Homebuilt delivers…

In spring 2020, Guil and Mary Barros spent 92 flight hours and 12,000 miles, over nearly four weeks, through the Caribbean and South America, from Florida to Brazil… in an RV-9A they built themselves…

Mary and I were sitting on the couch one night in March 2019, chatting about places to fly in our RV-9A, when for some reason I blurted out ‘we should fly to Rio’. What? This isn’t how your adventures usually begin? We must do things differently… But as soon as I said it we started to give it some serious thought. 

We had a huge shopping list. From snacks and swimsuits, to life rafts and flares. As it turns out, we got really lucky on the raft and flotation side of things and found a pilot retiring from flying the Hawaiian islands willing to part with his set-up for a very reasonable price, so we had him just ship it all to get overhauled and inspected. We prepared a ditch bag with three days of rations, water and survival gear. We also prepped a spare parts kit with things that were easy to carry but which would be hard to source in a remote location – and packed a tool kit with things we might need to get us out of a bind. 

A key part of picking supplies and spares / tools was thinking about failure scenarios. In-air failures don’t immediately require spare parts, and our landings were all planned for places we could get something express-mailed to in a pinch. So we restricted spares and tools to things which were reasonably light and would be needed to get us to a convenient location for further repairs as needed. 

In our minds the two riskiest parts of the trip were those with limited landing options – the over-water segments and the over-Amazon segments. So we visited the Federal pavilion at AirVenture and talked to the Search and Rescue people there. The basic feedback we got was, ‘wear your life jackets, have a PLB on each person (not near, ON), and trigger your ELT/PLB/inReach as soon as you know you’re going for a swim’. 

Passing Kennedy Space Centre

I was wondering if we should trigger one at a time to conserve battery life but that got a resounding ‘No’. A single PLB/ELT trigger will get S&R making phone calls to verify if it’s a false alarm. If they see three pop up together, with an account note saying we are doing this big trip over water, things will go into high gear almost immediately.

The Amazon segments had different concerns. We contacted AOPA Brazil and some other local pilots we knew. They were incredibly helpful and immediately created a WhatsApp chat group for us to ask questions, get ideas and suggestions, and be told what we should definitely not do. Mostly, fly only in the mornings, and call ahead to confirm fuel.

While figuring out the best practices, we started planning the route. It quickly became clear that flying through the Caribbean made more sense to us than through Central America. Partially because of the Venezuela airspace TFR, but also because the impression we got was that flying over the warm Caribbean waters is safer than over the Amazon Forest. Rescues tend to come much faster in the water than up in the 100ft-plus high trees of the Amazon, and the distances to civilisation are much shorter. Many people refuse to fly over water in a single-engine piston, and that is a very personal decision. For us, we felt the risks were worth the rewards, so around the Caribbean we routed.

Initially we started working with one of the Caribbean flight planning companies which is always at AirVenture, but we quickly discovered that it was pushing us towards local handling services at each of our stops. These handlers were asking around $100 per landing to do paperwork, which made the trip financially untenable. We lucked into chatting with Jim of Caribbean Flying Adventures who suggested we take a look at his website. We paid the very reasonable subscription fee and it turned everything around for us. His site has detailed descriptions of how to self-handle at each airport, where to go, what you need, what the fees are, and the fuel costs.

This allowed us to avoid stops with overly complex processes (e.g. Trinidad and Tobago) or exorbitant fees (e.g. Providenciales).

The trip

Departing the US into the Caribbean was surprisingly easy. We overnighted in Ft Lauderdale to get an early start for the first over-water, heading to Stella Maris. That first flight over the islands was both terrifying and magical. The blue water, puffy clouds, and islands are a sight to behold. Landing in Stella Maris gave it a touch of tropical paradise, a small airport with open-air buildings… you just wanted to call it a day with a cold beer. But alas, we continued, stopping in Punta Cana, Antigua, and Grenada along the way. A few extra days here and there to enjoy the weather and the beaches were well worth it. At this point in the trip the goal was not to rush things, but to make it to Rio, and take it slow on the way back.

Unfortunately there are not that many paved airports, fewer with fuel, fewer again with a Metar, and even fewer with a TAF

Airport terminal in Georgetown, Guyana

With Venezuela closed to US aircraft, we needed a fuel stop in Georgetown, Guyana, and learned that it charges a $230 navigation fee for using its airspace. We pointed out to them how ridiculous this was on a two-seat aircraft, and they suggested that we were welcome to go around the country. So, $230 it is then… each way. On arriving in Georgetown (Correia Airport, the smaller downtown option) we were greeted by a very friendly ground handler, who walked us through the complex permitting, forms, stamps, fees, and handshakes required to get things moving there. Even with his efficiency, it still took an hour for a simple fuel stop, but this was one time where it was worth paying a little to have some help. Onwards to Brazil!

We departed Georgetown, Guyana for Boa Vista in the northern state of Roraima in Brazil and we were greeted by a small crowd and a TV crew. Little did we know, but our trip in a homebuilt aircraft got some attention in the local press down there. After a quick interview, we were able to get our passports stamped. We had arrived on a Sunday and Customs was not open at this small airport, but they stamped our passports (immigration) and allowed us to continue to our hotel, promising we would show up for customs first thing Monday morning.

As soon as we left immigration there was a group of 10-15 people waiting to shake our hands and welcome us to Brazil. It was so nice and unexpected. One couple gave us a gift of a wristband made by the local indigenous people of Roraima, which we decided to keep in the aeroplane to bring us luck.

Juiz de Fora, Brazil. Last stop before Rio

… it tends to rain a lot in the Rainforest

Flying the Amazon region is not quite like flying in the US. Unfortunately there are not that many paved airports, fewer with fuel, fewer again with a Metar, and even fewer with a TAF. This meant short hops to ensure we could get to the next stop if there was bad weather or no fuel. It also meant we had to call ahead to each airport before departing to confirm they had fuel, and how the weather looked. We quickly learned that it tends to rain a lot in the Rainforest. Yes, you’d think there would be something obvious about that, but alas… We also learned that in the Amazon you generally only fly in the mornings, as the sun comes up and the heat makes the humidity spike through the day, causing large towering cumulus and thunderstorms. Quite a few people told us this, but it’s really one of those things you need to stick your finger in the outlet to really figure out.

The next morning we headed to the airport early to meet with the Receita Federal (Customs) official. Unfortunately there was some confusion with our paperwork and he had to take it into their office in town for a higher-ranking officer to approve. No big deal, so we headed to our hotel pool to wait. By 3pm our paperwork had finally been approved and we were able to call the airport to let them know we were planning a 6am departure.

In-flight selfie

Our flight through the Amazon was incredibly picturesque. Beautiful strong greens, blues, and browns. I had never imagined there would be such beauty in a vast lawn of trees as far as you can see. It’s truly a sight. The Amazon River is just immense, and the meeting of the different waters is very dramatic.

A few stops along the way, including an IFR diversion, and we were coming up to Rio de Janeiro. Our local friends had introduced us to one of the approach control supervisors for the Rio CTA, and he called us just as we were getting ready to submit a flight plan. “We can vector you directly to the flying club, avoiding all the craziness with visual corridors, etc,” he offered.

At this point I paused and looked at the visual corridor chart. “Thank you, but can we take the long way round?”

So we were off heading in the wrong direction to enter the northernmost gate of the coastline corridor and flew it all the way south-west to our destination. We flew over some beautiful beaches – Niteroi, Sugarloaf Mountain, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. One fantastic sight after another. Approaching the end of the corridor we heard ‘N689RV standby for a message’, and our supervisor friend came on with detailed instructions on what to do next and how to find the little flying club we will be staying at. Could not have asked for a better experience. They even included pictures of us on their radar scopes!

We spent three fantastic nights in Rio enjoying the hospitality of the local flying club. Clube Ceu really was a little piece of heaven. Large hangars, an on-site engineer to help us with an oil change and mid-trip inspection, fantastic clubhouse, excellent food and wonderful camaraderie! We joked that if they ever sell plots there, we’d be in line to build our retirement house.

Town of Boa Vista, Brazil

Homeward bound…

Departing Rio, our first stop was the main event we’d planned for the trip, landing at Santos Dumont Airport in the Guanabara Bay.

We were told pilots were being fined for flying over ‘densely populated areas’

Many US-educated pilots may not be aware, but there is some dispute as to where aviation started. It is not unanimously accepted that the Wright Brothers were first in flight, and the Brazilians believe that Alberto Santos Dumont, a Brazilian, claims that title, so they’ve named this beautiful airport after him.

In the circuit at Clube Ceu, Rio de Janeiro

It was quite the experience, SDU (SBRJ) airport is a busy commercial stop for Cariocas (people from Rio de Janeiro) and has non-stop airliner activity. We filed our flight plan, happily did a few 360º turns over beautiful beaches for spacing, and finally lined up for the approach on Runway 20R. This truly felt like the culmination of all the planning and dreaming about this trip. We made a short rest stop to drink a cold Mate (iced tea) and eat warm Pão de queijo (cheese bread) at SDU, then paid our airport fees (almost $250) and departed up the Brazilian coastline on our return trip. At this point the Covid-19 virus was starting to really make the news, so we decided we would accelerate our return flight plans, vowing to one day come back.

As we flew up the country we met a wide array of fantastic people in the aviation community, happy for the attention we brought to homebuilt aviation in Brazil. They were all very interested in helping us.

We learned that there was quite a challenge with local authorities applying a very strict interpretation of the airspace rules. An example we were told pilots were being fined for flying over ‘densely populated areas’, which like in the US must be avoided in an experimental aircraft. Unfortunately the local interpretation has excluded the provision for take-off and landing that allows pilots in the US to still use airports in busy cities, and thus local pilots here were fined for landing in airports with even a very small population around them. I hoped that for the sake of Brazilian Experimental Aviation, some calm minds would prevail in that discussion, and common sense rules would be applied.

Landing at Clube Ceu Rio de Janeiro

Heading up the coast to Belem, we then followed the Amazon River to Santarem, Manaus, and finally back to Boa Vista. Retracing our steps through Guyana and the Caribbean. Self-handling was old-hat at that point and we’d mastered it like pros. We spent a night again in Puerto Rico where the global Covid situation really hit home. There was a lockdown in San Juan and we spent the afternoon in the hotel doing laundry and having food delivered. Honestly it was actually a bit of a relief to be in the US for a brief stop and having time to catch up.

After Puerto Rico we stopped in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, where we definitely got the impression that they just wanted to fuel us up ASAP and send us on our way. The airport was deserted, and the customs and immigration officers did not want us near them. Continuing to Stella Maris, then Ft Lauderdale for our re-entry. Ft Lauderdale Executive’s lovely CBP facility was quick, and we managed to flag down a fuel truck to top the aeroplane off while we went through immigration.

Ft Lauderdale to Jacksonville to Gadsden, AL, to Nashville, and finally home. It had been an unforgettable journey, but the one big thing we took from it is how achievable adventures like this are to all of us. It was not hard, but just took planning, research, and making contact with some new friends who shared their knowledge.

A bit like building an aeroplane, you do it one small bite at a time.

Rio de Janeiro from Guanabara Bay

A few take-aways

Flying in the Bahamas was downright easy – eAPIS website, file and depart. Wear your life jackets. Land, pay the fees, and enjoy. eAPIS again on the way back, call the CBP office an hour before arrival to let them know, file, and then depart.

I hear people talk about how easy we have it in the US for aviation but I always figured that was us just patting ourselves on the back. Flying in Brazil was expensive, with $9/gal fuel, and large landing fees. As well as having to file for EVERY flight.

The controllers were nice and helpful, but there is minimal radar coverage, minimal weather coverage, and no VFR flight following. When we landed in Florida it felt weird deciding to keep going to Jacksonville and not filing a flight plan after the three weeks of the trip spending 15 minutes on the phone before every flight…

Many thanks to…

The aviation community is made up of wonderful people. Everywhere we turned there was someone who was happy to help. Be that finding us a hangar for the night, driving us to a hotel, or making recommendations for where to stop next. We had pilots keeping track of us and sending us weather reports for the upcoming airports by calling people on the ground and having them send us pictures of the sky and wind reports. We made fantastic new friends and memories we will cherish forever.

Guil ‘inspects’ the inside of his eyelids for a moment…

We were grateful to Luiz Fernando who tracked us on our inReach and sent us satellite messages with the weather ahead throughout the trip – and who made our lives immeasurably easier. To the many pilots and airports along the way that reached out, offered us housing, hangaring, fuel discounts, recommendations, a meal, or camaraderie. Clube Ceu and Jairo who welcomed us at their airport and took such great care of us. Continental Aerospace Technologies’ fantastic Titan engine gave us a comfortable feeling when flying over water, Garmin Experimental Aviation provided databases, satellite tracking, and messaging. To our employers that allowed us four weeks away from work for an adventure. And to our friends back home who watched out for us and took care of our cat Jesus all month. They all helped make it possible.

Most special thanks to Mary, who got her pilot’s licence shortly before the trip (the plastic licence card arrived on our departure day!) and allowed me to rest every so often.

We recorded the entire trip on a pair of cameras mounted on the aircraft with a FlightFlix mount. You can watch all the videos from this trip on our YouTube channel –

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