One for the books
Do you have any remarks in your logbook about a certain airport, “don’t go back there?” Maybe fuel was expensive, service was bad, anything along those lines? Well I just added one of those airports to my logbook…
I completed a ferry flight (delivery flight) to Peru last week, this time one for the books as they say. The machine was a brand new Cessna 172, the mission was to deliver her safely to Las Palmas, Peru (SPLP). My customer was ESPAC, a new flight school / aero club in Peru. As usual, I was the ferry pilot on the trip and with me was one of the machine’s new pilots/owners.
We left the Cessna factory in Kansas late in the afternoon on the tail end of a low-pressure system and headed to Shreveport, Louisiana. Heading southeast on this first leg we saw groundspeeds in excess of 180kts in the Cessna 172 thanks to the circulation around the low-pressure system. We overnighted in Shreveport and departed the next morning for Tamiami, FL, with stops at Bay Minette (1R8) and Lakeland (KLAL). Hotel space was a bit of a problem by the time we reached Tamiami, but we did catch the Heat-Knicks game over a beer at a local sportsbar. As is typical in Florida, there were a fair amount of New York fans watching the game as well.
One issue about this trip was that our insurance company would not provide insurance for Cuba overflight, so we had to fly from Florida down to the south end of the Bahamas and then around Cuba airspace to Jamaica. We cleared US Customs outbound in Tamiami and headed to the Bahamas on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Our stops in the Bahamas were Exuma (MYEF) for fuel and then Great Inagua (MYIG). Great Inagua is listed as having avgas at times, but we called ahead and were informed there was no avgas (100LL) in Great Inagua.
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In Great Inagua we were ramp checked by US Customs and Bahamian police. It was a bit odd to get ramp checked by an unidentified US Customs official (the 3 of them looked like paramilitaries) in the Bahamas, but we cooperated. They left without giving us much of a hard time and the next morning I asked the Bahamian authorities at the airport to confirm if these guys were legit, since none of them identified themselves.
There are no resorts or big hotels on Great Inagua, very few tourists go there. After the ramp check was complete a taxi driver took us to the local guest house and took us to buy some excellent food. I hesitate to say the food was from a local restaurant, it was more a regular house where the family makes its business cooking and selling food. At any rate, the food was excellent and the guest house quite nice.
Stuck for 3 days in Los Cedros, Colombia
If we thought the US Customs ramp check in Inagua was a bit odd, it was nothing compared to what lay ahead. After overnighting in Great Inagua we flew around the tip of Cuba to Kingston, Jamaica. We overnighted in Jamaica and departed Kingston early the next morning to Cartagena, Colombia (SKCG). We rushed through our Cartagena stop to get airborne by 2:00pm that afternoon. Our next leg was Cartagena to Cali, about 4 hours in a C172. We were delayed a bit in Cartagena and didn’t get airborne again until almost 3:00pm.
Now as the pilot-in-command I take responsibility: it was a mistake getting airborne in Cartagena. Once we realized we were delayed I should have decided to go to a hotel and start again the next day. If you’re not familiar with Colombia, single-engine night flight is prohibited in Colombia (with some exceptions). Again, it was my mistake, but we took off in Cartagena. We received our IFR clearance and were on our merry way. Once airborne our FMS (Garmin 1000) was showing an ETA in Cali of 23:55Z and sunset was expected around 23:25Z.
About an hour and a half into the flight we were handed of from Baranquilla control to Los Cedros tower (at low altitudes on the West side of Colombia you have a sort of tower enroute control). A bit later Los Cedros informed us that our flight plan ETA in Cali was after sunset and we were not allowed to continue. We hassled with Los Cedros tower a bit over the exact requirement of “night flight” in Colombia but to no avail. Just for background, in the US the beginning of “night flight” is defined as either the “end of civil twilight” or “1 hour after sunset”, depending on the purpose. Either way, dark does not begin at sunset and I felt comfortable we would be landing in Cali before dark but Los Cedros ATC did not allow us to continue our flight.
After some discussion about alternates we decided to land at Los Cedros airport (SKLC). No big deal, or so we thought. After landing Colombia national police came out in force to check the airplane. This is normal in Colombia: for any unscheduled international flight the national police checks the airplane at each stop. I’ve done the trip several times and I’m quite familiar with the procedures. I also don’t fly for just anybody, flying to South America I only accept trips from known companies (in this case, Cessna) or persons.
The Colombia national police took maybe 30 minutes to check everything and were satisfied. After completion of all their checks the local “Coronel” explained to us that Los Cedros is in a “hot zone”, there is a lot of drug smuggling through the area into Central America and on to the US, so this is why their checks were more elaborate than normal. They told us most pilots who make unscheduled landings at Los Cedros are drug smugglers. When all was finished they were happy and we were ready to leave to the hotel, however, just then a representative of the local anti-narcotics police and Colombian Air Force entered to start the checks all over again. The Coronel of the national police told the anti-narcotics police that all was well. We took a taxi in town and checked into a hotel.
Twenty minutes later the anti-narcotics cop called our hotel and told us to come back to the airport right away. If not, he would send police to get us out of the hotel. Hmmm… not good.
We went back to the airport where the anti-narcotics cop showed us some fax he received from the Colombian Air Force that stated we had deviated from our flight plan. Next thing we know the anti-narcotics cop told us he was immobilizing our airplane. The national police basically looked at us and said sorry he has more authority than us. I tried to explain that we have all the permits, licenses, paperwork in order, but to no avail. By now it was late and nothing we could do. The cops taped up our airplane and left.
At this point I should mention that there were already 2 confiscated aircraft sitting on the ramp at Los Cedros, according to the policemen we talked to those were legitimately confiscated from drugrunners:
Not ready to become confiscated airplane nr 3:
The rest of the story is long and the details serve no purpose here. I will say that I have done numerous ferry flights to South America, I use an excellent handling agent (the same company that handles US government contracted and military aircraft in Colombia) and all of our permits were in place. We should have been allowed to leave early the next morning with just a simple report explaining the reason for our deviation, but that was not the case. After about a day or so of hassling with the anti-narcotics police in Los Cedros I began to worry, suspect things. Los Cedros ATC as well as agents from the Colombia national police said things that made us be quite concerned about the legitimacy of the proceedings. And again, I know what to expect and this wasn’t the normal.
I made contact with Cessna, Bogota, Washington and Peru, everybody and anybody. I hesitate to mention anyone so as to not take credit away from the many people who made an effort on our behalf, but among many the US embassy in Bogota was very helpful in this issue. In hindsight it was a strange coincidence how one US official gave us a bit of a hassle in the Bahamas but others in Colombia came to our help.
Long story short, on the second day after our diversion to Los Cedros we were finally cleared to continue our trip.
After our adventure in Los Cedros we landed in Cali for our second Colombia stop and then on to Guayaquil, Ecuador (SEGU). The boundary between Colombia and Ecuador airspace along the Cali-Guayaquil route is called “ANGEL”, and it’s safe to say I’d never been happier to reach ANGEL!
Guayaquil is wet this time of the year. While I was waiting on my copilot to return from paying the landing fees I snapped a picture of this LAN Boeing 767 landing on a wet runway at SEGU:
After Guayaquil we flew to Piura, Peru (SPUR). My copilot has friends in Piura so we wanted to overnight there.
After Piura we flew down to Lima’s Jorge Chavez Intl. airport (SPIM) to clear Peru Customs (not for us as pilots, but for the airplane import). Some of the Peru import paperwork hadn’t been prepared properly but after some phone calls that was all resolved. The next day we flew to Las Palmas, which is a Peruvian Air Force base but also accepts civilian aircraft to go to the SEMAN repair station. Lima Intl. is quite busy nowadays, when I called up for our departure out of Lima we were nr. 12 in line. We ended up having nearly 1 hour of block time for the 11nm flight from Lima Intl. to Las Palmas.
It just so happens that my copilot is a dual citizen US/Peru but his wife is Colombian. After arriving to Lima she asked “How was Colombia?” I replied “I think you already know”. However, as bad as our experience in Los Cedros was, it was only 2 guys giving us a hard time, everybody else has always treated me fantastically in all of Colombia.
As they say, “All’s well that ends well”