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Cochabamba By 707 Freighter With A 24 Hour Layover
I had just returned from the Dominican Republic where I had unsuccessfully applied for a 727 pilot job and was sitting in a Miami hotel weighing my options. I called a friend in the aviation business who told me that a Bolivian airline had an immediate need for a 707 co-pilot and suggested that I call their office in Miami without delay.
Maria answered the phone and asked if I was qualified for the 707 with an FAA license. I replied that I was and that I had an FAA Air Transport Pilot License but no 707 type rating. He didn’t ask any questions about recent airplane experience but told me to go to the airport at 5:30 p.m., where I would meet the captain and flight engineer at the National Airlines gate to Houston. He added that I would expect a ticket. He explained that we would spend the night at the airport Holiday Inn and fly the 707 freighter to Bolivia via Panama early the next morning.
The captain, although not in uniform, was easily identifiable by his black handlebar moustache. An hour and a half later we arrived in Houston, checked into the Holiday Inn and went into the bar for a few rounds of beer. It wasn’t such a good idea as we had set an alarm at 4.00am with a planned departure before dawn.
The next morning, the flight engineer preflighted the airplane in the dark, then returned to the cockpit to set up his panel for engine start. The plane had been refueled the night before. All 4 engines were started and the captain taxied the aircraft to the active runway. The Houston airport was shrouded in fog and we could only meet the minimum takeoff visibility requirement. Two minutes later we were climbing through the low stratus into a clear night sky. After removing the gear and flaps, we turned left over the Gulf of Mexico and headed for Cozumel, just off the Yucatan Peninsula, climbing to our initial flight level of 290 (29,000 feet).
As we leveled off, the sun came out and I experienced that sinking feeling you get after an all-night flight or not getting enough sleep. The flight engineer returned to the galley to make some much needed coffee and to heat up the crew’s meals. In Cozumel we reported our position and were dismissed directly to Panama. We flew over the northeastern tip of Honduras and Nicuragua, and beyond San Jose, we requested the descent. During the final stages of the descent as we maneuvered to approach Runway 03R in Panama, we had a spectacular view of the Panama Canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean through the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Forty-eight miles long, it has been described as one of the seven wonders of the world.
In Panama we rested and took on some extra containers. The aircraft was close to its maximum take-off gross weight for the prevailing conditions. A flight plan was filed for Santa Cruz, Bolivia with an estimated route time of 4 hours 35 minutes. During this time we would fly over Columbia, eastern Peru and the northwest corner of Brazil.
It was a long take-off run given the high take-off gross weight and a temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. 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 turned right in a climb over the Pacific Ocean toward the coast of Columbia.
At FL290, the aircraft was in level flight crossing the Colombian coast southwest of Medellín. We continued flying west of Colombia to the Peruvian border where it meets Ecuador. Over Iquitos, which is on the upper reaches of the Amazon River, we had burned enough fuel and were light enough to call for a level change at 330.
From Iquitos we followed the northwest corner of Brazil to the Bolivian border at Rio Branco. Flying over Bolivia we asked for permission to descend in 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 somewhat unusual. Santa Cruz Airport, located in the east of the country near the Paraguayan border, is 1,300 feet AMSL (above mean sea level). Cochabamba airport in central Bolivia is 8,400 feet AMSL, while La Paz airport in the west, near the border with Peru, is 13,200 feet AMSL, and it is the highest international airport in the world.
In Santa Cruz we boarded a 727-passenger flight to Cochabamba. Upon arrival as I walked down the ramp I felt short of breath and had to consciously slow down my breathing rate to avoid hyperventilating. I had experienced similar symptoms when I first went to work in Yemen, which was at 7,200 feet AMSL.
We walked to the airline operations office for a briefing. Since I was considered a casual hire, I was taken to the accounting department where I was given a handful of Bolivian pesos for the day’s work. The rate of inflation was very high but it had not reached the hyperinflation that was to come a few years later, when the price of a meal could hypothetically change before dessert was ordered.
They took me to a guest house to get some rest. In the evening someone came and took me to dinner. After dinner we went to a nightclub which was the last place I wanted to go. I felt anxious with the fatigue, the beer and the altitude. Sitting quietly in a dark corner of the nightclub, he hoped to avoid any physical activity. Suddenly an attractive, shapely young lady appeared. He said something in Spanish that I didn’t understand, then picked me up and dragged me to the dance floor. The rhythm was upbeat in the Latin American style. I have to confess that 15 minutes of this almost finished me. I smiled at the girl and said “thank you” and then headed for the door out of breath and on the brink of hyperventilation.
I didn’t go back, but I found my way to the guest house, collapsed into bed and slept for 10 hours. The next day I was taken to a barbecue in a garden overlooking the mountains surrounding Cochabamba. There I had the best steak I’ve ever had with a Bolivian salad and potatoes. Dessert was some kind of exotic ice cream with fresh fruit salad and cream. The trip to South America would have been worth it for that meal alone.
In the late afternoon, the airline presented me with the general declaration as flight attendant on a 727-passenger flight from Santa Cruz to Miami via Panama. From there he would return to Chiang Mai, where he lived.
I was glad the airline didn’t offer me a contract because it would have involved flying to La Paz on a regular basis. I had had some difficulty adjusting to 8,400 feet in Cochabamba. I doubt I would have been able to cope very well with the stairs in La Paz at 13,200 feet. One of the American pilots who flew there regularly said he had a portable oxygen bottle by his bed at night. Outside his window, children were playing football.
The opportunity to work my way to South America, fly over the Amazon rainforest and briefly experience Bolivian culture, had come about by being in the right place at the right time – a rare stroke of good luck!
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