Bolivian president vetoes Amazon road

Bolivian President Evo Morales signed a law on Tuesday that forbids the construction of a new road through the Amazon Rainforest. The road was seen as a threat to the ecosystem of one of Bolivia’s more popular national parks and a tribe of indigenous people that live there.

The new road was to be funded by Brazil and would have been approximately 177 km (109 miles) in length. But the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, and a number of environmental groups spoke, out against the plans, and as a result, Bolivia’s Legislative Assembly created a law halting construction on the project. The road would have passed through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, but Morales’ signature ensures that will never happen.

This story is similar to the plans to build a road across the Serengeti in Tanzania, which drew heavy criticism from conservationists and scientists alike. The government in that country said the route was necessary to promote economic development, but it was also seen as a major threat to the wildlife as well. Eventually the plans were abandoned in order to leave the Serengeti’s ecosystem intact, but unlike Bolivia, it took months for the Tanzanian government to change their plans.

The road through the Amazon would have likely brought an economic boost to Bolivia as well, and that country could sure use one. But the government there recognized the value of their natural resources and didn’t want to do anything to put those resources, or their people in danger. As a result, they made the hard, but correct, choice to resist the easy money in favor of protecting their environment for the future.

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.

Underground river discovered beneath the Amazon

A massive underground river has been discovered beneath the Amazon Rainforest that is actually larger than the famous waterway that meanders through the jungle above. Researchers say that the new river –dubbed Rio Hamza after the leader of the team that found it– is located 2.5 miles beneath the surface and is many times wider than the Amazon River itself.

Both the Amazon and Hamza can trace their origins back to the Andes Mountains, flowing west-to-east from there. Each is also more than 3700 miles length and both eventually empty into the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of Brazil. But while the Amazon can reach an impressive 60 miles across at its widest point, the Hamza ranges from 125 to nearly 250 miles in width, making it far more massive than its cousin on the surface. The Amazon bests it in speed however, moving at a rate of up to five meters per second, while the Hamza creeps along at less than one millimeter per hour.

The discovery was made by a group of Brazilian scientists who studied 241 deep wells that were drilled, and later abandoned, by an oil company. The team recorded changes in temperature at various depths of those wells to help locate and measure the massive river. Their findings were first revealed at a meeting of the Brazilian Geophysical Society last week.

The team now hopes to continue their studies of the Hamza and hope to have a better understanding of its size and scope in the next few years.

Uncontacted tribe discovered in the Amazon

Officials from Brazil‘s National Indian Foundation (Funai) have announced the discovery of another uncontacted tribe living deep inside the Amazon Jungle. The tribe is estimated to have a population of about 200 people who have continued to live in the same natural manner for centuries, untouched by the modern world.

Evidence of the tribe first surfaced when researchers spotted a small clearing while reviewing satellite images of the Amazon. The clearing intrigued them enough to conduct a flyover of the region in April, which produced photographs that showed several small huts clustered together in the rainforest near a copse of banana trees. The images that were taken also provided enough data to allow Funai to estimate the size of the tribe.

The tribe is said to be just one of several living in the Vale do Javari region of the Amazon, which is amongst its most remote places on the planet. Researchers believe that there are as many as 14 uncontacted tribes still living in that area, with roughly 2000 people amongst them.

In recent years, it has been the policy of the Brazilian government to avoid contacting these tribes in remote regions and to work instead to preserve their environments. That will be the case with this most recently discovered community as well, although their lifestyle is ultimately threatened by a number of outside forces. For example, deforestation, mining, hunting, and numerous other environmental concerns are taking their toll on the Amazon, which could eventually have an impact on these tribes as well.

Still, I think it’s amazing that there are people in remote places that have yet to be visited by outsiders. We really do live on an amazing planet.

Vote for the new Seven Wonders of Nature

A few years back there was an organized effort to select a New Seven Wonders of the World, which resulted in a list of seven amazing places that joined the Great Pyramids on a modern list of spectacular destinations. Now, a similar effort is being made to select a New Seven Wonders of Nature as well.

The process began not long after naming the New Seven Wonders, with more than 440 locations, in 200 countries being nominated. That list was eventually whittled down to 77 locations for the second round of voting, which resulted in 28 finalists which are now being considered.

Amongst the finalist are such iconic places as The Amazon Rainforest in South America, the Grand Canyon in the U.S., and Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Those locations are well known and are likely to earn a spot on the list, although there are a few destinations that are just as spectacular, but are lesser known to the genearl public. Those places include Milford Sound in New Zealand, the Mud Volcanoes of Azerbaijan, and Jeju Island in Korea.

The organizers of the competition have made it easy to cast your votes for the New Seven Wonders of Nature, but just in case you need a little help, they’ve created a video showing you just how to make your selections. Voting will continue in 2011, with the officiall annoucement expected to come on November 11. (11/11/11)

If I were pressed to make my choices, my Seven Wonders would include The Amazon, The Great Barrier Reef, The Galapagos Islands, The Grand Canyon, Kilimanjaro, Angel Falls, and Jeju Island. What are yours picks?