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Colombia (Getting into it)

05-08 MAR 2020

March 5th. Received an email from my ground handler in Colombia. It read: "This is your permit" and contained a scan of an official looking telex listing the airports I am allowed to use in Colombia. I wrote him back, that I intend to fly the next day. Plan was to fly first to Los Cedros (SKLC) for refueling out of jerrycans and then to Medellin for immigration/customs.

March 6th. Woke up at 4:30, looked at weather and NOTAMs, read my mail, left the Albrook Inn at 6:20, grabbed some food in Gelabert's terminal and started the long process of leaving a country. Write a flight plan. Prepare a Gendec. Pay your airport bills. Have the passport stamped. Have the flight plan accepted and stamped. Taxi the airplane over to the international ramp. Have it searched. Have 6 copies of the Gendec stamped by immigration and customs. The process is not streamlined. I had to go three times through security. The guards there change and I have to explain it all over again: No, I don't have a boarding pass. Yes, I am flying alone. Yes, really no passengers. Can I take this bottle of water through security? Why? Because I need to drink something on board.

Once on board, the fun started.

Initial routing was towards the Pearl islands and so I was again cleared to fly between the skyscrapers and the prohibited area. But lower this time, as the aircraft was heavier (all jerry cans filled).

And it was hazy. Flying in haze over an ocean can be disorienting. Always trust your instruments, son. Did I mention that I now have a life jacket? It is light-weight, but bulky. I can't wear it during flight, but I think I can grab it after a ditching, before the aircraft sinks. The cabin is crowded now. Everything was neatly packed. But after customs, it is always a mess. The part over the water isn't long, most of the time, I could glide to a beach. And if not, the life jacket is bright orange, the water is warm, I have radio contact, radar, transponder, ADS-B out, ELT 406 MHz and my Iridium GPS Satphone. Here they would quickly find me, I am sure. But an hour after take off, I overflew the coastline and now there is jungle below me. Places to land are rare, probably I'd have to stall her just over the tree tops and trust Hooker's harness STC. I have been told, the trees close over the crashed aircraft and virtually swallow it; the search and rescue team won't see it. My Iridium doesn't work without unobstructed view of the sky.

Didn't see much jungle anyway, clouds below me covered it most of the time. IMC would make an emergency landing even harder. But my C90 is a very reliable engine and it is in a good condition. I trust it. It has worked the last 55 years, why should it fail today over the jungle?

My chart shows a prohibited area over the Darien jungle, but the chart is outdated, the prohibited area no longer exists. Some time ago, drug dealers and kidnappers operated in the area. I guess P4 was created, to keep the good guys out of the area where the bad guys operate. Rules always restrict the good guys.

I wanted to visit the Darien gap, as it is called because of the 90 km gap it creates in the Panamericana, the highway which otherwise runs from Deadhorse, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina.

The Darien is a mountainous area. The border to Colombia follows the highest peaks. Behind the border, the jungle stops and the land looks moss-green, uninhabited. I dived through a hole below the clouds and soon landed in Los Cedros.

Here the fun stopped. I checked that my panamanian sim card doesn't work anymore and exchanged it with the colombian sim card I purchased at Tocumen terminal a few days ago. It worked, I had internet and received mails and WhatsApp messages. I saw the message from my ground handler telling me I shouldn't fly because I have to wait in Panama for other permits, the one he sent me the day before is not sufficient. OMG! Police checked my papers and searched my plane, as usual. The officer was friendly and correct. My ground handler suggested over the phone that I fly back to Panama and wait there until the permits are all ready. How sad to fly back! But I accepted this solution, filed a flight plan directly in the Tower, got it stamped there, paid fees for aeronautic and airport services in two different offices, made it through security and walked back to the aircraft. They don't have Avgas in Los Cedros. And when I offloaded the first jerrycan to refuel my aircraft an airport employee told me that over-wing gravity fueling is forbidden by airport regulations. The wind was picking up and while we talked, the wind turned around my aircraft by 90 degrees. Of course, no tie-downs available. The airport person said, only the firebrigade is allowed to do over-wing gravity fueling. So we walked over to the firebrigade's building, to talk to them. They said they don't do this. We walked back and I placed my jerry can on the wing. He threatened to fine me, if I continue. After a lengthy discussion, we finally agreed that I can do it, if the fire brigade is on stand-by and I pay for this service. But I had to pay first, so back to the office, paying, through security again. New guards. Who are you? Fire truck now waiting at the aircraft. The 3 bomberos inside look bored.

Aircraft refueled now, ready to fly back to Panama, but the Tower told me, the Colombian Air Force has not accepted the flight plan, I have to continue to Medellin, they say. There are two Airports in Medellin, the old Olaya Herrera (SKMD, Elevation 4900 ft) and the new Rionegro (SKRG, Elevation 7000 ft). I explained that Rionegro is too high for my plane and in Olaya Herrera they have no customs. I couldn't stay in Los Cedros either. The tower controller phoned with his boss and after a long time, they told me I should fly to Barranquilla. It is the only option. But I had to leave until 15:30 they said. Didn't have much time to prepare that flight. This is how accidents happen. But weather in Barranquilla looked good and flight time was doable with the fuel from my jerry cans. So I took off. Banana fields below me. I later lerned, all these banana fields, belong to just two persons.

Airborne. Away from all these strange rules. Approached some clouds. Wasn't easy to reach Barranquilla, even had to circle to gain altitude to fly above the clouds. Flying is fun. But Barranquilla is in the north, while I actually wanted to go south. This is depressing, hurting. Tried to see it as an excursion and this lightened my mood. I would have probably never made it to Barranquilla and who knows what I would have missed?

Landed there and taxied to an advised parking position. A fuel truck came and filled my tanks. No tie downs, but the find was still within my personal limits for a parking without tie downs. Forecast and Windy app didn't show stronger winds in the next hours, so I took my backpack and looked for immigration.

Would be understatement to say that Barranquilla is being renovated. They have torn down two thirds of the old terminal buildings. I walked through the ruins, looking for an immigration officer, because his counter was empty. Found him, he took my Gendec and stamped my passport. I was happy. Two custom officers came, one young and eager, the other one reasonable. Who are you? Why are you here? Who is your ground handler? What happened? They didn't inspect my bags and they didn't walk with me to the aircraft, but they asked endless questions. Nobody had informed them, that I would come. The older one was willing to let me go, but the younger one put a lot of effort in finding the weak points of my story. But I didn't tell a story, I told the truth. He called the ground handler who insisted that I flew to Colombia against his advice (which wasn't true) and they spoke for a long time. I stayed patient and friendly, but inside I was tired. Two 3 hour flights in the 140 drain your energy. Remember, there is no autopilot in this plane and it doesn't fly straight. It was past 8 PM, I was awake since 4:30 AM and hadn't eaten yet. Finally they let me go. In Los Cedros there was no money exchange (because it is not an international airport), so I got some Colombian Pesos here. No Uber in Colombia. They left the country a few weeks ago. Maybe they had issues with the bureaucracy here. Taxi was cheap. I chose a very cheap hotel close to the airport and slept like a stone. What a day!

March 7th. Still felt exhausted. My ground handler confirmed that he doesn't want to handle me anymore. I later learned, they cancelled all my permits, including the one which I had received before flying to Colombia. My hotel was really cheap and after I crashed a cockroach with my shoe, I decided to move for the second night to the Hilton which was at the other side of Barranquilla, 45 minutes away. The city looked poor, like India 20 years ago. Horse drawn carts. Only the main street paved. Shabby houses. Tuk-tuks. Beggars. Garbage in the street. The Hilton was an oasis. I got my room already at 9 AM and slept until noon. Walked around that part of the city, which looked nice. Went to a shopping mall, watching people, thinking about life and travelling. I swam in the pool, but still felt depressed. I miss my family. What am I doing here in Barranquilla?

Took a taxi back to the airport, to check out things. They have a lot of scheduled flights, usually A320s. Check-in counters and other functions are in huge tents. Found the airport and flight plan offices. Tried to get to my aircraft but they didn't allow it without a stamped flight plan. The wind had picked up, 15 knots. My aircraft was parked close to a provisional fence, could watch it from outside. It danced in the wind, only secured by my chocks. Now 20 knots. Will the wind swing it around like it happened in Los Cedros? Will it jump the chocks and be blown into the fence. I judged that this wouldn't lead to much damage. Would the insurance pay, or would they argue that I flew to Colombia without proper permit? I decided to stay at the fence. But after an hour I got frustrated and took a taxi. Drive me to wherever you think it is nice, I told the driver. He didn't understand my Spanish and called a young boy, believing that the young people speak English. This one didn't. Drive me to the city center, I tried to simplify, but the driver argued that there is no city center. So we agreed to drive to the cathedral.

Barranquilla isn't an old town and so the cathedral wasn't old either. But for me it was the city center. Walked its streets and tried to absorb the spirit of the city. But I didn't catch the spark, Barranquilla gave me - nothing. Winds increase to more than 35 knots, Windy believes. The forecast wasn't much better, 30 knots.

March 8th. Sunday. Took a taxi to the airport. Fourth time I drove through the city. At the airport, I run to the fence, certain to see my aircraft blown by the wind into it, with damaged wings, while passive airport employees take pictures. I felt indifferent about it. But it was still parked at its position, the wind hasn't moved or damaged it. Does my bad mood create this fear in me? Started to use the AOPA contacts in Colombia, Ibu, Gustavo and others in Panama gave me. I received a lot of support, but the news wasn't good. You cannot stay longer than 48 hours without permit in Colombia, I was told. The 48 hours would end in a few hours, so I prepared two flight plans, one via Los Cedros back to Panama and another one to Aruba. With a stamped flight plan, I could go to my plane and get the jerry cans filled. AOPA managed to get me a new permit with a new airport, Monteria. From Barranquilla, Monteria is a better airport than Los Cedros when continuing to Medellin. With the help of a friendly ground handler, I prepared a GenDec and customs declaration for Aruba and got all necessary stamps, ready to go. But the strong headwind killed the Aruba option, I couldn't fly there safely. So the 48 hour rule would have to be dealt with differently. Paid the airport bill (and didn't know that there is again an aeronautic bill to pay) and went with my backpack through security in the passenger terminal. They said I cannot take the nail scissor. I was tired arguing and agreed to give it up. She threw it into the transparent container with all the other forbidden stuff. Then her colleague came and said that capis (they call all pilots here capis) can take this into their aircraft. I tried to fish it out of the container, but my arm was too short. Who has the key to the container? Finally, I passed security and waited at puerta 15. You always wait for someone. Someone came and drove me to my aircraft. Took off and then I could relax.

At least for an hour, then I hit some clouds and had to circumnavigate them. The old question: Below, above, or around? Go below and it takes a long time to go up again, especially if you are heavily loaded with jerry cans. Terrain becomes a factor, it is turbulent, hot, humid. Go above and you don't find the hole to get down again. Go around and your flight time increases, eating into your reserves. And it is all dynamic, the clouds can move quickly into all directions, at least from the perspective of a 140. There is no weather radar or actual sat picture giving you a clue, what is behind this cloud.

Furthermore, here in Colombia they like to use VOR frequencies for ATIS broadcast. But as I don't have a VOR receiver, I can't listen to the ATIS. They also publish AWOS frequencies, but I never received one. My phone has no network, when flying and of course the Stratus doesn't receive weather broadcasts here. All you can do is ask the controller and if they understand a question beyond the most basic ATC language, they are helpful. Some say Monteria is hard to find, but I had no trouble seeing it. Landed and immediately liked this airport. An Avgas fuel truck came with a friendly driver. A police pilot flying a Cessna 206 came, liked my 140, smiled. A friendly airport guy came. My bad mood was blown away. No tie downs, but not much wind.

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