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Flight from São Luis to Brasília, Brazil

18 and 19 December 2007

Had we known the trouble it would cause, I think we would not have taken fuel in São Luis this morning. We fueled up from the Petrobras truck and did the preflight, blissfully unaware.

10:10am local and Gregg starts her up at SBSL. Temperature is 30 Celsius, altimeter 1012, wind is 060 at 10 knots. I activate the IFR flight plan to Brasília, SBBR, and we are told to squawk 7475 and expect a right turn on take-off.

Airborne at 10:35 we reach flight level 080 (8,000 feet) 18 minutes later. Clouds are building up. Eyeing the EGT guage, I dial the mixture back to find our peak temperature and it looks to be 1426 degrees on our hottest cylinder, which is number four. I richen the mixture 50 degrees down to 1375. We had recently decided to run 50 degrees rich of peak instead of 75, to try to get better fuel economy.

11:00am and we are 2.5 nautical miles from waypoint ELIET which is 40nm out from Sao Luis. Amazonas Center approves us to climb to 10,000 feet and we head up, hoping to avoid the building clouds. Climbout is slow and 10 minutes later we are just coming out of 9500 feet. Waypoint PAPEL is behind us at 11:28 and we are now talking to Recife. A few minutes later we switch to the right side fuel tank.

11:40 local and I notice that #1 is now the hot cylinder, followed by #2, #4 and then #3. Normally the order is 4,1,2,3. Then engine sounds fine. I adjust the mixture richer and make a note, but don't mention it to Gregg. We are doing 140 knots on a course of 171 degrees magnetic. Manifold pressure is 22 inches and the propeller is at 2400 RPMs.

12:00 and number 4 is the hot cylinder again. Weird. I lean the mixture back out a bit. Manifold pressure is down 1/2 inch to 21 1/2. We are three miles from Teresina (TRS VOR). A few minutes later we turn to 222 degrees over Teresina.

15 minutes later and cylinder #1 is the hottie again. I still don't mention it to Gregg, but richen the mixture a little to compensate. We are almost upon the waypoint RONCA, which I think means "snore" in Brazilian Portuguese, appropriate for this waypoint in the middle of a long leg with no radio communications.

5 minutes pass and then cylinder #4 is the hot one again.

12:35 we are on course 223 degrees clipping along at 146 knots. 473 nautical miles, or about 3 hours, to waypoint FRONT, which is the waypoint where we will cross from the Recife FIR (Flight Information Region) into the Brasília FIR. Gregg switches to the left fuel tank.

13:06 on course 219 degrees, speed over ground of 148 knots, and expecting Barreiras VOR (BRR) in about 2 hours. 20 minutes go by and still no VORs within reach.

At 13:26 the motor stutters. Gregg reacts quickly, jamming in the mixture and putting the nose over a little. Barreiras is the closest airport on our route, but I spin the big knob on the GPS to the "Nearest Airports" to find smaller airstrips nearby.

We continue flying, more alert now. I am continually checking for distances to airstrips and comparing against our glide range. 20 tense minutes go by and we are still 179 miles from Barreiras, more than an hour. With the ram boost door closed because of rain, the engine is only making 20.5 inches of pressure at this altitude.

At 13:58 the engine stumbles again. Clouds continue to build and the engine is rough off and on. Although we have filed IFR, we are flying in visual conditions as much as possible in the building clouds. Thirty more tense minutes go by as we run into more and more clouds. We decide that the engine is rough enough to warrant a stop to check it out, and that if we are going to lose the engine during the flight, it would be smarter to be in visual conditions when it happens. Recife Center approves us to land at Buritirama, the largest looking strip nearby according to the GPS and my chart. We are instructed to make a telephone call to Recife after landing, to cancel the flight plan.

I spot the airfield 12 minutes later, a dirt strip next to what looks like a farm. We are bombing down a little fast, and as we level out over the runway, I see what look like fist-sized rocks on the strip. We are too fast and Gregg calls a go-around as he adds full power back. Unfortunately the way the engine is running, she responds slowly with an anemic climb as I scan the end of the runway. There is a tall tree directly ahead but smaller, softer-looking plant life on either side of it. She manages to climb out and get up and over the tree, and we come around again. There is no wind and we are on short final at the correct speed this time, about 85 mph. As we touch down at 14:46, the rocks break up and fly to either side, and I realize with a smile that they are not rocks, but cow patties.

We are met with the serious stare of a 20-something man and the wide-eyed stare of a young boy. The guy works the property and says no problem we can check the plane over and even stay overnight if we want. More of the family show up and stare at us, the kids smiling.

We don't have the tools necessary to check the injectors, but we can check for fuel flow to the injectors. Gregg cracks each of the nuts in turn, checking for fuel flow as I toggle the electric fuel pump on and off. Flow looks good. Gregg has the idea of calling back to Belém, to the ace mechanic João, to see if he might have a tip for us. Anyway we need to call Recife Center, so they don't send an expensive search and rescue team after us.

There is no phone at the farm and we will have to hitch-hike in. Fortunately, our landing has caused some excitement, and two of the guys that drove out to check us out offer to run us in to town. They drop us off where we can buy a phone card, and we walk from the little store to the bus stop in the plaza, where the public phones are. I call Recife Center and get bounced from person to person before being able to close the flight plan. Then I call the mechanic and we are lucky again - João is in the hangar, and has time to talk. Before the phone card runs out and we get cut off, he manages to explain that there is a filter in the fuel servo and that this is the first place to check.

We start our long walk back to the airstrip, stopping periodically to see if anyone will give us a ride. After about 10 minutes of walking, two guys pull up behind us in an open metal jeep and speed us out to the plane. More people assemble around as we locate and clean the filter, which is full of what looks like dirt and hairs, and safety wire it back in.

We put the cowl back on and pack the tools away. Gregg starts her up at 17:32 on the Right fuel tank and she sounds good. We take off after lots of hand shakes, thank yous, waves and smiles to the assembled crowd. We have spent nearly one hour on the ground and the dusk is falling rapidly.

I had done a quick calculation before take-off, for the closest large airport we could reach before night falls. Barreiras (SNBR) was the winner, and we were booking it at full power towards the strip, getting 25 inches of manifold and 2500 RPM on the prop at 4500 feet. At 156 knots we expect Barreiras in 34 minutes. Radio contact seems impossible, and I call Recife Control repeatedly. Eventually I make contact, and file a "plano afil", an airborne flight plan.

This flight is uneventful until we are within 10 miles of the airstrip. The sky is nearly dark and there are some clouds, but I spot a beacon on a hill to the right. Meanwhile we are heading towards the city, which is lit up and seems closer than the beacon. I check the heading on the beacon as we get closer and realize that this must be the airport after all. As we turn towards the beacon it becomes apparent that the air strip is up on a mesa, about 1,000 feet higher than the city. We do not have the frequency for the airport and scan the sky for traffic as we announce on the common frequency. As we are approaching the lip of the mesa, we enter thick cloud and I spit out "climb", worried about keeping a visual on the strip. With the extra 500 feet we gain with Gregg's reaction, the approach appears to be perfect. As we break out of the cloud we are buffeted by crosswinds but lined up perfectly on the descent. Gregg squeaks her down just as the last bit of light disappears from the sky.

It is 18:30 and we are safe on the ground. There are a lot of people milling about, and chatting with the airport manager reveals that the last flight is a little overdue - they were due to land when we did. I chitchat some more to get the basics covered - when is fuel available, when are flights scheduled the following day, what are the airport charges (none). Then we nab a cab for the ride to town. The cab rides and hotel are pricey but the hot shower is fantastic.

We made some decisions that weren't as good as they could have been, and more than anything were lucky to get into Barreiras without incident. Some of the mistakes we shouldn't make next time:
1) Don't wait until the engine sounds terrible before landing to check it out. If she stumbles once, land and check it out.
2) Don't take off at dusk overflying an unknown mountainous area, towards an unknown airport. Stay overnight at the first strip.
3) Don't land at an airport without communicating to the airport or other planes on the correct frequency. I could have requested the Barreiras frequency and traffic info from Recife.

All the same, we made it in safely and we are happy that the fix was so easy. Just some trash in the fuel, all taken care of now... or so we think.

19 December 2007 and we are at the airport at 8:30am local, and taking on fuel. On at 9:07, we are airborne 14 minutes later at 12:21 zulu. Half an hour later we are at 4700 feet running at 24 square (24 inches of manifold and 2400 RPMs). I am able to raise Recife Control to file a "plano afil" on 126.25. We are cleared VFR to Brasília and given a squawk code of 4500.

9:54 we are climbing through 6500 for 10,000 feet. Three minutes later switch to the Left fuel tank. 10:15 I reach Brasília on radio.

The rest of the flight and the approach are uneventful. 10:57 switch to the Right fuel tank and contact Approach on 119.5. Cleared to descend a little, we level off at 9,000 feet at 11:06. 11:10 we are talking to Approach on 129.6, and 6 minutes later we are given a turn to 240 degrees. We are number four to land. Gregg sets her down and we head to GA parking, a pretty long taxi. The wind is strong so we borrow some stouter ropes to tie her down, and set off on our Brasília adventure.