Sunday, October 19, 2008

Leaving Miami and all the security of terra firma and striking out over the water took a little faith. I thought about the water for the first couple hours and then all but our ditching procedure faded and gave way to more normal Cross Country thoughts and tasks. The biggest of these was trying to figure out if we could actually make PR with a respectable 1 hour fuel reserve or not. The head winds played with us all day. With such a long flight, even 9mph of headwind can mean the difference between one hour of fuel left, or two. You can be sure that many prayers went up from several different airplanes over the Bahamas that day. If we stopped for fuel it would mean clearing customs and being several hundred miles short of our destination. This was Monday and the boys had tickets to fly home on Thursday night. We had no spare time. The headwinds subsided throughout the day and by the time Curtis and I reached our decision point in "Mama Goose" (the 172), Guy and Mr. Kim had already come within 100 miles of the destination and were giving weather reports. Curtis and I had both felt that God would let us go all the way, and this time He did.

Curtis and I were the last to reach Aguadilla, PR. These guys landed a couple hours before us. But they were still out fueling the airplanes when we got there. I think they went and ate the pizza first. I would too I guess.

Jeff was there too...Curtis and I grabbed some of the Pizza graciously provided by someone (maybe the FBO) and went to work on the airplanes even though we were zombies. There was a couple minor discrepancies with the airplane but with another marathon flight starting at sunrise, we couldn't afford to put them off.It looks like late at night, but remember the sun sets very close to 6pm when you are near the equator.

We got up very early to nab this fantastic and highly artistic shot of two half awake boys. Yeah right!!! This is the crew of "Mama Goose" valiant and exemplary, always being the last in and the first out. Hey isn't that the opposite of brave??? Oh well, Curtis and I got about 3-4 hours of sleep and then we were in the air again. Thankfully having two pilots where only one was required allowed us to take naps during the flight. I think we were probably eyeing the pizza at this point even though it was only 6:30am. PR has some very interesting geography which we had plenty of time to admire. In fact a Cessna Caravan (not a very fast airplane itself) was advised that we were a "slow mover". With a slight headwind and a full load the airplane labored upwards at a ground speed of only 70mph for close to an hour after takeoff. When we reached 7000ft the controler cleared us direct and PR came to steep end. We headed out on our reluctant morning wings under the stratus and over a grey sea.

Ah ha! the Pizza takes a mortal blow. Old cold pizza doesn't scare pre-7am pilots.

Well a lot is left unsaid between this picture and the last. The Islands of the Carribean are quite an interesting place to fly. This picture is actually the Guyana coastline at the end of the adventure but first the Island deserve a few words.
For starters, everything USA ends in PR, including radar, radio coverage and satellite weather on your fancy borrowed GPS. If you really want to know how the air traffic controlers sound. Take and islander friend and stuff him in a can with a WWII radio. You know, the type that Roosevelt used to give fireside chats over.
This flight had its challenges. Fuel was not particularly an issue but time was. There are no single engine flights allowed in Guyana after sunset so we HAD to make it by 6:18pm no excuses. This was only going to happen if we didn't have a headwind. We kept trying to get a direct course to shorten the trip and give a little extra time but even when we got a direct clearance the next center would take it away and send us back to the airway. Another challenge was getting used to giving position reports and flying IFR without radar and often without radio contact. One of our aux pumps started seeming tired and we had to deviate around some buildups. I clearly remember my favorite part of the flight. I was asking for direct for the last time, in fact in would have only made a small difference at this point, and the course happened to lay over a stretch of water either way. The controller came back and notified me that that course would take me "over water". I laughed to myself. I could count on my fingers the minutes I had been in gliding range of anything all day.

Once again Mama Goose was a couple hours behind and the 182 with Guy and Mr. Kim gave pilot reports of the weather at the destination long before we got there. We had to dodge a couple big buildups but then started a decent and went under the rest. Making landfall in Guyana had a big effect on me. I had thought Guyana was pretty tame until I saw all those trees. In fact there was nothing else of note except a few pretty rainbows. Just millions of trees holding hands.
Culture shock really started to hit just inside the coast of Guyana when I saw a couple of huts miles from anything other than trees. It is hard to imagine real 21st. century people living out there so far from anything. It was another 1.5 hours to any semblance of civilization.

This picture is after we had cleared customs, and imigration and gotten the planes all fueled for the next day. Curtis and I made it with 10 mins of daylight to spare. God gets the credit for that. What a relief to have made and be in "friendly" country. We got everything ready for the morrow, as we were all limited to a dawn take-off and Mama Goose needed every minute of daylight to make the Bolivian border and our unlit destination. We were able to find a hotel and send Jeff to bed before midnight. Many little things just turned out great, like finding a taxi driver that would pick us up at 3am for the return trip to the airport and a guy who would sell us some extra gas cans. The little motel type place even let us stay 4 guys to a room and we saved money to lose sleep. After laying down on the clean tile floor I only had to kill one cockroach before going to sleep for my standard issue 3 hours. This picture btw is of Jeff's wife Fawna and their little girl Sierra. Sierra usually tries to feed me after long flights and I think that is what she is up to here.

We got up early again to ensure a 5:37am sunrise liftoff time. Getting through customs and getting everything packed didn't take too long so we had a few minutes for some sleepy ramp flying before we had to saddle up and blast off.

Another amusing moment happened shortly after takeoff. The control, a woman with a thin reedy voice confidently commanded Mama Goose to "Maintain 400 fpm or greater through flight level 070 (7000 ft). I almost laughed on the radio. When I got it under control I just as confidently said my favorite radio word "Unable". And then I offered my conciliation "N12864 will maintain at least 100 fpm through 7000." She surprised me right back " N12864 Maintain 1000 ft". Ok so that part of Guyana was pretty flat and we had terrain on the GPS but still there was a fog the was rapidly developing into an undercast with no clear top. If we had lost the engine we would have had about 90 seconds before hugging a tree. Oh well, orders are orders. Very soon she came back and cleared us to 7000ft utilizing "no more than 400fpm" (much more possible).
After maybe an hour the undercast dissapeared and we got a look at Guyana from 7000ft. It was not as flat as I had expected. There were waterfalls coming off these cliffs and catching the morning sun. I like what I saw and I wouldn't mind going back for a while.

The AMAZON BASIN!!! What could possibly be said to help you understand. This place is immense beyond imagination. I've seen some big deserts but in a desert a truck or quad can shorten huge distances. This on the other hand is jungle that nothing can penetrate except your own two feet. "Follow the rivers" you say and you are right. But do you realize how flat it is and what that does to a river. I've never seen such winding rivers. You will easily travel 3-4 times, maybe even more, the distance between point A and B. And there were shockingly huge areas with no watercourses at all. And of course, being tropical, hot humid and such, there were Thunderstorms. We no longer had satellite radar to steer around stuff and when it really closed in we had to punch through. Jeff caught the worst turbulence of his life and his wife caught Sierra's lunch. Other than that we came through unscathed. I did see plenty of lightening though. God took good care of us and we actually had tailwinds most of the way. Air traffic control is almost a joke through this area. There are no airports and no airplanes. They made us go to at least 10,000 feet in order to go direct and we still spent most of the day not being able to reach anyone on the radio. Thankfully there is safety in numbers and two of the three airplanes had satellite tracking devices beaming signals to folks back home. We discussed our emergency options on the radio and they weren't actually that bad. We still had life rafts and food so ditching in a river and floating along wouldn't be too bad. Plus we had the gas to do our own search and go for help to Manaus, Brazil.

We arrived in Guayaramerin, Bolivia with 30 mins to spare on sundown. There was quite a welcoming contingent at the airport since this is the place that Jeff started. We met up with some of the academy kids who were delivering wood in town and took them out to eat at the local sandwich shop. If we hadn't we would have missed out on a free ride in the back of the wood truck 18 miles to the school. The sandwich shop was pretty busy so Curtis and I popped over to the internet cafe to write home. I was hitting some culture shock but Curtis helped tone it down by showing me around and telling stories as if it was all normal. It was still quite different. I was very tired and afraid of getting sick from the food. God convinced me that He wouldn't let me get sick that night so I relaxed a little and had fun eating...guess French fries!! Then we took the hour ride to the school in the back of the big truck. I got my first taste of the jungle that very night. Curtis just had to go jump in the creek where the students bathe and wash laundry. The moon was high and close to full so I could see enough to realize we were really in the jungle.

My first taste of Bolivia

The ride to the school from town seemed very long. Thankfully we didn't have to sit on our over tired hind ends for the 18 bumpy miles. There was a great moon.

The truck/bus/everything on wheels in the light of the next dawn.

One of the houses build for volunteers that come.

The school's water tower. Water is pumped up from the creek and then flows down into a few sinks and toilets in the brick buildings.

These look fairly civilized from a distance but don't be fooled. They are simple a brick shell with open ceilings and are divided into many small rooms by brick partitions. They do have a shower in each and maybe one sink.

Breakfast at the school. Rice with some kind of sauce.

Curtis and I tramping through the jungle. We checked out the swimming hole, dam, hydraulic ramp pump and the spot where they dig for sand.

The school's new pineapple patch.

We visited the kitchen and had a nice chat with the cooks. Notice the oven.

We were almost late to catch the truck heading back to town. It was nice to check out the scenery in the light of day but riding on a load of charred wood is no fun. The charcoal dust constantly went in the eyes. In town the wood sells for nearly $100 US

And I thought Bolivians were crazy motorbike riders. Look at this, two gringos on the way to file their flight plan. Yes that IS a plate of Spaghetti in his left hand!

Winding rivers on the way to Santa Cruz. The lowlands or "Beni" are quite flat.

Curtis getting his first Bolivian cloud flying. This was our last leg, only 4.5 hours in Mama Goose. Guayara is in northeast Bolivia and Santa Cruz in is the southern central area. It is a fairly large country.
We were happy to have survived the minimal English of our last leg and super thankful to God for a trip with no troubles. The engines all ran flawlessly, we never had to divert to an alternate for gas or weather and all the legal, government stuff went as smooth as only miracles can make them. After 40 hours in the air we felt like brothers. I was happy to be done sitting in airplanes for a while. Curtis, Guy and Dr. Kim had to leave the same night and head back to Atlanta on the airlines.

1 comment:

Emily said...

Oh, DJ... you're the more brave crew, I believe. I think even Reepicheep might commmend you on the valor of placing your whole confidence in God and striking out with merry heart... :)

Dios te bendiga