Nashville

Nashville riverfront at night

It’s getting hard to keep track, but I just returned from what was probably my first visit to the city of Nashville. With only one full day to explore, we just hit a few major highlights. Still, it was easy to see why this is one of the fastest growing areas of the southern U.S. Our ambitions were somewhat limited by the fact that our free time here happened to be a Sunday, so while more tourist-centric downtown area was in full swing, other attractions were closed for the day.

Beyond it’s reputation as the center of the Bible Belt and a haven for country music, I wasn’t terribly knowledgeable about what Nashville had to offer. For a city of it’s size, it turns out there’s plenty to do within walking distance of the pedestrian-friendly downtown. I’d love to come back to hear the symphony, catch a Titans or Predators game, visit one of the Civil War-era plantations, or check out the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I thought it particularly impressive that Nashville has a full-fledged opera company. Despite our many well-heeled arts patrons and a population five times as large, the best Orange County can boast is an occasional re-hashed concert version borrowed from Los Angeles.

As always, here are a few highlights from the trusty iPhone 5 camera — with a bit of Snapseed magic applied, of course.

You can almost feel the history in these Civil War era bricks

You can almost feel the history in these Civil War era bricks

Nashville has a population of about 600,000. While that makes it the second largest city in Tennessee, it’s pretty small by southern California standards. Not that this is a bad thing. We didn’t mind the lack of road congestion one bit. And being from the Los Angeles area, I admire any city with a safe, walkable downtown area. Nashville definitely fits that criteria. L.A. is getting better, but it has a long, long way to go.

It's a bit touristy, but Nashville's downtown is well worth seeing. Everything's withing walking distance.

It’s a bit touristy, but Nashville’s downtown is well worth seeing. Everything’s withing walking distance.

The main drag in the area seemed to the section of Broadway southwest of the Cumberland River. Even during the daytime hours, plenty of honky tonks, bars, and restaurants had live music and large crowds. I’d liken it to a small country version of Austin’s famous South by Southwest festival. Nashville had a very balanced feel, equal parts past and present.

Look closely and you'll notice the horse is urinating all over the street.  In L.A., that sort of thing is usually done by a human...

Look closely and you’ll notice the horse is urinating all over the street. In L.A., that sort of thing is usually done by a human…

I recently read an article about the decline of neon signage in the United States and how Los Angeles has some of the greatest examples of neon artwork. Apparently LED lighting is so much cheaper that the it’s rapidly relegating neon to the past. As a result of the article, I’ve been on the lookout for neon signs and noticed that the Broadway area has plenty of high-quality examples. There’s something “vintage” about neon that fits in really well down there.

The old brick facades and colorful neon signs go perfectly together.

The old brick facades and colorful neon signs go perfectly together.

We spent the first part of the day exploring Centennial Park, which is directly adjacent to Vanderbilt University. While we didn’t venture onto the campus, Vanderbilt was recently accorded the distinction of having the happiest students of any major university by The Princeton Review.

There are quite a few Confederate war memorials sprinkled around the area. This one caught my eye for some reason. I’m sure the locals walk by these every day without much of a thought, but it’s something a SoCal native would never see back home.

Civil war memorials like this one can be found throughout the city.

Civil war memorials like this one can be found throughout the city.

Built for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897, one of the park’s most notable features is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Though the building is new when compared to the Greek original, at 117 years old, it’s still quite historic by west coast standards. I’ve been to the Acropolis before, and the ancient Parthenon is more rubble than structure, so it’s fascinating to see what it looked like before being destroyed in a 17th century explosion.

This Parthenon replica gave Nashville the nickname "Athens of the South".

This Parthenon replica gave Nashville the nickname “Athens of the South”.

As a foodie, I’d be remiss in not mentioning Nashville’s culinary scene. Travel & Leisure magazine recently polled it’s readership and ranked Nashville as the best city in America for barbeque. It’s kind of shocking to see Memphis in second place and Kansas City a distant third.

True story: I once flew a Los Angeles-to-New York charter trip where we had a scheduled 90 minute stop in Kansas City. Since the airplane had more that sufficient range to make the transcontinental flight, I was curious about the short layover. It turns out the passenger simply wanted some of that famous Kansas City barbeque for lunch. In fact, he insisted we visit a specific restaurant to sample the vittles for ourselves. Imagine paying for the convenience and speed of chartered flight only to put your whole day on pause to eat lunch. That’s the power of Kansas City barbeque.

Anyway, we sampled the Nashville offerings at Jacks’ BBQ and while it was good, I can’t honestly call the Texas beef brisket great. It was a bit dry and I’d have preferred a bit more smoke on it. Other members of the group seemed to have better luck with the smoked Texas sausage and Tennessee pork shoulder.

Next stop: a week on the Big Island of Hawaii. Assuming the two hurricanes barreling toward it get out of the way, that is…

World Cup Trip

This heat map shows the most frequently photographed locales.

It’s interesting to observe travel patterns of the flying public. The ebb and flow in a heat map of the most popular destinations would be fascinating to observe over time. Despite a half hour of searching, I found no such data on the internet. The closest thing I came across was the featured image for this post, a heat map of the most frequently photographed locales courtesy of sitesmap.com.

A couple of years ago, the hot spot for charter travel seemed to be London. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the Paralympic Games all took place in London within the span of just a few months. As a result, I was in England almost as much as the United States. Or so it seemed.

In the charter world, you see this smaller versions of this phenomenon occur all the time. Whether it’s the World Economic Forum, the Superbowl, or the State of the Union, large numbers of private aircraft congregate at these events. It’s not uncommon to find friends and co-workers both past and present showing up at the same places over and over again. It goes a long way toward making the world feel like a smaller place.

Bem-Vindo ao Brasil!

If my sought-after heat map existed, 2014 would see a scorching red area around the eastern coast of South America. The world’s attention has been focused there because of the FIFA World Cup, and it will shortly return to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Beyond those events, the whole Latin American area has been on an economic upswing while Europe and North America still grapple with the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

Years of growth have spawned a thriving middle class. The World Bank estimates that between 2003 and 2009, the percentage of Latin Americans living in poverty fell from 44% to 30% while the number of middle class Latin Americans rose from 103 million to 152 million.

That expanding middle class has more disposable income than ever before. Robust domestic demand has been key to helping Latin America weather the global economic turbulence of recent years.

This trip was similar to the one I made to Salvador last year: the same airplane, crew, passengers, and destination. And just like last time, the overnight trip down from New York took a while to recover from. The other pilot said overnight flights are tough even when you’re on a regular schedule of night flying. “You can feel it sucking the life out of you,” he said.

After a day of rest, there was plenty of time to explore a different part of the city. Last time our hotel was in the middle of town, whereas this time the resort was further away, located inside a gated community with expensive homes and a miles-wide private beach. I didn’t mind the trade-off at all.

The jungle gave way to a beautiful expanse of private beach just across a small bridge from our hotel.

The jungle gave way to a beautiful expanse of private beach just across a small bridge from our hotel.

Papers, Please

One major difference from the last trip was the added complexity associated with flying during the World Cup. If you think the Superbowl generates a lot of air traffic, consider the month-long duration of this soccer tournament and the fact that it takes place at cities all over the country. A team might play in Brasilia one day and Salvador on another. As they move about the country, so do their legion of fans. It’s like the Olympics on steroids.

In fact, I queried Brazilian citizens throughout the trip about which of the two events they felt would be “bigger”, and every one of them thought the World Cup would easily outshine the Olympics. That probably says more about their passion for football than anything else. Brazil is always a World Cup contender, whereas they’re not a particular powerhouse in either the summer or winter Olympics.

This giant banner welcomes you to an official World Cup game in Salvador

This giant banner welcomes you to an official World Cup game in Salvador

A few days after we arrived in country, we had a quick trip to drop off a passenger in Sao Paulo and return to Salvador empty. Because of the limited slots available, we had to stick around in Sao Paulo for nearly eight hours before our departure slot time came up. The handler offered to run out and get us some food since we couldn’t get a cab to come pick us up. When the handler returned, he said there were tons of cabs all around the airport — and they were all empty! As soon as the Brazil game started, people abandoned their jobs, cars, and whatever else to watch the match. He said cars were just sitting there as though the people had vanished off the earth.

We watched the game from the FBO lounge at Congonhas Airport, and every time Brazil would make a good play, you’d hear mortars, firecrackers, and other explosions going on around the city. It was like a happy war zone. And the airport? Congonhas is one of the major commercial airports in Sao Paulo, a city of more than twelve million people. The game lasted nearly two hours, and I don’t think a single airplane came or went during that time. It was really weird.

AeroStar to the Rescue

Flying to Brazil always involves permits, but the World Cup added takeoff and landing slot reservations, parking hassles, and general administrative largesse to the mix. Taxes are levied for every leg, and flight plans are not accepted until those taxes have been paid. The company we used for those services dropped the ball on a couple of occasions, but thankfully FBO in Salvador was probably one of the best on the planet, and they managed to save the day for us every time.

That FBO is AeroStar. I can’t say enough good things about these folks. When we couldn’t get a clearance because taxes hadn’t been remitted by Universal, the FBO manager personally went to the tower to straighten things out. It wasn’t even their responsibility to pay those taxes, but they did it.

When we needed to replenish our potable water supply and didn’t want to risk using local water sources, they obtained large quantities of bottled water and manually filled the tanks with a hose and funnel through a tiny gap between the top of the tank at the enclosure surrounding it.

When our vacuum cleaner died, they assembled a ridiculously long extension cord and insisted on cleaning every inch of the airplane for us with their own shopvac. They spot-cleaned leather seats. They made sure we had the best parking space on a very crowded ramp, and were always there to help with fueling, staging, and somehow had whatever we required before we even knew we needed it. We had brought down a towbar for the Gulfstream on the advice of our flight planning company, but AeroStar had a brand new tow bar and head for the G-IV on site, so we never had to fish ours out of the hell hole and cargo compartment.

They even insisted on taking us out to dinner while we were in town. They knew us and we were always greeted by name with a smile. I wish every FBO was like this.

Bahian Dining

Speaking of food, you’re probably aware of Brazilian BBQ restaurants — there are plenty of them scattered throughout the United States — but the AeroStar staff took us to a Brazilian cross between a churrascaria and pizza parlor. Skewers of meat are replaced by pizza pans filled with two categories of pie: savory and sweet. There are even little flags built into the table to communicate which pizza style you’re interested in. When you’re ready for a break, you just take down your little flag and they stop inundating you with pizza queries for a while. I felt like John Snow retiring Castle Black’s colors ever time I did that.

It's not really my thing, but some people love this chocolate pizza.

It’s not really my thing, but some people love this chocolate pizza.

Many of the toppings were familiar, but some really threw me for a loop. Have you ever had a chocolate pizza? I wasn’t a fan, but the locals seemed to love it. Their take on Hawaiian pizza is also quite different from ours. Instead of pineapple chunks, their iteration was topped with a vaguely spicy, gelatinous pineapple substance.

No visit to Brazil would be complete without a meal at an authentic Brazilian churrascaria, and our flight attendant (who’s made something like a half-dozen trips to Salvador in the past year) insisted we try a place called Boi Preto. I’m proud to say I didn’t over-indulge, despite the fact that we were there for about three hours and got sucked into the Ivory Coast / Japan match.

What would a trip to Brazil be without at least one visit to a churrascaria?

What would a trip to Brazil be without at least one visit to a churrascaria?

The Big Game

The brass ring for any World Cup trip is, of course, going to see a game. We watched at least a dozen of them on TV at the hotel bar, but it’s not the same as being there.

You’d think tickets would be hard to come by, but they are frequently re-sold on the secondary market. You can find them on line, at hotel concierge desks, and even the FIFA web site. But trying to find three tickets that are next to each other? That’s a little harder. Our flight attendant worked overtime and managed to get three seats at decent prices for the Switzerland/France match in Salvador. Later on, we learned that nobody cares where you sit anyway. That would explain how huge blocks of fans always seemed to be sitting together.

I should say a word about the tickets because they’re pretty high-tech. Beyond the beautiful four-color imagery emblazoned across the front, these large-format documents also featured holograms, electronics, and the purchaser’s name imprinted on them. Big ticket for a big event, I guess!

There are no bad seats in the Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova.

There are no bad seats in the Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova.

This was the first soccer game I’d ever attended. For whatever reason, I just didn’t grow up with the sport. I don’t remember ever playing or watching it as a kid. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I knew less about the game than any of the 53,000 people who were in the stadium that day. I know there’s a round ball, and a net you’re supposed to put the ball into. Beyond that, I’m clueless.

Still, it was a great experience. Just getting to the stadium was an adventure. A 30 minute taxi ride got us to a shopping mall on the north end of town. From there, we had to find a FIFA kiosk to obtain wristbands which would get us onto a train to cover the last few miles to the stadium. The train was clean and modern, but the areas it traversed enroute to the arena were some of the most depressed I’d ever seen. Known as favelas, these slums seemed to surround the stadium on all sides. Most of them were missing windows, walls, ceilings, or some combination thereof. Crowded together and clearly built without any planning or adherence to building standards, they looked like images of Berlin after World War II.

I heard that some visitors were actually renting these favelas because they couldn’t find a place to stay during the World Cup. According to Wikipedia, one in three favelas has no sanitation service.

We spent some time trying to decide who to root for. Since we were pretty neutral on both teams, it made sense to cheer for the Swiss, as they’re the poster child for neutrality. Unfortunately, “our team” ended up losing 5-2.
Despite Switzerland’s crushing defeat, everyone was in good spirits both during and after the game. The streets were filled with people just happy to be there. Bands were playing, dancers were moving, and French fans waved large flags from atop walls in what looked like a barricade scene rehearsal from Les Miserables.

French fans celebrate their victory over Switzerland.  Or maybe it's a scene from Les Mis.  Who knows....

French fans celebrate their victory over Switzerland. Or maybe it’s a scene from Les Mis. Who knows….

The arena itself is very well designed. There are literally no bad seats in the entire stadium. We had category 1 tickets but sat in a category 4 seat and didn’t mind it a bit. I also noticed that there was no scoreboard or clock anywhere to be seen. I can’t think of any other sporting event without at least one of those two items.

I’ll Be Back

This trip was even more fun that the first one! I really enjoyed the Bahia Resort, and since we’d been to Salvador previously, we were more at home with everything from the airports to the language. Though I’m not much of a soccer fan, the excitement and camaraderie of World Cup attendees is infectious. With the Summer Olympics less than two years away, I’m sure this isn’t the last time a Brazil trip will land on my plate.

Stockholm

Stockholm

Saint Augustine once declared that the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page. While I’m fairly familiar with the tome, one glaring omission in my scholarship had been the the chapter on Scandinavia. Thankfully, the wonderful world of on-demand jet charter provided a northerly flight opportunity last month, so I packed my bag and headed for LAX. The assignment? Airline to Stockholm, hang out for a couple of days, and then fly a Gulfstream to New York.

It’s a bit ironic for a pilot to admit that one of the things they like least about their job is flying, but when it comes to the aluminum torture chamber we generously call an airliner it’s most definitely true. There’s little joy in spending twelve interminable hours crammed into an economy class middle seat. It’s made worse by the fact that I got spoiled by my previous company, which would book business or first class seats for deadheading crew members when traveling abroad. I know, I know — cry me a river, right? Of course, the pay scale is much better at my current gig, so that’s a fair trade in my book. If I had to choose between putting big bucks into my own pocket versus that of some soul-crushing mega-airline, I’d opt for the former every time.

The crew pairing for this trip had me flying with a Swedish native, so I had a built-in travel guide who spoke the language, knew the town, and was excited to show off the best that Stockholm had to offer. While I only spent a couple of days there, my impressions were of a remarkably clean city, albeit an expensive one. Even with stringent rent controls, the cost of living remains about 20% higher than here in south Orange County, California.

A view of the "old city" from across the river.

A view of the “old city” from across the river.

If you’re looking to buy, it’s three to six times as expensive in Stockholm. Apartments there sell for $1-2,000 per square foot. Why so high? The capital holds about 1/5 the total population of Sweden, yet it’s 2.5 million inhabitants are spread out over a series of fourteen islands of varying sizes, so there’s not much land to go around.

The people I encountered were quite friendly and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to speak English. Or perhaps they simply wanted to preempt any butchering of the Swedish language by a ghastly American. Maybe both. Speaking of Swedish things, this may sound stereotypical, but many of the furnishings I came across in restaurants, hotels, and public buildings had the look-and-feel of an Ikea catalog. I mentioned this to a few locals and they didn’t disagree, though they were amused that I found it entertaining.

"Gamla Stan", aka The Old City, dates back to the 13th century, and consists of medieval alleyways, cobbled streets, and archaic North German-style architecture.

“Gamla Stan”, aka The Old City, dates back to the 13th century, and consists of medieval alleyways, cobbled streets, and archaic North German-style architecture.

We probably walked ten miles over two days, exploring Gamla Stan (“The Old City”) and the surrounding area. Between the long hours spend motionless in that airline seat and the anticipation of another nine hours of sitting in the cockpit on the way back, it was good just to be up and moving around.

It was rare to find anyone who wasn’t fit and trim in Stockholm. This isn’t uncommon when you’re from Southern California, but there are parts of the U.S. where it would be very hard to find anyone who was in shape. I met a fellow Gulfstream pilot there and he said that when not flying, he’s primarily occupied with doing things that keep him physically fit.

The weather was relatively warm for February, with the temperature hovering around 30 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Stockholm’s close proximity to the water keeps the average high and low within 10 degrees (F) of one another. I was bundled up against the wind, but it was clear the residents considered this good weather. A surprising number of them were out exercising or enjoying the lovely day despite the presence of a stiff breeze and plenty of ice in the water.

One of the countless hot dog stands that dot the streets of Stockholm.

One of the countless hot dog stands that dot the streets of Stockholm.

Food is an integral part of any cultural experience, all the moreso if you’re a foodie. My Swedish crew mate was obsessed with the wide variety of korvkiosks (hot dog stands) which populate the city. He must have grabbed a ‘dog at three or four of them within a few hours! He also introduced me to a Swedish pastry called semla, a spiced bun filled with milk, almond paste, and topped with whipped cream. Traditionally it was served between Lent and Easter, but now they’re available for much of the year at local bakeries around town.

We had lunch one afternoon at Sturekatten, a quaint cafe which was more about the ambiance than the food. That’s not to say the vittles were unsatisfactory. Quite the opposite; the salmon soup was a perfect balm for the cold, windy day outside and was more than hearty enough for a meal (take that, Bania!). But the place feels like walking into your grandmother’s apartment, from the age-old furniture to the kitschy, mismatched decor. The average age of the patrons didn’t belie the feeling in the slightest. It even had that vaguely mothball-esque scent which is often found in the geriatric home.

I was introduced to semlor, a Swedish pastry which is popular around Fat Tuesday.

I was introduced to semlor, a Swedish pastry which is popular around Fat Tuesday.

The tour continued the next day with the pièce de résistance, the Vasa Museum. It was the first thing my wife mentioned when she heard I was headed to Sweden: “be sure to visit the Vasa!” The institution is built around a single object: an early 17th century Swedish warship which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. The wreck remained underwater for 333 years before being was raised in 1961. The vessel was almost completely intact, and today it majestically rests in a massive climate-controlled building in Stockholm.

When the phrase “they don’t build ‘em like they used to” was first uttered, it may have been the Vasa they were talking about. More than 95% of what is on display is original. The secret to her survival was the condition of the water. Massive pollution killed off the wood-eating microorganisms which would normally have consumed the ship. In fact, the melange was so perfect that after three centuries, all but the most delicate objects were at least partially preserved. Sails, masts, rigging, clothing, even brain matter the skulls of those who went down with the vessel. More than just a ship, Vasa provided countless insights into how people lived during that period.

Even the Vasa's sails have partially survived their 333 years under the surface.  Amazing...

Even the Vasa’s sails have partially survived their 333 years under the surface. Amazing…

Just as interesting as the Vasa itself is the story of her preservation. Once pulled from the water, the wood began to dry out and if left untouched, it would have quickly disintegrated as the planks contracted and split. The solution was to spray the wreck with a polyethylene glycol in order to displace the water and stabilize the vessel. This spraying continued for more than seventeen years. Even today, preserving the Vasa is an ongoing challenge, one that the curators themselves will tell you is a losing battle. One display admitted that it will not be possible to keep the ship intact forever.

Our final day in Stockholm was more about resting up than anything else. As with many ocean-crossing flights, we were scheduled to depart at 11:00 p.m. and arrive in New York just after sunrise. At nine-and-a-half block hours, this flight was about as long as any you’d want to make in a G-IV unless your goal was to see how it performed as a glider. We landed with plenty of fuel, but a blown wind forecast (no pun intended) and the use of an alternate can eat up the reserve in a hurry. Of course, that’s why we carry it! The flight ended up being smooth and uneventful. I like the northern route because you spend less time hassling with the prehistoric HF radios since VHF coverage exists for most of the trip.

We handed off the aircraft to another crew, who were continuing the flight to the southern states, and retired to our hotel for a much-needed nap. I enjoyed Sweden immensely. With any luck I’ll be back soon to continue exploring the treasures of Northern Europe.

Santa Catalina

Rapp-Vest Engagement Photos

Though many of my favorite flying activities — aerobatics, pattern work, sightseeing — are local in nature, there’s no denying that airplanes are made for going places. Even the pokiest of ‘em makes travel faster and more interesting than driving a car. One of my most memorable trips was flying a clipped-wing Cub up the California coast at 60 mph. Between fuel stops and detours, it took the better part of a day to cover the 145 nautical mile straight-line distance from Orange County to Lompoc. But boy was it fun!

Over the past two decades I’ve traveled all over the country. All over the world, in fact, and my list of favored locations is long indeed. It’s hard to beat sitting on the beach next to the Sunset Bar & Grill in St. Maarten. I could spend a month in London taking in shows at the Globe, ENO or the West End. And who could say a cross word about any of the Hawaiian islands?

But if I had to choose just one place to call my all-time favorite, it wouldn’t even be a contest: it starts and ends with Santa Catalina, one of eight isles in the Channel Islands archipelago which sit just off the Southern California coast.

Catalina seems to be a place where all aerial roads meet, especially if you’re from this area. It’s the place everyone wants to go as soon as they learn how to fly or come into town for a visit. The pilot I made my last trip with in the Gulfstream used to fly for Catalina Flying Boats, a company which transports cargo to and from the island in DC-3s and (at the time) Beech 18s.

Catalina is where I took my first passenger after I earned my private pilot certificate. It’s also where we took his mother on her last flight before she passed away from pancreatic cancer.

I believe it was back in '98 that I made my first trip to AVX.  Here's Paul celebrating our safe arrival.

I believe it was back in ’98 that I made my first trip to AVX. Here’s Paul celebrating our safe arrival.

It’s where my wife and I went on our first flight together. It’s where we shot our engagement photos. It’s the only destination I’m aware of that has a classic warbird (the Consolidated PBY Catalina) named after it. It hosts an annual airshow, herds of bison, unique plants that don’t exist anywhere else on Earth, and miles of spectacular coastline, hiking trails, and hidden coves. Catalina has been a film location, a swing dancing mecca, a scuba diving destination, a nature preserve, and a hundred other things.

My aunt used to regale me with stories of the huge dances which took place in the legendary Casino ballroom in the 1930s and 40s. She’d work a 9-to-5 job during the day, then take a ferry (which had it’s own band and dance floor aboard) to Catalina in order to dance the night away with thousands of other people in front of a big band. CBS Radio would broadcast live from the ballroom. After the music ended sometime in the wee hours, she’d hop on the last ferry and again dance all the way back to the mainland.

The airport itself is reason enough to visit the island. Built by chewing gum titan William Wrigley in the late 1930’s, it was specifically designed to handle the Douglas DC-3 which would bring his Chicago Cubs out to the island for spring training. But Catalina’s aviation history goes back a lot further than that. Glenn Martin built an airplane in Santa Ana and set a record for the world’s longest over-water flight in 1912 by piloting it to Catalina Island. To this day, the airport terminal retains its original art deco style.

On final approach to runway 22.  The airport sits on top of a bluff, with steep drop-offs at both ends.

On final approach to runway 22. The airport sits on top of a bluff, with steep drop-offs at both ends.

Speaking of which, the airport itself features a restaurant, camping area, a nature center showing the natural history of the island, a gift shop, and occasional barbeques on the airport’s huge rotisserie grill. The terminal also contains a gallery of photos covering Catalina’s aviation history, starting with the earliest flying boats to visit the island. You’ll see pictures of the airport’s construction, and of the World War II era when the nearly-completed airfield was barricaded with barbed wire and other obstacles in anticipation of a Japanese invasion.

For some reason, people get bent out of shape about flying to Catalina. It’s really not that hard. The airport does sit on a bluff 1,600 feet above the ocean, but the pavement is plenty long and wide. There are just a few things to remember about the field. First, when you’re at pattern altitude (2,600′ MSL), you may be 1,000 feet above the airport elevation, but at times that will put you 2,600 feet above the surface, especially on base leg when you’re over water. Also, there’s a crown in the middle of the runway, so the first half of the landing roll is uphill and the second half downhill. It’s not terribly drastic, but it can create the visual illusion of coming up on the end of the runway when you’ve still got plenty left in front of you. Finally, you’ll sometimes encounter up and down drafts due to the mountainous terrain when the wind blows. Like all approaches, if you don’t like it, go around. No big deal.

Today, about 90% of the island is owned by a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Catalina. They do a wonderful job balancing the conservancy needs of the island with it’s status as a tourist destination. Over a million people each year visit Catalina, but you’d never know it from how pristine most it looks. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to bring materials and equipment out to the airport (which sits alone in the middle of the island) to work on the runway. It’s one of the reasons I don’t mind the $25 landing fee too much. It’s expensive, but at least it’s going to a non-profit conservancy which is protecting both the island and the airport.

In front of the famous Catalina Airport hangar.  We had a moment there on our first date.

In front of the famous Catalina Airport hangar. We had a moment there on our first date.

Though I haven’t been to AVX on a regular basis in several years, I used to make a habit of occasionally flying over to the island for a leisurely day off. Sometimes I’d hike, other days I’d take the bus into Avalon or Two Harbors. Occasionally I’d just hang out on the back patio at the airport, reading a book, memorizing an opera, or talking with other pilots. One day I ran into Harrison Ford; another time it was Lorenzo Lamas. You never know who you’ll come across when you’re at the Airport-in-the-Sky. Sometimes they’re not even people! I once witnessed a bison stampede from the airport terminal’s patio. Another time I encountered a Native American who was searching for some kind of mystic white buffalo. You can’t make stuff like this up.

Santa Catalina always beckons when I take to the sky. On a clear day, one can see it from the mainland even from ground level, hovering in the distance like a desert mirage. If you haven’t experienced the Catalina magic, put it on your bucket list — you won’t regret it.


This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

Brazil

Cloud formations

Brazil has long been on my mental “bucket list” of places to visit. Not only is it one of the world’s largest countries both geographically and by population — fifth on both counts — but it’s also the center of attention right now because they are hosting 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Add in a Carnival or two and you’ve got quite a party!

Brazil also fascinates me because it contains the Amazon rainforest and is home to the planet’s greatest biological diversity. One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon, by far the largest collection anywhere. Speaking of diversity, from a sociological perspective Brazil is equally manifold; it’s home to a unique blend of so many European and African cultures that it almost reminds me of the United States.

Anyway, recently a two-week trip came up that allowed me to cross this one off my list in the best way possible: on the company dime. The trip originated in Los Angeles with a day of flying to Santa Barbara, Vermont, and then New York. The east coast has been having some spectacular fall weather which we were able to enjoy for a few days before departing at about 9:00 p.m. on an overnight flight to São Paulo.

Our route of flight from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Our route of flight from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

This was a maxed-out night of flying, as the Part 135 rules which govern on-demand charter only allow for ten hours of flight and fourteen hours of duty time per day. The straight-line distance is about 4,800 miles, just beyond the Gulfstream IV’s non-stop range, so we alighted in the Lesser Antilles island of Barbados after about four and a half hours for a splash (aka several thousand gallons) of kerosene before proceeding on a five hour leg to the Brazilian capital.

The second leg took us past Guyana and over the Amazon rainforest which, while it was teeming with life, was also one of the darkest places I’ve ever traveled. Even with a partial moon, from 45,000 feet the Amazon was like an earth-borne black hole, inky in every direction. I wasn’t just the absence of man-made lighting, because I witnessed far more luminosity from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the sky was a much lighter shade of sable than the earth.

My thoughts went back to N87V, a U-21G which disappeared with three aboard during a uranium survey mission over the dense jungle of western Guyana back when I worked for Dynamic Aviation. Despite spending years and millions of dollars on search efforts, as far as I know the aircraft was never located. The jungle is like that. The forest canopy is so dense that it can swallow an aircraft, leaving no visual trace for searchers or satellites to pick up on. The foliage has a matte-like surface, so it makes sense that at night this same vegetation would absorb light. I can’t even imagine how dark it must be underneath the canopy.

Note the "IRS 1" lattitude of exactly zero degrees.  It means we're directly over the equator.

Note the “IRS 1″ lattitude of exactly zero degrees. It means we’re directly over the equator.

Despite the Gulfstream’s many creature comforts, overnighters are tough. I tried my best to get on a sleep-all-day/up-all-night schedule in the days leading up to the Brazil trip, but it’s easier said than done. Altering one’s circadian rhythms so drastically over just three days when you’re already several time zones away from home… well, it’s not impossible, but circumstances do tend to conspire against you. Room service knocking on the door, hotel maintenance, an occasional incoming phone call, invitations from the rest of the crew to grab a bite, etc. I pride myself on being able to sleep just about anywhere, but there’s always something keeping you on the front side of the clock.

That’s the long way of saying we were a bit bleary-eyed when the sun came up just prior to starting our descent into São Paulo. What first captured my attention was the sight of the city itself. I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that from 15,000 feet up, skyscrapers stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. There was no central “downtown” as you’d expect with most American cities — everywhere was downtown. The pilot I was flying with exclaimed, “I used to fly into Mexico City all the time and this place makes it look like a quaint little fishing village!” The official population of São Paulo is 12 million, but to my eyes that figure looked severely understated.

Congonhas Airport is at the top of the photo.  We departed this airport enroute to Salvador de Bahia in northern Brazil.  Sao Paulo makes Mexico City look like a tiny village.

Congonhas Airport is at the top of the photo. We departed this airport enroute to Salvador de Bahia in northern Brazil. São Paulo makes Mexico City look like a tiny village.

One element of the trip which was not surprising? The red tape associated with flying internationally. They have it in spades down there. After landing at Guarulhos Airport, I spied our hotel not a quarter of a mile away. Ah, sleep! Could it be true, I thought?

No, it couldn’t. Our handler did her best to expedite us through the maze of airport roadways and paperwork, but it was still two hours before we collected our room keys. The driver who shuttled us to the hotel spoke of the incredible cuisine available “in town”. I thought we were already in town! We inquired about how long it would take to get there and was told “two hours — three if there’s traffic”. It was just as well, I suppose; we’d be sleeping much of the day anyway and were scheduled to pick up passengers at São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport very early the following morning for a 900 mile leg to the Bahian capital of Salvador.

The flight guidance panel.  Our Mach .80 speed seems rather dowdy compared with the .90 of the new Gulfstream G650, but on an average leg the difference isn't all that great.

The flight guidance panel. Our Mach .80 speed seems rather dowdy compared with the .90 of the new Gulfstream G650, but on an average leg the difference isn’t all that great.

Salvador de Bahia is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and second only to Rio de Janero as a tourist destination. As a former colonial capital, it’s the spot where the confluence of African and Portuguese cultures is most apparent. We spent four days there at the Pestana Bahia Resort. It wouldn’t win many platitudes from travelers used to the comforts of high-end European or American accomodations, but it did the job and is apparently one of the nicer hotels in town. My room overlooked the rocky coastline where the wind was strong and constant. There were few English speakers in Salvador, so we had a chance to practice our rudimentary Portuguese. I probably insulted more people than anything else with my lousy vocabulary, but it’s been my experience that locals at least appreciate the effort.

The coast is this area is prone to strong wind and surf.  Not that I'm complaining; it sounded great and sure kept the air clear!

The coast is this area is prone to strong wind and surf. Not that I’m complaining; it sounded great and sure kept the air clear!

We were warned by the hotel not to venture outside at night on our own, and from seeing the town during the day I can understand why. Salvador is two cities in one. The southernmost portion is a modern business and financial hub teeming with glass skyscrapers, while the old town area is filled with the sort of colorful and historic colonial architecture you see throughout the Caribbean. Likewise the social and economic fortunes of the residents, where significant portions of the city are overcrowded slums while other sections are beautifully manicured — and gated.

Even the geography diverges; the downtown area sits on a different elevation than the rest of the old city, so an elevator was built to connect the two segments. It doesn’t seem terribly noteworthy until you discover that the Lacerda Elevator was constructed by Jesuit missionaries in 1610. As you might imagine, that first iteration was a bit short on creature comforts. It was operated via a manual rope-and-pulley arrangement. The conveyance was converted to a mechanical steam system around 1868 and then finally to electricity in 1928 (which explains the present art deco style). Imagine — this elevator has been in nearly continual operation for more than 400 years. Top that, Otis!

As an admitted foodie, my best memory of Salvador has to be the grub, especially a traditional Bahian meal we had at a local restaurant called Cafe de Tereza. Our main dish was moqueca, a seafood stew made with dende and coconut milk. They love coconuts down there — in fact it was far easier to find coconut water than the plain stuff. Our hotel put out rows of raw coconuts every day in the lobby, sliced open with a little straw and some fruit hanging off the top. The big adjustment from a culinary standpoint was getting used to the palm oil they use in most of their cooking. In the U.S., our staple is olive oil, but in South America the more plentiful palm oil is utilized. There’s nothing wrong with that, but food seemed to sit “heavier” in my stomach and made me feel fuller for a longer period.

Vitamin water, Brazilian style: straight from the coconut.  Though it wasn't always served this way, coconut water seemed to be available everywhere.

Vitamin water, Brazilian style: straight from the coconut. Though it wasn’t always served this way, coconut water seemed to be available everywhere.

Speaking of drinking, the caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail and one of my personal favorites. It’s akin to a South American mohito, except it’s made with cachaça, a rum-like spirit that’s made from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses. On our last night in town, the staff at the FBO took us out to dinner and I was introduced to the caipiroksa, a variant crafted with vodka. The suggestion was to try it muddled with fresh strawberries. Delicious!

The following evening we geared up for another overnight flight — the return trip to Gotham — while the lucky passengers slept soundly in the back. The Gulfstream’s cabin is more than 41 feet long, so with only two guests, each was able to have their own generously-sized space. Not a bad way to travel if you’ve got a few extra bucks for the privilege!

The trips to and from Brazil were overnight flights.  Our passengers slept comfortably in the Gulfstream while we kept the watch up front.

The trips to and from Brazil were overnight flights. Our passengers slept comfortably in the Gulfstream while we kept the watch up front.

The only oddity on our trip was the early descent given by New York Center as we approached the U.S. coast. We were enjoying a gorgeous sunrise — or rather, I was enjoying it from the shade of the left seat as my compatriot suffered with a steadily intensifying reddish-yellow sun creeping into the sky on his side of the aircraft because this bird was not equipped with the retractable, dark film window shades found on most Gulfstreams.

Anyway, the radio crackled with a call for us to begin a descent. As I recall they had us down to 15,000 feet more than 200 miles from our destination. Premature descent clearances are nothing new for that part of the country, but this was comical even by those standards. Jets don’t like to fly low. Actually that’s not quite accurate. They have no problem being at that altitude, but it’s extremely inefficient from a fuel consumption standpoint. We spent the last hundred miles droning along at about 3,000 feet, thankful for having a generous fuel reserve.

Those red-eyes can be painfully long.  It's always worth it when a beautiful sunrise casts that reddish glow across the cockpit.

Those red-eyes can be painfully long. It’s always worth it when a beautiful sunrise casts that reddish glow across the cockpit.

This was an enjoyable trip in every respect: a fun crew, new destinations to explore, a lightly loaded aircraft, and plenty of time in between legs to rest up. Much like California, Brazil’s a place you could spend the rest of your life exploring without seeing everything. With all that’s going on there these days, I have a feeling it won’t be long before I’m saying “OLÁ” once again.