Texas To Argentina In A Crop Duster

 
San Jose, Costa Rica, sometimes referred to as the San Diego of Central America for its friendly, laid-back residents.

San Jose, Costa Rica, is sometimes referred to as the California of Central America. That’s either a compliment or an insult, depending upon your political bent.

I made perhaps a dozen trips through San Jose when I was delivering airplanes regularly to points farther south. Many of these deliveries were crop dusters destined to help suppress coca production. We could usually tell which airplanes were intended to kill coca plants by the armor plating surrounding the pilot. I was happy I was only delivering them and not flying them above the cocoa fields.

It was the third day of my trip south and a welcome day off. The weather in the Gulf of Panama was growling and blowing, and the winds were on the nose instead of the tail. That was a welcome rest since San Jose, Costa Rica, is a favorite stop. 

Santamaria International is Costa Rica’s largest airport, and despite the common image of Central America as a collection of third-world countries with unpaved streets, fragile economies, populations in poverty and unrestrained dictators, much of Costa Rica is more reminiscent of San Diego or San Antonio than a Latin American city.

San Jose is a successful tourist destination (again, you can judge if that’s good or bad news), with luxury hotels and all the amenities of the U.S., plus a flavor closer to San Antonio than Havana. Costa Rica has little in the way of military assets, but it‘s home to one of the largest police forces in the region, so the streets are relatively safe.

In addition, it boasts many of the accoutrements of the Golden State. There are Starbucks or McDonald’s, Red Lobsters, Black Angus or Outback restaurants everywhere; Holiday Inns, Hiltons or Sheraton Hotels scattered throughout San Jose; and airline service to pretty much wherever you wish to fly. Translation: It’s one of the most modern and safest cities/countries in Central America.

My previous dozen visits had only been for overnight rest, then, on to South America. This time, I got to enjoy San Jose.

Neuquén province in Argentina is 6,000 miles from Van Horn, Texas, a long way to fly in a Piper Brave 400 crop duster but a spectacular destination all the same.

This trip was headed to Neuquén, Argentina, to the far south in the Patagonian Desert. My ride was a Piper Brave 400, a two-and-a-half-ton, conventional-gear crop duster, the largest Piper bug-bomber ever built. This airplane was fully equipped, at least, as fully equipped as you can make it. There was a big, beautiful joystick rising from the floor to center cockpit (just where God intended it to be), a single seat mounted near the wing trailing edge, no autopilot, no anti-ice, few avionics, a fairly Spartan panel and an almost military cockpit, mounted directly behind the 275-gallon hopper. The Brave 400 was a pure, no-frills airplane.

Far out front, the total package flies behind one of the largest, horizontally opposed general-aviation piston engines ever built, a behemoth eight-cylinder Lycoming IO-720, essentially a pair of IO-360s welded together. Collectively, they produce a thundering 400 hp.

I departed West Texas Aviation in Van Horn, Texas, two days before, stopped in Tapachula, Mexico, hard by the Guatemala border, for the first overnight; then, continued on to San Jose.

My next destination was 1,000 miles across the usually benign Gulf of Panama to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Shortly after takeoff, I had the Brave 400 trimmed for cruise and sensed a slight murmur in the airplane. I adjusted the mixture, trying to smooth things out, but suddenly, the murmur became a fast, regular vibration, shaking the stick in my hand and causing the entire aircraft to stutter with a regular roughness.

Not good. I tried leaning more, then less, but neither setting helped. About the same time, my brain finally kicked into gear and reminded me of what a Navy, Korean War A-1 Skyraider pilot taught me many years ago: “Don’t automatically assume every vibration is engine-related. It could be aerodynamic. Something could have come loose on the airframe and be hanging into the slipstream, causing the airplane to vibrate. The shudder also could be sympathetic, something that only vibrates at a certain rpm and manifold pressure combination.”

Of course, I thought. I looked to my left and noted that the spray booms, mounted to the wing-trailing edges, were shaking so violently, they’d become a blur. Every crop duster pilot knows this, along with some ferry pilots. Now I’m one of the latter group.

I was reminded once again of the not-so-old adage that, “We are all either the victims or the beneficiaries of our teachers.”

I eased back on the power by a half-inch, and the vibration dampened to nothing, like turning off a light switch. The spray booms were still once more. Thank you, Lt. Commander Lyle Shelton, USN.

My transit across the Gulf of Panama went off without incident. As I passed the coast of northern Ecuador, the sun set over the Pacific, and I went feet dry once again with the glow of Guayaquil’s city lights starting to emerge from the blackness of northern South America straight ahead.

Quito, Ecuador. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is located just inland behind the northern tip of the Andes.Its airport lies at 9,300 feet MSL.

Off to my left, I could also see another glow of city lights behind a distant ridgeline of mountains, this one from Quito, the capital of Ecuador.  Quito’s airport lies at 9,300 feet MSL, just inland behind the northern tip of the Andes, the longest mountain range in the world and the second highest. I vowed that someday, when I was flying something fast and pressurized, I would visit Quito.

As I began my descent into Guayaquil, I remembered its chamber of commerce nickname, Gateway to the Galapagos. Several years back, I ferried a new Piper Mirage to Guayaquil for an Ecuadoran businessman who owned an import/export business in the city. Two years later, he called and said he was interested in buying a Piper Super Cub and having it ferried to the Galapagos Islands, far off the Pacific coast.

I was enthusiastic about seeing Galapagos—it’s always been on my bucket list—but trouble was, the islands are about 630 nm west of Guayaquil, and the Cub had only a 36-gallon fuel tank. Even if you strapped a 30-gallon neoprene tank into the back seat, you’d have only 66 gallons total. A Super Cub can cruise at about 95 knots on 9.0 gallons per hour. That works out to 6.3 hours of total endurance, worth barely 600 nm in any wind conditions.

I advised him to have the Cub disassembled and shipped, and he called me a month later and told me that’s what he finally did. The Piper Super Cub now lived in the Galapagos.

The Brave 400 had no such range problems for the trip to Neuquén.  The airplane’s wing tanks held 86 gallons, but the 275-gallon hopper out front had a simple selector valve hat that allowed it to feed either of the spray booms. If you weren’t carrying applicant in that tank, you could clean it out and pour in avgas.

At 21 gph, the thirsty Brave gave me an instant 16 hours of fuel, worth 1,900 nm at 120 knots. That allowed me to overfly Peru, with its expensive fuel and landing fees, and land at Arica, Chile, 6 miles inside the Chilean/Peru border on the northern edge of the Atacama Desert.

The Atacama has the curse/distinction of being one of the driest places on Earth. Some parts of the Atacama have never seen rain in recorded history. Weather is nearly always severe and clear in this part of South America.

The next morning, I was out of Arica for Santiago, Chile’s capitol. Navigating south couldn’t have been much easier in those days before GPS. Simply keep the ocean on the right and the 20,000-foot Andes on the left.  There were radio navaids available in some places, but many of them were out of service, and others had limited range.

The farther south you fly along the Pacific coast of South America, the better the weather, so real IFR is rarely necessary, a good thing in my case, as the Brave 400 wasn’t exactly replete with radios.

The huge Nazca geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert. Different glyphs depict birds, plants and animals. Many can only be seen in full from the air. There are some 700 of the ancient pictographs scattered across the Atacama Desert.

As I ticked off the miles at a leisurely 2 per minute in the direction of Cape Horn, I couldn’t help but notice the famous lines of Nazca, gigantic geoglyphs of birds, plants and animals covering the entire sides of mountains in southern Peru. There are some 700 of these scattered across the Atacama Desert. They’re so large that they can only be seen from the air. For that reason, some believe the Nazca people created them to honor aliens who supposedly visited Earth long ago, a theory popularized in the 1960s by author Erich Von Daniken.

Flying straight south out of Arica, Chile‘s western border stretches 4,000 miles to Cape Horn, with Santiago in the middle. The country is only about 80 miles wide at its northern border with Peru. Santiago is about a third of the way south, a picturesque Latin city replete with stone men waving stone swords and riding stone horses in the city square and historical monuments to Chile’s glory days.

The crest of the Andes Mountains ridgeline forms the border between Chile and Argentina. It is the most perilous part of the journey for small planes.

Santiago is also where the Pan American highway turns east away from the coast and begins the long climb toward Argentina. I’ve passed this way perhaps a dozen times before, and the highway leads you straight up from near sea level to the angular Andes. I climbed east, following the snake-like highway winding through the foothills and, eventually, the mountains themselves. The Pan American Highway winds slowly toward a tunnel at the 8,000-foot level and emerges on the other side of the ridge in Argentina.

I steered toward the lowest crest in the ridge above the tunnel. South America’s tallest mountain, Cerro Aconcagua, was to my left, and the second-tallest, Cerro Tupungato, knifed the sky to my right, both reaching to about 23,000 feet. The Pan American highway threaded its way inside the rocks between the two monster peaks into Argentina, and that’s where I headed to cross over from Chile.

The crest line between the two countries forms the border, but the resulting ridge only drops to about 12,000 feet at its lowest point. Piston-powered crop dusters were never intended to fly that high, and the heavily loaded Brave 400 struggled to surmount such tall terrain. Flying directly between the two tallest mountains in the Western Hemisphere is a humbling experience if you don’t have the benefit of a turbocharger.

Fortunately, I spotted a giant condor circling in the thermals near the crest line, and I followed his lead, ascending at 250-300 fpm until I cleared the ridge into Argentina.

Once past the Andes, I found the hop down to Neuquén across the Patagonia Desert was an easy 600 nm.

When I handed the paperwork to the government agent in Neuquén, I couldn’t help but reflect that the Brave 400 had been a good ride.

Then all I had to do was figure some way to arrange a ferry to the Galapagos Islands.

Check out more Cross-Country Log flying storiesfrom ferry pilot and Senior Editor Bill Cox.

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New Plane Sharing Company Gets Big Investment

Plane sharing app BlackBird just got a $10 million for its startup. Will it succeed where two similar apps failed? (photo by: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock)

Did the FAA’s successful shutting down of plane sharing apps AirPooler and Flytenow kill off plane sharing in the United States?

Apparently not. Forbes reported earlier this week that BlackBird, an aircraft ride sharing company got a $10 million investment for its startup. The company is already operating its service, hooking up online customers with people who own private planes and take them places in them. 

A similar operation, Flytenow, got shut down by the FAA a few years ago because, the FAA claimed, the operation violated FAA regulations on charter flights. Part 135 regulations, which govern charter flights, are tough and strictly enforced. The rationale behind them is that before a company offers aircraft transportation to people (or for cargo, for that matter) they must meet to have a high standard of operations. Flytenow appealed the lower courts’ upholding of the FAA’s action to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that body declined to hear the appeal, effectively killing the case and sealing Flytenow’s future—it is now out of business.

Will BlackBird’s business model set it up for acceptance by the regulators? It’s hard for us to see how. The company wants to sell rides to customers in other people’s airplanes with non-employee pilots flying the planes—the pilots are, according to BlackBird, commercial pilots or better with at least 500 hours total time, an instrument rating and proficiency in the airplane. BlackBird does a background check on the pilot. In essence, instead of the FAA determining the safety of the operation, as the FAA does with Part 135 operations, BlackBird does it. It’s not a process the FAA has ever approved of before to our knowledge.

We entered a flight on flyblackbird.com for a quote and were pleased to see we could fly from Ontario, California, to Oxnard, California, for around $100 a seat and a savings of about an hour and a half over driving the route. (The company is only set up for business in a few places around the country so far.) A sample flight on the company’s site shows a flight from San Francisco to Truckee, California, near Tahoe, for $120 and a time savings versus driving of more than three hours. Truckee, as an interesting side note, sits at around 6,000 feet elevation and is surrounded on all sides by the Sierras. 

The issue is a polarizing one for pilots, some of whom believe they should be able to provide rides for paying customers without a 135 operations certificate, and others believe that the FAA should come down fast and hard on BlackBird.

The issue is complicated by the fact that such private plane sharing apps are legal in Europe.

We’ll keep you updated on the status of BlackBird and the FAA’s response, if any, to the startup.

 

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VIDEO: NTSB Report Finds Multiple Mistakes Preceded Fatal Teterboro Crash

The NTSB recently released its final report on a May 2017 crash that killed two who were flying to New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport. (image courtesy: NTSB)

The NTSB has issued its final report on the May 15, 2017, crash of a Learjet 35A just south of New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport (TEB) near New York City. The accident, which killed Jeffrey Alino and William Ramsey, was preceded by several mistakes and operational missteps, including Ramsey’s decision to give his inexperienced co-pilot the controls for the approach to TEB. 

According to the NTSB report, Alino did not have sufficient flying experience to handle the jet and had scored poorly during flight simulator training. The co-pilot was listed as second in command with no flying responsibilities (SIC-0). However, the NTSB found that Ramsey had been instructed by Alino in flying the aircraft throughout the short flight from Philadelphia to Teterboro and that the SIC-0 was at the controls for much of the fateful approach.

The flight itself featured “widespread procedural noncompliance” from the crew, the report found, including incorrect calculations, missed instructions and miscommunications between the pilots and Teterboro Air Traffic Control. 

Specifically, the NTSB found that the plane’s approach became unstable after the pilot failed to perform a go-around. As a result, the plane stalled at low altitude and crashed.

In the NTSB report, the agency noted Trans-Pacific Air Charter, the company that the pilot and co-pilot worked for, failed to adequately monitor its operations for safety. During the flight, the NTSB found, the pilot requested to fly at 27,000 feet for the 85-mile trip to Teterboro. Also Alino and Ramsey failed to brief for the approach at Teterboro.

NTSB investigators said the co-pilot had difficulty controlling the plane’s speed throughout the flight. The crew also mistook Newark Liberty International Airport for Teterboro.

After ignoring a request from Teterboro air traffic controllers the crew attempted an approach and then was seen banking sharply. According to the cockpit voice recorder,Ramsey took the controls back from Alino 15 seconds before impact but was unable to recover the plane and it crashed unsurvivably in a parking lot near the airport. No one on the ground was injured.

This video from the NTSB recounts the details of the flight.

 

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Going Direct: 737 Max Crisis And Its Collateral Casualty, Our Trust

Boeing 737
The crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air 610 5 months apart, both involving new Boeing Max 737s, have raised several questions. Pictured: A 737 Max, the type of plane involved in the recent crashes.

Unlike small planes, airliners hardly ever crash. Their safety record isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to that mark that when one does go down, the world takes notice. And when one crashes, especially when it’s under mysterious or particularly horrific circumstances, the aviation world comes together to figure out just how to prevent such accidents in the future. And more often than not, we’re successful in doing just that. That’s why commercial air travel on per mile basis is the safest mode of transportation the world has ever known.

In the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air 610, the answers we’re coming up with to explain why those two new Boeing 737 Max planes went down are beginning to come into focus, and that story is disturbing for its own reasons. A new flight control subsystem called MCAS, designed to alter the 737’s control response, is the prime suspect, and it’s looking more and more likely that it was the cause of both accidents. But how MCAS got certified so quickly and how Boeing prepared 737 Max pilots to fly the new derivative and how Boeing and the FAA responded to the crisis—by essentially denying there was a problem right up until the moment that President Trump ordered the planes grounded…well, that tale is deeply troubling.

So even though we have a good idea of what was responsible for the crash and while most observers are confident a fix will be found, our trust in the institutions we’ve come to depend on to keep air travel safe has been eroded.

Of course the institutions in question are Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration. Boeing’s reputation as a builder of planes is so strong its pilot fans have a saying: “If it’s not a Boeing, then I’m not going.“ For decades there have been two sides in the global aircraft-design philosophy debate, one side taking Boeing, manual systems, pilot-centered design and tradition, and the other side taking Airbus, more automation, systems-centered design and innovation. In truth neither company has a monopoly on any of these things. But Boeing’s place in the argument as the sensible, conservative and smart choice is at stake, and its reputation is in for a serious hit.

That’s because, in the wake of the second crash of a 737 Max in five months, Boeing’s communications regarding the disasters have been problematic, to say the least. The communications gap is striking. In this case, Boeing was literally working on a major fix to the MCAS problem presumably discovered during the Lion Air probe. That plane crashed in late October of 2018. At the same time as it was feverishly working to fix the brand-new system, the company was saying there was nothing wrong with its planes and that there was no risk in continuing to fly them as they were. There’s an obvious disconnect here.

For the FAA’s part, it needs to acknowledge that it knew all the details about the process that Boeing used to turn a 50-plus-year-old design into a big-engined modern day fuel miser, because they did know. They were, in fact, actively involved in that ongoing certification review, despite the agency ceding much approval authority to Boeing employees who are designated representatives. And that process involved compromises, which is not unique to the 737 Max. Every derivative design entails compromises. But how the company created the modifications to turn the 737 into the Max and how the FAA approved those changes is a story that is already coming out, and the details, including, according to one report, engineers on the MCAS project not being aware that others changed the design in ways that presented far greater risk to the safety of flight. Those changes, it needs to be said, are suspected as root causes of both crashes.

The FAA’s response after the Ethiopia crash was to support Boeing’s claim that the planes were airworthy and to stick to that position, but if they knew there might have been an issue with MCAS, it surely wasn’t saying so. It nearly literally took an act of Congress—well, of the Executive Branch—to get the FAA to back down from its position of supporting the continued operation of the 737 Max. The United States was last in the world to ground the planes, and regardless of whether you think that was a sound decision or not—we think it was not—the optics of that are as bad as they get.

Whether it’s true or not, it looked for all the world (and toall the world) that Boeing and the FAA were choosing to protect corporate, economic and national interests over safety. So when the Ethiopian government declined to send the data recorders back to the United States and Boeing for analysis, opting instead to hand them over to France’s BEA instead of to the NTSB, it was hard not to read into that decision that Ethiopia was distrustful of how the investigation would be handled. The BEA is a premier investigative body, so it’s hard to fault Ethiopian on that count, but that it didn’t automatically turn to the United States and its preeminent manufacturer in this case is worrisome.

I’m confident that we’ll get to the bottom of this disaster, but in the process our institutions need to be straightforward with the public about their findings and transparent along the way so the message we all get is that truth in aviation investigations is paramount and sacrosanct. And if there were mistakes made in building or approving the plane, we need the manufacturer, Boeing, and the regulator who approved them, the FAA, to own those mistakes. Taking responsibility for them will make it clear to all what happened and why it happened while also accepting blame for a slow and inadequate response after the fact, though reputations, careers and more are likely at stake here.

Regardless, everyone must come clean about what happened and why, and the sooner that happens the better. Only then can these institutions begin to restore the trust the traveling public has in how transport planes are built and how they are approved, a trust that has already been eroded yet remains critical to restore, because honest reporting plays a major role in keeping the world flying safely.

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Piper Delivers Eight Archers to Dallas Flight School Location

Sales of Piper’s Archer TX helped boost the manufacture’s sales in 2018. (photo courtesy: Piper Aircraft)

Sales were up last year for Piper Aircraft and the Florida-based GA manufacturer hopes to improve on that success. And it looks like they’re on track. Earlier this month, ATP Flight School took delivery of eight of Piper’s Archer TXs.

The single-engine trainers come Garmin G1000 NXi equipped and were shipped to the flight school’s Dallas location. There they will be used put into service for American Airlines’ Envoy Air Cadet Program, which trains future pilots.

The delivery is part of a $37 million deal that will eventually bring 100 Piper planes to ATP. Currently, the company has 114 Archers in operation. And 22 additional Archers are scheduled for delivery in 2019. ATP operates 40 flight training centers across the country and is the nation’s largest flight school.

Piper Aircraft touted the order alongside news that it saw huge increases in billings and deliveries in 2018. In a press release, Piper President and CEO Simon Caldecott noted the company experienced a 38 percent increase in billings and a 48 percent increase in aircraft deliveries.

 “2018 was an exceptional year for Piper Aircraft as we continued to deliver a measurable impact for customers and our employees,” said Caldecott said in the release. “Over the past year, we have increased strategic investments in our facilities and products to better position Piper Aircraft to support the growing but stable demand for our diverse product lines.”

According to a February report from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association aircraft shipments increased by 4.7 percent and billings went up 1.8 percent worldwide.

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