Cockpit Chronicles – Riots in Panama

I’ve flown with Captain Jim on the MD-80, the 737 and the 757/767. It’s always a pleasure to work with him and we often discuss everything from politics to aviation — but lately he’s also become my mentor in photography. Jim has been trying to expand my interest in shooting in the manual mode on my Canon DSLR. I tend to spend more time with the angles and composition than the exposure and white balance of my photos. But whenever I’m on a trip with Jim, he brings along his gear and shows me how it should really be done.

I’ve run into him a few times this month and we’ve talked about trying to get a Panama City, Panama and Caracas, Venezuela trip together so we could visit Casca Viejo in Panama. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and perfect for a day of photography. Through some trip trading, I was able to get on one of these three-day trips with him.

As you’ll see after the jump, it didn’t go exactly as we’d hoped.


The first day we left at 6 a.m. for a flight to Miami and then on to Panama City, Panama. It’s strange to head due south out of Miami and eventually get to the Pacific Ocean side of Panama.

The ride to Miami had some moderate turbulence that caused one of our breakfast trays to fall from it’s perch on the jumpseat and land on the floor, breaking the glass bowl and plate. These bumps are certainly annoying, but as we explain to nervous passengers, as long as you keep your seatbelt fastened when instructed and anytime you’re seated you’ll be fine.

Jim lugged his camera and three lenses and I brought my still cameras and the HD video camera. You would have thought we were headed out on an African safari.

I told him about the protests that were happening this week in Panama City. On the 14th of February, a riot involving construction workers upset with the working conditions broke out right next to the hotel where we are staying. Panama City is going through an amazing construction boom; It seems like half of the city’s skyscrapers are under construction. There are cranes everywhere and it seems the workers are being pushed to their limits.

One worker was shot and killed during this demonstration which resulted in yet another riot the next day — again at our hotel. Unfortunately, I wasn’t flying one of those trips or I would certainly have video for you to see. But I did find this video that someone took from our hotel.

I figured that we might get some pictures of the demonstration’s aftermath, but if we didn’t see anything there, we had planned on going to another area that was in the news this week: Casca Viejo.

The newest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is being filmed in Casca Viejo, near the presidential palace. In fact, my co-pilot friend Rich had Judy Dench on board from Panama City to Miami just a few days ago.

According to the British tabloid, Daily Mail, they’ve been having a terrible time with items being stolen from the production team during the making of this movie. So apparently the producers hired a gang for security while filming. The rival gang in town didn’t appreciate this, so things got pretty ugly this past week. There was even talk about the production leaving town and rewriting the script to shoot in another country. But according to the comments on the article at our sister-site, the Daily Mail has blown the story out of proportion, since they’re confusing the construction worker shooting with this filming which is located a few miles away.


Our approach into Panama took us right over the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. It’s amazing to see all the ships lined up to enter the canal. It’s easy to see why this is considered one of the man-made wonders of the world.

The best laid plans…

After our arrival in Panama City, we talked to the outbound crew (also from Boston) at the gate. They tell us that because of the unrest near our hotel, we were now staying near the airport: a good 45-minute drive from the city. Our big photo opportunity was lost. I thought for a moment about getting a cab to go into the city, but I figured that would be kind of reckless considering that our company had gone out of its way to keep us out of the area. (It wouldn’t have stopped me! You gotta bite the bullet – sometimes literally – for interesting photo opportunities)

We met up at a bar similar to something you might see at a Denny’s restaurant back home. After I ordered, Mark, a British guy next to us asked me if I had just ordered the fajitas. He was disappointed that he hadn’t seen the fajitas before he ordered a few minutes earlier.

We struck up a conversation with Mark, who had just sailed a Catamaran across the Atlantic, stopping in St. Lucia, Aruba and some other places before coming through the Panama Canal the day before. He’s been writing about the trip (his fourth or fifth time across the Atlantic) in a great blog that he’s able to update using an Iridium satellite phone. Mark’s semi-retired, even though he’s in his early forties. It turns out he’s a Mac user as well. He started, a training video service where you can learn anything from Photoshop CS to web and flash design for a flat fee of $30 a month. As a way to give something back, his company has created a huge library of free video content for teenage students wanting to improve their math or science skills called They’ve even got courses on photography as well.

The best part about traveling is the people you come across along the way, and while Jim and I are still bummed that we hauled all of our gear on this trip without getting a chance to use it, we had such a great time chatting with Mark that I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.


The next day we flew from Panama City back to Miami, and then Caracas, Venezuela. Interestingly, many people are doing just the opposite this month: fleeing Caracas to Panama City. Caracas hasn’t been a very safe place for some time according to the State Department’s travel safety site. Here’s my favorite part of the warnings:

Violent crime in Venezuela is pervasive, both in the capital, Caracas, and in the interior. The country has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world. Armed robberies take place in broad daylight throughout the city, including areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists. A common technique is to choke the victim into unconsciousness and then rob them of all they are carrying. Well-armed criminal gangs operate with impunity, often setting up fake police checkpoints. Kidnapping is a particularly serious problem, with more than 1,000 reported during the past year alone. According to press reports at least 45 foreigners have been kidnapped in the first eight months of 2007. Investigation of all crime is haphazard and ineffective. In the case of high-profile killings, the authorities quickly round up suspects, but rarely produce evidence linking these individuals to the crime. Only a very small percentage of criminals are tried and convicted.

So I just stayed at the hotel. I did manage, however, to get out to the pool.

Landing Slump

I’ve been on a bit of a landing slump lately. These usually happen after a streak of great landings where you think you’ve got it all figured out. There’s no stopping you. And then you hit a slump. Instructors like to say that a good approach will lead to a good landing, but that’s just not so. There’s so much going on in the flare and I’m convinced that what you did in the approach has very little to do with how you’ll touch down as long as you’re at least on speed and on the glide path when you cross over the runway. Is there a crosswind? Maybe a slight tailwind? Is the runway sloping down? How’s your speed? Your sink rate? Did you start the flare too early or too late? Are you on the centerline? Are you trying to make a turn-off to the terminal that effectively shortens your runway? Does the airplane have winglets?

My landing last night in Caracas wasn’t that great. You see, runway 10 slopes upwards for the fist 1200 feet or so and then starts to angle back down. The key to a nice landing is to touchdown before the runway starts to head away from you. If you miss the ‘bump’, it’s far less likely that you’ll get a smooth touchdown. Manchester, England is the same way.

After three landings only a mother could love, I’m declaring this an official landing slump. I’ll let you know when I have it figured out again. It doesn’t help that I’ve been flying with a few captains lately who must be on their own good landing streaks.

Jim let me use his wide-angle lens again so I took a few cockpit shots. It’s always nice to find creative angles and this lens gives me a few more chances at a good shot. Here’s what I came up with:



The icing on the cake of this trip was saved for the last leg, our sixth in three days. The lunar eclipse was starting just as I did the walkaround inspection in Miami and it finished just as we started the approach into Boston. I managed to get a bit of video and some pictures of it, but there’s no way to capture the feeling of breaking out of the clouds and seeing the eclipse right in front of you. A few pilots commented to the air traffic controllers just how amazing the view was. It seemed a bit cruel to the controllers since Miami was under mostly cloudy skies. I managed to shoot a little video clip of the day’s flying:

Next month I will be going down for recurrent training in the simulator and classroom and I hope to bring you along for the ride.