Monday, February 4, 2019

The "Sprint" from St. Helena to Austin

By Jack

Between January 20 and 23, we flew four consecutive days in a "sprint" home starting in St. Helena/FHSH island in the middle of the South Atlantic and ending back at our home base of Austin, Texas/KAUS thus "closing the loop" on our 360 degrees of flying. These four days of flying totalled 6,213 NM (7,145 SM).

If you don't want to read this whole post, please scan down to an amazing photo toward the end of our trusty ride framed by a double rainbow on the morning of our last flight. Looks like a fake, but it is exactly what we were greeted with that morning.

The overnight stops were Recife, Brazil/SBRF, Georgetown, Guyana/SYCJ, and Montego Bay, Jamaica/MKJS. Sao Luis, Brazil/SBSL was a fuel stop and a frustrating one at that (more on why later).

On prior trips, the most consecutive days of flying we have done has been three, so Josh and I considered fatigue issues for the four day sprint. We decided we could stay well rested by not attempting to cram anything else into these days. No touring, going out to restaurants (room service or the hotel restaurant was the norm) or other activities. Just fly, eat, and rest. It also helped that we "gained" six time zone hours over the trip so that we could depart at a fairly civil local time in the morning and arrive mid-afternoon local time. Thus we always had at least a 14 hour rest period and more than 16 hours for three of the days. As it turned out, this plan worked fine. Neither of us felt unusual fatigue issues. 

Here is a quick summary of each flying day. Less detail than normal as these flight were fairly routine with the exception of some hassles with customs and immigration at two stops. 

St. Helena to Recife, Brazil - January 20

The flight from St. Helena to Recife, Brazil was the longest single flight of the entire trip at 1,784 NM (2,050 SM).  We conducted it at long range cruise power to ensure we had ample fuel reserves. The flight plan called for 8+30 flight time with 10+30 fuel on board, so we were comfortable that we had enough fuel to handle unexpected events. Also, the weather forecast for both enroute and the arrival at Recife was excellent. 

The satellite picture just prior to departing St. Helena...

The high level significant weather forecast was also clear for our route...

We all enjoyed our time at St. Helena and were a bit sad to leave, but it was time to head home after two months on the road. Weather for the departure was good other than some lower clouds over the middle of the airport. However, we could see clearer skies just to the east and north of the airport over the water which would be our emergency return route should something happen immediately after take-off.

As we departed, we made a big circle to cross the island at or above 4,000 FT (the required departure procedure) and got a few nice views of the island through the broken clouds.   As usual, Carolyn made a video of the departure...

YouTube link:

The St. Helena tower controller even accommodated our request to provide VHF relay to Luanda Oceanic until we reached the boundary with the Atlantico Oceanic FIR. This allowed us to avoid the need to contact Luanda on HF which had proved impossible on the flight to St. Helena. He also called and got the land line number for Atlantico in case we had trouble contacting them on HF (+55 812 1298 330 for reference). We had to use the sat phone for the first call to Atlantico, but had good HF comms thereafter.

Other than being long, the flight was almost completely uneventful. Good weather the whole way and reasonably easy communications. Atlantico had us contact them about every hour with an "operations normal" and position report. On these long flights, Josh and I take turns retiring to the back to stretch and even take a short nap.  While we had a "crew rest" seat available, I tended to stretch out on the floor for "power naps" along the way.

The arrival at Recife was easy and the handlers efficient. Brazil has some of the most burdensome customs and immigration paperwork in the world, but for this stop the handlers had it all prepared in advance and I just signed my name about a dozen times. After I had signed everything, the handler departed while we refueled and we met her in the terminal after refueling with everything stamped and approved. We were at our hotel a few minutes later and had a relaxing afternoon and evening. All in all, an easy flight.

Recife, Brazil to Georgetown, Guyana - January 21

After a good night's rest, we departed Recife for Georgetown, Guyana with a planned fuel stop at Sao Luis, Brazil.  The weather for the leg from Recife to Sao Luis was forecast to be good with only a small area of potential thunderstorms along the way which never developed along our route (although some weather did build well east of our route).

This first leg of the day's flying was easy and uneventful. Good VHF comms the whole way and we were in radar contact. The flying was beginning to feel like home again.

The trouble started after we landed at Sao Luis.

Initially, it looked like the expected quick refueling stop was going as planned. The fuel truck arrived promptly and our handler had another big stack of paperwork prepared in advance. Then the handler gave us the bad news.

In Brazil, immigration must check the paperwork of every flight departing the country. There is no full time  immigration staff at Sao Luis, so the Federal Police handle immigration functions for the airport. The normal procedure is for the handler to request Federal Police presence at the airport well in advance to clear a particular flight. There is no permanent Federal Police office at the airport and thus an officer travels to the airport from their main station in town, about a 45 minute round-trip drive.

But, the Federal Police office did not show up this day. The handler swore he had notified them in plenty of time (more than a week prior), but the ball got dropped somewhere and there was no one at the airport that could give us the all important official stamps approving our departure from Brazil. After many phone calls, the handler said the only practical option was for him to drive me (as "Captain" of the flight) to the police station in town with our paperwork. Ugh.

I get in a car with the handler and we drive into town. Once at the Federal Police station it takes a while to find the right person who eventually gives us all the required stamps. Then back to the airport.  On top of the delay with the immigration stamps, there also was a problem getting our flight plan filed because it needed special codes in the remarks section indicating we had paid our landing fees ("landing fee number").   I was busily emailing the main handling office in Recife to try to get the flight plan filed while riding in the car back to the airport from the police station.

So what should have been a one hour stop turned into three hours by the time we had all the right paperwork and the flight plan in the system.  The local handler apologized profusely and said they recognized they had a problem that needed to be solved.

We finally departed around 1400 local for the planned 4+34 flight to Georgetown, Guyana. By this time in the afternoon, some weather was building just north of the Sao Luis airport and we knew some deviations would be required.

We deviated to the west of the weather system and while we were IMC for a while, we managed a smooth ride and stayed out of all the precipitation using the onboard weather radar. The deviations added a bit of time to the flight and we landed in Georgetown about 4+52 after departing Sao Luis. It was still daylight when we landed, but getting dark quickly. Along the way we crossed the equator for the fourth time and caught a glance of the Amazon River delta through the clouds...

We were greeted on the ramp at Georgetown by a large contingent of officials.

Then our second paperwork hassle of the day began. The subject of great concern this time was that we did not have a "General Declaration" form stamped by Brazilian officials. We had several officially stamped documents from Brazil indicating we were authorized to depart Brazil, but for some reason the Guyana officials wanted a form indicating Brazil had authorized us to land in Guyana. Huh? We went round-and-round trying to explain that Brazil could only authorize us to leave their country (for which we had paperwork) and not enter Guyana. After about 45 minutes of back-and-forth, the officials finally agreed our paperwork was adequate and admitted us to the country and allowed refueling to begin.

After we refueled, they required us to move the plane from the main airline terminal to a remote parking area. By now it was dark and I taxied the plane behind a "follow me" vehicle and then on an unlighted taxiway to the parking area. I cut one corner too tight on the unlighted part of the taxi and the right wheel went into the dirt, but fortunately our plane is designed to handle soft surfaces and there was not a problem.

Finally, about two hours after landing, we were on our way to the hotel in downtown Georgetown. The main airport is about 25 miles from downtown, so it was a fairly long drive, but the security situation in Guyana is not the best and we wanted to stay in the best hotel in town which was the Marriott downtown. There is another airport much closer to downtown where customs and immigration can be arranged, but I chose the main airport (a former US Air Force base) because I thought the plane would be more secure there overnight. But, if we ever go to Guyana again (which I doubt), I will do more research into the closer to town airport as it would probably save 90 minutes or more (round-trip) of driving on the quite chaotic road from the main airport to town.

Georgetown, Guyana to Montego Bay, Jamaica - January 22

Hoping we had the paperwork hassles of the previous day behind us, our driver picked us up at 7:30a and we headed for the main Georgetown airport. Unlike the prior evening headed into the city, it was rush hour as we headed back to the airport. The road was clogged with all manner of vehicles and pedestrians and the trip took about 90 minutes.

Once we got to the airport, things went pretty smoothly. We taxied the plane back from the remote parking area, the paperwork went smoothly, and we got our clearance to Montego Bay, Jamaica without a problem.

The weather for the long flight 1,397 NM flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica was forecast to very good with no clouds at cruise altitude.

Oddly, we did experience some of the worst cruise level turbulence of the entire trip for the first part of this flight.  We had almost continuous light, occasionally moderate chop for well over one hour. It was not forecast so surprised us a bit. Nothing dangerous, just annoying.

We were a little worried about overflying a large hunk of Venezuelan airspace given our US aircraft registration and the current state of political relations between the countries. Venezuela does not require overflight permits, but they have been denying access to their airspace if their records show any unpaid navigation fees associated with the registration number of the airplane even if the unpaid fees were from many years prior and perhaps when the aircraft had a different owner. We've owned N575PC for over 10 years and I was not aware that the prior owner (a Oklahoma trucking company) did any flying outside the US, so I was pretty confident we would not have a problem. However, I did feel a little relieved when we got the clearance to enter Venezuelan airspace without a problem.

The rest of the flight Montego Bay, Jamaica was uneventful.  It was cloudy and windy when approached Montego Bay so an ILS approach was required, but that all went smoothly. The FBO at Montego Bay had a very US feel to it and even had an on-site customs and immigration official to clear us into the country. Unfortunately this official had misplaced his all important rubber stamp which caused a delay while we waited for another offical to arrive with his stamp. Everyone was very friendly and we felt a little bad for the young man that had lost his stamp as it seemed like it might have career consequences for him if he did not find it.

Even with that small delay, we were refueled and to our nearby hotel by around 1600 local time and had a relaxing evening and a good night's rest. The flight the next day would be the last of the entire trip.

Montego Bay, Jamaica to Austin, Texas - January 23

The last day of the trip had arrived and it was bitter-sweet. It had been a long trip (two months away) and thus we were all looking forward seeing family and friends. But the trip had gone so well and we had such great experiences it was sad to see it end. All Josh and I could do was focus on making this last 1,332 NM flight to Austin as comfortable and trouble-free as the rest of the flights.

As we arrived at the FBO there was some light rain which created one of the most incredible scenes of the entire trip. The photo below may look like a fake, but it is exactly what we saw as we prepared the plane for the final leg of the long journey.

A beautiful double rainbow framing our trusty bird perfectly.  We took it as a good omen for the completion of our journey.

Weather for the first part of the flight looked fine, but there was some chance of thunderstorm activity as we approached the Texas coast.

While there was no weather along the route as we departed, we expected we might need to deviate a few hours later when we got close to Texas.

After a couple of hours we entered Cuban airspace talking to Havana Control. For a child of the Cold War generation that had an eerie feel to it, but Cuban overflight permits are routinely issued and the Cuban controllers were very professional, so no issue.

About halfway to home, we got a re-route which we suspect was in anticipation of the building weather ahead over the Gulf of Mexico just off the eastern coast of Texas.  As we approached home, our satellite XM weather link came back to life for the first time in two months showing an intense band of lightning about 200 NM off the coast.

The re-route though Houston Oceanic airspace we had been given earlier kept us clear of the weather and thus no deviations were required. We even got a bit of a shortcut after cleared the end of the weather line.

This flight also had some of the strongest winds aloft of the whole trip (about 100 KTS at times), fortunately mainly at a 90 degree angle to our flight path and thus having minimal impact on our ground speed.  But the wind made for an interesting shaped glide range ring on our ForeFlight display.

If we had had to glide to a landing, we could have gone about 150 NM to the east, but only about 25 NM to the west.

The descent and landing at our "home drome" of Austin/KAUS was all normal with good weather other than strong surface winds which created a few bumps, but nothing bad.  As we pulled into our home FBO of Atlantic Aviation, a US Customs vehicle met us and quickly cleared us back into the USA. The whole customs process took less than five minutes.

The Atlantic Aviation crew gave us a nice welcome with balloons and gifts.  The Foxtrot team from Universal Weather that had provided us expert support for the whole trip in terms of permits and coordination of ground handling at each stop also sent us a nice gift basket and a map of the world with our route marked on it. Note in the photos below the ladies had indulged me and worn their very cool pilot uniforms for this last arrival of the trip.

With our very cool St. Helena Airport hats which were a parting gift from the St. Helena airport manager three days prior...

Back at our home in Austin, we celebrated with champagne posed in front of some of our memorabilia from the polar round-the-world flight including my very cherished British Antarctic Survey aviation charts.

So that was a wrap for the whole two month long adventure.

I'll write one final post with fun facts and some much deserved gratitude to the many people who made this trip happen, but the short version is the trip went better than any of us could have imagined. The plane performed perfectly. We stayed almost exactly on schedule with no significant weather delays. No scary flying events. Everyone stayed healthy.

A trip none of us will ever forget.

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