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Over the Great Americas

By Olivier Aubert

Forgotten how many things I had packed into it, I had a fright when opening the long wooden box. “Mike! How the hell are we going to carry all this stuff?”
If I have serious doubts, I usually refer to Mike who always has a reassuring thing to declare.

The crate was full to the top, the flying machine was covered with bags and other items, and unpacked It was even scarier.

Mike’s box was not at the airport when we went collecting our flying toys, probably lost somewhere between Africa and South America. The supervisor of the Cargo dept. checked his computer and said:
“So far, we have no shipment of this sort. Call me tomorrow!” The box and the wing arrived a week later. Surprisingly, Argentinean customs seemed delighted with our “road vehicles” carnets and stamped it all with smiles and kindness. Expecting at least a day or two for usual arguments, we were wordless.

olivier with kit

"Where's this kit all going?"

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To start a flying expedition of this kind, General Rodriguez was the friendliest place we could have dreamt of. Situated 60 km outside Buenos Aires in the farming area, Rodriguez was more of a party field than a real airdrome with its usual rigid rules. Every weekend, the pilots were bringing their wives, the bambini and baskets of food. The planes were more often displayed silent on the grass than roaring up in the sky. We loved the place at very first and made friends with everyone around, especially Ernesto the boss of Aero-Latinas school and his instructor Santiago, the local playboy. Their sparkling enthusiasm gave us an extraordinary boost!

trikes

"It's OK, the kitchen sink is packed.."

Our aircraft were probably the two best ultralight machines in the world capable to endure such a demanding task. Both were fitted with the powerful 100HP Rotax 912’s engine, very strong undercarriages, good performing wings and extra-long range tanks. We were going to fly for many hours, many days, many months and we needed reliable aircraft with low maintenance profile. There was enough to worry with the devilish bureaucrats, unpredictable weather, and else. The machines had to be on our side, totally devoted and faithful. After some epic packing, loading, de-packing and re-packing, we voted a special budget for the Argentine post office.

We had to send about 40 kilos of exceeding luggage to the USA, mainly the rafts and survival equipment for the sea crossings.About to take off from Buenos Aires, Japan’s Civil Aviation was still asking a ridiculous amount of money for our clearance. Siberia was also giving headaches. The cold and vast desolated territory in the dollar-starved Russia would be a tough place to fly. Fortunately, these two places were far too far to worry about. One day, one of us mentioned a solution:
“ If Japan remains tough on money, why don’t we just fly East to Europe and Africa instead?”

DEPARTURE!

The first obstacle was natural. The Andes were standing high across our route. Following warnings and the failure to find oxygen bottles, we abandoned the high route to Santiago de Chile and went South to Patagonia. On Saturday 27th of March, we took off from Buenos Aires, heading South to Patagonia.

The weather forecast, with plenty nasty thunderstorms, wasn’t that marvellous, but at least, we were off the ground, flying in South America, heading to Australia or somewhere else, and that was a wonderful feeling.
Four hours later, we made an emergency landing. Storms all around and rain pouring. We were soaked before the tent was up and spent the first wet night of the trip.
Three days after departing, we had covered more than 1400 km. We had flown over magnificent scenery and already had a good shake in the turbulence of the famous winds of Patagonia. At the foot of the Andes, we landed at San Martin de Los Andes, a ski resort for the rich Argentineans. I was stunned to find a piece of my country’s landscape cut off and pasted on the flanks of these exotic mountains.

mike blyth

Mike, somewhere over Chile

“You cannot go to Chile!”

Said the airport chief in army uniform.
Dammit! It did not take long for the painful bureaucratic assault course to start! My crippled Spanish was just starting to recover from twenty years hibernation, not of any significant help yet.

San Martin had no custom and immigration facilities. Therefore we took off for San Carlos de Bariloche, a larger ski station having officials.

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chile

Over the clouds in Chile

Bariloche was another prototype of alpine paradise, in the centre of a wonderful criss-crossed system of valleys and blue lakes.
We lost two days getting clearances from the Chilean air Force and finally took off for Puerto Montt our first place in Chile.

The engines were purring at ten thousand feet over the high peaks, but I felt worried, remembering the words of Julio, a pilot at the local club:
“In this area, high winds can start at any moment and the turbulence can be real bad. We only fly our Cessna a few hours every month. It’s too windy!”

It was our first challenging flight. The cold was biting hard and it took us three hours, inching our way between high snow covered peaks and ragged valleys before we could spot the coast in the distance. The scenery was breathtaking but engine failure here would have been fatal.
We just made it across, before the strong wind from the Ocean stormed the mountains. The feeling to reach the coast was truly lovely, even if the landing in Puerto Montt was critical due to rough turbulence.
While waiting for stamps, the wind grew stronger. We took off like helicopters and zoomed up the coast for a further 450 kilometres, assisted by a wonderful tail wind.

ALIEN ART

Mr. Erissman, the Swiss ambassador in Chile was waiting for us at Santiago airport. We knew the friendly man from our previous expedition in 95, when he was posted in Nairobi. Chile was another spectacular place to fly, especially in the North over the coast of the magnificent Atacama Desert with the high cliffs of compact golden sand falling into the blue Pacific.

atacama

The Atacama Desert

At the border town of Arica, we took two Norwegian girls for a surprise trip into the desert, but I swear to god, we behaved ourselves like monks!

But mostly, behaving like monks doesn’t pay at all as the following day we got severely hit by the Peruvian customs. In Tacna, some self-pleased officials grounded us for five days, requesting us to pay an exotic deposit for the machines. We fought hard on the issue, and I reckon that my Spanish had improved significantly during those days of bargaining. For a while, the scornful looking custom officer wanted to charge us over a million dollars for the deposit, getting his zeros mixed up.

Our embassies in Lima had a very opposite approach. The South Africans were keen to assist Mike while the lady at the Swiss office put down the phone. If Mr. Erissman did not kick the bottoms of his northern colleagues, we might still be there.

We made a two days stop over at Nazca where once upon a time, UFO’s had landed a bunch of artists from their far galaxy to decorate the desert floor with endless lines and gigantic beasts. Well, this is one theory, “ma se non è vero è ben trovato”. What a magic place!

Our stay in Lima was extremely pleasant. Thanks to Felipe Solsona and his daughter Huenu who had organised it all. We had a great welcome party at the ultralight club of San Bartolo, outside the city. We voted for a cultural break to Machu Picchu, the mythical site in the high mountains. We momentarily abandoned our trikes at the club and jumped in one of the country’s museum rated 727 and flew off to Cuzco at the centre of the old Inca world.
On the second of May, we left Lima with a passenger. Huenu sat with Mike while I familiarised myself with cargo transportation. This was the first time we ever took someone with us during an expedition and these few days in trilogy were the most refreshing. When we approached Chiclayo five days later, we had a stroke of adrenaline. We spotted several MIG 29’s backtracking on the single runway. The tower finally confirmed that we were at the right place and that Chiclayo airport was both civil and military.

COKE IN STOCK

Wherever we had mentioned the singing word “Colombia”, we created a torrential rush of concerns and warnings.

Colombia is fun but dangerous!” was the quintessence of all statements.
Before departing Geneva, I had contacted the flying community of Cali, following a friend’s advise. Gerald, married with a Colombian woman, knew well that country. He was the first to worry about us flying “these things” in the guerrilla-infested Colombia.

You have no bloody idea about what is going on there! Yes, it is the best place in South America, but they could blow you out of the sky, just for the fun of it

"What about Salsa dancing schools?” I replied.

We had a flight plan made from Ecuador to the first town in the Colombian coast called Tumaco. We passed over the Equator line a few times just in case and celebrated it, screaming in the radio. This was a six hundred and fifty km flight, mainly over jungle and mangrove swamps, the perfect time for you to hope your engine was not a Monday morning creation. There was hardly any place to put the machines down.

clouds

Somewhere over South America....

Airborne XT912

The airstrip in Tumaco was a sharp cut into the deep forest. The operator gave us the landing instructions with a slight American accent, which somehow felt good. Taxiing to the apron, we saw troops running toward us. Despite their hostile appearance with Ninja look and heavy weaponry, they all seemed cordial and relaxed.
The controller coming down from the tower approached us saying:
“Welcome to Colombia!” Followed by a stunning:
“Would you like some cocaine?”
We looked at each other puzzled.
“No thanks, why?” Mike replied curious.
With a sparkle of pride in his eyes, the enthusiastic man declared:

“This is the factory man! Welcome to the factory!

olivier

Bogged down by rain in wild country

I felt my legs quivering and my temperature rocketing up. Had we landed in one of the cartel’s kingdom? In fact, I never studied where exactly cocaine was produced in this wild country.
We finally understood what the guy meant. The factory was Colombia, the whole country.
We slept next to the machines on the calm aerodrome. Patrolled by the Special Units, this place was probably the safest in Tumaco or maybe the most hazardous. During the night we had to pitch the tent in a hurry. Waves of mosquitoes were attacking us like suicide planes. Lots of them succeeded to get in before we pulled the zips. The night was tropical and humid and we fought a tough war with the clandestine buzzers.

ZERO ON FUEL!

It was the beginning of the wet season and rain poured badly along the coast. After three hours, we decided to abort the flight and look for a suitable beach to land on. Mike climbed between lower clouds and called Cali with his powerful unit. In our usual manner when trapped in such situation, we radio a sharp message and only acknowledge if the answer is convenient to us. Then, we switch channels. We found this procedure the most appropriate.
We pulled the dripping microlights up the lovely beach and prepared the evening. Bivouacking in the untamed Nature was one of the things we were wild about. We had a great supper made of tins of sardines in tomato sauce with a mouldy loaf of bread washed down with our last litre of “Gato Negro” the famous Chilean red wine. Rain poured all night.

“Mike! My gauge is on zero! I won’t make it to Cali.”
I was high above lush valleys, somewhere in the lower Andes, desperately looking for a suitable field. We had pulled hard on the throttle since the coast, climbing all the way over the thick jungle, and our Rotax had sucked a lot of liquid, a typical fuel miscalculation. Mike was also getting dry and joined the searching expedition. All the fields were small and sloped.
After buzzing several minutes around the valley, we found a stretch good enough for an emergency landing, not minding the take off.

Coming lower, I discovered that the field was on a steep slope with a rougher surface than I had expected but I had no choice, my engine was consuming the last drops.

I had to put all my rage and skills into that landing, scared to ruin the trip. I pulled hard on the control bar and dived over the farm’s corrugated roof, aiming for the first meters of grass and instinctively applied full power to “lick” the slope with my undercarriage.
The touch down was hard and the rolling extremely rough, but I knew my trike was one of the strongest on the market and that gave me confidence.
Mike had time to radio Cali that we would be delayed due to the clouds hindering our route. I caught the last piece of his message, which was pretty informal: “We call you later when we have your runway in sight, we won’t be long”.

columbia

Only in Columbia!

If there were complains, they would reach our switched off units. I came to a full stop and ran to indicate Mike the best way through the deep holes I had just missed by chance. He managed with his usual brilliant style.

I walked down the field to meet the grinning farmer and asked him where the nearest fuel station was. He came with me, insisting on carrying the two empty cans. He guided me through the fields in the luxuriant valley until an old bouncing lorry appeared on the broken track. There were perfumes of flowers and freshly harvested fields embalming the atmosphere and I wished Mike could have shared that little expedition with us. But someone had to stay with the two machines and as I had previously been voted the Spanish expert by Mike, I was naturally volunteered for the mission. The village was very pretty with the sloping narrow streets lined by small white limewashed houses. People were smiling at me and I could never imagine being kidnapped in such a peaceful place, and it felt great. One and a half-hours later, we were back with the old and rusty Dodge cab we hired, with sixty litres of fresh petrol in the boot. .

low flying

Flying low over a jungle village

The take-off was a kamikaze rated operation. Once belting down the slope at full speed, there was no second chance, no way to stop. We were high, the air was hot and humid and on top of that we were heavily loaded. All the ingredients were in the basket to create our own little aviation disaster. I was quite frightened inside but Mike was as usual confident about the length of the field and the happy ending of the situation and that boosted me. I went first and darted at full speed into the slope, eyes almost closed. The bouncing trike finally lifted up. Ouf!
Breathless I watched Mike rocketing down the field, but when I saw him banking I knew he was airborne and fine.

flight training

ALL WRONG ON ZERO ONE!

“You are clear to land on zero one!”
Radioed Cali tower.
Mike was about touching down when we suddenly realised that the big white numbers at the threshold of the wide tarred runway were “zero six” and not the announced “zero one”.
“What’s that now? It’s a military airport!”
We immediately shot up with full power.
“Mike! This is the wrong place. Let’s get out of here and quickly!”
On the ground, I could glimpse on the agitated uniformed figures running around corrugated buildings. I though of a kicked anthill.
I checked again my GPS and found that Cali International was a further 20 klicks away.
“Damned it!
Mike disappeared somewhere in the sky as I tried to put my ideas together after all these confusing episodes. We had definitely jeopardised our arrival in Colombia. Officials would now have all in hand to undergo a thorough interrogation and perhaps more than that. The conditions were turbulent, and I tried to concentrate on the flying to make the last minutes right and blunder-free.
I was about relaxing when I had a dreadful fright. A plane rushed in front of me.
“Holy sh**! A near miss!”
A wave of burning adrenaline rushed through my body.
“Hell! That was close!”
I watched the plane that I could now identify as a Cessna 182 making a steep bank. I twisted my neck to follow his progress and realised it was aiming back to me!
I screamed into the radio;
“Get the hell out of my way!”
The plane’s crew kept silent.

Again, the Cessna came so close that I could clearly see the helmeted pilots in their flying gears and the markings on the fuselage. The round sticker with the coloured rings made it clear.

jungle

Nowhere to put down if the engine quits

“Damned! The Colombian air force is chasing me!”
The pilots were obviously trying as hard as they could to get me back to the shattered anthill.
I dived as close to the ground as flying configuration permits, jumping over fences and watching for power lines. The “one eight two” repeated her dreadful hunting rounds seven more times. By chance, the pilots seemed not daredevils enough to risk such a low performance with their fast machine. I dodged around the fields trying to anticipate and counter the plane’s manoeuvres while keeping positive on my track to the airport. The remaining nautical miles indicated in the corner of my Trimble were diminishing at a very slow rate. I was about to loose my second litre of water when I suddenly spotted the huge international runway.

The chasing plane gave up the fight and Mike reappeared on my left wing. On the apron, Randy Hurtado joined by some amigos was waiting. It was a delight to meet him after all these mishaps. At least we would have someone out to bring oranges to us and make all arrangements with a lawyer.
Randy said that his friend at the tower called to tell him that we were on our way.
“You really do have friends working here?” I asked relieved.
But before we had unpacked a single bag, a pitch black army chopper with a machine gun on one side landed fifty metres away from our tikes. That was obviously for us.
Randy bent his back under the idling rotor and went chatting with the two pilots.
After two minutes, the helmeted men waved to us and took off.
“How the hell did you do that?” We asked in choir.
“This is Colombia my friend!” Grinned Randy.

We stayed a week at Randy’s, socialising with a new bunch of incredibly nice people and doing a grand service on the Rotax engines. We met “El Gato”, the party man of the flying club. He showed us Cali by night and the best Salsa bars. Very impressive I must say!
Everyone looked well after us until we left for Panama City. Colombia was not the safest place in the world but we had no trouble. But outside the cities, the guerrilla could be anywhere and there were lots of kidnappings and murders all over the country. As advised, we took a direct route to the coast and followed the beaches until we arrived in Panama.
Sadly, we left South America behind us, both wishing to come back here one day, especially Colombia, The Place.

panama

The Panama Canal

Reaching Central America, we had covered about nine thousands kilometres. Our engines had worked for over one hundred hours and still purring like kittens.

Tall dark-windowed buildings, neat refrigerated cars hissing softly on large sparkling avenues, Panama appeared like a little America. I immediately noticed the absence of potholes on the roads, which is an unequivocal sign that marks out the states that have either a booming economy with an acceptable rate of corruption or a flourishing drug or/and arms traffic industry. The famous Panama Canal was declared no-go zone for all aircraft, which did not stop us making a slight roundabout for photo purpose while heading out of the country.

Arriving from the sky, Costa Rica looked like a perfect heaven destination for the worlds holiday fanatics in search of exoticism. We landed on the Nicoya Peninsula where we met Guido, an old African friend who had set up an ultralight school near the beach. Waiting for further permits from BaseOps, we spent a week there filming, checking the machines and enjoying the “dolce far niente”.
These permits consisted of a line or two with official numbers from the concerned Aviation Authorities followed by some supportive words from the British team. As the expedition progressed, these permits became like tickets to Paradise.

Ultimately, the one for Japan was never issued, and that was when the planned Pacific Rim Expedition turned to be an Atlantic one, ending in Cape Town.

From this particular moment, our minds started to focus obsessively on the map and the extensive blue areas between lands called “Ocean” which soon or later we would have to cross.
The whole of Central America was in peace at the time we arrived. Some years ago, flying across this part of the world would have been very hazardous, especially with our slow machines. Despite this happy situation, we decided to catch up on time. We departed Costa Rica on the sixth of June and arrived in Mexico on the seventh. We flew over Nicaragua, part of Honduras, El Salvador, followed by Guatemala, and finally landed in Tapachula – Southern Mexico, all in one day.

jungle airstrip

A runway....in the middle of paradise!

TORTILLAS & PANZERWAGEN

After a good resting night in a Mango plantation owned by an ultralight fundamentalist we went over the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range and flew all the way to the Maya centre of Palenque, three hundred kilometres towards the East. Palenque was one of the Magical Mystery places I definitely wanted Mike to see. I still had great memories from a previous visit in 1980. We explored the famous pyramids from the ground and the air and landed next to the Agua Azul falls for a swim in the turquoise blue water. Mexico was an enchanting country to idle about, but much stricter on the bureaucratic aspect than most of the countries we crossed.

Also, the heavy presence of federal troops armed to the teeth and charging down the narrow streets with their weird “Hummies” - (the “Panzerwagen” looking vehicle that became U.S. war-movie star after the Gulf conflict) - was not such a pleasant performance. Rumours of uprising guerrillas in the Chiapas province caused this parade.

To cut down all potential refuelling stops for drug smugglers flying from the South, the Mexican army had closed down most of the nation’s airstrips by obstructing the runways with rusted farm equipment and drums full of concrete. Every evening, we were “forced” to land on the beautiful beaches of the Gulf. What a punishment!

parked

Parked up for a breather

WELCOME TO THE U.S.

I had no visa to enter the United States of America and the potbellied immigration officer did not appear in his best mood.
“We can sell you a visa for one hundred and sixty seven dollars otherwise you go back to Mexico.”
This was a straightforward statement with little room for ambiguity.
In fact, there was a much cheaper way to get a visa by driving on the bridge that stretches across the glorious Rio Negro. So, we left Brownsville and flew back to Mexico. Our first stop-over in the USA was in Johnson, Texas, on a neat little airstrip well equipped with lights for late landings.

wright

Kitty Hawk - Where it all began

We walked to a recommended place to eat called “Sportsman’s bar” and though the menu was displaying mouth-watering pictures, the food we ordered had to be awarded in unison: “Most Revolting Meal of the Expedition”. It had to happen once.

Three days later, we arrived in New Orleans and spent some nights in the music bars of Bourbon Street, the fun place. There were many air force bases along the Gulf coast, meaning we would have to talk a lot. To my great pleasure, Mike was appointed radio operator. He struggled a lot, swapping frequencies every few minutes and adapting in a hurry to the changing style of the air traffic controllers. Very grateful, I followed in silence.

The U.S.A. is the number one flying nation of the world, no doubts about it. There were so many airfields in our permanent vicinity that my GPS was getting berserk when I activated the “nearest” airport function.
It is a real pleasure to fly outside controlled airspace because rules are most simple: “Keep your eyes open and talk when necessary”.
We stayed four days at Kitty Hawk to pay homage to the Wright brothers who started it all. In New York, we recovered our rafts that had just arrived from Buenos Aires, and flew around Lady Liberty before heading to Massachusetts. At this stage most of my thoughts were dedicated to the North Atlantic. It was a scary subject to think of and some nights I was unable to find sleep. Mike went through the same emotions.

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liberty

New York - When will a pic like this be taken again?

 

Maine was the most refreshing state we had visited during our short passage in America. We landed at “Merry Meeting” airfield managed by a bunch of joyful pilots. Everyone was cheerful, curious, and through its rustic style, the little town of Bowdoinham was giving an agreeable hint of detached happiness. We loved the place immediately. Bryce Muir, a resident artist helped us to find the extra fuel tanks we needed for the long sea crossing ahead and offered it as a personal tribute to our expedition.
We moved sixty kilometres to a bigger aerodrome called Knox County where we spent a week preparing the last bits and pieces for the North Atlantic mission. Mike had to drive all the way to Buffalo for his Canadian visa.
We shared the pilot quarters called “the Boy’s Club” with a fine gang of pilots. It felt like we had to catch up on parties before getting geared up for the long and perilous journey through the Grand North.

10 MILLIONS $ THIRD PARTY!

Sitting in the bar at Shefferville aerodrome, the man spoke French but in a style not normally associated with that language. I was struggling to catch and puzzle his words together. What the affable Beaver pilot was trying to tell us was that he would never fly here without floats, insinuating that we - with our wheeled flying lawnmowers - were either slightly deranged or totally mad, but reckless in any case.
Shefferville was far out in the North of the Quebec province of Canada and to reach that remote town made us fly the longest distance of the trip, 880 kilometres, hovering over the mythic St Lawrence and across the vast stretches of forest sprinkled with thousands of blue lakes.

We arrived days later on Baffin island, totally captured by the stunning beauty of the landscapes and exhausted by the stress of the long hours over the huge and inhospitable country. There weren’t many places to land safely in case of an engine problem. The weather conditions were getting more extreme with unpredictable winds and colder temperatures. The pilot with his tortured French was right, Canada was a floatplane country.

frobisher

Frobisher Bay

In Iqaluit, a district fishing town and Inuit centre, formerly called Frobisher Bay, we met Cam McGregor and other members of the Polar Flyer Club and stayed with Sandy Tufts, one of the town schoolteacher. Iqaluit was the last stronghold of civilisation before Sondrestromfjord in Greenland and we knew we had to prepare ourselves well because from here on we were going to fly over some of the planet’s most remote places and over endless miles of ice cold water.Baseops was fighting hard with the Danish Civil Aviation to get our flying authorisations. It took days. The Danes were never keen to let uncertified aircraft like slow flying microlights inch over their giant ice-capped island. Before us, only two other trikes have crossed Greenland and both successfully, meaning microlights had a 0% accident record over the huge Scandinavian territory.

As Eppo Numan in 1991 and Brian Milton in 1998, we were inevitably faced with the ultimate Danish bureaucratic deterrent, the infamous and horrifying 10 millions dollars third party insurance cover request. For a while, my spirit and optimism went liquid… Mike took it as a personal battle while I taught Sandy about Swiss cuisine and organised our daily meals and home tasks at the cosy wooden cabin.

Helped by Baseops and few other peoples in the UK, Lloyd’s of London finally accepted to issue us with a short contract and a day later the green light was given by Copenhagen. Thanks to Mike who spent lots of energy on that issue, it became our greatest victory against bureaucrats ever. We were ready and motivated, but the weather turned real bad, forcing us to wait another five days.

During the last weeks, my engine became more and more difficult to start in the morning. We tried all sort of things without success until Mike found, as always, a bright answer: “Let’s remove the prop and see if it starts without!”

baffin

Baffin Island

And off course… it worked. It seemed it was a problem in the gearbox.From thereon and before each leg across the Atlantic, I would awake with the sun, run the engine without the blades until warm, replace the prop and go. There was nothing better to do anyway because the nearest Rotax workshop was in the UK, three thousand kilometres away.

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