Crossing the Andes

We were at 24,000 feet, unpressurized and on oxygen as we crossed the Peruvian Andes eastbound toward the Amazon basin. I had selected Talara, Peru, to spend the night before the crossing. I refueled in the morning, checked the weather and notices-to-airmen and filed our flight plan to Iquitos, Peru. Our twin engine Piper Navajo was running like a Swiss watch, and that was important for east – beyond the Andes – any aircraft problem would mean very long delays. 

 We departed climbing to the northeast. When we passed 12,500 feet I turned on the no smoking sign and told them to go on oxygen. We continued our climb to 24,000 feet, the safe altitude for crossing over the Chiclayo pass, then to descend into the Amazonas and follow the Mananon River to our destination Iquitos, Peru.  The weather was a blessing, perfectly clear horizon to horizon. Would that weather hold for a cloudless first view from 24,000 feet of the vast Amazon world? And it was so; the weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky. When we crossed over the pass, I could see a small stream below which was the headwaters of the Amazon River and then as the cordillera passed out of sight under the wings, I saw a vast majestic cloudless view of the Amazonas.

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, Neil Palmer/CIAT

 It was a view that was totally stunning, an unforgettable wonder. I have seen many interesting landscapes from all my flying in many different countries, many different landfalls, but nothing like that view of the Amazonas. My navigation plan to Iquitos was pilotage since there were no aviation navigation aids, radio communications, airports or roads between us and Iquitos. Mother nature provided me the compass, the Mananon River, as my route of flight and the general heading toward Iquitos. We had life vests and an eight-passenger life raft onboard, and should we have a major aircraft failure of any kind, an engine fire for example, my plan was to ditch in the river.  To crash land anywhere else would be fatal in many ways. They would never find us in the vast dense forests. 

 I started a very, very slow descent which gave me time to study the terrain and make sure we would be following the right river, the Mananon, to Iquitos. And as the descent-to-deck angle changed, all I could see in the windscreen ahead was a solid green – the Amazonas. It slowly became surreal. The view had a very strange impact on me as we slowly descended trading altitude for distance. The extended slow-motion descent gave me a strange out-of-body experience that I’d never experienced before. It was a sight and a feeling never to be forgotten, as if I was the pilot of a spaceship in a very slow-motion descent into a vast strange sameness to find a place to land on a strange green planet. 

Marco Antonio Pereira de Freitas Jr. CC BY-SA 4.0

The route to Manaus, Brazil, our final destination was via the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Aruba, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. The entire round trip was a mini-adventure, a pilot’s dream. Alfred, who owned the aircraft, asked me to fly this vacation air tour with him and his two sons who would soon be off to college. I agreed. 

He had picked the right time to go. It was our summer and their winter which meant less heat, less humidity, fewer clouds.

We would leave the aircraft there at Manaus and fly Avianca airlines to Rio de Janeiro then back Manaus and on to Nassau via Venezuela following this time, the Orinoco River, passing Angel Falls, then landing on the Island of Margarita. We enjoyed hopscotching the Windward islands and Leeway’s islands back to Nassau and later to Tampa. 

Angel Falls

It was a great flying adventure with many interesting stories to tell at many of the stops along the way; a very interesting enjoyable mid-life air adventure, but the best by far of it all was that strange out of body experience, our spaceship descent to find that far away landing site on that strange planet – the Amazonas. 

Cornelius “Neil” Cosentino became a US Air Force pilot in 1960 and went on to log over 6,000 hours in military, commercial and private flying. He flew the B-47, KC-135, F-4CDE, including three tours in Vietnam. He was awarded 9 Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Neil joined OLLI-USF in 2018. He has taken classes in writing, music, teaching, activism and online searches. Neil is always interested in new projects.

6 Replies to “Crossing the Andes”

  1. Your narration is so beautiful, even before you said it, I was imagining that out of body experience of the descent. Thank you for a lovely moment this morning!

  2. Wow, what an adventure! This is true flying, as real as it gets — no push button, computer driven stuff here! Pilots like you are a rare breed — trained in hands-on, seat-of-your-pants, wing-and-a-prayer dead reckoning! Who needs radar or satellite communications? Your story is a joy to read! Thank you so much for sharing!

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