I was at a speaking engagement in Alaska awhile back, talking about the joy and pain of flying the oceans, when a member of the audience asked about my experiences in Central and South America.
South of the border beyond Mexico is an obvious destination for many norteamericano pilots, even those from Alaska who tire of the long winters. The attractions of the southern continent are many. If you’re an aviation bum, like me, the flight can be comfortable and easy, all over land if necessary, so there’s little risk of drowning. Plus, as continents go, it’s relatively close by.
The distance from San Diego to Panama is only 2,500 nm, and departing from Brownsville, Texas, can cut that down to 1,700 nm. Alternately, you can access South America across the Caribbean or through Belize. If you speak even a smidgen of Spanish, you can get along in every country except Brazil, but in most places, you won’t need anything but English. The usual route departing from the States is south, through such exotic waypoints as Puerto Vallarta or Acapulco to sleepy Tapachula, Mexico, five miles north of the Mexico/Guatemala border. From there, you hop off to modern San José, Costa Rica, then down to Panama City if you’re planning a trip east of the Andes to Venezuela or Brazil.
If you’re headed down the west coast, bound for Ecuador, Peru or Chile, you depart from San José, hop across the Gulf of Panama, then point straight south with the Andes towering on your left and the Pacific to your right. (In case you hadn’t guessed, it’s probably best to avoid Colombia.)
I’ve made a dozen or so trips to South America—in everything from Skylanes to Cheyennes, most of them to Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. After San José, friendly Guayaquil, Ecuador, is a standard stop, followed by Lima, Peru, one of the most expensive cities in South America. The FBO at the Lima-Callao Airport takes care of its crews, but landing fees for a 182 or Bonanza still run $500 to $600.
But if you’re headed south, and the weather is good, you can look forward to the unusual Nazca Lines of Peru on the Plains of Nazca, 200 miles south of Lima. These huge geoglyphs, as tall as 800 feet, have fanciful drawings of birds, people and animals etched into the desert floor.
The drawings are alleged to be 2,000 years old, preserved in the dry, hot weather with little wind and virtually no rain. (In fact, the Atacama Desert, slightly farther south, near the border with Chile, has had no recorded rain for the last 200 years.) No one knows what motivated the giant geoglyphs, or how the ancient Nazca people were able to draw them, since flying hadn’t been invented, and the only way to appreciate the monstrous art is from above. Some people have even hypothesized that aliens directed the construction.
My most recent South American trip was from San José, Calif., to Rincon de los Sauces in the Patagonia Desert of Southern Argentina. I delivered a Cessna 207 to Schlumberger for use in its oil-field exploration efforts in the area. Freshly licensed pilot Peter Webb was in the right seat for the trip, and his knowledge of Spanish was especially welcome.
Out of Santiago, Chile, headed for Neuquén, Argentina, we had to cross a high pass in the highest part of the Andes. It happened to be the pass between South America’s two highest peaks, 22,841-foot Cerro Aconcagua and 21,555-foot Cerro Tupungato. The view straight up, to the sides and directly between the peaks is equal parts sobering and terrifying.
The 207 was very heavy with extra fuel, survival gear, replacement wheels and tires, spare parts, luggage, HF radio and lots of other miscellaneous equipment. At 800 pounds over its normal 3,800-pound gross weight (legal under a ferry permit), it was struggling to clear the ridge. The ridgeline between the two giant mountains forms the boundary between Chile and Argentina, dipping down to about 13,000 feet, and I knew the 207 had a book service ceiling of only 13,300 feet.
We hovered in the thermal chop of a December summer, but the airplane was all tapped out at around 11,500 feet. Finally, I spotted a condor circling in a thermal near the steep, jagged ridgeline, and carefully edged toward it, hoping to steal a free lift. I entered the weak thermal directly across from the big, black bird and turned to follow his lead. Sure enough, the VSI edged up to 200 to 300 fpm.
We were only a mile from the ridgeline, and after 15 minutes of soaring the thermal and watching the condor eye the Cessna suspiciously, I saluted my friend and bailed out of the circular lift at 14,000 feet, heading straight across the ridge. We cleared the aluminum weather station by about 200 feet and were grateful that the terrain dropped steeply away on the opposite side, because we did too.
South America isn’t always so dramatic. Jon Egaas of Kennesaw, Ga., flies the continent regularly and knows it like the deck of his houseboat. Egaas is one of the world’s most experienced and knowledgeable ferry pilots, with something like 600 trips (compared to my paltry 200).
A former Marine fighter pilot in Vietnam, Egaas has made a dozen trips with me across the Atlantic and Pacific. He has flown everywhere at one time or another, but these days, he specializes in South America.
Egaas delivers mostly turbine Air Tractor and Thrush cropdusters to Brazil, but he’s been all over the continent. “There’s really nothing that different about South America,” says Egaas, “but unlike the States, where no one seems to care about licenses and certificates, they’re sticklers for paperwork in that part of the world.
“In Brazil, for example, in addition to the usual ARROW requirement, they’re very picky about insurance,” Egaas says. “You need to have an original insurance policy, complete with a policy number and coverage dates. You’ll also need proof of yellow fever vaccination to enter the country.”
Egaas commented that many South American countries require you to clear customs at their border unless you’re overflying the entire country. “GPS is obviously the rule for navigation down there, as there simply aren’t many VHF facilities available,” Egaas commented. “Landing fees average about $100 for a Bonanza/Mooney/Centurion, and avgas is typically $10 per gallon, so be sure to bring your wallet.”
Another knowledgeable source of information south of North America is Paul Rooy, a patent attorney from Daytona Beach, Fla., with a Cessna Skymaster and a penchant for wandering the planet. Rooy grew up in South America, and it remains one of his favorite flying destinations.
If you’re interested in flying the Amazon River Basin, Rooy has written an unusually colorful book about South America, The Skymaster and the Piranhas. It describes a trip he and his wife took to the area a few years ago.
For pilots with a yen for warm-weather adventure, but no enthusiasm for crossing a cold ocean, South America offers new views of earth, wind and sky. It’s a destination that’s foreign, yet easily accessible—an intriguing, fascinating place practically guaranteed to provide stories you can tell the folks back home.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].