Why Brazil?

A magic carpet to a pilot’s homeland

January 1, 2011

Flight pathThe thrill of announcing “Centro Amazônico, this is Bonanza November-Five-Victor-Lima” was as exciting as being addressed as “comandante” upon landing in Brazil. I was convinced that comandante was way better than captain, even if I only had a single two-blade prop to command.

The 16,000-nm, 30-day trip, full of challenges and delights, to the country where I spent my childhood is one of the most memorable experiences of my flying career.

Whatever possessed me to think I could fly from sunny California to a remote strip at the foot of Iguaçu Falls, at the southern tip of Brazil? I contemplated this question as I coaxed my aging V35B past 15,000 feet above uninhabited Amazonian jungle, in search of just one more little blue hole in the labyrinth of altocumulus clouds that surrounded us. Amy, my fiancée, sat next to me, anxiously glancing from featureless map to featureless terrain.

In retrospect, the answer to “Why Brazil?” is obvious. No other country offers a greater variety of fascinating destinations. Why my own airplane? Because many of these destinations can only be reached either by endless hours of driving on muddy roads, or by short, pleasant flights into perfectly adequate dirt airstrips. I didn’t need a better excuse.

So in July 2009, after months of planning and plotting, Amy and I loaded the airplane to max gross weight, donned our life vests, and launched across the Caribbean, bound for the Southern Hemisphere.

BelemOur airport of entry into Brazil was Belém, an old port on the sprawling delta of the Amazon River. I made sure that every required document was in perfect order, and packed an ample supply of goodwill and broad smiles. Still, checking into the country turned out to be a four-hour encounter with the amiable, but glacially slow, bureaucracy.

The sights of the next few days made it all worthwhile. A sunrise visit to the Ver-o-Peso market was a feast for the senses. Fishing boats and banana boats, meat carts and fish stands, mounds of spices and fruit and açai berries, all formed picturesque clusters on the banks of the river. We dined on an exotic, delicious river fish, stewed in dende oil and topped with manioc and pineapple.

Lencois Maranhenses National Park dunesThe next day took us over the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, a surreal filigree of dunes and lagoons stretching for 20 miles inland. “People pay for charter flights to see this,” we mused as we circled our own airplane over the breathtaking sight.

The overnight stop was Camocin, a tiny fishing town, and the undiscovered jewel of the northeast coast. We landed on the unlit, nearly abandoned strip just as the last of the twilight gave way to the light of the full moon, and taxied across the grassy field toward a group of stunned locals. Our guide, Jochem, was waiting for us as promised. The proprietress of the airport, Dona Amelia, chastised me for not owning a pitot tube cover. We left the airplane in her care for the night, confident that she would guard it as if it were her own.

Surrounded by tropical jungle instead of asphaultThe next surprise was finding a real French restaurant, with a real French chef who let us select our own lobster. The gourmet meal was followed by a capoeira show, the traditional fighting dance, performed by a group of 15 local dancers and musicians—just for us. Total cost for the entire evening? Less than a tip-tank of fuel.

After a 40-mile dune buggy ride on vast deserted beaches came Salvador, with its old colonial architecture, and food and music deeply rooted in Brazil’s slave trade days. Visiting churches that dated to the mid 1500s and admiring the stunning ceramics made five centuries ago, when Portugal was the maritime super-power that colonized Brazil, added a wonderful historical depth to the experience.

The exhilarating approach to the crescent-shape bay, flanked by the iconic figures of Christ the Redeemer on one side and Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar) on the other—followed by an aircraft carrier-style landing at Santos Dumont Airport—made our visit to Rio de Janeiro unforgettable.

Self-fueling at $10/gallon!By now we were tuned into the routine. Land, hop on the shuttle minibus to the main terminal, go to the ubiquitous C-sign that marks the administration building, fill out arrival papers, pay landing fees (about $150), wait for fuel truck (20 to 60 minutes and $10 per gallon—ouch!), catch a taxi, and go to town. Next day, back to the big C, fill out a flight plan (online), pay overnight and departure fees (about $15), visit the “Meteo” office to pick up a printed weather brief prepared for us, and taxi out.

The entire process usually took two hours, endless patience, and copious smiling. All communications with ATC were in (mostly good) English, but I had to learn that the squawk code would be assigned only at the holding threshold.

After Rio we overflew São Paulo, flew south over hundreds of miles of deserted beaches, then veered inland. We spotted Iguaçu Falls 50 miles away as a tiny plume of vapor on the featureless horizon. A short car ride brought us from the airport to the park entrance.

Iguacu FallsTwice as wide as Niagara, the set of 275 separate waterfalls thundered down into the wide gorge, filling it with mist and rainbows, leaving us soaked and overwhelmed. And as if the ground level view were not enough, after departure ATC gave us permission—just for the asking—for a low-altitude circle for as long as we wanted.

Then came our most anticipated stop. As we flew low over the flatlands, clusters of startled caimans leaped off the river banks, bringing the water to a live boil. Giant jabiru storks flashed past us, their wings flapping precariously close to ours. Two hundred feet below, antelope grazed belly-deep in a marsh that stretched to the horizon. Seconds later we eased onto a grass strip in the heart of Brazil’s Pantanal region.

Amazon tributary

This marshy area, 15 times larger than the Everglades, is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife: anteaters with babies on their backs; red and yellow and blue macaws feasting on palm dates; elegant herons fishing by the shore; herds of fat little capybaras, the sheep-sized rodents; fox and otters, armadillos and sloths—a round-the-clock feast for the eyes and ears.

Fazenda Barranco Alto is an eco-lodge-cattle-ranch, with a fervent dedication to “eco.” We spent three days floating down rivers, or exploring the area on horseback, or fishing for dourados and piranha, and enjoying the hospitality and the wealth of information provided by our gracious English-speaking hosts, Lucas and Marina.

Two weeks had passed with amazing speed. We left Fazenda Barranco Alto and flew to the nearby Campo Grande Airport. Here, Amy took a commercial flight back to the United States, and our friend Kristin, a Philadelphia surgeon, took Amy’s place for the return portion.

Half the trip was over, but many more adventures remained. As we flew north for several days, marshy Pantanal gave way to the endless rivers and forests of the Amazon region. Towns grew smaller, amenities more scarce, and landing strips farther apart.

Turning west along the Amazon River, we overflew the stunning archipelago of the Anavilhanas—hundreds of river islands stretching into the distance. We landed in Barcelos, a nondescript fishing town with two boarding houses and no restaurants.

While enjoying an impromptu dinner on somebody’s porch, we were able to arrange a visit to a local fisherman’s home, three hours upriver by outboard. The wooden shack on stilts—where he and his family have lived for three generations, surviving on fishing, hunting, growing vegetables, and making brooms from palm fronds—was a glimpse into local life that would not be found on any airline-accessible itinerary, or guided-travel website.

Our westernmost point was a town that time seems to have forgotten, barely 50 miles from the Venezuelan border. It was also our only encounter with the authorities. “Your plane will be confiscated if we find anything illegal—drugs, arms, feathers…” Feathers? The Brazilian Federais were out for blood. “Why didn’t you advise us of your arrival?” they demanded. Their disposition improved as soon as they realized their mistake. We were flying within Brazil, rather than from Venezuela, as they assumed, and no reporting was required. A few handshakes, and we were free to go.

Jungle airstrip

One of our last stops, identified only by lat/long numbers, was also one of the most memorable. As we followed the river, admiring its tortuous course and rocky shores, we spotted a slash of dirt carved out of the lush Amazonian jungle. I made a reconnaissance pass; set up a long, cautious approach; and landed.

We set out on foot down a dirt road toward the sound of the river. Ten minutes later we came to a fishing lodge, Pousada Mantega—deserted except for a young man who looked past us, in search our car. “You flew in?” he asked dubiously. “I didn’t hear a plane. One flew by, but too high to land…”

Within minutes more staff appeared. Some went to retrieve our luggage. Others got busy in the kitchen. “A snack? A little fish…maybe with rice and beans?”

The day that followed could only be described as fisherman’s heaven. From sunrise to dusk we reeled in—and released—dozens of fish of every description, size, and weight: from the world-renowned peacock bass, to the even feistier dog-fish, to a 110-pound jau catfish that was so huge, it did not fit across our laps as we sat side by side, grinning like two kids.

That night, under the pretext of needing something from the airplane, I wandered up the hill toward the airstrip. What I needed was time alone, to enjoy one of those moments that come too seldom in one’s life.

It was pitch black. The new moon still lay below the horizon. The night was filled with an orchestra of crickets, nocturnal birds, and invisible animals.

I walked up my airplane and ran my fingers over the rough paint. I hopped onto the wing and relaxed against the door. Directly in front of me, a firefly alighted on the rock-blasted tip of the prop, blinking like a distant beacon. Across the runway I could see the looming outlines of giant trees, vines hanging from their enormous branches.

Above and beyond, the Cruzeiro do Sul dominated the skyline. The Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of the Big Dipper and called the Southern Cross in English, Cruzeiro do Sul was dear to me from my boy scout days and from long nights of peering through a telescope that my father made when we lived here.

Half a century later. My very own airplane. Amazonian forest. Southern skies. The world seemed overwhelmingly large. I let out a deep sigh and rested my head against the fuselage. I had really made it. I was in Brazil.

A meteor ripped through the darkness, vanishing beyond the tree line. I didn’t even bother trying to make a wish. My dream had already come true.

Vladimir Lange is a physician, writer, and producer living in Los Angeles.