Thursday, June 14, 2007

Flying South of the Border!

Last weekend my career as an airline pilot took me to a new level. As a matter of fact, it took me to a city I have never heard of before, Guayaquil, Ecuador. A lot of people seem to think you aren't a real airline pilot unless you fly internationally. I personally don't really care where I go, as a matter of fact, I prefer to stay in the United States where I can speak the language, eat whatever I want, and be home in a couple of hours if I have to. For some reason though I was looking forward to this trip. It was my first time going south of the equator, first time to a new continent, this felt like a real international trip. Sure, I've been to the Caribbean and some of the exotic vacation destinations in Mexico but this was different.

We left the gate a little late in Houston, TX due to a weight and balance issue but after we got it figured out we were off. We made our way out over the Gulf of Mexico, passed over Merida, Mexico, then south towards Belize City, Belize, we continued toward Tegucigalpa, Honduras, right over Managua, Nicaragua, then towards Liberia, Costa Rica, finally passed over Quito, Ecuador and then crossed the equator just before we started our descent into Guayaquil.

About half-way to Guayaquil I left the cockpit to use the restroom. For security reasons we (and all airlines) have a flight attendant go into the cockpit when one person leaves so he or she doesn't get locked out. As I was about to go back into the cockpit, the flight attendant who was in there opened the door to come out. As she opened the door I heard a loud scream and then she closed the door. I couldn't figure out what had gone wrong but a few seconds later she opened the door and I entered the cockpit. In passing I asked the flight attendant what was going on, she said, "Nothing." When I got inside I noticed the captain sitting on her seat with her feet up. I asked, "What's going on?" She said, "A huge cockroach just crawled out from your seat, walked across the lower pedestal and is now under my seat." Now, I'm not a huge fan of small bugs, and I'm definitely not a fan of big bugs! I asked, "Do those things fly?" She said, "Yes, they fly, and they're huge!" Not wanting to sit down and leave myself vulnerable to an attack, I stood in the back part of the cockpit hoping I would see it and be able to kill it. I took out my flashlight and shined it down by the captains seat and then noticed it walking around by my feet. I started jumping up and down until it stopped moving. I was glad to have killed it but was still a little leery that he may have brought friends.

Once we were south of Quito we went into a non-radar environment. Being non-radar isn't a big deal, but it does make for some more work on the part of the air traffic controller and the pilots part. It involves making position reports and time estimates of your next fixes. With no one else flying into Guayaquil during our arrival time we got right in and taxied to the gate.

Our hotel van was waiting for us and we took the 15 minute ride to the hotel. Once we arrived the captain and I decided to spend some time at the hotel casino. I'm not a big gambler but I decided to donate $20 to the blackjack table. It made for about an hour of entertainment but the only thing I took away with me was the smell of smoke in my clothes.

The next morning I awoke and was anticipating the huge breakfast buffet that other pilots had told me about. I rushed downstairs and was awed by the huge spread they had, and did I mention, it was free! I spent the next hour sampling over a dozen freshly squeezed juices, tables of fruits and breads, waffles, pancakes, several different types of meat, and omelets made to order! Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Since I had stayed out late and got up early, I was desperately wanting a nap but since we were doing a red-eye flight back I wanted to save my nap for later. I spent about an hour in the hotel gym and then decided to go lay out by the pool. After getting my fair share of South American sun, I went back to my room and slept for about four hours. After my nap, the captain and I decided to go to a steak restaurant across the street.

We found our way to the restaurant and I noticed that the "doorman" also happened to have a handgun on his hip. I'm a big fan of security but this guy didn't seem like security, he just seemed like someone who works for the restaurant and likes to have a gun with him. Either way, he apparently didn't see us as a threat and welcomed us to the restaurant. It was a good thing the captain I was with spoke a little Spanish because there was no English speaking people anywhere to be found. I ordered the one thing I recognized, fillet mignon. When it appeared that our waiter was asking what else I wanted with it, I heard him say "papa fritas" and I remember that being french fries from my two years of high school Spanish. The food was delicious and the bill was even better! For two pieces of fillet mignon, vegetables, and "papa fritas" the grand total was $10!

We headed back to the hotel and got ready to go back to the airport. After I put my uniform on, I walked outside to get on the hotel van. I noticed an old beat up Toyota pickup truck sitting behind the hotel van with two shady looking characters sitting inside it. I didn't think much of it until we left the hotel and the truck started following us. The hotel van had to make several U-turns on the way to the airport and this truck continued to follow us. I was starting to get worried and I told the captain, "This truck has been following us since the hotel." The captain said to me, "Yeah, that's hotel security." Why didn't someone tell me we were going to be followed by hotel security. I was thinking we were about to get blown up by one of those suicide bombers that always seem to be driving those old beat up Toyota pickup trucks.

After we arrived at the airport we cleared customs and security. Then I saw what is probably the best marketing idea I've seen in an airport. There is no way to get into the terminal after clearing security without walking through the duty free store. What a great idea! I fell for their little scheme and bought some chocolates which I thought were some sort of exotic chocolate only available in South America, turns out I could have bought them at our local Sam's Club.

We took off at 1:00 AM and arrived back in Houston at 7:00 AM. By 11:30 AM I was back in Minneapolis sleeping in my own bed! I guess you can call me a "real" airline pilot now because I've done a big international trip. I have to say it was fun, but I'll still take an Omaha overnight any day.

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