Bob and Jill Blettner flew from Wisconsin down to Key West, Fla., in their Cessna Centurion to meet Thierry Pouille for the first time. Jimmy and Diane Jones came from Georgia in their C-206. Don and Arlene Stoppe flew their Seneca from New Hampshire. Philippe Harsch arrived from Paris, and Marc Cotte from Johannesburg, South Africa. All came for a single reason: to join in a fast-growing activity in general aviation—escorted adventures with Thierry Pouille and his company, Air Journey.
In the first of what’s to become a preflight ritual over the next two weeks, Thierry has assembled the group for a complete briefing of routes, frequencies and procedures for the next morning’s departure. Each has been given a navy blue satchel, their airplane’s N-number embroidered on the outside and the inside stuffed with trip information, including charts, reference books and the like. The itinerary will take them out of Florida over the Caribbean Sea to Belize, landfall for a two-week airborne excursion throughout Central America.
“Before we started tonight, one of you asked me if it was true there were alligators in the freshwater rain forests there,” Thierry addresses the group. “Well, I can promise you that is absolutely false. There are no alligators. Of course, there are plenty of crocodiles!” Thierry teases, making the group laugh.
After years in the travel business, Thierry and wife, Sophie, started Air Journey in 1998, a company that specializes in airplane trips of a lifetime. “People with a private plane want to go where only private airplanes can go,” Thierry states matter-of-factly. “If they wanted to go where cruise ships go, they would take a cruise ship.”
Thierry’s new group that’s headed to Central America is proof of exactly that. They’re well-traveled; all fly airplanes so they can go when they want and where they want. All have come for an adventure, off the beaten path, flying themselves and their families. And just as important, they’ve all come to do it under the wing of Thierry and Air Journey.
“I was fascinated by the places he goes to, but I don’t think I’d try this on my own,” says Jimmy.
“I’ve been trying to go on one of Thierry’s trips for a long time now,” smiles Bob as he and his wife, Jill, leave to pack the last few items into their 210. “I took a look at his Website and I thought, Fantastic! Now I don’t have to worry about figuring everything out!” Bob had flown into Belize several times on his own, but despite his fascination with seeing more of Central America, the ordeal of multiple border crossings, customs, air-traffic-control issues, etc., made him hesitate to go on such an excursion—until he heard about Air Journey. “Pilots who don’t know about Thierry are missing out!” he says honestly.
Don had planned a family expedition to Alaska, but confessed it was a hassle to do it all by himself. “It took nearly a year. I ordered every video, read everything I could. On this trip, I feel like I’m cheating. Thierry does everything!”
As a general rule, Air Journey trips move at a leisurely pace. The group stops at each destination for two or three days, allowing plenty of time to sightsee, fish, hike, take canopy tours, ride bicycles or ATVs, or go sailing or snorkeling. “I also think it’s important to shop in some of these places,” says Jill as she smiles at Diane, who already started a collection of local crafts and bags of coffee beans to bring home.
To maintain a vacation-like cadence between the destinations, Thierry promises no early-morning departures. No one complained about the single exception when the group rose early enough to climb the ruins of a Mayan pyramid in Tikal, Guatemala, to watch the sun rise out of the jungle mist.
The destinations are right out of a storybook. A luxury hotel in the middle of the 500-year-old city of Antigua, Guatemala. A private villa and swimming pool—one for each couple—just fifty yards from the nearly 80-degree ocean at Tamarindo, Costa Rica. In Panama, Thierry arranged for the group to stay on the private island in the archipelago Las Perlas, each with a thatched bungalow filled with sounds of the surf and the occasional interruption for a visiting toucan. For those who wanted to take relaxation to an art form, Thierry flew in a masseuse from the mainland.
Of course, these kinds of adventures don’t just happen. After plenty of research, long-distance phone conversations and countless e-mails, Thierry flies his BE55 Baron on a dry run of every trip before he offers it to anyone else. That way, nothing is left to chance, and even the tiniest details are caught.
“Today, our route will cross two active volcanoes,” he tells the group during another preflight briefing. “Make sure you pass upwind of them. The tiny dust can play hell with your vacuum system,” advises Thierry.
And even while his guests are enjoying themselves, Thierry is constantly working in the background. On this trip to Central America, he’s on the phone with an avgas supplier in Panama. Despite a written agreement guaranteeing a price and quantity of 100LL to be available to his group, the fuel delivery truck broke down somewhere along the way. The fuel promised to Thierry’s group hasn’t been delivered. In less than an hour and a flurry of sat-phone calls, Thierry has gently modified the group’s flight for the next day and solved the fuel issues at a different airport. “Watching Thierry work is a real eye-opener for me!” says Jimmy.
|Central America offers an endless variety of terrain, including steaming volcanoes.|
The benefits of Thierry’s pre-departure homework show up all along the way. After a takeoff from Isla San José, Panama City ATC asked Thierry to switch to frequency 123.0.
“Roger. Panama Approach, this is Baron 63JL on 123.0,” says Thierry.
“Hola, Thierry. It’s me, Wendy!” greets a new controller. Wendy Almillategui, a supervisor at Panama’s Center for En Route and Approach Control, was letting Thierry know ATC was expecting his group and would give them a red-carpet welcome into their airspace. And by the way, would the Air Journey group like to meet her for lunch at a nice restaurant at the edge of the Panama Canal?
Along the way, Thierry also enlists an army of local guides to squeeze every bit of information and experience from each location. For example, when Antigua was designed in the late 1400s, the Moors had just introduced the game of chess. Thus, the original city had eight streets north and eight south, creating the 64 squares of a chess board. The most money ever charged for coming through the Panama Canal was $225,000 for a cruise ship. The smallest fee ever administered was 37 cents for a man who swam his way between the Caribbean and the Pacific. In a boat gliding down the Chagres River that meanders through a verdant rain forest, the group listens to their guide while returning the stares of white-throated capuchin monkeys.
“If you get a bug bite, take the tobacco from a cigarette and mix it with pure alcohol. Now dab this mixture on the bite, and everything will be fine,” informs the guide in nearly perfect English.
His remedy for a snakebite was less optimistic, however. “If you’re bitten, the best thing to do is find a comfortable shade tree, then…prepare to meet your maker.”
If you could look inside Thierry’s brain, it would look much like that page in the airline magazine that shows the spiderweb of available trips arcing out in all directions. He loves what he does for a living, and his lust for flying and adventure, plus the demand from his clientele, keeps him designing and perfecting new trips all the time. This year, he has agreed to lead a trip for the Cessna Pilots Association, another for the Piper Malibu owners, as well as Cirrus, Mooney and Socata owners. While Thierry is off flying, Sophie is back in Florida arranging the details for the next adventure. The newest Air Journey destinations include a 26-day trip from Key West, Fla., all the way down around Cape Horn in South America, and an Atlantic crossing, via Greenland and Iceland, to Europe for the Paris Air Show!
Upon the group’s return from Central America after more than two weeks on the road, surprisingly no one seems in a hurry to go home. There is both glee from the accomplishment and sadness to see the group going its separate ways.
“Everyone comes in as a stranger, and when it’s over, we’re all friends,” smiles Thierry. He will soon send them a collection of photos he has taken of each of them along the entire route.
"I feel like this is so much better than the old way of traveling around on commercial airliners,” adds Jimmy.
“I really want to do more trips with you, Thierry,” says Bob.
Amid hugs and handshakes, Thierry tells them, “We’ll stay in touch, you watch. I’m still exchanging e-mails and Christmas cards with people who went on my first trips seven years ago!”
Find out more about the group’s trip and a complete list of itineraries by calling Air Journey LLC at (888) 554-3774 or by logging on to www.airjourney.com.