A Brian’s Charter trip – Natal to Cape Verde (SBNT to GVAC)
Unusually for me, I was not feeling my habitually amiable self. The reason for this (the wounds were self-inflicted, as you’ll see — which only made things worse) was that I had given both Ken and Geoff, my F/Os, leave for the whole of the Christmas and (beyond) New Year period, assisted by the fact that as it happened there was no demand for our specialised services during that time anyway. I had been warned to have one of them on standby by Julie (my FD, Company Secretary, and obsessive bean-counter) — but in my usual generous fashion, and wanting to give the guys a decent amount of time with their families, I had opted to ignore her advice.
Then the requirement for this particular ‘special’ flight came in. It would, naturally. Life’s like that, don’t you find? As a result, every time Julie met me for weeks afterwards, she would have that supercilious look on her face. <sigh>
Anyway, in order to meet the requirement I had no choice other than to see who I could fish out of the current pool of 747-400 F/Os for hire. It wasn’t easy, given the time of year, but in the end I found one, although he obviously lacked the specific knowledge needed for some of Brian’s Charter’s more.... let’s say “unusual” operations, so inevitably he wasn’t my ideal. But hey — on paper the flight was a boringly straight line 1500 mile milk run over the Atlantic, from the top right-hand corner of Brazil up to a small island 350 miles off the west coast of Africa, so what could possibly go wrong?
(Yeah, I know, I know...).
Well the first thing that went.... let’s say not exactly right (?!) was that I had to collect an important but tiny item of cargo from Augusto Severo International Airport (SBNT). Now the rather considerable snag with that was that SBNT closed to civil aviation on May 31st, 2014, when all such flights moved to Governador Aluízio Alves International Airport (SBSG) — and, trust me, it’s quite difficult to take something the size of a 747-400 into a closed airport without someone noticing. Furthermore, long and occasionally bitter experience has taught me that it’s one thing to take an item in to an airport, but it tends to be something else entirely when you want to take it out.
So it was time to pick up the phone and try to get in touch with one of my many contacts — those that were answering the phone just after Christmas, at least. It took a full morning of increasing irritation whilst listening to extended ringtones and slightly slurred recorded invitations to leave messages before I finally got to speak to an old RAF contact of mine currently working in a Retired Officer post in the M.O.D., and who said that he’d do his best.... but was I aware that Brazil wasn’t exactly a healthy place to go to, what with mosquitoes, dengue fever, and the Chikunyunga and Zika viruses, not to mention violent protests and underlying terrorism threats?
I thanked him for this recycled HMG-issue information as cordially as I could (not easy when you’re gritting your teeth at the time), but nonetheless persisted in enquiring how I could arrange to land at SBNT where, he told me, the Brazilian military still had a presence. (In fact I was slightly cheered by that information, since that meant that with any luck the navaids would still be working). So I pressed him again to see whether he could make the necessary arrangements. Sighing deeply in what I felt was an unnecessarily patronising sort of way, he grudgingly said that he’d do his best — but added that I wasn’t to hope for too much. However, since, reading between the lines, he was in the office more or less on his own with little better to do (and, even more to the point, knowing that he owed me a few large favours), I did have some slight cause for optimism as I waited for him to ring back.
When the phone finally rang it was late afternoon. I made myself wait for three rings before answering (I didn’t want him to feel I was too eager), and then had to put up with a long tale about how complicated, difficult, stressful (and so on) his task had proved to be. But the bottom line was that everything was arranged. Once having received the details, including the all-important questions of where in Brazil to send a copy of my flight plan and the military contact frequency for the airfield, I thanked him sincerely for his help, promised to meet up for lunch next time I was in London, closed the call, and awarded myself a modest glass of single malt.
SBNT, here I come.
Once the soothing effects of the single malt started to take effect, I then began to review the flight. One potential problem which could possibly arise was that I might have to accept a thorough search of the aircraft by the military on arrival. (The biggest aircraft that the FAB (Força Aérea Brasileira — Brazilian Air Force) currently flies is the Boeing KC-767, so therefore I resolved to be scrupulously careful and ensure that my 744 would be conspicuously empty and pristine when it arrived at SBNT). I also have to mention that this wouldn’t be the first time that the requirements of the job meant that I had to fly without any payload at all except for the single small baton-shaped item — and for a Charter operator like me, that hurts.
But hey — it’s dozin’ for dollars, right?
Fast forward a week or so and you find me in the cockpit of my 744, approaching the northeast coast of Brazil. In the right-hand seat is my temporary F/O, whose name turned out to Timothy. “Not Tim!”, he emphasised in his breathless fashion as we introduced ourselves. He had the bounding energy of a young puppy, and seeing him enthusiastically frisking about I resigned myself to the prospect of double-checking everything that he did in the cockpit as soon as I had the chance.
We had been assigned a specific frequency in the 128.85 MHz -132.00 MHz range for talking to the Brazilian military, and so as we entered Brazilian airspace I attempted to contact them as instructed, but without success. And as the miles slipped by there was still no reply, which for me was a matter for increasing concern. As we started our descent towards SBNT and the silence continued my disquiet slipped over the boundary into outright worry, whilst Timothy’s excitement was increasing. “Gosh”, be burbled, “I’ve never landed at a military airport before”. Well whoopee, I felt like saying, I certainly have, and I’d be an awful lot happier if I was talking to them right now.
With the alarm bells getting louder in my head, on a sudden impulse I asked Timothy to tune his HF radio to 243.0 MHz (the radios on my aircraft have extended coverage into the military range specifically for occasions like this, just one of a number of non-standard modifications which are fitted). I then needed to explain to him that 243.0 was the emergency frequency for military use (also known as Military Air Distress, which makes for a not entirely inappropriate acronym). He selected the frequency on his ACP, and immediately we picked up a transmission requesting us to acknowledge. Hmm. Clearly, whoever was on the other end of the radio was, shall we say, somewhat unfamiliar with civilian practices <sigh>. But once communication had been established I was able to feel a little easier (although I should have known better) — and soon after crossing the coastline....
.... we landed, and were instructed to proceed to Gate 2 which, like the rest of the civilian side of the old airport, was completely devoid of aircraft — which then started me worrying about whether the baton-shaped package that I was to collect had yet been delivered? Questions, questions.... But I put them out of my mind as I approached Gate 2, since it was quickly obvious that the stands at SBNT had not been designed with a 747’s wingspan in mind: clearly there was no chance whatsoever that the aircraft would fit between the jetways. So I had to stop short of the marks — so far short, in fact, that Timothy looked at me in considerable surprise — something which I affected not to notice. Truly is it said that youth is wasted upon the young.
At that point I just had to hope that the baton had arrived. Having no clue what might await us at SBNT, I had brought on board sufficient refreshment for Timothy and I, since it seemed distinctly possible that we might be on our way immediately (foreign civilians and their aircraft are rarely afforded the warmest of welcomes at military airfields). So after setting the parking brake we got on with the business of starting to prepare the aircraft for a short stay — however whilst I was shutting down the engines I was distracted by another squawk from burbling Timothy. “Hey great”, he enthused, “They’re giving us a military escort”. I looked outside. We were encircled with men all right, but this was no escort, not with every one of them pointing automatic weapons at us.
Having no wish to see my aircraft turned into the world’s largest colander, I had no option other than to leave a puzzled Timothy temporarily in charge whilst I went to find out what was going on: so after first of all giving him some succinct and extremely explicit instructions I went to greet the natives. They had evidently been expecting us (good news of a sort, perhaps?), since they had jury-rigged a dangerous-looking series of steps, mounted on wheels for additional instability, that just about reached the level of the lower doors. Evidently the primary gunslinger had no English, but he and his SMG made it pellucidly clear, using the international patois of violence and intimidation, that I was to descend to ground level. So I did, although the steps swayed and bent alarmingly during the process — the Elf of Safety clearly wasn’t a part of the culture here.
I was then frogmarched with the minimum of courtesy into the old aircraft terminal and thence to the upper floor (which gave me, at one point, a view of my aircraft — Timbo was still in his seat, so hopefully he was carrying out my instructions).
My destination was evidently someone’s office, in which I was unceremoniously shoved into a chair facing the desk — clearly, their brand of military courtesy wasn’t quite what I was used to. On the other side of the ornate desk sat an immaculately turned out little man with slicked-back hair and a uniform whose badges of rank I couldn’t decipher, but who was clearly the boss man in these parts. To my relief, it quickly became obvious that he spoke good English, so that at least communication was not going to be a problem. His entourage was ranged around the room, some of them seated at what looked like military folding tables. But I couldn’t help noticing (I find that being in a room full of unfriendly men with guns tends to sharpen my perceptions) that no one looked remotely pleased to see me.
After a suitable pause for effect, the individual behind the desk condescended to notice my arrival. “Welcome, to Natal, Captain”, he said (without, I noticed, making the slightest effort to sound in any way welcoming), “I am Colonel Fernadez. So exactly why have you come to visit us?”
Well so much for social chit-chat, this guy obviously preferred to cut to the chase. I considered my options, whilst simultaneously wishing that I knew exactly what my friend in the M.O.D. had told them. When in doubt, I generally opt for sticking to the obvious (whilst also trying to say as little as possible), so I explained to him that I was contracted to pick up a baton, although to hopefully make the pickup seem more legitimate I also embroidered things a little and made it sound as though collecting the baton was part of a race.
He pursed his lips, gave a pseudo-sad shake of his head, and dropped his bombshell. “I regret to inform you, Captain”, he said, “that we have no baton for you. No one has arrived with your so-called baton. It appears, therefore, that this talk of races is merely a pitiful excuse for you to land here, and that you are a spy.”
I began to sweat in a manner which had nothing to do with the temperature, and embarked upon an emphatic denial that I had any association with espionage. But whilst I was still in full flow one of the Colonel’s colleagues went to him and began whispering in his ear. Stopping my indignant explanations with an emphatic gesture, he stated “Ah, it now appears that another aircraft is on its way here, and will be landing soon”. I was suitably relieved. “So it seems that there are two of you involved in this!”, the Colonel triumphantly pronounced.
Things were definitely not going well, but it should help if I could demonstrate that all was as previously arranged. “I think you will find that the incoming aircraft is a BEa 146”, I stated. To my chagrin, the Colonel assumed a thin smile and shook his head, “Not at all. It is apparently a microjet, similar to the type used by some of our drug smugglers.” Oh terrific. Not only a suspected spy, but now a suspected drug smuggler, too. Wondering what on earth had happened to the promised 146, I realised that I had better talk my way out of this one fast.
But the Colonel was now engaged in a whispered discussion with two of his senior officers, so I felt it only polite to await the outcome. Turning back to face me, Colonel Fernandez seemed grimmer than ever. “The pilot of the incoming aircraft is clearly one of your fellow criminals,” he declared, “since she has asked to be directed to where you are when she lands. Very well. You will meet her in the restaurant area below us, where you will be served with coffee. You will not inform her of any of this conversation; we will be listening and will shoot both of you if you reveal anything to your colleague — if she should ask, tell her that this terminal is empty”.
I agreed to this scenario with what little enthusiasm I could simulate (although I was relieved to hear that Amy was OK — we had met before in even more unusual circumstances than these), and I was bundled downstairs into the restaurant, just in time to see her taxying a microjet (where had she got that from, I wondered) to a halt at the south-easterly end of the terminal. I was then ordered to beckon Amy inside, and to sit at a particular table (presumably, the one with the microphones, and a clear field of fire for the hidden snipers). As she came into the restaurant I was relieved to see that she was carrying the baton, although I was not looking forward to explaining to her that the only form of liquid refreshment on offer was coffee.
In view of her various excursions on the way to SBNT Amy had a lot to tell me, and the subsequent monologue must have expanded the listeners’ knowledge of certain of the coarser aspects of the English language quite considerably, although happily it should also do much to explain to them the reason for her late arrival. I gently steered the conversation towards the baton handover in a way which I hoped that our hosts would find reassuring — and perhaps they did, for at that point our conversation was interrupted by the arrival at our table of Colonel Fernandez.
After curtly introducing himself to Amy, he briefly explained to her that unfortunately the airfield was closed to civilian traffic, and hence it would be necessary for her to immediately fly the very short distance to Governador Aluízio Alves International Airport (SBSG) for her overnight stay. Seeing Amy’s face darkening at this unwelcome turn of events I needed to forestall the imminent explosion somehow, so I hastily interjected “And I must be on my way too — thank you for your hospitality, Colonel.” (Sarcasm may perhaps be the lowest form of wit, but I felt it to be entirely appropriate at that point).
But this was not what the Colonel had in mind. “No”, he shouted at me, wagging his finger for emphasis, “She may go, but you — you will stay!” With a puzzled glance in my direction, Amy got up and hurried away to be reunited with her aircraft, her tiredness temporarily forgotten. Meanwhile, back in the restaurant, the Colonel had seized the baton, while his gun-toting merry men took me upstairs to his office again. This was getting wearisome, but at least I could be hopeful that Amy would be on the radio to Tim, to warn him that things were not well and that he should stay put and await further developments.
After a short delay, Colonel Fernandez and the remainder of his officers entered the room: the Colonel sat down at his desk and regarded me with disfavour, albeit not unmixed with some puzzlement. “You expect me to believe that it would take an 146 and a Boeing 747 to carry your small baton?”, he mused. “Yet it is not at all heavy.”
Sensing an opportunity, I explained that the mix of aircraft to be used during the race was merely a question of what the individual pilots considered appropriate, or had to hand. The baton itself, whilst not heavy or bulky, was nonetheless the most essential aspect of the race, since to win the bet it had to be returned to its starting point as quickly as possible. I ended by saying “I would therefore be most grateful if you return the baton to me, and allow me to proceed on my way with all possible speed, Colonel”.
Colonel Fernandez sat in silence for a few moments and then snapped his fingers, at which to my surprise one of his flunkeys stepped forward (I thought that only happened in Mafia movies), and I saw he was holding the baton.
I put out my hand to take it from him, but Col. Fernandez had no intention of releasing it just yet, and dismissed the flunkey back to the sidelines with a wave of his manicured hand. “You know, Captain”, he said, “we have a lot of trouble here with drug smugglers.” Ah, I thought, that’s where we are — although I was relieved to note that at least espionage seemed to now be off the menu following Amy’s explanations of her extended trip, so I remained cautiously silent. But Fernandez then continued: “Perhaps this... baton of yours is full of cocaine? So we should open it to find out, no?” Faced with the prospect of his goons systematically reducing the baton to matchwood in search of imaginary drugs, I needed to come up with something quickly.
“Colonel”, I suggested, “this airfield was closed to civilian traffic only eighteen months ago. You must still have some of the old luggage scanning equipment in use — especially since, to judge by the baggage carts outside, you still use this terminal for troop movements”. We exchanged glances — clearly we both had experience of troop movements and some of the interesting items which turned up in troops’ luggage from time to time. I continued “Why don’t we simply scan the baton to prove to you that it is harmless, and then I can be on my way, since any further delay could imperil the bet and prove very costly”. The Colonel gave his staff the evil eye — someone was going to pay for not suggesting this to him earlier — and regarded me slightly less coldly.
“Very well”, he announced, “we will do that. And whilst my staff carry out this order as rapidly as possible, you will tell me more about your race and the bet, yes?”. I tried to look delighted at the prospect of inventing a full-scale and detailed around the world race story on the fly, and thanked the Colonel for his courtesy. He rattled off some clipped Portuguese orders and the baton-carrier literally ran from the room. Clearly, Colonel Fernandez could be a man to be feared.
I will gloss over the next ten minutes or so, during which I invented in fanciful detail the tale of a bet between an unnamed billionaire and a group of adventurers who were determined to complete the race in time to win the valuable prize. Clearly, the Colonel was a betting man himself, because he listened with increasing enthusiasm and was starting to ask about the amount of money involved when the flunkey returned, somewhat out of breath (and with the baton still intact, I was relieved to see). The unfortunate scapegoat was then made to stand at quivering attention whilst he received a severe tongue-lashing in front of his peers, which I was (perhaps fortunately) unable to understand since my Portuguese is more or less limited to ordering beer, but which clearly had a considerably chastening effect.
After snatching the baton and dismissing the unfortunate fellow, presumably to spend the remainder of his career in the Brazilian equivalent of Siberia, the Colonel rose from his chair and offered the baton to me. “Here you are, Captain”, he said, all smiles now, “Please allow me to escort you back to your aircraft.”
As I retraced my steps through the terminal building accompanied by the Colonel (with his entourage trailing behind us), he regaled me with stories of the marvellous string of racehorses which he kept, all of which, it appeared, were certain winners — providing he could keep them out of the hands of the dopers. I sympathised deeply, speaking with warm feeling of the curse of cheats and envious owners in the racing community (derived from some dubious information acquired during a fun greyhound race evening, many years previously). “Do you own any racehorses yourself?”, the Colonel enquired. I considered the tempting prospect for a moment, but the well springs of inventiveness had more or less run dry whilst I was coming up with the bet saga, and besides, I couldn’t see my way clear to trying to accommodate a racehorse in my modestly-sized garden, so I simply informed him that, alas, I was not so blessed. “That is sad”, he said, “you should. Name your first one in honour of me.”
I gravely undertook to do so, and the Colonel would, I think, have accompanied me on board the aircraft — right up to the moment when he caught sight of the rickety and hastily lashed together steps, at which point he came to an abrupt halt on terra firma and formally wished me well. We shook hands, his entourage managed a ragged salute, and with considerable care, not unmixed with trepidation, I managed to ascend the wobbly temporary steps and get safely through the door. Turning, I saluted them in return in the best RAF tradition and added a final cheery wave with the baton, before shutting and arming the door prior to re-joining Timothy in the cockpit.
To give the lad his due, he had followed my instructions to the letter and the aircraft was fully prepared for immediate engine start and taxy, so that literally within seconds of resuming my seat (after a quick glance to be sure that the Brazilians had all retreated to a safe distance) we started engines 3 and 4, closely followed (as soon as 3 and 4 were stable) by 1 and 2. Timothy had, whilst I was away, managed to work it out. “You knew there wasn’t going to be any pushback, didn’t you?” he beamed. Not being a betting man (in spite of my words to the Colonel) I wasn’t able to give him the exact vanishingly short odds, so I contended myself with a grunted affirmative as I released the parking brake and applied gentle amounts of thrust. Then as we started moving I eased the tiller hard over. Assisted by additional thrust on the outboard engine on the port wing together with some gentle pressure on the starboard toe brakes, the aircraft made an immaculately tight right turn without clobbering any of the jetways, and soon we were trundling along the taxyway towards the runway threshold.
To my surprise, in my absence there had apparently been no search of the aircraft, but then the troops probably felt the same about those jerry-built temporary steps as did I and the Colonel. Besides, it was still extremely hot out there, although happily Timothy had followed my instructions faithfully and kept the pack running which supplied the cockpit (using bleed air supplied in turn by the APU), so that we were perfectly comfortable and able to concentrate fully on the job in hand.
I asked Timothy to switch on the strobes and the landing and taxy lights straight away — if the rest of these guys were as unfamiliar with civilian practices as the idiot on the radio on the way in then at least they couldn’t claim that they didn’t see us coming. Whilst taxying out I was able to point out to Timothy some of the FAB military aircraft parked on the other side of the field, including an Embraer E-99 (airborne early warning and control), several C-130s (tactical transport), a Boeing KC-767 (also equipped for in-flight refuelling), and a clutch of AS-332 Super Pumas (transport helicopters). Six months ago, the FAB reached an agreement with Sweden to finance the purchase of a batch of 36 Gripen NGs, too, so this bunch are very serious people.
In a way I would have liked to have stayed longer to chat to the good Colonel, but it was probably better this way. Clearly, he and his staff were bored, and indeed it’s generally assumed that in the absence of any serious external or internal threats, the Brazilian armed forces are searching for a new role. Promotion, I reflected, would hardly be rapid in a situation such as that, and in view of a certain episode in my past I have excellent reasons to know very well what can happen when highly-trained personnel are left with too much time on their hands.
But my reflections ceased as we approached the runway threshold, and we were then cleared to enter the runway….
….. and, almost immediately, cleared to take off. I sensed the Colonel’s hand in this (I could only hope that he wasn’t expecting a percentage of our imaginary winnings) but in any event we lost no time in applying take-off thrust and subsequently leaving Natal behind us. With four powerful Rolls Royce engines more used to powering a rather stately take-off when the aircraft is fully laden with around 240 tonnes of payload and full fuel tanks at the start of a very long trip indeed, our empty 747-400 would have achieved startling climb rates well in excess of 4,000 ft/min had I not previously reminded Timothy to derate the climb — even with the derate, we ascended at a rate (for a 744) that must have astonished anyone tracking us.
Once safely into the climb-out phase I handed over control to Timothy and tried to contact Amy over the radio, but it seemed that she must have already landed at SBSG (which is only 12 nm away from SBNT, after all). But from our past meetings I have reason to know that the girl is very capable of looking after herself, so I wasn’t too concerned.
Our departure took us first of all out towards the coast….
…. after which we headed northwards to join the airway across the Atlantic….
…. and after joining it were cleared to climb to our cruise altitude of FL370.
There was a lot of traffic on the airway, both inbound and outbound, as depicted by the TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System) on the ND (Navigation Display).
But soon we were at cruising altitude, with three and a half hours of Atlantic Ocean to look forward to. Here’s a view of some water in the Atlantic Ocean:
And, er, some more water:
And (guess what?) even more water:
OK — at this point, you will be beginning to understand why my introduction to this piece was more extended than usual: there really are very finite limits to the number of pictures of the Atlantic Ocean that most people can put up with, especially during a straight-line flight of <yawn> 1500 miles. So if you don’t mind, I’ll omit the rest of the water pictures and move on to the point where we’re approaching the top of the descent towards Sal (GVAC).
Cape Verde (or "the Republic of Cabo Verde", as its government would nowadays prefer it to be known), is an island country spanning an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands in the central Atlantic Ocean, and located 350 miles (570 kilometres) off the coast of Western Africa. Between them, the islands comprise a combined area of slightly over 1,500 sq miles (4,000 square kilometres). According to the Wikipedia entry I had looked at before leaving home, “Since independence Cape Verde has been a stable representative democracy, and remains one of the most developed and democratic countries in Africa”.
We were headed for Amílcar Cabral International Airport (GVAC), also known as Amílcar Cabral Airport, or, since it is located on the island of Sal, Sal International Airport. (So good they named it thrice?). As you can see from the map, above, Sal (top right) is by no means the biggest of the islands, however until September 2005 GVAC was the only airport in Cape Verde to serve international flights. The airport's main runway is 10,734 ft (3,272 m) long, and is still the longest in Cape Verde. It’s therefore used for long-haul flights, and it was also one of the designated emergency landing strips for the U.S. Space Shuttle.
Arriving from a south-westerly-ish direction, we would overfly the tip of the main island of Santiago as we began our descent towards GVAC. You can see in the next picture that our aircraft is just about to pass Santiago: you may also notice that most of the islands in the archipelago now have airfields.
As we neared the rocky volcanic island of Sal, we passed the island of Boa Vista on our right.
A few details of our destination were now becoming visible, and we began to have an idea about how the very dry-looking Sal got its name. (It subsequently transpired that, sure enough, the island is indeed named after the Portuguese for “salt” — the name deriving from the salt mines at Pedra de Lume).
A short time later, here we are about to land:
In spite of the long runway, there seemed to be few visitors to the airport apart from another 747 parked on the ramp, so we taxied to the gate, and parked.
And finally it was time for a long cool drink or two — and a suitable opportunity, also, to complete a few items of Timothy’s education whilst we awaited the handover of the baton, looking forward to a good meal and a sleep prior to the trip back to Farnborough….
I just hoped no one would incautiously ask me what I had done for Christmas, that’s all. 8-º
Until the next trip, then….
* Accurate and complete 747-400 aircraft simulation with ATC, traffic generation, and planetary real time weather: Precision Simulator X v10.0.6c
* Information injection into FSX for the visuals: VisualPSX v6.6
* Airborne traffic injection into FSX: TrafficPSX v6.6
* Puppet aircraft in FSX: the iFly (free) FSX 747 (with Brian’s Charter repaint)
* Scenery generator: FSX (in permanent DX10 mode, thanks to Steve’s Fixer)
* Generic scenery: Orbx Global base, Vector, [and OpenLC Europe + OpenLC North America Alaska & Canada], with worldwide mesh
* Sky and water textures: Rex 4 Texture Direct with Soft Clouds
* Real world weather: Active Sky Next