B60 - Flying the Beechcraft Duke to Brazil

This is a glimpse into the the trip aboard a Beechcraft Duke.  With 385 HP per engine it's one of the most high performance, piston, twin engine airplanes ever produced.


I arrived in Grenada last night to pick up a Duke that I had left two weeks prior due to paperwork issues. The Duke was still on the ramp in exactly the same spot that I’d left it, and things were looking great to start.  This was the first time I’d flown here on a commercial airliner, rather than privately.

 

Not the commercial industry’s finer logistical moment.


 

6.5 v. 13.5 hours. It took 6 ½ hours for me to fly to Grenada in the Duke that only goes 220mph v. 13 ½ hours commercially, where I left Indy at 7am, flew north through Chicago, then intelligently north again on my way to the Caribbean to Toronto where I switched from United to Caribbean Airlines.  Caribbean flies a Boeing 737 from Canada directly to Grenada.  We arrived at 8:30pm, after one of the longest flights I’ve taken on a smaller Boeing that wasn’t built for long flights like this one. 

 

I spoke to the Grenadian customs officer who asked how long I’d be in his country and in which hotel I was staying.  It must have taken repeating “20 minutes and no hotel” at least ten times before he got a supervisor who finally comprehended that 1) I had a plane, 2) that I wanted to fuel, 3) that I wanted to file a flight plan and get outta here. No hotel needed, though that conversation made me want to take a nap.

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Sitting on the Ramp in Grenada just the way I left it

 

I ventured outside to top the plane off with $7.50 per gallon fuel; but not before I gave it the old college effort to try to talk the fueler down to $6.50.  I must not have been too convincing because we settled at $7.50. I took 152 gallons in a plane that holds 230, so I felt good about the amount with which I’d landed (not always the case with international aircraft ferrying – very often a luxury, in fact).  I left with a much lighter wallet as well - the gas stations in this part of the world only accept cash – US dollars, EC – cash is king. 

 

I strolled (strolled might be an artful way to describe it - I walked as quickly as I could, dripping sweat through my DryFit) into the flight plan office to file the flight plan and pay taxes and fees. 

 

Well, shit. On the computer screen in front of the briefer, the weather over Venezuela looked terrible (things not to do in Venezuela: land or get caught in a storm)!  At this point I had a dilemma; I needed to be in Boa Vista, Brazil tonight to keep the client happy, but any pleas to Jupiter for sun in the sky were unheard.  I checked what phase the moon was in currently, and unfortunately it was going to be a dark night. This makes it impossible to know if you’re flying directly into a storm or just a dark area.  They all look the same (note – look the same, but don’t feel the same: dark area = breezy coasting, listening to some classical tunes; storm in the dark = plunging into the Venezuelan jungle cover – not ideal).  When the moon is full, there’s enough ambient light that reflects off of the clouds to stay out of them by deviating.  I tried my luck at negotiation again and made my pitch to the guy in the flight planning office to change the plan time to 5:30 the next morning as it should be clear by then.  The gentleman also goes to the trouble to charge me the extra two dollars for the nightly parking fee. If you haven’t spend a lot of time in this part of the world, you’ll readily find out how married to the rules the administrators are – but I really do enjoy finding ways to poke holes in their procedures. It’s become a game of sorts. Oh well - all I was thinking about at this point was “I’ll be on the way to the hotel in ten minutes where I can get a bite to eat”.  I go back out to the plane to put the cover back on, because there’s no key to the door (that two dollars won’t buy me a whole lot of protection for the night).  I figure this big piece of canvas is deterrent enough to keep the thieves out…the airport is surrounded by a fence anyhow.

 

A nice King Air 90GTi had parked next to the Duke, and the pilot looked Brazilian, so I decided to chat about our mutual destination. This led to the conclusion that we should eat dinner together – really, what other conclusion could a few pilots reach?   We went to the only restaurant that’s still open, a swanky place called the Aquarium. Overall not the best place, but I had a decent jerk chicken; however the restaurant is literally on the sand, and the waves were starting to break. It was a relaxing way to end my day.  I learned that Victor, the King Air captain, was an ex F-15 driver for the USAF turned Beech Factory test pilot.  He had a few good stories and an abundance of knowledge about the jet market to South America.  He actually flew to Grenada for the US invasion (more on this later) in 1982 in an F-15.  Bruno, his co-pilot, was a quiet Brazilian who currently lives in Miami, and as far as I could understand he sends anywhere between a handful to a shitload (plus or minus a few) of aircraft south every year.  It’s fairly common to cross paths with the same people on this route, especially in this small market, and these two seem like good characters. I hope to see them again down range. 

 

We got out of the restaurant about midnight and headed to the hotel that they had booked; I didn’t have a reservation, but it didn’t seem too busy, and I was able to get a room.  Again my haggling over cost was unfruitful: $105 US plus tax was the crew rate for “garden view,” and I could pay and extra $20 for the “ocean view”.  It was dark, and it was going to be dark when I left 5 hours later, so I sprung for the lesser of the two.  The garden wasn’t much more than what seemed to be the island’s designated mosquito-breeding area.  I checked the weather for the following day, and dozed off within 5 minutes of hitting the mattress.

           

It didn’t feel like ten minutes had passed since checking the weather when my alarm went off at 5am; I’m actually somewhat surprised I had the wherewithal to set it after our late night.  I sprung up and refreshed the weather page on the computer that was still open next to me, hoping it was terrible, and I could just roll back over and sleep another few hours. It looked as though a somewhat clear day was in store, so I lumbered over to the shower.  When I got out I remembered how much I hate when I forget to turn the AC setting from “igloo interior” to “reasonable person” before I get in the shower. Which I had forgotten to do. It was frigid so I ran, naked and wet, across the tile floor trying not to slip and die, until I reached the big sliding glass door.  I flung it open, letting in a burst of the hot and sticky island air into the room, it provided a quick shock of warmth.  I walked more leisurely on my return across the room to the closet and pulled the iron out; for some reason I though I should iron my shirt despite that I would be sitting in the airplane for the entire day by myself.  (I must have been half asleep for this decision and execution of the ironing, because halfway through the day it looked terrible again).  I got dressed and made a cup of entirely too weak coffee before heading out to meet the taxi driver.

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My ride to the airport in Grenada.  The outside was tie dyed.  

 

Walking into the lobby I noticed the cabbie was sullenly waiting in the corner with a cigarette and a cup of coffee; I could relate to his disposition. I was hustled off to the airport at 5:35am, only 5 minutes behind schedule, for which I was as happy as I could be without a Starbucks to properly caffeinate me.  The ride to the airport is quick in the least calming taxi I've been in to date.  I ask my driver in a half sleeping state if his cab was vandalized?  He's done this himself, intentionally, maybe it will end up in a museaum he tells me.  So as to not to begin the day’s version of the procedural dance: I talk my way past immigration and customs (#winning) with the forms I had stamped from the proposed departure the previous night.  This saves at least 20 minutes so I walk to the flight plan office, where I'll get a last glimpse at the weather before leaving, despite the fact I'm going no matter what I see (seriously – even if I saw a dragon).

 

It looks fine. 

 

I made the trek across the ramp that was already 95 degrees (breezy, balmy, and I think the reason DryFit was invented) just before 6am. This was the smoothest I’d ever gotten out of Grenada; I was actually on time.  I got in the plane and fired the left engine…nothing; despite knowing that it wouldn’t work, I tried the right engine to no avail.  I climbed back out of the plane and trekked back across the ramp, where I was able to find the guy with the start cart.  He pulled it over with the tug; I was only 15 minutes behind schedule by the time I  taxied out.

 

Leveling off I reached down below my seat for the handle to slide away from the yoke, and I grabbed a packet of applesauce that had been sitting there for the past few weeks. The GPS was showing just less than three hours, so I got the iPad from behind the seat to locate something to keep me occupied.  I filed for 21,000 feet, but there was weather ahead, so I requested 23,000.  Arriving there, I realized that wouldn’t work either, so I bargained up to 25,000.  The Duke didn’t like it there; it was squirrelly in the thin air, I felt like I was on a boat that was wallowing around in a choppy harbor.  I stayed high just long enough to get over the weather and then let down to 21,000, where the plane was much happier.  I plugged away in the clear sky for the next two hours cruising over Venezuela’s lonely airspace.  The controllers here either don’t like gringos, or their radios aren’t great.  The entire leg over Venezuelan airspace, they won’t talk to you, despite how many times I call over the radio waves “Maiquteia control, N193KB flight level 210, Buenos Dias”.  No matter, I figure the airspace is so sparse with other planes that the chances of hitting another one are fairly slim.  By the time I got restless with the iPad, it was time to start the descent.  20 minutes later I was on the ground in Boa Vista, Brazil. This is when shit usually goes sideways. 

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Cruising over the weather at 25,000 feet

Brazilian customs likes to work reasonable hours, and by reasonable I mean Monday through Friday, from 10am until 4pm with a two-hour lunch break - essentially the hours I’ve been trying to figure out how to work but actually continue to make some money.  I’ve come to expect when I land here to stay overnight because it’s too late by the time I clear the procedural rodeo: Health, Immigration, Customs, Agriculture, file a flight plan, fuel up, and pay the fees and taxes on as many things as can be invented.  Any one of these items by itself takes no more than 15 minutes; however none of these offices have any discernable form of a regular schedule or sense of urgency.  I was able to do what should take one hour in three hours, which was way better than usual. 

 

I picked up a co-pilot here as well; the airplane buyer sent his pilot, Marlon, to fly with me the remainder of the trip.  I’m not sure if he was sent to act in a student or a babysittee roll, but either way he’s polite, doesn’t touch anything that moves or is red without asking first, and generally is an all-around nice guy.  He watches my moves like a hawk, presumably learning the operation of what I understand will be the sixth Duke in Brazil.  He doesn’t speak English, so I have plenty of time to test out my Portuguese, write and fuck off any other way I see fit for the four-hour leg between Boa Vista and Alta Floresta.

 

Just under two hours out of Alta Floresta and we’ve leaned the fuel mixtures way back as the buffer of extra fuel won’t be here on this leg.  We have one fuel gauge that says we have 40 gallons in each tank and another that says we have 53 in each tank – got to love consistency; I’m yet to decide which one I believe.  I might wait till we land and choose then. Hindsight, eh?

 

We landed in Alta Floresta; happily the fuel range was the fuller of the two.  I filed the flight plan and tried to pay taxes as quickly as possible.  The jerk-off who sells the fuel refused to bill us (common once we get to Brazil), so I dug down to find all of the last change in my pocket.  At $8.52 a gallon, my pockets weren’t deep enough to fill the tank for our next leg to Londrina, our final destination.  I quickly calculated that we could upload 400 liters.  180 liters into it, I realized that we were going to have to refuel again before our final destination, so I changed my mind and told him to stop. I would go one hour away where they know me, I knew they would bill us, and we could top off for the last leg.  The man in Alta Floresta who collects the landing taxes wasn’t at the airport; he must have been wherever the customs officers go during their 2 hour break in their six hour workday, and we were told to wait to pay.  With one-hour of daylight left and a one-hour flight to an airport that closes at night, I was in somewhat of a rush.  We could call the destination airport in Sinop, and request that they stay late, but that would require filing a new flight plan which would delay us an additional hour - a scenario that wasn’t even an option in my mind.  We had to get out and fast.  The tax collector called just then and graciously said that we could leave without any fees; the soccer game he was watching rather than working must have been tied.  We headed to the plane and quickly fired up.

 

Air Traffic Control Cleared us through instrument conditions to Rondonopolis via direct routing at 19,000 ft.  I wasn’t sure if I should blow their mind by changing everything at once or let them know we would be maintaining visual conditions and not say anything until we got far enough away that I was comfortable they wouldn’t tell us to come back and file a new flight plan.  I responded and informed them we would be maintaining 5500 feet and visual conditions to Rondonopolis.  They seemed fine with it so we set the GPS to go directly south to Sinop.  About 30 minutes into the hour-long flight to Sinop, we told ATC that we were landing there without problems.  As soon as we were on the ground, we quickly fueled and topped the oil off for our last leg of the trip.  The weather in Londrina was terrible the entire day, so I was hoping with the evening it would clear up.  Weather here dissipates fairly quickly when it doesn’t have a source of energy to cause it to either build or maintain itself.  This source is the sun, so by my calculations we’d be fine – my calculations, much like my ability to negotiate lately, were not on target.  It was almost 9pm, and Londrina was still closed with low ceilings and visibility.  I tell Marlon that there’s been a change of plans, and we’re headed to the hotel.  He’s quiet about the news, and I get the sense that he’s disappointed we’re not going; I’m thinking he’d like to be home.  Marlon doesn’t live in Londrina, but hours away and his boss hasn’t shared with him what his plans are, when, or even how he can expect to make it home.  We secure the plane with the “protective” cover and grab a cab to find a hotel and dinner.  Tomorrow will be another early departure.

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Preflight in Sinop

 

BEEP BEEP BEEP. The alarm was as unwelcome this morning as it was the last; I roll over and grab the computer for a quick weather update.  It’s fine; Londrina weather has improved, and it’s the last leg of the trip.  I head to the shower before realizing I took one the previous night and I throw a pair of pants on that lie on the floor next to me.  I stumble around the dark room and gather my chargers that are plugged into every available outlet in the room and realize groggily that it would be easier to just carry a power strip.  I finish packing and head out to find a cup of coffee; they don’t put coffee machines or irons in Brazilian hotel rooms. They must not trust people to keep from burning them down.  After a few cups of coffee from the breakfast spread we get into the cab for a 20-minute, $38.00 BRL (about $17 dollars US) ride to the airport.  We fueled last night, and Sinop is an uncontrolled airport, so we are able to quickly hop in the plane and depart without a flight plan.  I’m somewhat disappointed that the 4 our flight plus a lost hour for changing time zones had us landing around 12:30 pm, which meant the office in Londrina would be empty with everyone out to lunch.  It’s nice every once in a while to have somebody excited when we land rather than the usual dirty looks from customs officers, refuelers, or any other airport attendant that we’ve interrupted their ability to get paid for sitting around and doing nothing.  The flight off went without a hitch, I leaned the fuel mixtures early so that we had a comfortable margin of gas when we landed.  The weather was nice the entire way, we were just above the clouds in the clear at 21,000 feet.  We couldn’t see the ground until we got about 4 miles out of Londrina, which was fine with me; that’s when it came in handy anyhow.  When we touched down, there were at least 30 gallons of fuel per side, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  As we taxied in, I got a call informing me to park the plane on the grass behind the office. The Aeroclubé gate was closed - the first time I’d seen this in the middle of the day.  The Duke is somewhat loud with 520 cubic inch, six cylinder engines; I pull up to the gate and hope that someone will open it hearing the racket.  Instead, the few people on the ramp looked at the Duke and scattered like mice after seeing a cat, all scurrying into whichever door was closest.  I sat there for 5 minutes before I shut the plane down, which completely blocked their egress to get any of their planes in or out.  I played with the gate for a while, which motivated one of the guys from the school to come out and tell me that I can’t come in because I “don’t have coordination.”

 

Who the hell is this and what the fuck is this coordination for a parking spot he’s speaking of?  I had enough coordination to make it through some 14 countries over 5000 miles however I can’t get a parking spot?  I smile and nod and walk back to the plane.  

 

One of the flight school’s small Cessna’s was pulling up behind me; the flight instructor in the plane pressed a button which opened the gate, and the douchebag in front of the plane made a signal with his hand to only enter and use the space to turn around and taxi back out, to which I replied with a thumbs up.  As soon as I got the engines started, I taxied the 7000-pound Duke past him and parked it where I intended to in the first place.  Running franticly behind the plane he’s standing in front of me when I shut down, he explained I had to leave. 

 

I responded with my best “I don’t understand, I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Portuguese.” This comes in handy about twice a day down here. 

 

He stormed off, giving Marlon and I time to close the plane and get the hell out of Dodge before his boss showed up.  We hopped into a cab to meet the office for lunch just down the road.

 

Lunch consist of spits of beef fresh off the grill, rice, Manjoca, and salad - a wonderful and very traditional Brazilian lunch.  We head back to the office to and discover that we had caused quite a stir, drawing even the owner of the Aeroclube to come over and demand the Duke be moved in 5 minutes or face legal action; she’s apparently all bark and no bite, however.  We unload, and I’m asked to fly Marlon an hour away to his hometown and take the buyer for a demo flight in his new plane.   Despite being tired and not wanting anything to do with climbing back into the plane, we head out.  On our way we observe a few manifold pressure fluctuations (a gauge on the engine to indicate power settings) which causes me to perk up a bit when I think I might get to shut an engine down in flight - finally a bit of excitement!  When light, the Duke has no problem flying on one engine, and we’re pretty empty.  We land in Cascavel, 40 minutes later, without issue and now we have to wait for the engine to cool off so we can check the oil level.  This is about all the maintenance that a pilot is allowed to do.  We add 4 quarts, which is an astronomical amount for this plane  signifying a probable issue with the engine.  After another 40-minute, uneventful demo flight and return back to Londrina, I add an additional 3 hours to the log book with no emergency procedures and was ready to get to the hotel.  My phone rings, it’s Victor, the importer, he lets me know my bags had already been moved to the hotel and my room checked into. Despite the most exciting thing about flying over a foreign country all day was finding a parking spot, I head up for some much needed relaxation.  I don’t yet have plans for my return to the states but I expect a few days off because of Christmas (probably this will jinx it and ruin any possibility of this).  Tomorrow as soon as I get into the office I’ll be looking at flights home and closing out the bill for this ferry.  

Trying to reconcile a folder full of receipts in 4 different currencies always makes me want to kick things. 

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Marlon and I in Cascavel