Plane & Pilot
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Fly Chile

From mountains to oceans and deserts to glaciers, Chile is an aviator’s dream come true

I squinted as I scanned the horizon from the Cessna 210's window. "Just over there," my guide Jaime Hernández pointed into the distance. "The lake at 10 o'clock is actually in Argentina." My eyes scanned the Andes, but the snowy peaks and turquoise water blended together to form one massive, remarkable mountain range rather than two distinct countries. We continued at 9,500 feet over waterfalls, volcanoes, black-sand beaches and mile after endless mile of roadless, inaccessible terrain. Several low passes and steep turns thrilled the shutterbug in me, and Fleetwood Mac, playing through our headsets, seemed like an old friend. "Relax gringa," Jaime said, "you're in Chile."

Jaime's company, Tour Aviation Chile, takes foreign pilots on flying journeys around Chile. All it takes is a simple phone call to set the wheels in motion. Upon arriving at Santiago's Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport, you'll be greeted by a pilot guide who arranges your transportation, lodging and dining needs for the remainder of your travels. Depending on your fancy, you'll be given a checkout ride in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, Cessna 172 Hawk XP II, Cessna 182 or Cessna 210 Centurion, and special arrangements can be made for other aircraft, such as a Piper Cheyenne.

On each leg, your guide sits right seat while you do all the flying from the left. (Tour Aviation Chile is currently sorting out arrangements for pilots who wish to fly without a guide—if this is your preference, contact them for an update.) Charts and a Garmin GPS unit will be provided, and there are daily preflight briefings. Radio communication shouldn't be a problem even if your Spanish is shaky—if the controller doesn't understand your English, you'll be passed to someone who does.

Taking it easy and enjoying the adventure was the easy-to-adhere-to theme during my travels through this long, narrow country on South America's southwestern coast. Tour Aviation Chile looked after all the details and logistics while I flew left seat over an exquisitely beautiful landscape that varied wildly in all directions. Stretching over 2,700 miles, Chile is bordered to the east by the Andes Mountains, which tower more than 22,000 feet over the country's western border, the Pacific Ocean. Packed between the two limits (whose maximum distance reaches only 150 miles) are glaciers, volcanoes, forests and rivers to the south, and arid desert, salt plains and geysers to the north. The central valleys are populated with vineyards and pisqueras, where Chile's unofficial national drink, Pisco, is distilled from a special variety of green grapes.

Tucked into all this amazing scenery are approximately 350 airports, of which more than 75% are unpaved. These grass, dirt and gravel strips are often off the beaten track, but they're well traveled by Tour Aviation Chile. The pilot guides are on the young side (Jaime, for example, is 32), but don't let that fool you. With more than 5,000 hours logged, they definitely know their way around.


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