After clearing customs and immigration I exited the airport terminal into the tropical Panama City humidity. It hit me that my role as a pilot in an incredible, 7500 nautical mile journey of two Robinson R44 helicopters from Torrance, California to Santiago Chile was actually about to begin.
The plan was to document and film the migration of a species of small gulls, called Franklin’s Gulls, as they made their yearly trip from the Great Salt Lake in Utah to the southern latitudes of South America. Sergio Nuno, producer of South America’s most prestigious television nature series La Tierra En Que Vivimos (The Earth We Live On), in concert with the Discovery Channel would produce a three-hour documentary on the migration of not only the birds but also the two helicopters. Sergio had purchased a new R44 and spent the previous six weeks at the Robinson factory planning a detailed route, securing permissions from the ten countries involved and arranging for fuel. No small task. Two support crews each consisting of two members and a pickup truck were also part of the expedition. One crew in Central America and one in South America would provide fuel and ground support in the more desolate areas of the trip. The Robinson Helicopter Company supported the project by helping on the costs and providing a pilot for the second R44, which was being delivered to the R44 dealer in Chile. The two R44’s left Torrance on October 7, 1996 with Rene Paivoa, one of Chile’s top pilots, at the controls of one aircraft and Dan Benton from RHC and Sergio Nuno in the other. Frank Robinson took over for Dan in Guatemala City and piloted one of the ships to Panama City, Panama where I would replace him for the final leg to Chile.
Little did I know as I climbed out of my taxi entered the Costa del Sol hotel that recent events were about to turn the first 575 miles of my flight into a baptism of fire. I met Frank, Sergio, and Rene on the hotel’s tenth floor outdoor restaurant and they were kind enough to let me finish my first “cervasa” before lowering the boom. It seems that Columbia, which borders Panama, is a country at war with itself.
Numerous factions representing different political, economic and ethnic views have created a state of anarchy and lawlessness. The illegal drug activity we hear so much about in the US is only the tip of the iceberg in a country that has half a million armed guerrillas fighting each other. Panamanian airplane and helicopter charter companies absolutely refuse to land in Columbia and the local fishing fleets avoid the Columbian ocean ports like the plague. To top this all off, Sergio explained that his main point of contact in Columbia, the official who had arranged the flight permission, fuel, and was to meet us at the airport of entry, had been murdered by guerrillas two days earlier. I ordered another beer.
After much discussion, a detailed review of the charts and some careful calculations on the back of a few napkins, the decision was made not to chance landing at any of the Colombian airports with two US registered helicopters as originally planned. Instead, we would carry enough extra fuel in the cabin section of each R44, fly the most direct route along the coast, and refuel ourselves on deserted beaches or offshore islands. Weather was also a serious concern. This portion of the Columbian Pacific Coast (2-6 degrees north of the equator) is one of the world’s wettest tropical rainforests. The easterly flow of weather off the Pacific Ocean is stopped by the 14,000 foot Andes Mountains resulting in daily torrential rain storms.
The flight from Panama City to Esmeraldas, Ecuador is 575 nm cutting every possible corner along the coast. At an 80 knot ground speed, which might be difficult to maintain in poor weather, the flight would require a little over seven hours using approximately 105 gallons. The R44’s main and aux fuel tank hold almost 49 gallons useable. We decided to carry an additional 70 gallons in the cabin, leaving about an hour of reserve fuel. Since weight was critical, Sergio and Christian Gonzalez, a bird expert who had joined the expedition for the final leg to Santiago Chile, would fly on an airline to Guayaquil, Ecuador, while Rene and I would fly the helicopters.
The next two days were spent searching Panama City for five gallon plastic containers to carry the fuel and filming the length of the Panama Canal. It’s about 30 nm from Panama City to Colon on the Atlantic side of the canal. One thousand five hundred feet over Lake Gatun, midway along the canal, is one of those magical spots in the world like the Straits of Gibraltar or the Bosporus. Instead of viewing two continents with a turn of the head, here the spectacle includes the world’s two largest oceans, the Atlantic to the north and the Pacific to the south.
On Sunday night we loaded fourteen 5 gallon containers of fuel into each helicopter. The floor of the left seat, the left seat and the entire rear compartment were filled with containers.
We were two flying bombs. Luckily I gave up smoking ten years ago. The next day, October 21, we departed the downtown Panama City airport at first light. I was surprised when the official accepting our flight plan to Ecuador did not bat an eye when he read “hours of fuel on board - 7 + 30." Our first landing was at a little strip, cut out of the jungle 25 miles from the Columbian border, called Punta Pina. Here we rendezvoused with a Cessna 182 carrying 50 gallons of fuel to top off our tanks before entering Columbia. The weather was unusually good, with only a few scattered rain showers, and calm wind. We made two surreptitious landings on the Columbia coast to refuel. The first, on a small deserted island about 100 yards offshore, was uneventful. It took about 30 minutes to refuel both helicopters. The second, about 100 miles from the Ecuador border, got the adrenaline flowing. We found a small deserted beach on a point in an area where the dense jungle came right up to the water's edge. We had finished refueling Rene’s ship and were midway in completing mine, when three small boats came into view heading toward us. The tide was low, so the boats had to be beached 100 yards from where the helicopters were parked. Eight men climbed out of the boats and began walking through the surf toward us. Not wanting to give these guys an opportunity to prove the rumors we had heard about Columbia true, we decided it was time to leave. Rene ran back to his ship while I jumped in mine and turned the key to start. It seemed to take forever for the clutch light to go out. I departed first and immediately circled back, thinking a low pass might give Rene more time. The men seemed to slow their advance once the engine noise and rotor speed increased, allowing Rene time to takeoff. For all we knew they may have thought we needed help, but with eight of them and only two of us, we weren’t about to find out.
We landed in Esmeraldas, Ecuador about three o’clock in the afternoon. After customs and immigration we decided to continue on to Manta, Ecuador, about 60 miles south of the equator. As we neared the equator, I dropped down to a slow hover along the deserted shoreline and watched the GPS tick down to 00 degrees 00.000 minutes latitude. I landed with, as best as I could determine, the left skid in the northern hemisphere , the right skid in the southern hemisphere and reflected for a moment on my location on the globe.
It was winter in the left seat and summer in the right seat. What a day - 9.2 flight hours, 735 nm, 3 countries, 2 seasons, and no lunch.
Ecuador is a transition country. The northern border with Columbia is a hot, humid rainforest. Two hundred sixty nautical miles south, at the border with Peru, begins a desert that extends some 1600 nm south into central Chile. The coast is a combination of beautiful broad beaches and rocky cliffs. Sergio and Christian joined us in Manta. We spent the entire day filming the wildlife and changing topography along the coast and up the Rio Guayas delta to the city of Guayaquil. The excitement of the day was caused by a family of three humpback whales traveling southbound only a few hundred feet offshore. Having seen many whales off the California coast, I fully expected these humpbacks to sound as we neared. But to the contrary, as we approached, they began to put on a show, breaching out of the water with a half roll in the air, then crashing back into the sea. The female surfaced with her body half out of the water, rolled on her side and waved a 20 foot flipper at us. I hovered down to about 20 feet off the water and still the three whales stayed on the surface seeming to play in the helicopter’s rotorwash. We followed and filmed this incredible encounter for close to 30 minutes until we probably became a bore to them and they disappeared.
The next four days were spent working our way south along the 1400 nm Peruvian shoreline. This entire portion of the South American coast is a dry, hostile desert, caused by the Humboldt Current that hugs the continent as it flows north. In the cold waters of the current anchovies and other fish thrive, providing rich feeding areas for huge numbers of brown pelicans, cormorants, and many other shore birds. Small islands and rock outcroppings, used as nesting areas, look like snow-capped mountains from the accumulated bird droppings, or guano. These thick deposits of guano are removed by man and exported as fertilizer.
Hundreds of sea lions climb the rocky jetties to sun themselves while whales and dolphins meander just offshore. Along one section, a broad, beautiful beach stretched uninterrupted for 120 miles. Typically, we would fly 50-75 feet over the surf, following the contours of the coast, slowing occasionally to film various flocks of birds, including our Franklin’s gulls. Over one inland waterway a quarter of a mile from the beach, we made a filming pass about 30 feet and 10-15 knots. Thousands of birds of numerous species were spooked by the sound of the helicopter. It was like snorkeling along a coral reef teeming with schools of fish darting in different directions. The helicopter was virtually surrounded by flocks of pelicans, flamingos, egrets, frigate birds, ospreys and little coots running across the water below. I picked out a flock of pink flamingoes and followed close behind them for a couple of miles, trusting the other birds could do a competent job of avoiding me.
The natural beauty of the Peruvian coastline is in stark contrast to the government authorities. Although Peru is no longer ruled by the military, the mentality is still firmly rooted in its civil servants. They were not about to believe this story that two US registered helicopters, with a Chilean film crew, were actually filming migrating birds. They convinced themselves our real purpose was to film military objectives. Accordingly, they required we carry aboard an Army lieutenant colonel the entire time we were in Peruvian airspace. LTC Alfreddo Caprile was now the newest member of the expedition. His job was to insure we circumnavigated all military installations. He spoke no English, so we soon dubbed him “His Majesty” when referring to him in English over the radio. At first we thought that “His Majesty’s” presence would be a great help in dealing with each airport authority, but this was not to be. At each airport we were charged outrageous fees for the privileges of using the tower frequency, hovering down their runway or taxiway, and landing on a parking apron. Including overnight fees and a 20 cents/kilometer filming charge, it was costing $400-500 to land at such places a Tumbes, Talara, Chiclago, and Trujillo. Finally, Sergio called the Chilean Ambassador to Peru who was able to get the filming charge suspended. It is a shame that my impressions of this country which is rich in natural beauty and Inca culture, will always be distorted by its paranoia, suspicion and greed.
About 250 miles south of Lima we turned inland across the desert to film the “Nasca Lines” and figures called “geoglyphs.” These geometric designs and animal figures were made by pre-Incan people over 1500 years ago by sweeping the reddish pebbles from the desert floor exposing the light alluvial surface. From 800-1,000 feet AGL, the outline of a hummingbird, monkey, and condor jump out from the desert floor. Large geometric shapes such as rectangles, triangles, and trapezoids stretch for miles across the desert plateau and can only really be seen from the air. It is easy to see why some have speculated these are extraterrestrial landing strips. In fact one of the geoglyphs looks an awful lot like an astronaut.
We spent the night at a beautiful old hotel that was situated in a small river basin that carries Andean snowmelt to the ocean. It had been the main hacienda on a large ranch. The cobblestone driveway lined with mango and papaya trees, elaborate stables covered with purple and lavender bougainvillea, and a ruined old amphitheater used for cock fights, made the old world charm of the Peruvian aristocracy come alive. Sitting around the pool that evening, I was introduced to the local toddy called Pisco. Distilled from grapes, Pisco is a strong clear liquid reminiscent of tequila, that the locals call a real “dust cutter.” It would become the standard evening drink for the rest of my time in South America. I brought a bottle back home to my wife who thought it tasted more like turpentine. I guess it just doesn’t travel well.
The next day we spent most of the morning filming the “Nasca Lines”, then headed back to the coast. We wanted to reach Arica, the northern most city in Chile, a 430 nm flight. Unfortunately, we were required to stop in Tacna, Peru, 20 nm north of the border to clear customs, immigration and drop off “His Majesty”. We arrived in Tacna late in the day with less than an hour until sunset. The exit papers and landing invoices for each aircraft consisted of four forms that had to be typed in triplicate by a two fingered, hunt and peck typist on a 1960s Smith Corona. Finally the paperwork was completed and the rotors were turning about five minutes before official sunset. We called the tower for takeoff but were told the Chilean authorities were not accepting the flight plans. They wanted to know why two American helicopters wanted to fly into Chilean airspace. We left the engines running while Sergio ran up to the tower cab to sort out the dilemma by telephone. The regulations in both Peru and Chile do not allow VFR flight past one hour after sunset. We had a 25 mile flight across the desert to Arica. I was hoping we would not have to spend one more night in Peru. When Sergio returned with the problems solved, a short discussion was held over the radio between the two helicopters. The smell of home was strong for my Chilean companions who had been gone for about six weeks, so we decided to try for Arica. Thanks to the GPS and the R44’s 130 knot vne we landed at the international airport outside of Arica just as the last light of day disappeared four of the five stars making up the Southern Cross were clearly visible in the night sky.
Although the climate and terrain don't really change as you cross the border into Chile, everything else does. Instead of the impoverished, third world nature of the Central and Southern American countries we had been flying through, Chile seems more like Western Europe than South America. This contrast became clear soon after we shut the aircraft down. The airport officials were dressed in coat and tie, customs and immigration were all computerized, and there wasn’t a 100 dB soccer match coming from a 20-year-old radio in each office. We spent the night at a modern resort hotel on the beach in Arica and celebrated the homecoming with a couple of Pisco sours.
Chile has to be a top candidate for the world’s strangest geographical layout. With a land mass smaller than any other South American republic except Ecuador, its 2,700 mile coastline makes Chile seem enormous. The country is so narrow (average width is 110 miles) that in some places the Andean peaks of the eastern border can be seen from the Pacific beaches. In the northern part of the country, the Atacama Desert stretches from the sea east to the mountains. The Atacama is known as the “driest place on earth” with areas that have never had recorded rainfall. The city of Arica has an annual rainfall of less than 3 mm. Underneath this hostile, barren desert lie vast deposits of sodium nitrates, known in the area as “white gold”, as well as other minerals including copper and silver.
The next day we worked our way south filming a rugged coastline of 200 foot cliffs, battered for thousands of years by the Pacific Ocean. The small rocky islands were covered by hundreds of sea lions while larger islands were inhabited by large flocks of penguins. The picture I had in my mind of these slow, waddling birds on polar terrain was shattered when, as the helicopter approached, they would scamper over the rocky terrain with a speed and agility that was totally unexpected. The land in this part of Chile is dotted by mining ghost towns abandoned about 100 years ago when the minerals in the local area gave out and the miners moved on. We hovered over the eerie remains of an old graveyard that was chiseled into the side of a 3,000 foot mountain that rose directly from the sea. We refueled in the port cities of Iquique and Antofagasta. About 10 miles north of Antofagasta is the La Portada National Monument, a huge rock about 100 yards offshore that’s been eroded into a beautiful arch by the sea. As I approached the arch, I slowed to a hover, 10-15 feet over the water, and stared through the opening. Waves crashed against its base as I scrutinized how much blade clearance would exist if I flew through it. Better judgment prevailed, but had I been in the smaller R22...
Leaving Antofagasta we turned inland to take a shorter route to the city of Copiapo. This 250 nm leg required a cruise altitude between 5,000 to 6,000 feet as it twisted its way around 9-11 thousand foot mountains. Forty miles to the east of our route, the Andes climb to over 17,000 feet. The terrain is rugged and desolate, but the remains of the 600-year-old, north/south “Inca Road” are still clearly visible. As we crossed the last 6,000 foot ridgeline, the terrain dropped sharply into the grape growing Copiapo river valley. That evening we visited a small winery where the old winemaker prided himself on making wine in the traditional old Spanish way.
The first leg of the final day was a 200 nm flight southeast to the resort city of La Serena. La Serena had been one of the original Spanish settlements and since the colonial period has been a stopping point for travelers crossing the northern desert. After lunch, we followed the coastline south for about 100 miles then inland toward Chile’s lush central valley and Santiago. Once in the valley, we followed the Pan American Highway south. The large central valley extends from 50 miles north of the capital to almost 300 miles south of Santiago. At over 2,000 feet MSL, the valley has a mild Mediterranean like climate and is the richest farmland in the country. Santiago is a sprawling city of more than four million people nestled in a picturesque setting against the Andes. As we approached from the north, Santiago Approach Control instructed us to circumnavigate around the northeast portion of the city to avoid the surprisingly heavy traffic in and out of the international airport. The lack of tall buildings gives the city a feeling of spaciousness despite the mountains. The residential suburbs consist of large middle-class areas with leafy avenues and fancy shopping malls. The poor areas are labyrinths of tiny adobe and wooden dwellings, but unlike the vast poverty I’d seen on this trip, this was sort of “poverty with dignity.” Small, well-kept gardens and clean, organized neighborhoods were the predominant view from the air. When we turned a two mile final to the Eulogio Sánchez Airport on the eastern side of the city, Rene requested a low approach followed by a left traffic pattern. I closed to a tight trail formation on Rene and when we were midfield of this small, one runway airport, a crowd of family, friends and media gathered in the grass. The moment the blades stopped turning the hugs, kisses, flashbulbs and TV cameras created such chaos that traffic on the single parallel taxiway had to be diverted to the runway.
We’d made it! For Christian and me it had been 14 days, almost 4,500 nm and 60 flight hours. For Sergio, Rene, and each R44, it had been 26 days, 7500 nm and over 100 flight hours. Both man and machine had successfully confronted a multitude of challenges created by weather, logistics, terrain and politics. At the international airport, prior to my flight back to the US, I saw in a bookstore a book of photography and poetry about Chile. The book was written by Sergio Nuno and titled Chile: Una Fantastica Aventura. For me it certainly was.