Flying to South and Latin America.
At 14-plus hours, the flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Buenos Aires, Argentina, is one of the longest in my airline’s network. At takeoff, our B747-8i is close to performance limits.
As it climbs into the evening sky, as pilots, we look forward to one of the most rewarding flights – from the northern hemisphere at 50º N to the southern hemisphere at 35º S.
After heading out to the Atlantic Ocean via Paris and the coast of France, we pass between Madeira and The Azores islands. The Crux constellation appears in the night sky, pointing to the South pole as we approach the equator.
Morning twilight over Brazil announces a spectacular sunrise as we start our initial descent over the endless plains of Uruguay. Passing over the Rio de la Plata, the vast metropolis of Buenos Aires awakens to a new day as we approach EZE (Ezeiza, Buenos Aires, Argentina).
The ILS leads us to a touchdown on Rwy 11, and after taxiing to the gate and parking, we look forward to a good sleep.
Clearance in Buenos Aires should normally be straight forward and quick. The evening meal features some of the best beef and red wine in the world.
Rising bizjet destinations
South of the border, there is plenty to discover. And as the region rises in economic significance, more and more business jet operators see the requirement for operations into Latin America.
The area is vast, featuring not only beautiful landscapes but also a well developed aviation infrastructure. However, very good preparation is necessary, as weather, terrain, ATC, and airport infrastructure pose unique challenges.
Distances in Latin America may be one of these challenges, where some aircraft may reach their range limits. Argentina is a very large country. The distance between EZE and USH (Ushuaia, Argentina) in Tierra del Fuego is almost 1300 nm. USH is located at 55º S latitude at the Beagle Channel – a body of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific ocean and forms part of the Strait of Magellan. As travel to Antarctica becomes more popular, more business jet operators are coming to this far away destination.
Winds around USH may blow at 50–60 kts as the westerly winds over the south Pacific hit the mountainous southern tip of the South American continent and pass through the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel. In fact, winds may be so strong in this area that some cities feature railings on the sidewalks to protect citizens from being blown on the road as they walk. USH offers Rwys 25 and 07, so crosswind components are usually within limits. Watch out for high terrain around the airport.
The same westerly winds also hit the Andes – a 5000-nm mountain range that is the longest in the world and includes some of the highest mountains on Earth. Argentina’s Aconcagua mountain is almost 23,000 ft high and induce very severe mountain waves and clear air turbulence. Many aircraft operators require all persons onboard to be securely strapped into their seats while crossing over the Andes.
From cruising altitude, and after passing the Andes mountain range, the descent to SCL (Intl, Santiago, Chile) is often steep. Airport elevation is only 1500 ft, with parallel runways (17/35 L/R). SCL is situated in a valley between the Andes and the coastal mountain range.
Argentina and Chile both offer a well developed aviation infrastructure. In Argentina, Buenos Aires offers a second airport downtown – AEP (Jorge Newbery, Buenos Aires, Argentina), which is much closer to the city center.
ROS (Intl, Rosario, Argentina) serves as alternate to EZE and AEP, while IGR (Intl, Iguazu, Argentina), MDZ (El Plumerillo, Mendoza, Argentina), COR (Intl, Cordoba, Argentina), and BRC (Bariloche, Argentina), serve important touristic and business regions. But there are many other airports in the country open to business operations.
Argentina offers a variety of climate zones, from tropical and high desert, mountains to subpolar regions. Therefore, care should be taken to analyze the weather properly.
In Buenos Aires, you may expect strong winds from the west, heavy thunderstorms, and, during the southern winter (our summer months), dense fog. Also remember that low pressure systems and fronts circulate the other way around in the southern hemisphere. It takes a moment to get used to that and to learn to develop the right mental picture of the weather situation.
In Argentina, just as in other Latin American countries, make sure that you have the support and help of an international service provider (ISP). It also does not hurt to have at least one crew member who speaks Spanish on board.
Flying to Brazil
Further north, Brazil has not only a well developed aviation system, but also builds the renowned family of Embraer aircraft in São José dos Campos.
I had the opportunity to visit the Embraer factory several times to fly their aircraft to SBGP (Embraer Unidade Gavião Peixoto Airport) – the manufacturer’s private flight test airport, which features one of the longest runways in the world (approx 5000 m [16,500 ft]) and some of the best orange juice you can find from the nearby plantations.
Brazil’s main business centers are São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. São Paulo offers 3 airports – GRU (Intl, Guarulhos, São Paulo SP, Brazil), CGH (Congonhas, São Paulo SP, Brazil), VCP (Intl, Viracopos, São Paulo SP, Brazil).
GRU serves mostly international flights, while CGH is the downtown airport for domestic hops. At 2460 ft, GRU sits on top of the coastal mountains, and fog may be expected there in the colder months. In fact, the native word Guarulhos actually means fog or mist.
On the other hand, CGH is situated right in the middle of dense urban development on top of a hill, while VCP is located about 45 nm from downtown São Paulo, and serves mostly cargo flights. It is, however, an airport of entry, so it is a convenient alternative to busier airports.
In Rio de Janeiro there are 2 airports. GIG (Intl, Galeão–Antonio Carlos Jobim, Rio de Janeiro RJ, Brazil) is the international airport for all airline long-haul flights. And SDU (Santos Dumont, Rio de Janeiro RJ, Brazil) is located right beside the sugarloaf mountain at the bay in downtown Rio. Approaches are spectacular, and you can almost walk to the town and beach from the terminal.
Weather and communications
In Brazil, convective weather is a factor at almost all times of the year. As we head further north, getting closer to the tropics, large cumulonimbus systems may require extensive rerouting. Brazilian domestic ATC communications are often conducted in Portuguese, just like Spanish is used in other parts of the continent.
Over some regions of the country, such as the Amazon basin, ATC service communications were sometimes difficult, leading to a fatal midair collision between a Boeing 737 and an Embraer Legacy 600 business jet in 2006. All 154 persons onboard the Boeing 737 perished, while the crew of the Embraer Legacy survived, landing the crippled aircraft on a military airport nearby.
After the accident, the Brazilian government required all aircraft to communicate on one frequency with ATC, and to have established contact on a second backup frequency.
It is also recommended to fly 1 nm right of track. In recent years, controller-pilot datalink communication (CPDLC) has improved communications in the Brazilian domestic airspace. If you fly to Brazil from the US or Europe, you will be using CPDLC in Brazilian controlled oceanic airspace already as you communicate with Recife ATC.
In Brazil, you will find a well developed aviation infrastructure. As a sidenote, São Paulo, due to epic traffic jams, is also one of the cities with the busiest helicopter traffic in the world. High rise buildings almost always have active helipads on top, and Uber even tried out a helicopter option for its app in the city.
There are many airports along the coast of Brazil, such as SSA (Intl, Salvador de Bahia BA, Brazil), REC (Intl, Recife PE, Brazil), NAT (Intl, Natal RN, Brazil), and FOR (Intl, Fortaleza CE, Brazil). These airports serve the ports and beaches of northeastern Brazil, with Natal having the distinction of a long aviation history, as it was the landing point for South Atlantic mail flights in the 1920s.
Further inland, BSB (Intl, Brasilia DF, Brazil) serves as a good alternate airport and also an efficient refueling stop. MAO (Intl, Manaus AM, Brazil) is the main hub of the Amazon River basin. In Brazil, there are densely developed areas as well as remote jungle airports which are far away from each other.
Flying on north
As we follow the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America, west of the Amazon river delta, we enter French Guyana – an integral part of France and home to the European Space Agency’s rocket launch facility. Here you are legally not just in France, but also in the European Union. CAY (Intl, Cayenne-Rochambeau, French Guyana) offers a 10,500 ft runway.
The former Dutch colony of Suriname follows further west. With recent offshore oil fields discovered, PBM (Intl, Paramaribo, Suriname) has been placed firmly on the map of business jet operators.
In Colombia, BOG (Intl, Bogotá, Colombia) is located in a high mountain valley with an elevation of almost 8400 ft. Sometimes, a circling approach within the valley is required for landing, so do study your charts carefully. CTG (Intl, Cartagena, Colombia) serves the historic port city of Cartagena, while EOH (Intl, Medellin, Colombia) and CLO (Intl, Cali, Colombia) are also up in the mountains with challenging terrain.
While the Colombian government has made great efforts to control the drug trade in this country, it is still highly recommended that your aircraft is guarded at all times while parked, and that you ensure that no illegal substances find their way onto your aircraft or into your belongings as you head back to the US.
PTY (Intl, Tocumen, Panama City, Panama) has become a hub between North and Latin America. It is a well-run airport with good facilities and 2 parallel runways of 10000 ft and 8800 ft. Watch out for high terrain to the North. BLB (Intl, Panama Pacific, Panama City, Panama) is closer to the pacific locks of the Panama canal at Balboa, and offers an 8500-ft runway with VFR approaches only. But it is an airport of entry, and visibility in Panama is generally good, except for tropical cumulonimbus and showers.
Mexico is of course the first country that comes to mind when we talk about flying south of the border. Again, a well developed aviation infrastructure enables business jet operators to reach many cities and places in the country. Just as in Colombia, security of your people and aircraft should be one of your concerns.
MEX (Intl, Mexico City, Mexico) is located at an elevation of 7300 ft, and aircraft performance should be considered carefully. Your cabin pressure control system may also not work well in automatic mode, as cabin pressure in cruise flight is probably maintained at a lower cabin altitude, causing a sudden rise in cabin altitude as you approach and land. Gradual manual settings may work better, depending on your aircraft type and system.
The area around Mexico city is prone to heavy cumulonimbus, one usually forms on final approach in the afternoon. Be prepared to go around and carry enough fuel. Nearby TLC (Toluca, Mexico) is a good alternate. Its elevation is even a bit higher (8500 ft), but a 13700 ft runway compensates for that.
Flying south of the border opens up a new world, and is actually a lot of fun. Make sure that you have good support from your handling agent and flight planning service, and do not forget to fill out the eAPIS timely as you return to the United States.