I have been fascinated by aviation since I was a kid because it combines the challenge of mastering various technical topics with the emotion that every human being feels when he can move in the third dimension. So from dreams of being able to fly if I only flapped my arms hard enough, to building flying models, flying the early flight simulator (Chicago Meigs field on an amber coloured monitor), till a friend invited me to fly with him in a Mooney M20, discovering that flying gliders (wooden 1950s-built Ka7) was financially feasible, over paragliders until finally my professional career brought me as a Belgian expatriate, who is married to a Brazilian woman, to Saudi Arabia.
I now could buy my own aircraft, a Super Petrel LS amphibious because our house in Brazil is situated near the Atlantic Ocean. It allows me to walk the five minutes from my home to the beach of Barequeçaba in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where my airplane is parked and take off into the paradise landscape of the north coast – Littoral Norte – of Sao Paulo.
My wife Valeria is not so keen on flying. She lived her youth near the beach of Saõ Sebastiaõ, a nearby village, playing beach volleyball, surfing the waves and enjoying the Brazilian way of life with countless friends, spontaneous parties with barbeques, churrasco as they call it, caipirinha – the national cocktail – and of course endless chats about football. You get it, all enjoyable as long as it is on firm ground.
But this sunny morning, I could convince her to fly with me to the UNESCO heritage site of Paraty, Rio de Janeiro, a 50-minute flight that would take us along gorgeous tropical coastal scenery. With the help of my friend Siri, a true Caiçara – as the natives of the coast are called – I rolled the Super Petrel in front of the waterline for the pre-flight inspection which I did by heart.
As usual, tourists approached to satisfy their curiosity. I answered their questions in the spirit of a general aviation ambassador but often have to disappoint those who hope for an air baptism as commercial flight in an experimental aircraft is not allowed. The preflight is repeated this time with the checklist read out loud to make sure that I didn’t forget anything. Although the Super Petrel belongs to the Light Sport category, it is a complex aircraft because of its water operation capabilities: landing gear mechanism, bilge pump and level switch, water tank for mass balance, etc. so a pre-flight takes me some time.
In the meantime, Valeria installs her stuff in the cockpit and explains our plans for the day with Siri. Shortly after the passenger briefing, the life jacket, seat belts, and headphones are all in place and I am ready for the start-up checklist. I shout “helice livre” to Siri, who is watching the prop as I can’t see it from the cockpit. “Prop free” he repeats in Portuguese. A few minutes later, the engine instruments signaled to me that the engine was happy to fly and we taxied the few meters towards the water.
I waited to see the wave break before I gave a handful of throttle to quickly pass the zone where waves easily can flow over the cockpit glass. I felt that the landing gear no longer touched the sea bottom and retracted it before giving full throttle. We were now quickly accelerating till the aircraft was “on the step,” a higher position of the hull on the water with less friction. Waves were scourging our little aircraft and inevitably we made a few hops before we finally lifted off the water.
The first scenery after takeoff is Ilhabella – “beautiful island” in Portuguese – which is a UNESCO natural reserve for over 90% of its surface. With its original Mata Atlantica woods, its over 360 water falls, its paradise beaches and very sparse population it surely didn’t steal its name.
The clear blue sky was appreciated by Valeria as it not only gave the scenery the saturated colours of blue, green, and yellow we are used to finding in tropical locations, it also gave a very smooth flight. She happily clicked her camera as we flew and sang a Brazilian song.
We passed the villages with the indigenous names of Caraguatatuba and Ubatuba while the tree-covered rocky coast varied with gold coloured beaches and some inhabited islands. Way too soon for me, the GPS told me that it was time to tune to the Paraty frequency. It was a quiet day; apart from another aircraft taking off, I was the only aircraft joining the circuit for runway 10. The small airport is located in the centre of the historic city. The runway stops near the ocean, a wonderful view so Valeria’s camera was clicking away. I kindly reminded her of our safety when the camera suddenly came in front of me and we landed uneventfully.
The authentic village of Paraty has a cosy buzz of tourists while Caiçaras are making their life in their ever-relaxed Brazilian way. The seafood tastes much better than a hamburger could ever and the souvenir shops were much appreciated by Valeria. I had to remind her that we came with a Light Sport amphibious aircraft, not with an air freighter… I noticed some clouds setting in as was anticipated in the morning weather briefing. Shadows were becoming larger – time to head back for the airport.
On the flight back, the landscape changed significantly as the sky was now filled with a lot of clouds and the low sunlight was casting large spots of golden glow over the sea water. Our flight brought us just below the layer of clouds and Valeria’s camera delightedly clicked on and on. Soon the canal of Saõ Sebastiaõ – the stretch of sea between Ilhabela and the Brazilian continent – was projected on our windshield. I started the descent and flew very low (about 200 feet) past the beaches now bathing in the ochre sunlight.
At the beach of Barequeçaba there were no windsocks or ATC informing you of the wind direction. You need all the clues you can get to determine your landing direction: the weather briefing, smoke, wave direction, trees waving, the calculated wind direction and speed on my EFIS, etc. The wind was calm from the northeast so I landed toward the beach.
Landing at sea is rarely smooth and also this time I flared carefully to minimize the speed, the belly of my hydroplane hitting the top of the waves till we settled in the water with a few hops. Taxiing back over the water, I lowered the landing gear about 50 meters before the waterline and soon my amphibious became a terrestrial vehicle again. I stopped the engine as soon as we drove onto the beach as soon some curious kids came running toward us. Valeria was smiling to her ears and told her adventures to friends while she was unloading her stuff.
I looked back on the flight as a memorable success but it also has a lesson learned for me because soon after our landing, a waiter from the hotel where we usually park our Super Petrel came by to ask how the flight had been. I noticed the begging look on his face as I promised I would take him on an air baptism and soon we would return to Saudi Arabia for work again.
I love to take people who have never flown in their lives before so they can see the village where their whole life story is written from a totally different perspective, let alone living their dream of moving in the third dimension for real. So, despite some fatigue that I felt, I decided to take him for a 20-minute flight.
After takeoff I could notice the excitement of my passenger, fully enjoying the flying experience. Whether it was fatigue, the wind that now had a tail component or something else, I misjudged the approach somewhat and found myself nearing the beach fast when the aircraft touched down and stopped farther than my self-imposed safety margins allow me to. As I am only a 150-hour, I know I am in the vulnerable category of pilots with little experience. This is why I am very strict with safety, study a lot about aviation safety, and know that complacency is our enemy.
I learned from this last flight to my surprise that despite knowing all this and being determined not to enter the trap – complacency did try to catch me!