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The Highs and Lows of International Flying

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The Highs and Lows of International Flying – By Chuck Ellsworth

I would like to share some of the experiences that I have had in my job as an international contract pilot with all the members of the Nanaimo Flying club. I am sure you will enjoy reading about the difficulties we have in the day to day flight planning and flying of these trips all over the world. Sometimes when dealing with the paperwork and paying all the outrageous charges we encounter I swear to god I will never do it again, then several months later I have forgotten that part and remember only the many sights, places and the people we have met on these trips.

I would like to offer some short stories for the N.F.C. monthly newsletter about the many flights I do in my job as a training and ferry pilot. Then maybe after reading these stories you will better understand my abhorrence of bureaucrat’s and their mindless enforcement of rules. Then the next time you find me sitting around sounding like a nut case you will understand what drove me to this sad state of mind. The only difference here in Canada is that they do not intimidate you with guns. (Yet) In the last three years I have been to thirty-seven different countries in Europe, Africa. Asia and South America. It is interesting that of all these flights, outside of my regular Transport Canada Instrument flight check rides I have not filed one flight plan in North America for three years.

I will start with my last flight and work backwards for three years. On April 23/99 I received a call to ferry a French owned P.B.Y. Catalina from Sao Paulo Brazil to Oshawa Ont. For those of you not familiar with this type of airplane it is a twin engine heavy flyingboat. Some of its stats are as follows. Wingspan 104 feet All up weight 30500 lbs. Fuel capacity10500 lbs. Oil capacity 990 lbs. Will fly 20 plus hour’s non-stop with full fuel I was to stop in Oshawa to pick up the journey log and a new battery for the airplane.

There were as usual delays and I did not depart Oshawa until Apr.27. I left Toronto at 10.00 p.m. and eleven hours later arrived Sao Paulo at 11.00 a.m. local time. After clearing customs and immigration with this big battery as part of my baggage I was met by a taxi driver holding a card with my name on it. He drove me into the city to the hotel that we stay at when in Sao Paulo, this was my fourth trip to Sao Paulo, and by then the desk staff knew me by name.

After a quick shower and change of clothes I went to Congonhas airport where the two engineers from England were checking the airplane for the ferry trip. These two engineers Clive and Mark Edwards have been part of our crew since 1996 starting in Africa where we did filming for the French Television company T.F.1 all over Africa.

The plan was to leave Sao Paulo the next day. On the following day after much wasted time with hydraulic problems we finally called for taxi clearance, I was advised that we had missed our slot and to call back in twenty minutes. When we next requested clearance we were advised the flight plan had been cancelled and we were to re. file. I had to file a V.F.R. flightplan as my Co-pilot pilot was the owner Franklin Devaux. He did not have an instrument rating, my regular Co-pilot pilot was not with us and this left me with the problem of how to depart an airport that was restricted to I.F.R. only.

We were expected to be at a military airbase north of Sao Paulo at 1P.M.for a publicity show connected with the Aeropostale Mail trip to S. America and there was a TV crew waiting. We had one of the military people with us so I had him contact air traffic control and he somehow got us a new clearance to depart Congonhas V.F.R. with an I.F.R. routing. The departure from this airport is quite interesting in that the airport is right in the center of the city and there are miles and miles of tall buildings in every direction. There are seventeen million people in the greater Sao Paulo area and this was the first time we actually got to see it as the four other times we departed Sao Paulo the weather was either I.M.C. or overcast so we didn’t see much of the city and surrounding area. There was great difficulty in following the routing they requested as we were V.F.R. and I couldn’t understand the place names the controllers wanted us to go to. I had the owner fly headings while I desperately searched the database in the GPS trying to find places that sounded like the names we were given.

Finally we were handed over to the military radar controller who spoke good English. This was the first attempt at flying V.F.R in South America and unlike the I.F.R. controllers these people were very difficult to understand, as they would seldom have to speak English with V.F.R. traffic.

The approach to Campo Fontenell was almost straight in to the right hand of two parallel runways. The airport is the main training center for the Brazilian Airforce and after the TV crews were finished we were given a tour of the base then a trip to town for dinner and free rooms for the night in the pilot barracks. The following morning we departed for Brazilia a short trip of three hundred and seventy nautical miles. The country is quite similar to Montana as it is in the highlands of central Brazil, Brasilia its self is thirty five hundred feet above sea level.

About an hour out of Brasilia the right engine started running rough it turned out to be on the left mag position. That was the first time the airplane had given us any problems in three years of flying. After landing we changed the plugs front to back to determine if it was plugs or the mag. There went our plans to spend the day touring Brasilia as by the time we finished working on the engine it was dark so we did not get to tour the city. Brasilia is the typical example of government stupidity. It was built in the middle of nowhere and is the most modern city in the world as it is only thirty-seven years old. The downside is there is nothing but government to support the city.

Sounds like B.C. and the idiots we have in government here. Day three started out good the weather was clear and we planned to fly the seven hundred and eighty nautical miles to Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River. That soon went to hell because while we were flightplanning I was asked to produce all the aircraft documents plus all our licenses. That was at seven A.M. After about thirty minutes I was told to go with two Federal police and was driven several miles to their station where I spent the next three hours trying to explain why I was flying in Brazil with an expired overflight permit. This was not the first time I have been detained by the police in these countries so after refusing to say anything until I had a good interpreter I played their game. I eventually convinced them that it was partially the fault of my company as they had the permit for four months in Oshawa.

Finally I signed a document admitting to being in contravention of Brazilian law. This resulted in a two thousand U.S. dollar fine and they issued me a new permit to exit Brazil by way of Belem in the next ten days. We now were into the worst part of the day for thunderstorms and sure enough were forced to land in a small town named Imperatrizon one of the thousands of rivers in the Amazon jungle. It was really a great experience to stay in a small town that far from civilization, not only was there not a decent hotel we couldn’t even order food, as we of course could not find anyone who understood English or French. When our food did arrive, it was plain boiled spaghetti and bread and butter. Franklin the owner of the airplane was worried about malaria, as this is a really bad area for malaria.

The Edwards brothers and me have spent a lot of time in Africa so do not worry to much about tropical diseases, you either get it or you don’t so why worry. The next morning was overcast at about five hundred feet so we took off and flew to Belem just above the jungle for about three hundred miles; it was one of the most fascinating flights I have ever done. The Amazon basin is so vast and diverse it is incredible, especially the flocks of bright coloured parrots we saw while flying at low level over the dense jungle. The shape and size of some of the trees is incredible no wonder it is so written about in books. We landed Belem and thanks to the help of the Brazilian airforce cleared customs paid our fees and managed to depart for Cayenne French Guyana just ahead of a major line of thunderstorms.

The flight to Cayenne was four and a half hours and was uneventful except for having to fly around several areas of thunderstorms, which is normal for that part of the world. We landed just before dark and spent the night in a very first class French hotel.

The following morning we went through the usual paperwork and payment routine and finally after four hours we were airborne for Fort De France Martinique via Paramaribo, Suriname. Georgetown, Guyana. Tobago, and Martinique. After departure we were given permission to circle Devils Island the French penal colony of Pappion fame in the book and movie.

After our tour of Devils Island were allowed to fly past the Aerian rocket center where France launches their satellite rockets it is very impressive, then we settled in for seven hours of boredom to Martinique or at least until we came to the island chain starting the windward group. On arrival Martinique we spent the night in another first class French hotel.

The following morning it was another three hours of paperwork fees and delays, finally at noon we were off for Grand Turk Island seven and a half hours away. The windward and leeward islands are really beautiful when viewed from the blisters of a P.B.Y. There is not a better airplane in the world to sightsee from than the P.B.Y. and as we fly with a crew of four we all get plenty of time for sightseeing. Before departure from Martinique we were given a notam that the volcano on Minstar was erupting and posed a danger to aircraft, as we flew past it we were offered a very close view of the activity during a large eruption, very impressive.

As we were passing the island of St. Martin the right engine once again started to run rough. After much discussion the decision was made to land at San Juan, Puerto Rico where we would have access to the airline flights from the U.S.A. to get our parts for the engine. This required us to ask permission to divert to San Juan due to engine problems, finally we were able to talk to American controllers, it was wonderful after all the problems with Portuguese, French, Dutch and Spanish controllers. It is of course true that airtraffic control is English all over the world it is just that some of them are hard to understand especially the Portuguese.

When we landed, I of course as the Captain of the aircraft had the privilege of writing the report of why we landed in a Country we were not flightplanned to, then fill out all the forms for Customs and immigration. After this was finished I returned to immigration only to find that the Edwards brothers visa for the U.S. was expired.This of course required another hour of paperwork and the magic of several hundred dollars and we were free to go park the airplane in an area where we could fix it. At last well after dark we checked into a hotel. Many phone calls and much work later we had a new mag and new plugs installed in the engine and after two and a half days we were ready to continue.

The following morning severe weather on our intended route forced us to wait for an improvement. Franklin then decided he must leave for Paris as he had a very important meeting to attend. He decided to leave the airplane in San Juan and we would pick it up later. So Franklin left for Paris and Mark, Clive and I flew to Miami, They made a connection to London and I had to overnight Miami. The following morning I was on Air Canada for Vancouver via Toronto. So ended another international ferry flight. There are of course many more things that go into this type of flying such as the thousands of gallons of fuel that we pump into the tanks during the trip, we try to fuel up as soon as we land and clear customs and immigration no matter how long it takes as we know that the next morning will be spent going through the paper work, payment of fees and customs and immigration nightmare that one finds in every country on earth some worse than others. If all you people want me to take you from Paris to Santiago next month let John know. The routing was Paris via Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. The trip was the Aeropostal mail route that France used fifty years ago. We flew it to celebrate one hundred years of aviation in France.

Then if you have not had enough I can take you on a tour of Africa flying for the French TV Company TF1 it was the most challenging and dangerous flying I have ever done with everything from Desert sand storms, to monstrous thunderstorms to filming in a war zone in the Sahara Desert and living with the Nomads for several weeks.

By Chuck Ellsworth