A Journal, with Pictures

Archive for March, 2018

Central America Panama Adventure Starts

by on Mar.19, 2018, under Flying

This trip actually started on our first Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) trip to Central America, several years before. We were very close to Panama, but the logistics, schedule and cost prevented us from even doing a flight from Costa Rica over the Canal. Caribbean Sky Tours (CST) had organized the first unaccompanied trip, which was great. When I heard they did a Panama trip in 2017 I contacted them and then met with the principles at Air Venture in Oshkosh in the summer of that year. We organized the trip, using what we learned from the first trip and added representatives (the principles) accompanying us.

About CST, they are a 15 year old company managed by Rick and Pia Gardner, founders, who specialize in organizing and managing flights to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Central and South America. Their primary business is planning, organizing and supporting corporate flights in this region, but they also do trips for groups. They are the premier quality supplier, who have the infrastructure to plan and support flights in this difficult part of the world. Such things as over flight permits, customs and immigration requirements, local aviation regulations, facilities, routes and on and on, are what they know. CST collected a huge amount of data and documents from us to make sure that we were good for any foreign aviation or immigration requirement. They have a network of agents and an in house computer supported group of flight coördinators who not only plan, but also track every flight. As an example when our 12 planes where coming back to the U.S., CST was also managing 18 other flights in the region. The local knowledge CST has, plus the organizations infrastructure makes under taking a trip like ours not only possible but by Latin American standards hassle free.

So with CST’s help we announced our Adventure on the COPA web site and it sold out in less than 15 minuets, with a long wait list. COPA doesn’t like to disappoint members, so we asked CST, could you do a second trip, they came back and said yes, so again we sold the second trip out in 15 minuets. So we had two trips, at maximum capacity, which is governed by how many planes we can get though customs, refueled and achieve out destination in a flying day, which turns out to be 12 with a reasonable margin of safety. In the months leading up to the trip the participants received a number of emails with planning information. Several months before the trip the flight plans and routing were sent and a month before the trip we had a teleconference call to go over the material and answer questions, so if you read the material and did normal conscientious trip planning there would be no need for changes after the trip began. We were in good hands and should be prepared.

So now with all of this, planning and preparation now its time to fly to our U.S. jumping off airport, in our case Brownsville, Texas. A look at the forecast and on the day of our planned departure, morning fog forecast at Hilton Head, and also the day before. The decision fly Monday the 20th of February a day early. At least we could get half way if we left late, which is what happened, so we spend the night in Hammond, LA, just north of New Orleans. This is an adventure trip so we start with an adventure. As usual Hammond, turns out to be an interesting place and we have a fun evening made possible by a great FBO, Pierce Aviation. Next morning we fly on for the second four hour plus flying day to Brownsville TX. Head winds the whole way west and 30 knot gusts upon doing the instrument approach into our destination airport. Yes, it is going to be an adventure trip.

That evening we meet Rick Gardner of CST and organize our first meeting at the hotel. We have our first briefing of the group and then go to local restaurants for dinner. The inevitable bounding of fellow pilots and adventurers starts. Tomorrow we are off on our adventure.

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Brownsville, TX to Veracruz, Mexico

by on Mar.19, 2018, under Flying

Our first day of flying on the COPA Central America Panama Adventure started with 6:30 breakfast at our hotel in Brownsville, then to the airport for a 8:30 departure for the three and a half hour flight. Part of our group (Florida residence) were coming from Key West Florida and would meet us in Veracruz so we had eight planes in our squadron. We left on time with the turbo charged planes going first so they could wait for the rest of us at our destination but not have to worry about separation. The flight was easy down the coast with scattered clouds, and we got introduced to Mexican, really Central American ATC. Radar is spotty so we were required to report our position periodically relative to a way point. We made a VOR approach into Veracruz and got introduced to Mexican customs. CST had their agents there to help us and we got through fairly quickly by Latin American standards. We were off to the Hotel Emporio Veracruz which is on the water. After check in we did a walking tour on our own of the very scenic old city. A cold cerveza  on the square, a look at the old fort which has a rich history and then it was time to meet for the briefing for tomorrows flight to Guatemala City before cocktails and dinner at the hotel. Veracruz is a very pretty, scenic sea coast resort city and a good choice for our first stop.

Our first briefing by CST with the whole group took place in Veracruz. What was clear was we had no excuses of not being prepared. Pia Hilbert Gardner, gave a us a “Passenger Itinerary” the gave us every detail you would want to know and just in case you couldn’t read she went over the next days activities and schedule. Rick Gardner, then briefed us on the upcoming flight, what to expect and do in customs, in the air, on the ground as well as the forecasted weather. He provided a pilots guide with every possible detail included and then covered the next days departure, flight and landing. We were in good hands, so we could relax and enjoy our journey. We had a jolly dinner and started the process of making new friends.

Tomorrow we fly to Guatemala City, we are off to a good start with a congenial group.

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Veracruz Mexico to Antigua, Guatemala

by on Mar.19, 2018, under Flying

After our short stay in Veracruz we fly the three and a half hour flight to the Guatemala City airport. This is a very interesting flight from a number of points of view. First we have planned our route so that we don’t need oxygen, and over the most hospitable terrain, some elect to change to a short cut route which is fine, but then a MOA goes hot and ATC tries to route everyone over the higher terrain. One hour later, while sitting on the taxiway,  we get this fixed and the rest of the planes leave. Last minute changes in these countries proves to be a bad idea. The flight itself is over very interesting terrain and we fly along the east coast turn west and traverse the low point of the mountain spine of Central America to the west coast, past Tapachula where we will visit later and finally we turn in-land to Guatemala City. We are flying between volcanic mountains, one of which is active. As we turn toward the mountains we are in the clouds, and Guatemala approach has it hands full with regular commercial traffic and a swarm of 12 Cirrus. Lots of vectoring and then an ILS approach to the airport that is 4950 above sea level, with terrain all around. Because of the terrain and traffic, approach keeps us high until the last minuet then its dive for the runway, best landing I made on the whole trip 140 knots over the fence (yikes). We then taxi to customs, where we are met by about 25 Guatemala and US drug agents in training. After customs, we taxi to park away from the terminal, where there are a number of confiscated drug planes, with more parked on the other side of the airport, including a Gulfstream, Embraer and other expensive big iron. We then leave Guatemala City for Antigua, which turns out to be an absolutely charming colonial capital city about an hour and a half drive into the highlands. We arrive at Hotel Camino Real, which is very nice and its time for a Cerveza, shower,  then we reconvene for a group dinner.

Our first full day in Antigua we do a walking tour of the city, which is surrounded by volcanic mountains, one active. The city was the third capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala, that at that time included Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica under Spanish Conquistador rule. It is known for its well preserved Baroque Spanish architecture and many church ruins and retains the cobblestone streets.

We have lunch, in our case with our guide in a local restaurant for native food, very different but very good, of course with a local cerveza. We explore the city on our own for the rest of the day then reconvene for cocktails before a group picture in front of the hotel, then off to a local restaurant for dinner.

The second day we have the option to select one of several tours. We select a tour of surrounding villages, that specialize in different crafts, others choose to climb to the top of one of the volcano’s, the one in the photo covered by clouds. We view the city from a hill then we see locals doing laundry, a textile weaving village, a jade processing factory and a Macadamia nut farm before returning to Antigua.

Since its Saturday we then go to the farmers market on the edge of the city, where locals do their weekly shopping. My only fear was getting lost in the market which was teaming with buyers and sellers crowed in narrow aisles around acres of stands. It was chaotic but fun. After the tour we wandered off to a local restaurant for lunch and did some more touring and shopping.

It was cocktails and dinner at the hotel after the briefing for the flight to Panama very early the next morning. Antigua proved to be a highlight of the trip and worthy of being designated a World Heritage Sight.

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by on Mar.17, 2018, under Flying

On Sunday, February 25th, we did the most demanding day of the trip. Because of the drive from Antigua to Guatemala City and customs uncertainty, plus a refueling stop for 12 airplanes we had to leave Antigua very early in the morning (6:00am departure). When we arrived in Guatemala City in the morning we had to re-position our planes to customs, clear customs, then take off. We flew two and a half hours to Liberia, Costa Rica, did the approach, had the normal 30 knot gusts, landed, refueled and with the help of the great handlers were back in the air for the two hour and forty minute flight to Panama City’s GA airport. The FBO and customs in Panama were very good (customs in the FBO) and we were off to our hotel in the center of the old city. The first full day we went to the canal exhibition site to view the original canal Miraflores locks (first Pacific side locks), in the distance we could see the Pedro Miguel Locks (Lake level). The exhibition center included a museum that told the history and the operations as well as information about the new larger locks that operate in parallel to the original canal. The history is very interesting and the engineering and construction are clearly an amazing human accomplishment. The French tried and failed in the 1880’s and the US finished in 1914. The original canal consists of three sets of locks, a man made lake (Lake Gaton) that span roughly 45 miles across the isthmus of Panama and some of the most inhospitable swamp, jungle and mountains in the world. There were over 25,000 lives lost between the French and American efforts, mostly to yellow fever and malaria.

Our second day we had several choices for tours, one being taking the train to the Caribbean side and visiting Colon and the one we choose which was to take a boat trip onto the lake. We got a taste of the jungle that borders the lake and ships transiting this part of the canal. An interesting factoid is the lake took seven years to form after completion of the locks, supplied primarily by the Chagres river.

We had a good time in Panama with shopping near our hotel, and most everyone was sporting a new Panama hat, we had group dinners in local restaurants in addition to one night in the hotel, lunch on roof top restaurants gave us a great view of the new skyline. The last night after dinner we enjoyed a show that featured local dancers in local costumes.

Panama was extremely interesting and for those interested David McCullough’s “Path between the Seas” is a must read. This was another stop on the trip that was worth the trip alone.  The next morning we fly back to Liberia for an overnight then on to Tapachula.

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Panama to Tapachula

by on Mar.15, 2018, under Flying

We had a rather leisurely departure on Wednesday February 28th, since we only had a three hours flight back to Liberia, Costa Rico, where we would overnight. The departure was easy with customs formalities well organized and after pre-flight the twelve Cirrus were lined up for take off from Marcos A. Gelabert International (Panama’s general aviation airport). As we climbed out we made a left turn and below was the entrance to the Panama canal and the Miraflores locks, quite a sight. Of course there always has to be a little excitement, so Panama ATC changed our route so here we go fly the airplane with one hand and punch in the route changes with the other, while taking in the sights. Easy flight back to Liberia and of course 30 knot gusts down the runway for our landing. Some went to the beach, others just relaxed at the hotel near the airport until the group dinner.

The next morning we have to go through the main terminal to clear customs, load the bags, pre-flight and we are off for the three hour flight to Tapichula, Mexico. For most of the flight we enjoyed a great view of the volcano’s that form the mountain range of Central America. An interesting sight is the active volcano rising out of Lake Managua, in Nicara. The forecast was for clear skies, but they got it a little wrong for our destination and we did a very interesting VOR DME approach into the airport. Welcome back to Mexico, customs and immigration, very interesting, but soon we are on our way to Argovia, Finca (plantation) resort, which is a working coffee plantation. The resort is in the mountains and up a winding road, but not to fear, there is a stop for  snacks and cold cerveza,  so the hour and a half drive was good.

We are taken to our casitas, which are sprinkled along a ridge down a stone trail in a jungle like setting. The units are rustic, but clean with everything you need, plus a veranda over looking the valley with a spectacular view. We all relax, in our case with a cold bottle of wine on the veranda, then we are off to the group dinner. It’s a fun evening, with lots of conversation and laughter, capped off by a surprise to Joyce, birthday cake and champagne with a  serenade by the wait staff.

The next day the owner of Argovia, Bruno Guseman, third generation plantation owner gives us a tour and explanation of growing, picking, processing, roasting and brewing coffee. Bruno made a special trip from Tapachula to personally conduct the tour, and he not only educated us but totally charmed us. In addition to coffee, Bruno explained that Argovia Finca had diversified, and was producing a wide range of products ranging from flowers to hard wood in addition to operating the resort.

After the tour Bruno took us through his personal home, which was constructed of hard wood and could have been the set for a movie and was,surrounded by beautiful gardens. We then had lunch, some toured the flower operation, some relaxed or went to the spa. We then had our last briefing for the trip back to Brownsville, before our last dinner together.

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Back in the good old U.S.A.

by on Mar.15, 2018, under Flying

We arrived back in Brownsville after a four hour flight from Tapachula, to Tampico, Mexico clear customs, refuel then an hour and a half on to Brownsville. Due to late changes made by some of the group, the flight plans for all the other planes got “confused” by Mexican ATC. We spent the first 20 minutes out of Tapachula changing flight plans in the air then changing them back after Rick negotiated with the controllers. This again, re-enforced the lesson learned several times during the trip do the planning before you start the trip or you and your fellow pilots will pay the price. Tampico, was the best foreign airport experience of the trip which was fitting since Brownsville customs was excellent, so we returned to the land of good airport service we enjoy in the U.S.

That evening, those who stayed over, Rick, Connie, David and Elizabeth, Joyce and I had a very jolly evening of cocktails and dinner at a near by Italian restaurant. It was a celebration of great experiences and new friends made. The next morning we were in the air at 8:00am headed back to Hilton Head with a fuel stop in Hammond, LA. Tail winds eighty percent of the way so it was a great way to finish an incredible adventure. 5560 nautical miles and 44 hours of flying over very interesting and beautiful landscape, with visits to fascinating places, with a great group of people, it doesn’t get much better than that.  After a steak grilled on our very own barbecue, a fine bottle of wine and sleep in our own bed, we agreed it was nice to be back in the good old U.S.A.

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