting to our own airplanes and fly over hundreds of miles of desert. Luckily, Delta Air personnel was more understanding and smuggled our water past security.
Gabarone is a real city, modern and growing. We spent the night in Masa Square Hotel, a hotel that could be anywhere in the West – modern and functional. Well, to a point, because the operating procedure seemed to be to first place the guest in a room without working air conditioning and only move him to one with working air conditioning when he complains. It was nice to take a real shower after the bucket-shower in Oddballs Camp. We had our last group dinner at the roof terrace of the hotel, this was a great way to say goodbye to many new friends.
Our last 150 nm, 1:15 flight took us from Botswana back to South Africa, Lanseria airport. When coming into FALA, there is a VFR reporting point called Hartebeespoort Dam. I think that I can be excused from not understanding when the controller asked: “Are you familiar with ?#&%* ?” When I valiantly replied Unfamiliar, foreign pilot, his next question was Do you know where the Lanseria airport is?. Indignantly, I replied: Affirmative, I have a GPS.
We left ZS-SOE at the apron in Lanseria. Johan, the airplane owner kindly agreed to pick her up from there, which worked great for us, because out next (commercial) flight was leaving from Lanseria for Cape Town. She is a great and fast 182 and we were happy flying it. She has a fuel totalizer, which is really important when you fly long distances and served us very well. Safe flights, Zulu Sierra Sierra Oscar Echo.
Our next 220 nm, 1:45 flight brought us to Maun, Botswana. As usual for international flights, we needed flight plans and general declaration to leave Zimbabwe, plus $85 in various landing, takeoff, passenger, navigation… fees. I flew a bit of a northern route, hoping to see more game from the air and also overfly the Okawango Delta. The 6,000-15,000 km2 delta is formed when the Okavango River flows into a basin and evaporates – the river never reaches any sea nor ocean.
After landing in Maun, we boarded a commercial flight with Delta Air (not that Delta), because the Oddballs Camp airstrip on the Chief Island does not allow any other aircrafts to land there. An extremely noisy Airvan and bunch of Cessna 182 and 206 brought all of us to the strip – I had to take off my instructor hat when observing a young pilot making a very shallow approach to the strip.
It is called camp, because it has tents and and the last time I slept under a tent was when I was 18 years old and for Ania this might have been the first time. We definitely are creatures of comfort. The tent had a real bed and a roof and was on a wooden platform, so it wasn’t a regular camping.
The small structure on the right was a bathroom. I know what you are thinking: a private bathroom at a camping site, that’s not really a camping. Wait, it gets better, there was a shower. You pour the water into a bucket, you hoist the bucket up, you open the tap and voila: you get a shower. There was even cold water and not-so-cold water.
The camp is isolated and at night, we had most amazing stars. Early morning, we were leaving for mokoro boat trips.
There is something magical about gliding in these boats over the shallow water, between the grass and spotting and hearing wild animals all around. The last day, we were on a foot walking when the guide said he spotted a lion. We split the group in a hero half and coward half (I won’t say in which part we were), the hero half went to see the lion from close, the coward half stayed away and was ready to run. The first group saw the lion from perhaps 6-8 feet away – he was patiently waiting for that group of noisy humans to pass and when it was clear that they would march right into his hide, he simply run away. And who is the king of the jungle now?
We were not the only ones looking around, these guys were keeping a close eye on where we were going.
We also went to the local village, where some people working at these camps live. There was an impromptu market and a concert.
Our next leg started with a short 50 nm, half an hour flight along the shore of the lake to the Kariba airport, for refueling. This was by far the most efficient airport in Zimbabwe, the fuel pump was working, the credit card machine was working, the controller was very professional. We didn’t have much time to linger around and we continued with the second leg, 250 nm, 2 hours along the Zambezi river to Victoria Falls.
During the flight, I managed to get in formation with Robert di Blasi in a Cherokee and took some nice in flight pictures.
After landing, we drove to the Victoria Falls hotel. This is an epitome of an old colonial hotel, still in great shape, but with average service and average rooms. Most impressive though were the common areas, reminding travelers of old bygone splendid times.
The whole town lives off tourists of course, but they push it too far. A ticket to the falls is $30/person and it is valid only for one entry. Make sure you have a raincoat, you will need it, otherwise you’ll pay $3 to rent one, which leaks like a wool sweater. With a constant rain coming off all the water pushed up from the falls, one thing you’ll get for free is a shower.
The falls are of course impressive, and I know I sound like a spoiled rat saying this, but now that I have seen the three big ones: Niagara, Iguasu and Victoria Falls, I believe that Iguasu Falls at the border between Argentina and Brazil are the most amazing.
In the evening we drove to an African restaurant – great show of drums and I know it is hard to believe, and you probably are lucky you didn’t hear it, but I did play drums. There is a video of that achievement, but I will not post it.