Ferrying a crop duster to South America

I had been in the air maybe five or six hours, varying between 13,000 and 15,000 feet, avoiding afternoon tropical convective build-ups. I had taken off that morning from Tapachula, Mexico, in this factory-new agricultural Air Tractor 401. The airplane was powered by a nine-cylinder radial engine rather than the more common PT-6 turbine engine that I had been flying behind recently. The Air Tractor 401 has a 400- (as the name implies) gallon hopper tank used for various chemicals for application purposes.

The factory plumbs the hopper into a usable fuel tank for these long, international ferry flights. With a full hopper of fuel and long range wing tanks, these planes are a virtual flying gas tank and can stay aloft all day without refueling. I had just flown over Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica. I was attempting to get over or around the convective buildups that had formed over the Serrania de Tabasara mountain range in Panama. These late afternoon build-ups had formed in and around the 12,000-foot jungle mountain peaks. Very typical for this time of day. I had only one more hour of flying (I thought) before I reached Panama City, my first stop on the way to Turbo, Colombia.

Up to this point, the trip from Dallas, Texas, had been uneventful and trouble-free. But now the weather was rapidly starting to form along the southern coast of Panama between me and the airport. Flying near or over the equator in light aircraft under VFR conditions takes a certain amount of experience and skill. When I first started flying in this part of the world, I had neither. One thing you learn very quickly is that convective activity starts to build during the late morning and rapidly develops into the early afternoon. The key to getting through the intertropical convergence zone is to be safely on the ground by around 1500 local time. I had climbed as high as I could this day to stay on top and between the towering afternoon cumulus.

ITCZ
The intertropical convergence zone can create some unpleasant flying conditions by late afternoon.

Given the equatorial weather patterns, afternoon portions of these types of flights are typically spent at treetop level. I have crossed the Amazon rain forest a number of times using this technique. There really is no easy way to transition from mid-flight levels (10,000 to 18,000 feet) to ground level. Basically, it is power to idle and stick forward. There are a lot of turns involved during the descent to avoid the rain and thunderstorms. Eventually you end up just over the jungle with enough forward visibility to see the bases of the cloud deck and dodge the shafts of tropical downpours.

The majority of the aircraft I delivered to Latin and South America were not equipped with radios, transponders, or navigational equipment. I had developed my own “ferry kit” as I called it. It was basic at first: a communications radio and transponder. They were wired into a portable aluminum rack (painted yellow to match the standard Air Tractor color) that I could hang from inside the cockpit door rail.

The transponder antenna was fed into the drain hole on the floorboard in the cockpit and duct taped to the bottom of the aircraft. The radio antenna was fitted through an air vent and placed on the side of the fuselage. I used two Garmin GPSs, tie-wrapped together and mounted on the hopper tank shelf in front of my knees. This is where I placed my other essential items: cigars, lighter and camera. Over the years my kit included other instruments such as turn and bank, attitude and vertical speed indicators. My power supply were two wires I clipped to the back of the circuit breaker panel.

After my deliveries, I could pack all this equipment into a specially-made case with foam interiors that perfectly fit all these instruments. Another case was used to pack my extensive collection of jungle and ocean survival gear. Although I never intended to fly IFR, this equipment came in use many times to climb and let down through frequent unforecasted weather.

I let down to just above the treetops. I was trying to follow a road through the weather across the Peninsula de Azuero. My plan was to intercept the coast and follow it to the northeast and to Panama City. It started raining again and I cut back, turned, circled and tried everything I could to get through. Finally, I had to give up and turn around.

My next plan was to try and get to Panama City via the north coast. I had to climb back up to 15,000 feet. I found a valley of clouds through the mountains and was able to get back on top. I realized that I was still slightly hypoxic from my previous time at altitude. My brain was foggy, my breathing rapid. After only a short time and clear of the mountains I let back down to just above the jungle canopy. This time I was over the Golfo de los Mosquitos in heavy rain and poor visibility. I flew for only a few more minutes and realized there was going to be no way through.

It was getting late in the day and the tropical weather was closing in behind me. I felt trapped. Weather was all around and nothing but dense jungle below. I started to get frustrated and really worried. An hour and a half had passed and I was no closer to Panama City. My only alternate airfield was back across the mountains. The last thing I wanted to do was climb back up to 15,000 feet, but I had no choice. The airport of David was 45 minutes away on the border of Costa Rica.

AT-401 airplane
The Air Tractor 401 is better suited to drop dusting than long flights at 15,000 feet.

Since I had descended down over the Golfo de los Mosquitos, I had detected an exhaust odor coming off the Pratt & Whitney 1340 engine. In fact it was making me nauseated. I had also noticed I was picking up an oily film on my windshield, making it difficult to see forward. I realized I had been so caught up in trying to get through the weather that I had not noticed. When I started to add power to climb back up to cross the mountains, the engine coughed, backfired and just wouldn’t take the throttle. The exhaust odor got worse and now I could see what appeared to be smoke coming off the front of the motor.

I tried to advance the throttle very slowly and manually adjust the fuel mixture, but the engine just wouldn’t take the power. I was still able to climb slowly up another shaft of clouds. I honestly didn’t think the engine would keep running long enough for me to clear the mountain range ahead of me.

I started to look for a place to make an emergency landing if needed. As I was climbing, I was also planning for the worst case scenario. There was nothing but ocean and jungle. I considered dumping the remaining fuel in the hopper but decided to hang on to it until I was absolutely forced to ditch. I kept climbing.

For the first time in my flying life, I thought I wasn’t going to make it down safely. I was actually scared. Interestingly enough, I was not worried about losing the aircraft. I was just concerned about my personal survival. As I was climbing, I began planning on how best to crash into the trees. Because if that engine quit, I would be coming down in a hurry. I had decided against the water.

Finally I made it to 15,000 feet and turned for the airport at David. I was VFR on top of the weather and mountains with a rough running engine. After what seemed like a lifetime, I descended into David and landed. After clearing the runway, I performed an engine runup to check the magnetos, carburetor, mixture and propeller. All the systems were perfectly fine. I thought long and hard about what could have caused me to experience these issues in flight. I determined that I had severe carburetor ice which was causing the engine to act so erratically. And the smoke I saw was actually moisture from the tropical air coming off of the propeller tips as I increased the pitch of the blades to climb settings. The exhaust I smelled? Well, that’s normal for a radial engine.

The next morning, I landed in Panama City in clear weather. I was able to refuel, pay all the fees required and prepare to depart. However, there always seemed to be another hand in the air wanting more money for one more fee or another. Finally I had enough and got into the Air Tractor and started the engine. Apparently I didn’t tip off the right guys because no one on ground control frequency would answer my calls to taxi. Other aircraft could hear me so I knew the radio was working. I switched to tower frequency and got the same lack of response. I waited and waited with the engine running. There was very little traffic and no one was on final approach to land. I taxied onto the active runway and simply took off. In four hours, this was not going to be my problem.

I was heading to Turbo, Colombia, a small military airport only about a two-hour flight from Panama City. I couldn’t land there directly and had to fly two hours past to Bucaramanga at the base of the Andes. I was scheduled to meet two government representatives to help me clear customs, immigration and officially import the aircraft in country.

Colombia jungle
Not the most hospitable terrain to be flying over in a radial engine airplane.

Not long after takeoff, I lost my GPS reception. I pulled out my charts and was now dead reckoning through the mountains and jungles of Colombia in a big, bright yellow cropduster. It was a beautiful flight.

I was flying down in the valleys, following rivers and roads. Fortunately my GPS came back online and I was able to climb to altitude and head directly for Turbo. I wanted to fly over Turbo to see what I would be up against the next day when I was scheduled to deliver the plane to its final destination. The runway is about 2300 feet long and 25 feet wide, cut right into the middle of the jungle. It sits on a peninsula, ocean on three sides and a 12,000 foot mountain on the other.

I landed in Bucaramanga several hours later. The two officials were patiently waiting. After a brief introduction and an exchange of paperwork, they began to negotiate my arrival with a Colombian customs agent. There was much conversation going on and then they would all look at me from time to time shaking their heads back and forth. I was pretty sure I knew what they were discussing.

Finally, one of my guys came over and asked me if I had had any problems in Panama. I assured him there had been no problems at all. The two officials turned out to be brothers and very nice guys. They took me to their home, introduced me to their family and we had very nice dinner. They never asked me about my departure from Panama City.

Later that night, they drove me to my hotel, checked me in and walked me to my room. They introduced me to a guard who would be standing outside my room all night. I was told if I needed anything to ask him. And, don’t leave the room. I did end up going for a walk around the city that night.

The next morning, I was to fly alongside their Piper Warrior to Turbo. The two brothers were going to lead the flight of two to deliver the plane to the base commander. The weather was not good and I didn’t think we were going to depart. The only clear sky I could see was above the airport. They did not seem to mind and were preparing to go. I got in the Air Tractor and started to warm up my motor. I didn’t have a good feeling about this. I strapped on my chute and pulled out my charts. I guess we were going.

The plan was for me to take off behind them and climb directly over the airport, get on top of the overcast and proceed to Turbo. I really, really did not want to do this. I figured I would at least take off, have a look at the weather from above then circle back down and land. If nothing else, at least I could say I tried. As far as I could see, it was overcast. I could detect isolated thunderstorms toward Turbo. Mountains and volcano peaks were penetrating out of the undercast. The sky was a brilliant blue above.

I decided to fly out for 30 minutes with them and have a look and see if the weather improved. Two hours later, we were approaching Turbo according to my GPS. We were still VFR on top of the clouds. I heard the pilots in the Warrior talking in Spanish to Turbo. It didn’t sound good. 200 feet overcast light rain and poor visibility. We were up to 14,000 feet by the time we approached Turbo. I was sure we were going to turn back for Bucaramanga. To my surprise, the Warrior started to descend IMC.

VFR on top of clouds
Where are the holes in that cloud deck?

I don’t know if they expected me to fly formation with them into IFR conditions, but I just stayed at 14,000 feet, in clear weather, and headed for Panama City, my new alternate airport. I was glad to be on my own so I could make my own decisions now. I flew ten miles past Turbo, out over the bay. From time to time, I could look straight down through multiple cloud layers and see the ocean. It was dark, drizzly and intimidating. I started a circling descent down through holes in the overcast. I would get between layers and lose one hole only to find another. Finally, I broke out at 200 feet.

I approached Turbo for landing. I could see the grass and reeds along the runway edge were long, wet and thick. They pulled and tugged on my wings, slapping the aluminum leading edges as I rolled out. As I taxied up to a random empty spot on the grass and dirt field, I saw old Russian aircraft and engines just piled like junk in various places. It looked like a junkyard. Mean looking shirtless dudes were working on other Air Tractors in the thick tropical air, rifles stacked nearby. After shutting down the motor, I climbed out of the cockpit and noticed my guys in the Warrior were not there. I sat on the wing of my Air Tractor and lit a cigar. Nobody approached me.

Finally the Warrior arrived and, after a few calls, a car showed up and took us deeper into the jungle to meet the comandante. It was a very basic hut with few amenities. After a few long hours, I was glad to get out of there and back to the Warrior. The weather had improved and we were able to depart for Bogata. Once again I was escorted to my hotel room and told not leave. The next morning, a driver took me to the Bogota airport to catch my flight to Miami. I was escorted onto the aircraft. On that flight home, I was approached by a very beautiful stranger. She didn’t say much to me, just this: “We know who you are and we know what you are doing here. I recommend that you do not return.”

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