Flying a Pitts Special over the Amazon

I am sitting in this brightly colored red, two seat, Pitts Special S2B stunt plane alone over the Atlantic Ocean at 9,500 feet. It is a very typical and tropical day throughout the Caribbean islands. The engine (260 HP Lycoming) is humming along smoothly and it is almost relaxing as I sit there over the sea. If it was not for the rock-hard parachute I am sitting on, it would be almost comfortable. I have been flying out of sight from land for quite some time and occasionally the magnitude of the adventure I am undertaking sinks in and I have to mentally remind myself to take this trip one small step at a time. This is going to just be a series of long cross-country flights.

This is vastly different than the way I felt three days ago when leaving the Southern coast of Florida. I was so nervous and uncomfortable heading out over the ocean for the first time in this particular aircraft. I worried about the fuel system mostly, an experimental system at best after my many modifications. I also worried about the handheld Garmin GPS (I would only be taking one on this trip) and if it would retain its position out over the open ocean and jungles I would be crossing. But finally I began to relax and I stopped racing for every little atoll and shoreline in the Bahamas. I was finally able to sit back, fly and enjoy myself and do my job.

My job at that moment was taking this factory-built Pitts S2B from Pompano Beach, Florida, to Sorocaba, Brazil. A Varig airlines pilot had purchased his first Pitts and hired me to deliver it to him. The enormity of this trip did not hit me until I started the planning phase of the flight. My first concern was to keep an open line of communication. This was well before widespread use of cell phones and iPads. I would typically make a phone call from my hotel in the morning to a person monitoring my flight with details of my itinerary for the day. I would also try to make a phone call, if possible, at every fuel stop. But most of the time there were no working phones available. I would try to make a call at the end of the day to let that person know that I was down safely.

After a few days and out over the ocean, this was somewhat comforting. But once I started to cross the Amazon, I didn’t even think about this because there was very little chance of survival if I went down, and, if I did survive, I was sure no one would ever find me.

I spent three days prior to the trip collecting survival gear, charts and preparing the Pitts for the trip. Like I said, I spent most of my time with the fuel system. The plane is designed with a 24-gallon main fuel tank in the fuselage and an additional five gallons in the top wing center section.

Pitts S2B
A Pitts is usually flown on short, aerobatic flights – not long, oceanic legs.

I had a 20-gallon aluminum auxiliary fuel tank (custom made in advance) that would fit into the front seat. I used the five-point seatbelt harness to keep it in place. I also reversed the air show smoke system tank so I could carry an additional 7.5 gallons of 100 LL fuel in the smoke oil tank rather than take an empty tank all the way to Brazil. With all four tanks I carried about 56 gallons. Not much!

My procedure (which I tested on flights before departure) was to take off on the main factory fuel tank, climb to 1000 feet and then switch to the 20-gallon auxiliary fuel tank. After one hour I would turn on the smoke system and transfer that 7.5 gallons of fuel into to front seat aux tank. I would run the engine on this 20-gallon aux tank until it went dry. I did this to be sure I used every bit of fuel available in that tank. That was always a very exciting moment because it seemed like I was always over the ocean or jungle when the engine would begin to quit.

As soon as this started to occur, I would push in the fuel mixture control to increase fuel flow, then I would turn on the fuel boost pump and simultaneously switch back to the main fuel tank. Once the engine was running properly again, I would turn off the boost pump and reset the fuel mixture for max endurance. I would fly for another hour and then transfer the five gallons in the upper wing tank into the main fuel tank. Now I knew the main fuel tank was full and all the others were completely empty. With the limited fuel available I really had to plan well and not push the weather too much on the trip.

I departed Pompano Beach on a clear, cool and beautiful Sunday morning. I had fueled, packed and prepared the Pitts for departure the previous evening. As I was pushing the Pitts out of the hangar, one of the flight line guys came over to ask if I needed help. I am sure he thought I was just doing another aerobatic lesson with a student or going out for an early morning practice session alone. Then he saw how the plane was packed and all the aviation charts.

He looked at me and asked, “Where are you going, Matt?” He had the most disbelieving look on his face when I told him Brazil. I actually couldn’t believe it either. With all the fuel, survival gear, raft and limited luggage, the Pitts was heavy. However, with all the excess power in a Pitts engine, the takeoff roll was normal and it climbed out well as I turned out to sea.

My first stop was Great Exuma, Bahamas. I was able to get fuel and a little food at a cafe on the airport. I was anxious about my next leg of the flight. I dodged isolated rain showers and was able to follow the island chain, more or less, to the Caicos islands. My next fuel stop was at the island of Grand Turk. My third leg of the day was almost an hour over open, shark-infested ocean to the Dominican Republic, with plans to continue on to Puerto Rico before sunset.

Approaching Hispaniola, I could see thunderstorms along the coast. I could not go ashore due to the storms and had to parallel the shoreline to find a break in the line of weather. I was finally able to cut inland and into the interior of the island. I was then able to cross a line of tall hills and turn back east towards Puerto Rico. At this point I was only vaguely aware of where I was. I started crisscrossing the interior of the Dominican Republic, dodging thunderstorms trying to find my position on my GPS and navigation chart.

I bracketed myself to Punta Cana, the eastern-most city of the island. I flew directly over the airport and was unable to get weather information for my 45-minute flight to Puerto Rico. I had to get down to 200 feet above the ocean due to the weather: low overcast and light rain. There was no horizon at all and I was relying on my portable electric attitude indicator that I had mounted on the canopy rail directly in front of my face. I did not have enough fuel and daylight to try to continue to Puerto Rico, then turn around and make it back to Punta Cana. Out over the sea I was at my point of no return. I decided to turn back and land at Punta Cana. Now I was looking west into the glow of a setting sun. I could not see a thing. I was tired and ready to land.

Day two was beautiful and I had clear weather for the 3.5-hour flight to the island of St. Martin. After quickly refueling there, I soon ran into a squall line. There was just no way through it so I returned to St. Martin and was lying on the beach two hours later.

St. Martin
Flying down the island chains, headed for South America.

Day three was about the same. I had a three-hour flight over the sea to Martinique. I actually flew past it trying to get around some weather but ultimately had to turn around and land. I hung around the airport the rest of the day waiting for the weather that never broke.

The next day’s progress made up for the previous two days. I dodged rain showers and island peaks along the Lesser Antilles and ended up in Trinidad, Port of Spain. On my descent into Trinidad, ATC told me to contact a Varig flight on a discrete frequency. The captain on that flight was a friend of the pilot whose plane I was now delivering. As it turned out, a few of the Varig flights in that area had been looking for me to check my progress. He did give me very useful weather information for the next leg of my flight to Georgetown, Guyana.

After refueling, I flew directly south from Port of Spain to the coast of Venezuela. It was my longest flight over open ocean on this trip. I was looking forward to the protection of the coastline in the event of an engine failure. When I reached the coast of Venezuela, I was not relieved. The jungle went right to the shore line. There would be no safe place to land in an emergency. I decided if I had to attempt a landing I would do it in the breakwater along the coast rather than to bail out. I followed the shoreline until I neared Georgetown.

I was very wary about Georgetown when I landed. The airport was run down and deteriorating. It was also deserted except for a special forces Marine unit aircraft. Apparently they do training in the surrounding jungles. I did find the tower and customs people to be very kind, generous and very well educated.

After I refueled the Pitts and filed all the necessary paperwork and flight plans, I pushed the plane into tall the grass and weeds that were nearly as tall as the plane itself. There were no chocks for the tires or tie downs to secure the plane for the night so I thought the thick grass would protect the plane and keep it from blowing around if a storm came through the area overnight.

The two tower personnel that I had met were getting off work for the night and offered to give me a ride to my hotel in town. It took over an hour on a pot-holed dirt road with bicycles, pedestrians and farm animals on both sides. My new friends gave me a brief history of their city during the drive.

That evening one of my control tower friends came by my hotel on his scooter and we went out for a few beers and dinner. We weaved in and out of traffic, dodged more potholes and people all over town. After a few more beers, I talked him into letting me drive the scooter back to the hotel. I had so much fun that night and couldn’t have been happier.

Later that evening I was sitting on the balcony of my hotel room, smoking a well-earned cigar and looking out over the jungle and out to sea. I really can’t describe the feeling I had, knowing that little red Pitts Special had brought me to this remote part of the world. I thanked God I was a pilot. I trusted God in what lay ahead.

Day five: the Amazon

I had filed a flight plan to Cayenne, French Guiana. It is a three and half-hour-flight over ocean and jungle. I followed the shoreline which took me over Suriname, Dutch Guiana. I wound up on top of a scattered-to-broken layer of clouds at 1,500 feet when I crossed into French Guiana. I tried to notify ATC, but my radio had no reception. At one point, I had my head down into the cockpit trying to adjust the squelch on the radio. When I looked up and out over the side the airplane, I was staring down at the top of a rather large rocket.

Ariane rocket
What’s a rocket doing in the middle of French Guiana?

The damn thing was sitting on a huge launchpad and the whole launch area seemed to be deserted. Of course I circled it a few times and took some pictures before I got that funny feeling I should probably not be there. Just at that time my radio came to life and I was told I was in a forbidden area. I didn’t respond. I just turned off my transponder, turned 90 degrees off course, inland over the jungle and descended to treetop level thinking they would not be able to track me. As I did this, I also took the film out of my camera and hid it in the bottom of my jungle survival kit and then hid that kit behind my instrument panel. Thinking I had successfully avoided ATC radar, I turned toward Cayenne for landing.

Twenty minutes later, I was surrounded by multiple military police vehicles, sirens and flashing lights. As I stood there in my flip-flops and swim shorts on the airport ramp, they searched my luggage and the plane then took me to their headquarters located nearby on the airport property. I remember nobody spoke English except one young officer. They interrogated me for four hours. I denied seeing anything. I told them I was lost on top of the clouds. Then another officer came in holding my jungle survival kit and my roll of film. They also told me that Georgetown had not filed my flight plan and apparently that made them very suspicious of me. Finally, they called the U.S. Embassy and made me sign an affidavit stating I would return to stand in front of a military tribunal sometime in the future. The fact that Devil’s Island penal colony was just off shore did not escape me.

Unfortunately for me, two days later, the French Ariane rocket carrying their most expensive and top secret satellite (at that time) lost its guidance system and blew up shortly after launch.

It was mentioned in an Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine article by the time I got home. In the two weeks I was away, they had started an investigation and had not ruled out sabotage. Needless to say I did not go back to attend that trial. Even to this day I am not sure I can ever return to France.

After being detained in a local hotel all night, I was able to be at the Cayenne airport before the sun came up. I wanted an early start for my day’s travel. As the sun rose, the weather conditions were zero-zero: zero visibility and clouds down to the ground and light drizzle. By 11:00am the fog began to break up and appeared to be improving. The weather reporting facility on the airport said there was a line of thunderstorms a few miles off shore and that I should not have any adverse weather for the three-hour flight along the coast of the Amazon basin to Macapa, Brazil.

Twenty minutes after departure from Cayenne, I was 75 feet over the shoreline paralleling the Amazon rainforest. The fog and overcast had not broken in this area. I could see into the Amazon under the jungle canopy. I saw all kinds of colorful birds sitting on tree limbs and others flying along the water’s edge. The visibility over the jungle was unlimited and I could see isolated shafts of rain showers coming down over the 500-ish foot overcast. Directly ahead of me was the line of thunderstorms; they had moved onshore. I could no longer follow the limited protection of the shoreline any longer. I did not want to return to Cayenne for obvious reasons. At the last minute, at the edge of the storms, I took a deep breath and turned inland over the Amazon.

I flew 100 feet above the jungle for three hours. I deviated in and around the line of tropical rain shafts that separated me from my destination of Macapa. I was passing through the Intercontinental Convergence Zone. I was actually flying across the Earth’s equator. This is going to sound strange, but I was one with the plane and I was one with nature that day. I felt like I had every right to be there at that moment over the Amazon, all alone and in complete peace. The Amazon is vast, it is dangerous and it is beautiful. At one point I flew through a rainbow and I knew everything was going to be O.K.

I landed at Macapa, a port of entry to Brazil. It reminded me of villages in Africa that I had visited while doing an air show/competition there a few years prior. The town sits on the mouth of the Amazon River. The Varig pilots had phoned the commandant in advance. Thanks to them, I had no issues with fueling, customs or immigration. As I was preparing to leave and strapping on my parachute and seatbelt, a young man who fueled me asked me in broken English, “Where are you going?” I just pointed south across the Amazon River. He looked at me and then at the Pitts and said, “You’re crazy, man!”

Amazon from above
Alone over the vast jungles of the Amazon.

The flight across this Southern part of the Amazon was nerve-wracking. The next three-plus hours over the Amazon rainforest were even more ominous than the last. I certainly did not feel like one with this side of the jungle. I felt like it was the enemy and always out to get me. I just wanted to be as far away from the Amazon rainforest as possible. However, the weather had improved and I was able to get up to a thousand feet above the jungle.

After a few hours, the jungle started to give way to some flat farm and cattle land. Finally, after four hours and near sunset, I landed at Araguaina, Brazil. Araguaina did not have fuel and now I had a problem. Three older men were sitting in chairs on the wooden FBO porch. It was like a scene out of a Wild West movie. I was standing there in front of them with my parachute hanging off my shoulder. They really didn’t speak much English; they were just looking at my Red Pitts Special right behind me parked in the dirt. The closest place with fuel was nearly an hour flight back to the northeast at Imperatriz. It was about 45 minutes before sunset and I think I had only an hour of usable fuel at most. I had to act quickly; every minute would count.

I jumped in the Pitts and was airborne in minutes, still strapping on my parachute and seatbelts. I stayed very low, as there were headwinds aloft. I could now tell there was going to be a full moon and the night would be clear of weather. I was still not sure if I had enough fuel until I entered the traffic pattern well after sunset. Landing a Pitts is difficult enough during the day; however, at night with no instrument or landing lights it’s even a little bit more difficult to say the least. The moon helped and the runway lights were on. Being unfamiliar with the airport, I had no idea where to go after my landing but as I taxied in I could see a group of people in a large, well-lit hangar who appeared to be having a meeting.

They were all trying to get my attention and were waving me over. They guided me right into the large hangar. I had pulled the fuel mixture controller out and shut off the engine so I just coasted in and parked. As I opened my canopy, I was surrounded by all these wonderful people. At that point someone put an ice cold beer in my hand. The Brazilians are my kind of people. As I got out of the plane, they explained they were having an EAA meeting. They had heard the sound of my motor approaching but couldn’t see me. They decided to turn on the runway lights for me. I said a few words to the group and had a few more beers, then one of the guys drove me to a hotel for some well-needed sleep.

The next morning (day seven), the weather was perfect for flying. I was able to get an early start and planned to make it the rest of the way to Sorocaba. I knew it would be close to sunset if I could make it. I was tired and very fatigued. I made good time on my first leg to Luziania, just south Brasilia. The flight took 4.5 hours. There is an aero club there and they were having a cookout. I was so hungry but I didn’t have time to eat. I fueled as quickly as I could, paid my bill and took off.

I was still not sure if I could make it to Sorocaba before sunset. I had no idea of when official sunset was actually. At this point, I was so fatigued I could not hold a heading within 20 degrees or altitude with 200 feet.

The Pitts has no autopilot and it is like flying a Formula 1 race car. They are very sensitive and require constant hands on flying and attention at all times. I was just concentrating on my GPS. I didn’t even have my charts out. I could not do two things at once.

When the GPS said I was five miles out of Sorocabo, I lowered the nose of my Pitts and like magic, Sorocaba appeared! I had made it! I contacted the tower (they were expecting me) and they requested a tower fly by. After my best air show buzz job, I landed. Nine hours in a Pitts was enough for one day. The total flying time from Florida was 32 hours.

The next week was spent practicing and flying at the Brazilian National Aerobatic Championship. I happened to win the Advanced category in the Pitts and meet some wonderful people. It was quite an adventure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *