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Surviving Rutaca Airlines

Have just survived the most frightening light plane flight of my life, which, with 1000 hours in light planes, is saying something. The day went something like this:

we arrived at the airport at 9am, as told by the airline, most likely since we had't paid for the tickets in advance. On arrival there were two families already in evidence, and we figured we´d be on flight number 2, which would be in the 11-12:00 range when the flight from Ciudad Bolivar arrived. In the meantime we did cartwheels with the small kids. The girl was 9, explained that her family had 3 houses, asked where the US happened to be and what language we spoke there. Her Spanish was quite clear so we could talk pretty well. The guy behind the counter I could hardly understand at all.

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Anyway, eventually they taxi´d up a Cessna 206, which is basically the Suburban of light planes, and seats 6 with some cargo, or 4 with lots of cargo. This one was configured to seat 4. The pilot made his grand arrival, in spiffy uniform, riding up on his motorcycle which he drove INTO the open-air terminal waiting area, cell phone ringing "feliz navidad" all the while. Meanwhile the ground crew had piled all the luggage into the back of the airplane, and was sitting around again when there was a small crash as the rear half of the 2 cargo doors on the 206 dropped off the plane and onto the ramp. The ground crew headed back out armed with screw drivers and pliers and pounder on this and that until the door seemed to stay put. They then piled EVERYONE into the plane - 3 adults and 3 kids and the pilot and managed to get off the ground. Never weighed anything. Meanwhile, one other passenger for our flight has shown up, also American, also a pilot himself. He looked a bit aghast.

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Next 5 strapping Germans arrived, with full packs. They brought out another C-206, this one with 6 seats, wedged all 5 packs in the back (dunno how), along with 2 extra bags bound for Ciudad Bolivar. Then they started loading the Germans. Now, a light plane is much like a mobile; you have to balance the weights along the beam so when you pull up on the string (wing) the plane flies acceptably. My students spend some time figuring out how much people weigh, and where they are before taking off. There WAS a scale sitting on the ramp, but rusting from lack of use. So anyway, the Germans get in, smallest in back at least, and as the last climbs in, the tail of the plane hits the ramp (bang!) causing the director to run out and yell at the line crew loading the plane, who simply held the tail up until the front seat passenger was in place, and, unconcerned, the pilot climbed in. They took out the 2 extra bags, and decided that was ok. amazingly enough, they flew off in one piece. Hat´s off to Cessna. By now the other American pilot is looking a tad on the axious side - precident is not going well. But that´s ok, we had a long time to wait. 12:00 comes and goes. 1:00 does the same. The local guy in charge picks up the radio every 10 minutes to call, but gets no answer. 1:45 and the plane finally shows up, almost late even by Venezuelan standards. Lots of people pile out, and we are told to load up.

click for larger image click for larger image The pilot is looking happy, in fact a bit too happy, as is the copilot, and there is a bottle of something potent between the seats. nifty. We are in the middle row, the other America on the right of the aft 2 seats, and the 2 pilots in front, although only contols on the left. The plane is well used, the right fuel gauge reads empty, the left full, but with Cessna fuel gauges, who the hell knows. At least they´ve got the right destination plugged into the GPS. At least they HAVE a GPS. The co-pilot tells the guy in back not to worry about not having a seat belt (¡no hay importa!), and then tells him not to lean against the side either, since that´s the cargo door and could pop open.
Having watched the cargo door fall off that other airplane on the ramp earlier, this is not exactly comforting.

And we´re off, I remain ready to snatch the controls, or the bottle if the pilot does something stupid with either. We stagger into the warm, humid air, and climb very very slowly, only slightly faster than the terrain is rising. The guy in back starts laughing hysterically, being the only course of action he can think of. The weather is normal- lots of scattered clouds, which we go in and out of, with no apparent cause of concern. I remind myself that the pilot is most likely not suicidal, and just wants to get home as fast as possible so he can resume drinking for New Years. Soon the left fuel gauge starts to move, and in fact starts moving at a rather more rapid clip than the GPS shows our forward progress. The right gauge doesn´t even bobble with the bumps, so it´s clearly empty. Perchance he flew down on the right tank and now we´re going back on the left? I guess that half hour reserve rule is for sissy-assed americans. The fuel gauge catches the attention of our friend in back, and he watches it like a Seinfeld episode. He Alternates taking pictures of the outside, and of the panel, showing dropping fuel gauges, and the crucifix dangling from the yoke. Maybe time to start in on prayer?

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Gretchen, oblivious to the problems, fell asleep, ah, for the benefits of ignorance. Other than the fear of not making it alive, it was a neat flight, first over the Gran Sabana, alternating grasslands, dotted with mines, and rain forest, and occasionally desert, where even grass doesn´t grow. Then just solid rain forest, with Tepuys rising up, some with long waterfalls, and finally across a HUGE lake, which looks very shallow, hundreds of islands in all directions. Meanwhile, the pilot, clearly bored, alternates between trying to get a cell phone signal by holding his phone to various corners of the windshield, and trying to raise the ground crew. He makes radio contact first, and spends the next 20 minutes chatting and singing "Jingle Bells" to the poor folks on the ground. Since ground chatter all comes back over the speaker, we can listen in as well, but all I caught was "Erres Loco!!" (you're crazy!). Hoooboy.

Now we´re 1/2 hour out, and both fuel gauges are on empty. I take a picture since I´ve never seen this reading on my gauges in flight before. The guy in back takes a picture of himself "in case it´s the last picture I ever take" he tells me. Even the co-pilot is getting worried, and points out the gauges. The pilot rolls the airplane to the right, sees the gauge move, gives a thumbs up, and on we go. not that´s there any choice, there is no other airport. Seemingly against the odds we land intact, engine still running, at an airport. Remind me not to do that again. Not sure it was worth saving 10 hours of bus torture for 2.5 hours of airpain.

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