Oshkosh via the Amazon

by Marcelo Bellodi

This article appeared in the September 1995 Falco Builders Letter.

I think that man is driven to pursue the dreams he considers possible to achieve. The trip of the first Brazilian Falco to Oshkosh '95 was also possible because this was one of my dreams. I say "also" because it would not have happened without the help of other people such as Silvio and Izildo, who worked hard on the plane during the construction and in the preparation for the trip, and Paulo Franke who was more than my co-pilot and navigator, but my good friend during the adventure.

Marcelo Bellodi and Paulo Franke

The trip was planned very carefully in each small detail. Route, dates, stops, flight times, limitations, precautions, bureaucracy-everything was intensively studied. The preparation took us six months and was as enjoyable as the trip. It was as if we had started to travel then.

Since we had flown a Seneca to St. Thomas in 1986, part of the route was not new for us. The new skies would be beyond Puerto Rico and mainly inside the U.S. territory where the flight traffic is so dense. We planned to fly only during daylight hours and to avoid entering IMC for long periods. We filed IFR flight plans and almost always flew on airways in order to stay under air-traffic and radar control, where available.

Over the Amazon, we avoided flying very far from cities or roads. We also avoided long distances over the Caribbean, so we followed the islands. Obviously, we had to travel a longer distance, and we made more stops, but it was safer in a single-engine airplane. We decided not to fly more than 600NM nonstop, and this was reduced to 400NM over the Amazon jungle.

Our nav/com equipment was 2 VHF (1 hand-held), 2 VOR (1 hand-held), 2 GPS (Garmin 100-AVD and Garmin 55), 1 XPDR mode C and 1 ELT. All flights were planned in advance with the routes and their waypoints entered into the GPS, followed up on ONC and sectional charts. For personal safety, we carried two life vests and a complete first aid kit.

We crossed almost all the Brazilian territory on the first day, landing in Macapa (on the Equator), our last Brazilian port, after 1336NM of good weather from Jaboticabal. On our way to Macapa, we followed the Tocantins river for a long distance, and we flew over an impressive sequence of falls in a river with a clear green water. After 200NM of this wonderful view, we reached the Tocantins Dam, which creates a huge lake full of islands covered by exuberant equatorial jungle trees. However, since it is almost impossible to fly so many miles in a single day with absolutely nothing to worry about, we had to cross the Marajo Island (a "little" island of more than 100NM in the estuary of the Amazon river) with both GPS in black-out status, no communication with ATC and nothing below but jungle and rivers.

The following day we flew over the Guyana's and reached St. Lucia, the first island in the Caribbean. From Macapa to Cayenne, French Guyana, we had to cope with a single weather report from the Amapa radio station (the last city we flew over the Brazilian territory). We were told we would encounter CAVOK weather, but just 15 minutes later, we flew over Amapa deviating around thunderstorms under overcast conditions!

But a long novel, called the General Declaration was ready from the beginning. Countless copies of this completely useless document were requested by all the countries where we landed, even if you just stop for refueling. During our trip to the Caribbean in 1986, we extensively employed Adam Smith's division-of-labor principle. Filling in and forwarding GenDecs during that trip was not my job, or Franke's, so we totally forgot about them. When we were almost lost about what to do, the skies sent us from nowhere a gentleman called Susqui who took us to the Guyana Air office where a specially modified GenDec was printed and given to us. That would be our original for the several dozen that would follow. Susqui is a Cessna C-180 bush pilot who delivers supplies to illegal gold washers deep in the Guyana jungle. He even showed us an envelope with a large gold nugget he had just received as payment-Indiana Jones would envy that job. Anyway, Cayenne is still a good place to stop with a good weather briefing due to its proximity to Kourou (the French Ariane rocket launching base).

Nine years ago, we had nicknamed Georgetown, Guyana, our next stop of the day, as "Georgedown" because of the extremely unfriendly and dire mood of the place and its people. But this time it was more comic than sad. We visited what must be the only airport stands in the world. Yes, covered football-stadium stands where hundreds of people sit and watch airplanes take off and land once every two hours. The man from the avgas service station calculated our service tax to be one tenth of a U.S. cent and gave us two non-alcoholic beers as change. To top it off, we received weather information of our next route from a telex machine with the print completely unreadable and a 'sorry, but it's all that we have' explanation.

After so many mishaps, we had a unforgettable final approach at Vigie, St. Lucia. Imagine a Falco on the short final of a Caribbean island runway, in a bay entry between hills, with the sun setting behind. Now put a beautiful sailing ship crossing the bay so close that we had to fly around its flagpole and a helicopter hovering on the right, waiting for its turn to land. At that moment, I would rather have been somewhere out of the Falco to take a photograph and then paint a picture to hang in my office.

Our forecast of good weather conditions for the rest of the trip started to be confirmed in the next day, with three smooth legs. We landed at Nassau-Bahamas a few minutes after the official sunset, after previous stops at St. Thomas and Grand Turk. In St. Thomas, we set the record for time-lost-to-refuel. The people from customs and immigration dealt with us as if we were unwanted illegal immigrants. It was easy to go from the Falco to the customs building, but almost impossible to come back, since we had to pass through the airline passenger gate that is open only when there is a flight boarding. After three hours of vacillating and a lot of disgust, we finally departed for Grand Turk, and we swore we would avoid St. Thomas on the way back. We should have avoided islands such as St. Thomas and Nassau. They seem to be friendly to people who arrive in an American Airlines jet, but not to homebuilts who suffer under excessive bureaucracy.

We had a very pleasant surprise the next day when we landed in Ft. Pierce, Florida, after a short hop from Nassau. The people at customs and immigration were very hospitable and the local "Air Center" FBO is fantastic with excellent service for small planes.

We had planned to fly to Oshkosh in two days from Ft. Pierce, but favorable winds and good weather took us there in just one day, with stops in Sylacauga, Alabama, and Paris, Illinois. We tried to avoid overflying Orlando, but we were vectored directly over Disney World and Epcot Center. I felt like a child again, flying over the Magic Kingdom in a real airplane and not in a toy as I had once done before. We had a little scare some miles from Orlando when we hit wake turbulence from a 727 that recorded 3g's on our accelerometer and threw my knee against the instrument panel.

The landing on runway 27 in Oshkosh was really great-a landing to stay in my memory for the rest of my life-flying the Falco along the railroad tracks, the strobe light at Fisk landmark and the one-way 'rock your wings' radio transmissions.

The Falco builders dinner was the highlight of the trip. It was a tribute to Stelio Frati and everybody who loves his masterwork. It was a pleasure to share the company of friends like Howard and Marty Benham as well as new friends like Brian Nelson, Jack Amos, and John Shipler.

Marcelo Bellodi and Stelio Frati

Our plan to take off from Oshkosh at sunrise on Sunday was blown due to a nitrogen leak in the right shock absorber, just after we started to taxi. After fixing it, we were ready to take off again, but now we had the company of more than 40 airplanes doing the same at eight o'clock. In any event, it was enjoyable to take off in a squadron-deployment style.

We chose almost the same route back to Ft. Pierce, and we could have gotten there with just one stop at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, if we hadn't encountered a strong headwind over Alabama and Florida. We diverted to Ocala, Florida, after twenty minutes of low flying over the alligators, deviating from bad weather.

The return trip to Brazil was planned to be more pleasant with longer stops in the Caribbean islands for rest, but hurricane Erin grounded us for four days in Ft. Pierce. Thirty-six hours after its landfall (almost exactly over Ft. Pierce), we were able to leave the U.S., bound for Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos islands. The flight from Ft. Pierce to Provo was very tumultuous from the beginning. We departed to the east with a big cell on our right that was quickly approaching the Ft. Pierce area from the south. After a few miles over the Atlantic ocean, we couldn't believe it when we looked back. There was no way to go back if we had to, since a line of thunderstorms, remnants of Erin, now covered most of the Florida coast.

In the hurry to get out of Ft. Pierce, we left without 'draining' ourselves. We thought about stopping before Provo, if we couldn't handle it, but after almost four hours of flying we landed at our destination looking desperately for a restroom. In Provi-denciales, we finally could do what people usually do in the Caribbean: swim, snorkel, go diving, drink beer, and relax.

Since Beef Island, in the British Virgin Islands, didn't have avgas, we were forced to land again in St. Thomas. We thought that nothing could be worse than the first time, but even with all the precautions, they caught us again. We finished that day landing in Grenada, with a lot of rain from a tropical depression developing in the area. The next two days were spent flying almost all day in order to get home on Sunday afternoon, August 6.

On the next-to-last stop, we called our folks in Jaboticabal to announce our arrival. The reception of Falco PP-ZMB's arrival at home was great, with all my family at the airport, a low pass over the runway, and a lot of champagne. On Monday morning, I was interviewed by the local TV about the trip. I could then tell everybody how perfect the airplane was during the entire trip. The two-minute interview was aired nationwide two days later on the morning news program. Andy Warhol said everyone will enjoy five minutes of fame during his lifetime; we've had two already.

One more dream is now reality. What's next?