I had just returned from the Dominican Republic where I had applied unsuccessfully for a pilot job on the 727 and I was sitting in a Miami hotel weighing up my options. I called a friend in the aviation business who told me a Bolivian airline had an immediate need for a 707 co-pilot and he suggested I call their Miami office without delay.
Maria answered the phone and asked me if I was qualified on the 707 with an FAA licence. I replied that I was and that I had an FAA airline transport pilot licence but without a 707 type rating. She didn’t ask any questions regarding recency of experience on the aircraft, but told me to be at the airport at 5.30 pm where I would meet the captain and the flight engineer at the National Airlines gate for Houston. She added that a ticket would be waiting for me. She explained that we would be staying overnight in the airport Holiday Inn and early the next morning we would fly the 707 freighter to Bolivia via Panama.
The captain, although not in uniform, was easily identifiable by his black handle bar moustache. An hour and a half later we arrived in Houston, checked into the Holiday Inn, then walked into the bar for a few rounds of beer. This wasn’t such a good idea as we had placed wake-up calls for 4.00 am with a planned departure before dawn.
Next morning the flight engineer preflighted the aircraft in the darkness then returned to the cockpit to set up his panel for engine start. The aircraft had been refuelled the previous evening. The 4 engines were started and the captain taxied the aircraft to the active runway. Houston airport was shrouded in fog and we could only just meet the takeoff minimum visibility requirement. Two minutes later we were climbing through the low stratus into a clear night sky. After the gear and flaps had been retracted we banked to the left over the Gulf of Mexico and set course for Cozumel just off the Yucatan peninsular, climbing to our initial flight level of 290 (29,000 feet).
As we levelled off the sun came up and I experienced that sinking feeling one feels after an all night flight or from not having had enough sleep. The flight engineer went back to the galley to make some much needed coffee and to heat up the crew meals. At Cozumel we reported our position and were cleared direct to Panama. We flew over the north eastern tip of Honduras and Nicuragua, and abeam San Jose, we requested descent. During the latter stages of the descent while maneuvering for an approach to runway 03R at Panama, we had a spectacular view of the Panama Canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean via the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Forty eight miles in length, it has been described as one of the seven wonders of the world.
In Panama we refuelled and took on some additional containers. The aircraft was close to its maximum gross takeoff weight for the prevailing conditions. A flight plan was filed to Santa Cruz, Bolivia with an estimated time enroute of 4 hours and 35 minutes. During that time we would overfly Columbia, Eastern Peru, and the north western corner of Brasil.
It was a long takeoff roll given the high takeoff gross weight and a temperature of 35 degrees centigrade. Runway 03R was 10,000 feet long and we used most of it to get airborne. With the landing gear up and the flaps retracted we banked in a right climbing turn over the Pacific ocean towards the coast of Columbia.
At FL290 the aircraft was in level flight crossing the Colombian coast south west of Medellin. We continued flying across western Columbia to the Peruvian border at the point where it meets Ecuador. Over Iquitos, which is situated on the upper reaches of the Amazon river, we had burned off enough fuel and were light enough to request a level change to 330.
From Iquitos we tracked across the north west corner of Brazil to the Bolivian border at Rio Branco. Flying over Bolivia we requested descent clearance at Trinidad about 120 nautical miles north of Santa Cruz. Twenty minutes later we circled to land on runway 34 which was 11,480 feet long and could accommodate 747s.
The terrain in Bolivia is a little unusual. Santa Cruz airport which is in the east of the country near the border of Paraguay is 1,300 feet AMSL (above mean sea level). Cochabamba airport in central Bolivia is 8,400 feet AMSL, while La Paz airport which is in the west near the Peruvian border is 13,200 feet AMSL, and is the world’s highest international airport.
In Santa Cruz we boarded a 727 passenger flight to Cochabamba. On arrival while walking across the ramp I felt short of breath and had to consciously slow my breathing rate to prevent hyperventilation. I had experienced similar symptoms when I first went to work in Yemen which was 7,200 feet AMSL.
We walked up to the airline operations office for de-briefing. As I was considered casual hire I was taken into the accounts department where I was given a handful of Bolivian pesos for the day’s work. The inflation rate was very high but hadn’t reached the hyperinflation that was to come a few years later, when hypothetically the price of a meal could change before ordering the dessert.
I was driven to a guest house to get some rest. In the evening somebody came round and took me out to dinner. After dinner we went to a disco which was the last place I wanted to go. I could feeling myself flagging with the fatigue, the beer, and the altitude. Sitting quietly in a dark corner of the disco, I was hoping to avoid any physical activity. Suddenly an attractive well-built young lady appeared. She said something in Spanish which I didn’t understand, then yanked me to my feet and dragged me onto the dance floor. The tempo was upbeat Latin American style. I must confess that 15 minutes of this nearly finished me off. I smiled at the girl and said “gracias” then headed for the door acutely out of breath and on the threshold of hyperventilation.
I didn’t go back in but found my way to the guest house, collapsed on the bed, and slept for 10 hours. The next day I was taken to a steak house in a garden setting with a view of the mountains surrounding Cochabamba. There I ate the best steak I have ever eaten with a salad and Bolivian style potatoes. The dessert was some kind of exotic ice cream with fresh fruit salad and whipped cream. The trip to South America would have been worth it just for that one meal.
In the late afternoon the airline put me on the general declaration as auxiliary flight crew on a 727 passenger flight from Santa Cruz to Miami via Panama. From there I would make my own way back to Chiang Mai, where I was living.
I was glad the airline did not offer me a contract because it would have involved flying to La Paz on a regular basis. I’d had a little difficulty adjusting to 8,400 feet in Cochabamba. I doubt if I would have been able to cope very well on layovers in La Paz at 13,200 feet. One of the American pilots who flew there regularly, said that he had a portable oxygen bottle by his bed at night. Outside his window kids were playing football.
The opportunity to work my passage to South America, overfly the Amazon rain forests and briefly experience Bolivian culture, had come about by being in the right place at the right time – a rare stroke of good luck!