Two Grandmothers & A Mooney -
A Tour of South America by Air by Pat Collins
There Mikey stood, in front of his Placerville Airport hangar in Northern California, glistening silver in the moonlight at dawn’s edge. And then, he became resplendent in the glow of the rising sun. Mikey is a well-cared for, fully instrumented 1966 200 H.P. Mooney M20E. Two shadowy figures hovered about Mikey, the pilot, Pat, and the companion, Kem, the navigator. A well researched and organized travel plan would carry the two fliers across the southern United States to Florida, then southeastward over the island of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the Lesser Antilles to cruise the periphery of South America. They would see many of the tourist points of interest, tour some of the cities and visit friends along the way before returning home fifty-eight days later.
A pilot of 45 years and the widow of WWII P-38 fighter pilot, Donald Collins, grandmother Patricia Collins and her trusting and helpful flying companion, grandmother Kem Pence were the travelers. In addition to being a member of EAA Chapter 512 in Placerville, Pat is a CFI, a member of the Sierra West Chapter of the Ninety-Nines and an enthusiastic Young Eagles Pilot. She also is an active Flying Samaritans pilot, providing round trip flights between Northern California and remote earthen airstrips in Baja, Mexico for doctors, nurses, and medical equipment to benefit the Mexican poor.
Immunization shots, medical certificates, insurance papers, passports, entry permits – all were in order a week in advance of the South American tour. Pat’s drivers license, pilot’s license and medical certificate had been plastic laminated. The flight plan was filed for Las Vegas, the bottled oxygen and gas tank were full. A “just in case” chamois to filter fuel, a GPS, 25 pounds of aeronautical charts and related material, and a canopy cover to obstruct casual viewing of valuable cockpit contents while parked, were stowed.
The ladies were well informed and aware of weather, mechanical, navigational, radio, and napoleonic legal risks in Latin American countries from previous flights to Mexico and Costa Rica. Equipped with credit cards, lots of U.S. dollars in tens and twenties, and travelers’ checks and with a flight plan filed, the fliers ventured on their first leg, February 3. Eastward, Mikey flew just ahead of the threatening weather through a cloudless pass of the Sierra Nevada. The aviators dined and spent the first two nights grounded due to an expanse of weather. Finally they were able to continue to Naples, Florida but only by climbing to 13,500’ over thunderstorms. Earlier, the fliers had decided to avoid night flying and in-cloud flying if they could. But wintertime flying makes short days, and they found themselves avoiding thunderheads at night by the flashes of lightening descending over the west coast of Florida. Landing near Naples, on Florida’s west coast, the fourth night was spent with friends at the Wing South Airpark. The United States had been spanned. The fifth day was rest and preparation to leave the United States for two months.
The morning mist of the sixth day saw Mikey fly its travelers to Opa Locka on the east coast of Florida for a fuel top-off, a life raft and two life vests very kindly lent by Eastern Aero Marine Supply, and the international flight plan was filed for Turks & Caicos Islands, U.K. The GPS proved valuable against the uncertainties of fuel use while flying against the “easterlies” over expanses of water. Cruising with fair skies at 8000 to 10000’ toward Andros Island, over the many beautiful coral reefs and sparsely inhabited islands of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, every beautiful shade of blue ocean depth surrounding them came into view through scattered clouds. Arrival at Providenciales, in the Turks & Caicos Islands, at the International Airport, after 4 hours and 15 minutes flying, required a landing fee, customs inspection, an immigration check and flight plan check. A flight plan check and landing fee were required upon arriving at every airport (except Argentina where the landing fee was but a one-time $30.00 fee per month while within her borders). Each country varied the requirements for entry and over-flight, from merely filing an international flight plan to 48 hour notification.
The flight continued to St. Thomas and the next morning our travelers were on their way over-flying the many colorful Lesser Antilles Islands. The day ended in Port of Spain, Trinidad Island. The terminal was awash with people arriving to celebrate Carnival, and three hours were spent satisfying the bureaucratic routine. After a warning by the Port of Spain weather people regarding the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, Mikey’s nose pointed toward Georgetown, Guyana, a flight over open sea. Above the open sea, on this tenth morning of their trip, the GPS failed. Without VOR reception, the backup was plain old pilotage, relying on time estimates and checkpoints on the ground. The only big check point was the coast of South America. All else were clouds and ocean below; or inland, clouds and a solid jungle where all the rivers looked alike. Pilotage, the gyro-compass and one chart lead the way to the Guyana coastline; and finally, the radio picked up the Georgetown VOR. After refueling and completing the required paperwork, they headed for Rochambeau, Cayenne, French Guiana, a 3-1/4 hours flight. U.S. dollars were not accepted at French Guiana, so at Cayenne, there was a money exchange to deal with. After breakfast on the eleventh morning, the refueling was paid with francs. Once the fuel man held the francs, he had no change for Pat’s over-payment. When she protested, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “C’est Francais”, (i.e. This is France). So they left for Macapa, Brazil over jungle without any identifiable checkpoint, and the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone had been entered with clouds at all levels. Flying at one altitude was impossible; and, without the GPS, keeping the ground in sight for checkpoints was crucial. There was only an NDB for a dogleg course change. If Pat missed it, Mikey would be out over the Atlantic. Many South and Central American nav-aids are low powered, and Pat discovered later that some aids are turned on only upon request!
After Macapa, they winged their way to Belem. This leg was flown across the 200 mile wide Ihla de Marajo (the Amazon River’s huge delta where buffalo-like cattle are raised). The twelfth morning Mikey’s destination was Fortaleza, Brazil, and the I.T.C.Z. weather was closing in. Sao Luis was reached in 2-l/2 hours for refueling, but weather information was for the vicinity of Fortaleza, not the 300-mile flight route. The trip to Fortaleza with continued against an east wind after waiting out a downpour. Visual flying was marginal over Parnaiba and worse ahead. The Fortaleza VOR was out of range, and English radio was not available for VFR flights. In an effort to overfly the storm clouds, Mikey climbed to 16,000 feet to no avail. Low on fuel, the GPS useless, and darkness approaching, Pat decided to turn inland, off course, and fly below the clouds just above tree-top level over the flat, savanna-like countryside. A road was found and followed southward to a little town where an abandoned airfield, now a soccer field with cattle, accommodated a landing. Excited children greeted and surrounded the plane. The town was identified as Piripiri, and the town’s only English speaking gentleman was found. He described an airport farther along the road at Teresina where Mikey was refueled and dinner and overnight accommodations were found. Two American grandmothers arriving by airplane in Teresina at any other time would have been an event, but it was the last night of Carnival. The ladies listened to amplified Carnival music all the hot and humid night long.
Eastward to the coast of Brazil, the airport at Ilheus was the target for the next day where the engine was inspected, the oil changed, and the tank refueled while a few days were spent enjoying the famous warm waters of southern Brazil’s beaches. Aloft from the Ilheus Airport toward Sao Paulo, Mikey followed the coast southward, settling down on a grassy landing strip at Saquerema, a little resort town on the coast just north of Rio de Janiero. A colorful celebration was in full swing, the excitement was catching, and one felt overdressed walking around in bathing suits. This was the last weekend of Carnival, and every Brazilian was at the beach.
Back in the air, Mikey flew southward along the coast over scenic Rio de Janiero to land at Sao Paulo, replace a failing nose landing gear tire, have the GPS memory battery replaced. With confidence regained by the functioning GPS, the flight’s next leg was directed eastward toward the Foz de Iguacu near the junction of the border of Brazil with Argentina and Paraguay. Plans were made to tour the area of the great Iguacu Falls of the Parana River before leaving Brazil for Argentina.
Argentina was the next destination, and after a landing at Cataratas for the entry, Mikey continued toward Buenos Aires. The arrival of two grandmother fliers from the United States caught the attention of the Buenos Aires television news media. Pat and Kem were interviewed “live” on national TV the very night they landed. Though they never got to see their show, celebrity status preceded them as they flew south. Upon trying to leave Buenos Aires for Viedma, they had to make arrangements to hop over to a military field for fuel since the heavy rain the night before had left the fuel truck stuck in the mud. The next morning Mikey’s goal was southward to Rio Gallegos, a flight crossing the Gulf of San Matias across barren and desert-like land. During this leg of the flight, the vacuum pump failed, shutting down the gyro-compass and artificial horizon. At Rio Gallegos a replacement pump was ordered from Buenos Aires requiring a week’s stay. Pam and Kem made arrangements to tour the southern tip of Argentina on a commercial flight south over the overcast Strait of Magellan and the mountainous Argentine Tierra del Fuego to Ushuaia. Two days were spent touring the area including a boat tour of the historical Beagle Channel. After return to Rio Gallegos, an overnight bus tour to Calafate, at the foot of the Andes, presented the opportunity to explore the wonderful Perito Moreno glacier on foot.
When the replacement vacuum pump arrived, a less than dependable A&E mechanic installed the pump backwards. When Pat started the engine, ready to fly away, and the instruments did not function, the mechanic’s instructions were, “Let it warm up”. Then he walked away from his error, unconcerned and not to be seen again. With no gyro-compass or artificial horizon, Mikey headed to Bariloche, Argentina. The nearly due north flight crossed barren desert lowlands and the riverbeds of Rio Chico and Rio Chubut, all rather featureless uninhabited areas; but the flight was spectacular with changing views of the snowy eastern escarpment of theAndes to the west.
The next destination was Chillan, Chile where five or six female pilots are members of the Ninety Nines. During the several days’ visit, Pat and Kem toured the beautiful countryside with a friend while a responsible A&E mechanic correctly installed the instrument vacuum pump. At the next destination of Santiago, Chile, our fliers were guests of a Chilean lady, a famous WWII ferry pilot, Margot Duhalde, now a National Treasure and an employee of the Chilean “FAA. The next day’s flight took them over mountainous country to 9000’ Arequipa, an ancient Incan city in Peru. Kem and Pat flew commercially to the 11,000’ elevation Cusco Airport to enjoy a three day tour of Cusco and some surrounding old villages by bus and by train to the ancient and remarkable ruins of Machu Picchu, incredible and memorable experiences. Upon return to Arequipa Airport, Mikey was found undisturbed, but the Peruvian official there found it difficult to believe that women indeed could be the owners and fliers of an airplane. The ladies often met with this kind of disbelief. However, upon presenting their documents, they were permitted to proceed with the packing, obtain clearance, and fly away to Lima, Peru. The next day, preparing to file a plan for Tumbes, Peru, a Peruvian airport bureaucrat dredged up every flimsy technicality he could think of to detain and charge the fliers more money. Tenacity won the day, and the fliers were allowed to leave. Cleared to leave Peru, the next destination was north, over water to Guayaquil, Eduador. Landing and refueling at Guayaquil, a flight was planned for Esmeraldas, Ecuador for fuel and clearance to Colombia
Upon arriving at Esmeraldas, it was discovered that fuel was not available because the fuel pump was broken. With only three hours of fuel left, a flight to Buena Ventura on the coast of Colombia was planned. Nearing Buena Ventura radio contact informed Pat that the airport was closed due to construction! It is typical that South American airports know nothing about the status of major facilities or the weather at a neighboring country’s airports. Buena Ventura advised Pat to fly east at 13,000’ over the Western Andes to Cali, Colombia. This meant that Pat had to divert and fly inland to Cali with only 45 minutes of fuel, file an IFR flight plan and climb to 13,000’ for the approach. A safe landing was made with only 15 minutes of fuel left onboard – a very nervous adventure! The next morning upon filing a flight plan for Panama, Pat was advised to fly very high and north northwest over the Western Andes and the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Panama and Panama City to avoid being mistaken as trespassing the airspace of hostile drug growers. Continuing over Santiago Mikey’s next step was in San Jose, Costa Rica. The next morning a plan was filed for San Salvador, El Salvador with an overflight of Nicaragua along the west coast with a distant view toward the east of the great lake of Nicaragua, once planned to be incorporated in a second canal system across Central America. Near Puerto Samoza an eruption of the Cerro Negro volcano was spewing volcanic ash up to 40,000’ while Pat and Kem passed to the windward side and were able to look down to see red lightning from the eruption. This surprising and exciting event was mentioned only as an afterthought by the weatherman at Costa Rica. Continuing on from San Salvador to the capital city of Guatemala they flew above steep mountainous country heavily farmed where once was a rain forest. In Guatemala the fliers took the bus to Antigua, a very old city nearby, to visit friends and to rest for a few days.
The morning of their return, they departed for Tapachula, Mexico where Pat and Kem were overnight guests of a friend at Puerto Escondido before continuing to Manzanillo, Mexico and then LaPaz, Baja California, Mexico. Mikey, the Mooney-bird was heading home. They followed the Mexican mainland west coast to Cabo Corrientes, then left the land to fly northwest over the Sea of Cortez across 500 miles of open water. After spending the night in LaPaz their flight continued to Mexicali above the Sea of Cortez where, after passing custom inspection, getting weather and lunch, the two grandmothers entered the United States with a sigh of relief. The flight home to Placerville was a “bee line” from Calexico along the familiar terrain to Long Beach Airport where they stayed with Pat’s sister. The next morning a final plan was filed for Placerville where the most cherished possession brought home by fliers was a refreshed vision of the United States’ comparatively uncluttered flying freedom.
It has been a long and wonderful trip of 16 foreign countries and some 20,500 statue miles with 147 hours logged, 35 days of flying out of 58 days and two days of nearly impossible flying weather encountered in-flight. Four failures to find fuel at airports occurred and two separate major navigational instrument losses were experienced. About forty hours of the usual bureaucratic routine and two detentions added something to the experience as well. All the adventures and visits with friends were refreshing. All these and untold miles of gorgeous scenery over shallow seas of coral islands, along coastal shores, over rain forests and savanna, deserts, both flat and steep farm lands, dense population centers, busy rivers and deltas, the icy end of the Americas, the glistening teeth of the Andes, touring incredible ancient cities, lots of good human relations in a difficult language environment, and a great flying companion, all these have provided a lifetime of exciting memories.