The fun of traveling abroad Privado Avion style

by Patrick on January 15, 2011

I knew from the beginning that the logistics of this trip would be challenging.  I’ve flown around most of Central America in business jets with the support of a handling company.  They charge about $2000 per stop, a little out of our budget, to make sure no one hassles you.

Big companies don’t like to pay “bribes” so they pay a handler and then the handler bribes everyone on the ground so you get treated like a VIP.   Knowing that this type of service was not an option I started researching other possibilities and found Caribbean Sky Tours.  Caribbean Sky Tours provides basic and full-service handling in the Caribbean, Central, and South America.  I called and spoke with them and they immediately offered “priceless” advice about which airports are friendly and quick and which ones are not.

I was sold as I knew we needed this kind of consultation for a trip like this.  We enlisted their services in early December.  They provided a trip briefing that included every document that needed to be filed and specific instructions for entering and exiting every country along with an emergency phone number if anything went wrong.  I was hoping not to need the latter but Columbia took care of that.

After our mechanical delay in Panama we got to  know the folks at the airport pretty well and could get by even with our very weak spanglish.  We filed an international flight plan to Cartagena, Columbia SKCG with the Panamanian authorities and obtained our general declaration complete with three different government agencies stamps.  I thought we were legal eagle and good to go, all bases covered so we departed Panama City for Cartagena, a 3 hour flight  As soon as we crossed the Darien Gap the pandemonium ensued.

The first controller had no idea what to do with us and told us to report over the Montero VOR.  I checked in over the VOR and he insisted that he had us on radar 90 nm from the VOR headed North and that if we continued we would not end up in Cartagena.  I eventually gave up convincing him that I was not lost and continued on my way switching frequencies to the next tower.  For those of you who are used to flying in the US there are no centers at low altitudes you just check in with the individual airport towers.

The next guy thought we were going to another airport and asked us about five times where we departed from, how many souls on-board, etc.  We lost him eventually too, and finally made contact with Cartagena approach, all seemed ok now.  We were cleared to the Cartagena VOR and then for a visual approach, easy enough.  As we approached the VOR we were instructed to fly 6 miles West of the VOR.  We flew a 6nm arc from the VOR which put us on final again, and we proceeded inbound behind an airbus.  We were cleared to land about 3nm out from the runway and set up for a normal approach, until we were over the numbers and noticed that the airbus was back taxiing, hmm.  Cessna 180 vs Airbus 320 I think I know who I’m betting on.  I queried the tower and was instructed to enter a right downwind, overhead break, once again easy enough.  We broke right and the tower informed us we were now number 3 for landing, easy enough.  This time it worked out and we landed after 3 other aircraft.

After landing we were met on the ramp by a Colombian Police Officer who was very cordial and checked our documents and then gave us a ride in his truck to the terminal.  We proceeded through customs pretty quickly and were headed out the door when things went South.  A lady stopped us and asked for something in Spanish.  We had no idea what she wanted, and she kept talking 100mph in Spanish.  Eventually we were escorted to a small office full of Colombian Police Officers, none of which spoke any English, and the stare down began.

They insisted on some document we did not have and they were not entertained by our inability to magically produce it.  I think Alex fell asleep half-way through the conversation and at one point I may have too.  After about an hour they finally found someone that was bilingual.  She entered the room and informed us that the authorities had the right to apprehend our aircraft!

Enough of this, time for the game to end.  I asked for a phone and was escorted to a pay-phone bank where I called our handler’s emergency number.  He spoke both English and Spanish and after a 5 minute conversation informed me they were insisting that we provide a document required when you are permanently importing an aircraft to Columbia.  They would not relent on the fact we must fill out this form but finally agreed to let us fill it out post landing, which we were happy to do.  Off to the hotel for a night in Columbia.

We arrived at the airport about 10 am the next day and the game began again!  We filled out form after form and walked all over the airport paying fees, $200 and 1 hour later we thought we were done.  Everyone wanted a copy of our general declaration and somehow we managed to give them all away before the last stop.  This hung us up for about 3o minutes while Aaron convinced the last security guard that she really did not need a copy of our gen dec more than the customs officer did.

Finally we were on the ramp with our plane, 2 hours after we arrived at the airport.  At this point we requested fuel, which required the truck to cross the runway.  Twice we saw the truck pull up on the other side of the runway and wait for 5 minutes and then disappear.  The game was on again, after an hour we decided to taxi to the truck and give him no other choice than to fill us up.  We managed to pull up to the truck and the driver promised he would fill us up in 10 minutes.  After 30 minutes we had our tanks topped off and were ready to depart we thought.  The ramp agent had informed us that the fuel truck would accept credit cards, so we did not have enough Colombian Pesos to pay for the fuel as they would be useless as soon as we departed.

After fueling us the truck driver demanded cash only so Aaron went back through customs and airport security to an ATM and pulled out several million pesos to pay the guy.  When he got back from his second adventure through security and customs the driver now demanded US dollars, oh the power of the greenback.  The problem is the ATM only dispenses pesos.  At this point I had enough and made it very clear he was going to take our damn Pesos or he was not going to get paid.  Miraculously he found a chart one page down on his clipboard that had prices in Pesos.  We paid him what equalled about $6 US dollars per gallon, got in the plane, and left as fast as possible.  We thought the game was over when we crossed the Colombian border into Aruban airspace, little did we know Columbia would haunt us.

We landed in Aruba and were greeted by what seemed like a friendly English speaking police officer who ask for our passports and the usual paperwork.  He then asked us into another obscure office and informed us something was not right.  He began interrogating us, at least he spoke English, but this meant he also probably new I was not entertained.  He tried to play the three of us against each other by asking exact times and dates for each departure and exactly why were doing this.  He then informed us our aircraft was going to be searched, I could see the twinkle in his eye.  He thought he had himself a plane full of coke. Our plane was searched by a drug dog and then they insisted that I remove the interior, arghh.  I tried to tell them they had to call a mechanic but eventually did it for them because I did not want them destroying my plane.

After they were satisfied that we were just a bunch of dumb gringos not drug runners they became very friendly and explained the situation.  Columbia failed to inform them of our international flight plan, which was filed with 3 offices that required my fingerprint in ink to file.  When we arrived unannounced on their ramp and told them we came from Columbia they had never met any gringos dumb enough to try that without financial motivation from a Cartel.

To the credit of the Aruban officers I probably would have done the same thing in their shoes.  One of them was even nice enough to call a friend who had a condo that was considerably cheaper than the standard $200/night on the island.  When we departed the next morning we received a bill for $230 in airport, FBO, and landing fees so I am striking Aruba off my list of places to go simply because of the price.  However, if you did not arrive with such a suspicious story I’m sure customs would be no problem.  I’ve struck Columbia off my list places to go in private aircraft permanently, which is to bad because it is a beautiful country full of what seemed to be nice people outside of the customs and immigration offices.

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