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Mike's Pilot Log: South to South Adventure

...the only way to be sure of surviving would be using the parachute.

It must've stopped raining in the night; because when Olivier shook me awake and announced that it was 5.15 am he told me in the same breath that he could see the stars.

In the middle of the night we had awoke to the sound of the waves suddenly so loud that we scrambled out of the tent in a panic to find the sea getting quite close to Olivier's trike. We pushed the trikes closer to the tent and dived back into the tent out of the rain, wind and away from the tiny biting gnats. The little bastards are so tiny, they can hardly be seen, yet they have such a healthy bite…. I guess their teeth must be huge compared to their body size.

We packed by torch light … everything was wet and muddy and sandy. We warmed the engines and were in the air by about 6.15.  It was a beautiful morning, clear air, yet the storm clouds were still all around us. Somehow, we were again lucky, with huge Cumulonimbus clouds behind us and out over the sea, but ahead it was clear for at least 100 km. We headed up the coast at 2,000 ft, enjoying the view and the slight tailwind. When we were at 3 degrees 20 minutes North exactly we headed inland straight towards the mountains and Cali.  From the coast the mountains looked small, but when the altimeter showed 6,000 ft and they still towered above us, I had another good look at the map and also tapped the altimeter a few times to see if it somehow had a mind of it's own this morning. The map showed contours of 5,000 ft and a peak of 6,500 ft. The map needed a serious update!

After leaving the security of the beaches, my anxiety level rose higher and higher as we climbed. The forest was so thick that there was not a single spot where the ground could be seen… just the tops of monstrous trees. With an engine failure, the only way to be sure of surviving would be to use the parachute. The parachute would get stuck in the top of the trees and that way you could be found and also you wouldn't die from falling the 100 or more feet from the top or the trees. Lots of aircraft have disappeared without a trace in this area!

I came out of an era when engine failure in microlights was really common (I had lots in the early days), and I cannot get it out of my system… The engines we have are the best money can buy, but it's possible that they could still stop, so I spend a lot of my time in flight, in mental preparation for an emergency landing. When there is no good landing place my anxiety level goes up a touch.

The guerrillas who are fighting the government here in Colombia operate in those mountains. They have the two best businesses in the world – kidnapping and drugs. At this moment in time there are about 800 kidnapped people in Colombia … families have to pay a ransom to get their loved ones back. Dropping out of the sky into their laps --- aghhhh ….  Cancel that thought, Over!

We climbed to 9,500 ft and cleared the low peaks. Slowly a valley with roads and houses appeared in front of us and I started to relax. We had been in the air for about 2 hours when Olivier called me over the radio to say that he was very low on fuel. 39 Km to go, but part of it over the clouds and also sometimes the ATC keep you circling waiting for an aircraft to land. We agreed over the chat frequency to land, and I told ATC that we were descending into the valley to try and get under the clouds. I knew that once we were in the valley, they would loose contact with my transponder signal. Descending and avoiding the clouds and dealing with ATC, I lost sight of Olivier. He gave me his latitude and longitude and I headed there. He was parked on the top of a little rise in the ground in a small field. He told me it was very, very rough and I should approach low over the house and land over his head. I came in a bit too fast and bounced around like mad in the field before stopping next to his trike. Yes, it was the roughest landing that I have ever done, if my memory is still working OK. There were a few huge holes in the grass, which we both miraculously missed.

Olivier went for the fuel. One and a half hours later after a very bouncy take off we climbed above the clouds and headed towards Cali. We dropped down through a hole in the clouds over the city and there in front of us was the runway.  We were told that we should report on finals for runway 01 … but it was marked 06. I think Olivier and I realised our mistake at the same time when 2 things happened – the ATC shouted something about 'military' and I looked sideways and saw military jets, helicopters and camouflaged hangars. At that point I was 10 feet above the runway. We gave power and tried to get away from there as soon as we could. I headed towards the airport, and to frighten and confuse the 2 military trainer Cessnas that started after us, Olivier headed towards the NDB a few km to the east. The 2 Cessnas followed Olivier and I could see them diving towards him and flying so close it seemed like they would have a collision. I flew towards Olivier and I could just feel those jet fighter pilots get nervous! After about 5 minutes of this attempt at getting Olivier to turn back to the military airfield, they started to fly around us keeping a good 50 meters distance.

We landed at the international airport to a very warm welcome. Our friend Randy and 2 air traffic controllers were there to meet us and help us with the bureaucracy. After a meeting with the Civil Aviation Authority, airport managers, a quick visit to the ATC centre and a short chat with military personnel who arrived by helicopter everything was miraculously smoothed over. We asked if we could have a free landing, but pay for the take-off, but they didn't fall for that one. $56 each!

2 instructors, Felipo and Alex, who flew in what looked like a Zenair 701 but is the Colombian equivalent, escorted us to a small ultralight airfield nearby. A visit to the factory is on the cards for Wednesday.

We met more pilots at the airfield and managed to get our trikes into a hangar just as a huge storm hit us. After a few hours of looking around and socialising we departed for Randy's home. Later Randy treated us to a pizza and some beers. An eventful day!


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