Weather delays caused unexpected pleasantries, such as the friendly hospitality of Southmost Aviation, during Patty’s ferry flight from Florida to El Salvador.
Air shows are magnificent aerial productions. Performers travel from far to put on a display of skill, showmanship and passion for aviation. They meet new fans, and inspire pilots-to-be. It’s a chance to bond with the air show family, and to learn local customs and culture. But sometimes, it’s the journey to get there that creates the most memories—even when things don’t go as planned.
The 2011 Ilopango Air Show in El Salvador was a fantastic blend of journey and destination. The air show, started in the mid-1990s by local pilots and the Salvadorian Aero Club, is one of Central America’s most popular aviation events.
I knew I wanted to fly it, but first, I had to find it. Charts show Ilopango Airport sitting on a volcanic plateau on the eastern edge of San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, and the fastest-growing city in Central America. I’m based in Northern Florida, so I would have to fly my single-seat Extra 300S across the Southeast U.S. to Texas, then south across Mexico and Guatemala. Unfortunately, the Extra is tad short on endurance, so I had to forgo the popular and much shorter route (by 900 nm!) over the Gulf of Mexico, from Key West to Cozumel.
Good friend and Plane & Pilot contributor James Wynbrandt agreed to fly to Ilopango with me. James had prior experience flying in Central America, speaks Spanish and flies a Mooney M20T, speedy enough for my Extra and roomy enough for all of our gear, including my large ribbon cut poles.
A trip like this requires more than just having the right charts, so we started planning well in advance. I called Sarasota Avionics to make sure I had all
the latest GPS upgrades. Baja Bush Pilots (now Bush Pilots International) and Jeppesen, which provided us with a trip kit, were helpful, but there were numerous forms and procedures to organize, including everyone’s favorite new hassle, EAPIS.
Pilots love a mission, no matter what. On a cold Northern Florida morning in January, we took off from St. Augustine in formation with James’ Mooney in the lead and my Extra on the wing. With Monday-morning optimism, we were hoping to get to El Salvador the next day before dark. But, reality hit later that day while sitting out a cold front in the pouring rain in Lafayette, La. As soon as ceilings lifted on Tuesday, we headed to Brownsville, Texas, and found a new favorite FBO: Southmost Aviation, a helpful and friendly family-run business. Putting the Extra in the hangar, we got everything ready for a Wednesday-dawn launch. Weather was forecast to be good: a mid-level overcast with scattered rain showers.
Crossing state or national borders is a seamless and beautiful experience for aviators. Sometimes, a river is the defining boundary, sometimes the land slowly transforms into something more foreign. Mexico becomes remote as soon as you cross the border. We were on our own during the 210 nm leg to Tampico, where we stopped for fuel and customs.
Patty at the 2011 Ilopangao Air Show in El Salvador, where she performed in her Extra 300S.
Our next fuel stop at Minatitlan was another 235 nm further. “Mina” is on the Gulf Coast, just before the land takes a turn northeast into the Bay of Campeche and the Yucatan Peninsula. This was where we would turn west and cross to the Pacific side of Mexico. South of Vera Cruz, we ran into darker skies and scattered rain showers, forcing us to fly lower and slower. With the water off our left, and Vera Cruz in our “rearview mirror” in case we had to turn back, we got a close look at the shockingly greasy and brackish-brown pollution washing up with every wave. The shore was devoid of birds and any other life.
After fueling at Mina, our next fuel stop 250 nm later was at Tapachula. To get there, we had to fly through a remote, narrow pass flanked by large mountains. The terrain rises to about 1,500 feet in the pass, and there’s no weather reporting in the area. Taking off in formation, we chatted on our discrete frequency about how cool it would be that night to see our friends who were hoping we could join them on a “volcano cruise” for dinner! But in spite of our optimism, 60 nm west the clouds got lower, and the terrain got higher. We poked our noses around the edges of the scud, until we conceded it was time to do a 180 back to the security of Minatitlan’s ramp. Marginal VFR in the Extra requires special attention. I like to slow down, but with the power back, the nose gets higher, and visibility is worse. If I get in the clouds, I’m definitely out of luck because I have no instruments and no “outs.” The good news was that on our way back, the view at 300 feet AGL was spectacular. We saw a flock of bright-pink flamingos flying over the marsh, and the sight of them flying reminded me why I’m so lucky to be a pilot.
Thursday morning, after spending the night in nearby Coatzacoalcos, James and I took off, and turned back twice due to low ceilings. We were becoming very familiar with airport procedures. I looked for local pilots to talk to about weather patterns, but saw only an occasional airline or charter pilot who didn’t have a clue about what was lurking in the valleys and hills where we had to fly. Luckily, we had found a nice hotel the night before, so all we had to do was survive the cab ride one more time to get back to it.
By Friday morning, the rain was pouring, and I was fighting depression. Was I going to miss the air show? The weather forecast for Mina that day was awful, and to make things even worse, a local told us we would have to wait three days to see improvement, and we should just give up! Years of VFR flying has taught me to never do that, and as the day progressed, the ceilings lifted, and the skies to the west brightened. We took off, and gratefully found the ceilings getting higher as we flew through the pass, rugged and spectacular, and into the sunshine.
Daylight is spare in January, and the Extra is day VFR only. We were anxious to get to Ilopango, but with the incessant stamping of papers and a surprise interrogation by the Mexican Navy, it was amazing we were able to extricate ourselves from the ground in Tapachula in less than two hours.
Our good humor returned as soon as we were back in the air, over the Pacific Coast with only 200 nm remaining to Ilopango. The inland mountains of Guatemala are impressive and forbidding seen from the west, across a large fertile coastal plain, but when you cross into El Salvador, you can see why the green and beautiful country was known by the Spanish as “The Place of the Diamond Jewels.” Navigating around volcanoes to get into the bowl where Ilopango nestles, we found it easy to spot, sitting just west of a large freshwater volcanic lake.
The Ilopango Air Show’s entertainment included performances by the Salvadorian Air Force, Ag planes and a Piper Navajo that performed rolls. Above, Patty flies a three-ship formation act with Matt Younkin in his Beech 18 and Greg Poe in his Fagen MX2.
It seemed surreal to finally arrive–just in time. The Ilopango tower approved me for an “arrival show,” and I tore up the aerobatic box as much as I could with an airplane full of bags and charts. James and I then formed up for the overhead approach, and taxied in to the welcome greetings of the organizers, our friends and crew. There had already been two days of flying, photo and practice flights, and Matt Younkin had been lighting up the city’s night sky in his Beech 18. The whole city seemed excited about the show, and it was time to celebrate!
The air show was aerial entertainment at its finest. Starting with the traditional flag jump and ending with the Salvadorian Air Force’s precision demo team, local pilots were well represented by Carlos Dardano, who flew a dynamic routine in his Decathlon. And others proved you didn’t have to have an Extra or a Pitts to fly a show: There were Stearmans, Ag planes, and even a Piper Navajo performed rolls. Younkin, Greg Poe and I each flew four times a day, including a fun three-ship routine. The U.S. Military was well represented by Army helo pilots and crews from Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras. They were fantastic with the kids.
Looking back at the air shows I’ve flown, it’s always the small but astonishing things that I remember the most: flying upside-down over Russia’s Volga River in a Yak 52 with Viktor Smolin; looking at a Geyser erupting while flying a show in Rekyavik, Iceland. With El Salvador, I’ll never forget looking out at my wingtip at the top of a hammerhead and seeing a volcano. But what I’ll remember most will be the people and their hospitality, generosity and warmth. Was this show about the journey or the destination? It was definitely both.
Patty’s Challenge To You!
|January will be here before you know it, and the sun will be shining down South. Why not plan a flying adventure to Central America? I encourage, no challenge, you to get a group together and fly to El Salvador for the 2012 Ilopango air show (www.ilopangoairshow.com). I promise this trip will be more than just another logbook entry. The destination is definitely worth the journey! I’m ready. Will I see you there?
It’s not too soon to start planning. Here are a few tips:
1. Local knowledge is key. Don’t be afraid to ask local pilots about weather patterns, passes, availability of fuel at airports and more.
2. Always be flexible. When flying VFR (and even IFR), flexibility can often equate to safety. You never have to be anywhere. FBOs are some of the friendliest and most hospitable places around. Avail yourself of their resources when you get stuck.
3. Learn some of the local language. It goes a long way. Even if you can’t speak fluently, a few well- placed “gracias” will show the locals that you respect their language and culture.
4. Be organized. When flying to the Bahamas, for example, you might keep a small binder with necessary paperwork ready to show authorities that includes your landing permits; veterinary certificates if you are bringing a dog; a copy of your passport; immigration and customs forms (already filled out) and more. It’s also helpful to keep copies of airplane paperwork and pilot licenses to show at a quick glance. Often, you won’t even be asked to produce the originals.
5. Make a side trip! Central America is full of many interesting things to see in the way of ruins (e.g. Tical), lodges and beaches. The coast of Guatemala is one nice surf break after another, and with almost no one else on the beach. The coast of El Salvador is famous for small beach resorts and excellent beaches.
Patty Wagstaff is a six-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic team, and a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion. She flies for the California Department of Forestry during the summer months. Visit www.pattywagstaff.com.