The client called from Buenos Aires and asked if I could find him a gently used, late-model Cessna Skylane, get it thoroughly inspected, annualed and have the avionics brought up to date, then ferry the airplane from my hemisphere to his.
For better or worse, I get such calls for brokering and ferry delivery every year or two, and it’s always a delight to watch an airplane transition from a 5.0 to a 9.0 or even an occasional 10.0. The process can sometimes be long and demanding, not to mention frustrating, but since I’ll be flying the end product 4,000 or even 10,000 miles on what amounts to a comprehensive flight test and delivery, the end product had better be good.
I once upgraded a 1976 Piper Lance—basically a retractable Cherokee Six 300 with the original low tail—with new paint, a Corinthian leather interior, an overhauled engine, a panel full of updated avionics and dozens of little details meticulously attended to. When the job was finished, the total cost of the airplane had almost exactly doubled, but the client in Nairobi, Kenya, was happy.
My Argentine client’s plane was next up, and it took three months, but after a comprehensive search, I found an excellent candidate in West Texas. I had it inspected, annualed and tanked, brought all avionics up to date, and launched for Brownsville and points south.
I deliberately added a larger ferry tank than normally installed so I could overfly virtually all of Mexico in one leg. The violence of the drug cartels, especially in conjunction with aircraft theft and pilot assassination, made safety a major consideration. I’d easily have enough fuel to fly nonstop from Brownsville to Tapachula, on the border with Guatemala.
After Tapachula, the drug kidnapping threat was greatly reduced, and the flying was easier. Second destination was San Jose, Costa Rica, a country without a standing army but a huge and highly efficient police force. Costa Rica is a beautiful country, and, perhaps more important, it’s relatively safe.
Navigation on the high road south is simple: Keep the ocean on the right. “My” temporary Skylane was nicely equipped for the trip to Buenos Aires—dual Garmin 530 navigators, an HSI and a Stormscope plus an STEC autopilot, so my job was mostly to stay awake and make an occasional position report in case anyone cared.
ATC is fairly casual south of the U.S. border, so if you call and no one answers, it usually means the controllers are having coffee.
After Costa Rica, you can either take the western coastal route south or you can opt for the jungle route straight down the center of the continent. The latter is by far the least desirable as you’ll need to deal with customs and immigration in places such as Columbia, Guyana, Venezuela and of course, Brazil.
Long before this trip, I had been tempted to fly through Venezuela to get a look at Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world. Angel Falls came to light only in 1933, when it was chanced upon by pilot Jimmie Angel (seriously). It has a total vertical drop of more than 3,200 feet. I had talked to one ferry pilot who had overflown the falls, and he commented that the only bad news was that the spray thrown up by the water splashing onto the river below very often obscured the waterfall and the mountain behind it completely. Still, Angel Falls is practically inaccessible by any other method. The waterfall is so remote that hiking in through the dense, snake-infested jungle would be very dangerous.
The leg from San Jose to Guayaquil, Ecuador, across the Gulf of Panama, is the only overwater hop necessary on the trip south to Buenos Aires down the Pacific Coast.
If you’re willing to fly the eastern route across the full length of the Brazilian Amazon, you’re welcome to do so, but be aware that many pilots have simply disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again. I’ll take my chances over the Gulf of Panama.
We’ve written about Guayaquil, Ecuador, before, but not about the next possible stop: Lima, Peru. Lima is a picturesque city with beautiful public squares and a statue or two of its founders seemingly in every one. It’s also one of the more expensive stops in South America. The airport is located right on the coast and prone to frequent fog and bad weather. Landing and parking fees are high, and the FBO advised visiting pilots to remove ties and identifying insignias (hang tags, shoulder bars, flight crew hats and anything else that might designate them as pilots) and only ride in taxis approved by the FBO.
So, airplanes with the range often would overfly all of Peru and stop instead in Arica, Chile, 2 miles south of the Peru/Chile border. You can see the highway customs station as you approach the airport, and pilots entering the country at Arica are driven back to the road station for customs and immigration service.
Arica is a great stop with friendly attendants, reasonable fees for landing, parking and fuel and excellent flying weather year-round.
The town is sometimes called “The City of Endless Spring” because it’s located on Chile’s northern coast at the beginning of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world. Much of the Atacama hasn’t recorded measurable rain for 400 years.
Winds off the South Pacific are light and rarely too warm since they originate over the ocean. The sky is usually brilliantly clear, and at the time of my flight, the now-famous Atacama Cosmology Telescope, one of the most powerful in the world, was under construction.
Indeed, after some unstable political problems several decades ago, Chile has now become one of the safest countries in South America.
South of Arica, the terrain turns dramatically uphill as the Andes reassert their dominance over the bottom half of the continent. In contrast, the American Sierra Nevada and Rockies and the European Alps are dramatic and beautiful, but they shrink to relative insignificance by comparison. Fly south paralleling the Andes, watching the huge mountains top 15,000 feet, then 20,000 feet and, finally, reach for true nosebleed height just under 23,000 feet.
I’ve never seen the Himalayas that rise to 29,000 feet, the tallest mountains on Earth, but the Andes are just as if not more impressive in their own right. They spring full-grown from the near-sea-level beaches of the Pacific a few miles from the 4.5-mile-tall peaks of Cerro Aconcagua and Cerro Tupungato, the two tallest mountains in the Western Hemisphere, barely 30 miles east of Santiago, Chile.
In contrast, the Himalayas rise from the Tibetan Plateau, a high, irregular table of land that starts at 16,000 feet, so the vertical rise in the Himalayas is “only” 13,000 feet to the summit of Everest.
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Santiago, Chile’s capital city, is the last stop before Buenos Aires. Just as flying south demands little more than following the coast toward Tierra del Fuego, crossing the Andes abeam Santiago demands following the Pan American Highway as it zigzags uphill toward the two monster peaks that look down on the pass. If you’re driving, the highway passes through a tunnel that transits between Chile and Argentina. If you’re flying East, as I was, you know you’re in Argentina when the mountain drops away precipitously toward the treeless pampas far below. Mendoza, Argentina, is the first city in Argentina, and your trip is nearly over.
In order to clear the Andes, you’ll need to manage about 12,000 feet to top the lowest point in the mountain ridge between countries. Incidentally, that’s an important bit of information, and it’s almost never on the chart.
East of the Andes, the terrain slowly descends as the Patagonian Steppe slopes downhill toward Buenos Aires and the Atlantic Ocean.
The view was familiar. Several years before, I had delivered a Cessna 207—essentially a stretched Cessna 206—to Schlumberger Oil Exploration at RincÃ³n de los Sauces, Argentina. Schlumberger had been drilling for oil in the southern Patagonian Desert, and the eight-seat (okay, six-plus-two) Cessna single solved its problem of transporting men and equipment in and out of the short, dirt strips in the oil country that stretches south to NeuquÃ©n, Argentina.
A few hours after clearing the Andes, I was on the ground in Buenos Aires with a happy customer who promised to call me in a few years when he was ready to step up to a twin, probably a pressurized 414.
Check out more Cross-Country Log flying stories from ferry pilot and Senior Editor Bill Cox.