Cockpit Chronicles: Fly Rio!

Occasionally the airline will offer pilots the chance to fly for a month out of another base when they’re short a few pilots at that city. I remember flying with one of these temporary duty (TDY) pilots who came up to Boston from Miami. I asked him what trips he usually flew out of Miami and he began to tell me all about Rio de Janeiro.

The conversation included some good pointers about the hazards of flying in Brazil.

He pointed out that there’s a note in our manuals that talks about celebratory balloons near the city. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for Brazilians to put together huge balloons especially at night, attach them to a pallet or some other structure and light a fire under the canopy. The Miami pilot even claimed that a propane tank has been known to be the fuel source.

After nearly hitting them on two different occasions, he sought out to warn other pilots of these inflight obstacles.

He said he had even seen one while climbing through the clouds.

A quick look at YouTube shows the launching of a few of these balloons such as this one:

The Miami co-pilot went on to describe the difficult radio reception over the country as well and we talked about the midair collision between a 737 and a corporate jet down there.

After struggling to close my jaw from shock, I had to ask him, “Why do you bid those trips?”

He claimed it was for the inexpensive (at the time) and abundant beef dinners, although since he was single and rather shiny, I suspected the women in Rio were a big part of the attraction.

Now that I’m flying out of New York, I’ve had the opportunity to fly a handful of Rio de Janeiro trips-enough to at least describe some of the challenges and benefits of this long-haul flying.

My first trip to Brazil almost didn’t happen. The inbound airplane had been struck by lightning and we were initially told to wait until the early hours of the morning for a replacement. Fortunately it was decided that we should go back home and sleep overnight before continuing the next morning at 9 a.m., twelve hours after the original departure time. While the passengers were accommodated in hotels, there was no provision in our contract to put up the pilots and flight attendants. Some of the commuting flight attendants spent the night in operations and the other pilot and I went back to sleep in our rented apartments in the area (i.e. the “Crash Pad.”)

The rare daytime flight the next day made it possible to glimpse much of the Amazon rain forest along the way and to appreciate just how massive this country is. To give you an idea of just how big Brazil is, our typical crew rest break on the 9 hour and 15 minute flight from New York is about 3 hours. On the way home, it’s possible for the first pilot to finish their break before ever leaving the Brazilian airspace.

I’ve flown in some areas with poor ATC reception, most notably Piarco radio in the Caribbean, but nothing has been more challenging for me than Brazil. The VHF transmitters are spread out over vast areas. Often two transmitters will be operating at the same time which causes a distracting echo over the speaker. The HF radios we use when flying across the Atlantic would be an improvement from this system.

Traditionally they’ll give you two VHF frequencies at a time, a primary and a back up and we find ourselves choosing the least annoying one as the flight progresses. It’s possible to fly for hours while talking to the same controller on a variety of different frequencies spread out every 200 miles. I suppose, to be fair, it’s not easy to install more transmitters in the dense Amazon jungle.

As we arrived early in the morning at the hotel, I was startled to see a massively vertical mountain shooting up from the side of our hotel building. The waves below the mountain were more powerful than any I’d ever seen, and I stayed awake for a while to watch them hit the rocks and shoot up over spectators perched at lookout points along the road.

There’s plenty to see and do in Rio, but alas, we’re usually asleep for much of the first day there and unable to enjoy the sun.

Ever since the exchange rates for the Real were changed, the dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. It’s not quite as expensive as some European destinations, such as Zurich and Paris, but it’s close. Dinner at an inexpensive cafe three blocks inland from the Ipanema beach ran about $30 with drinks.

I’ve recently become interested in paragliding (watch for a future Cockpit Chronicles on that) so I hitched a ride to the top of a local mountain to watch the hang gliding and paragliding pilots takeoff on tandem flights for tourists to Rio. I elected to save my money and enjoy the spectacular launches from the platform instead of flying as a passenger. Besides, hopefully I’ll get the chance to fly my own paraglider from the hill someday.

Even though it was only 72 degrees, I managed to get rather sunburned while filming all day, but the footage was worth it:

In order to see more of the city, I knew I’d have to get a longer layover there. Fortunately, once a week during the summer we’ve had a six-day trip that includes four days there instead of just a day and a half. I managed to snag one of these in early October much to my delight.

The captain and his flight attendant fiancée on this long trip, happened to be friends of mine who were formerly based in Boston, so we made plans to see the Christ Redeemer statue that overlooks the city. They also wanted to try a tandem hang gliding flight, and of course I knew just where to take them.

A shuttle bus takes you up to the top of the Christ Redeemer platform and it was probably more scary and dangerous than the hang gliding flight for Susan and John. The expansive 360 degree views of Rio from the top of this mountain made it worth the risk.

Our flight home was delayed due to another late inbound aircraft, so we had plenty of opportunity to take a long nap before leaving the hotel. These daytime naps are critical as the flight time is well over ten hours on the leg home to New York and that extra sleep comes in handy when you’re working your way through the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, an area of thunderstorms that have parked themselves near the equator while lighting up the sky.

Since Susan was working the galley, I had her explain how our crew meals are prepared and served for a video used in last week’s Cockpit Chronicles during Gadling’s week-long focus on food and travel.

I managed to snap a few pictures of these storms that lit up the clouds around them like a built-in long range flash for my camera.

After the first few trips I was surprised at how wide-awake I was during the flight. But it was a different story the next day. It was hard to recover sleep from the all-nighters but I have to admit, Rio de Janeiro is a welcome change from the European flying I’ve become accustomed to.

And that’s probably the best part about working for a major airline. If you get tired of flying in one area, you can switch to a different base permanently like I did in May of this year or for as little as a month just to try a whole new type of flying.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.