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Feature Article 2


Daniel Ruiz, WVFC Board of Directors,


Flying “El Torito”


Every year my family and I visit Costa Rica.  We always try to fly down there and learn and compare on our experiences with the locals.  At the end of the day, a pilot is always learning.

I have had the opportunity to fly with local schools in the past, but this February I flew with Pablo Fernandez in his 1955 Piper Tri-Pacer, PA22-150, the only plane of its kind in the country.  The plane was nicknamed “El Torito” (little bull in Spanish) as many pilots considered it a “wild” tail-dragger to land.  As there is a general bias that newer airplanes are safer, most of their GA fleet is tricycle.  In fact, the plane was for sale for some years, but received no offers given the stigma the Tri-Pacer had over the years.  Furthermore, the previous owner had a mad bull painted in the fuselage.   Pablo was smart and ended up getting his training from CFIs that work with Crop-dusters in the agricultural areas of the country.  He got his endorsement and now he is showing the guys in the highlands that “El Torito” knows how to “behave”.

“El Torito“ is a beefed-up version of the original Pacer.  It has all the STC’s for the following; a Univair conversion to conventional landing gear, an upgrade from 150 to 180 hp via the installation of an O-360 A4A engine, Stewart Wingtip extension and Gap seals in Horizontal and Vertical axis, larger tires via Aero Classic Smooth Tundra, and Peter Aviation Auto Fuel conversion which allows the engine to run on regular gasoline, an important convenience and economical factor.

Winds can be strong in the Country for many days during the winter, particularly because the mountains build-up updrafts, downdrafts, and whirlpools as the day heats up and cools down.   Also, the shores are not far from the base of the mountains creating a clash of masses that is visual from the air in any large mass of water.  The air masses look like small fronts in the surface of the water.  Flying early in the morning is the norm for general aviation.  Many schools start training at 6:00 AM and then break for lunch time and part of the afternoon as safety becomes an issue and the day gets hotter.

There are interesting regulatory differences that I have observed over my flights down there and probably worth sharing.  For starters, all flights require a flight plan, even pattern work.  You contact ground control and they give you the ATIS and a transponder code.  Second protocol is for the pilot to provide the controllers the name of the pilot, passengers, and how many hours of fuel on board.  If the airport has no control tower, you must contact “Coco Radio” on 126.8 (in un-controlled airspace between 3000' and 4500'...for flight following) and provide the above information, then below 3000' you are on open airspace on Unicom 123.0 self-announcing and looking for traffic.  

When it comes to fuel management, the airplane must have an instrument that provides the available fuel or (and this is the interesting condition, OR) any instrument that provides the fuel flow.  Pablo has an FS450 installed and that is his instrument of choice as the reliability on the consumption is excellent and at the same time the fuel gauges become less reliable due to long climbs, descents and turbulence.  I confess, I was a bit nervous seeing the old fuel gauges at empty while enroute. Knowing we had the visual of the fuel during the pre-flight, and ME observing no leaks from the tanks, it was a matter of going back to high school math to understand that we still had enough fuel for the trip.  When it comes to routes and assigned altitudes, there are well established corridors with minimum enroute altitudes.  Thank God we have GPS as the waypoints are now depicted in the box!  Airspaces are few but corridors are the key.  Last, night flight is only approved under IFR rules.

Pablo is an experienced pilot who started in paragliding and power-paragliding.   That has given him a tremendous edge on understanding the winds.  I started to notice his control of the airship in the turbulence we were experiencing moving from the mountains near Pavas airport (MRPV) to a grass strip in the town of Aranjuez (MRAJ), not far from the coast, 100 ft AGL.  Landing in Aranjuez is an awesome experience; complete grass strip surrounded by palm trees and just a few hangars at the end.  After parking, we did a quick post flight check and I noticed that the grass was not your typical grass at the golf course.  This is a thick grass used in the feeding of cattle.  This grass has pros, among them more drag and a more resistant surface.  The cons, this is food, as I noticed that a medium size calf appeared out of nowhere just focused on enjoying breakfast like the runway was his.  Some the locals started to move the beast away from the field. 

At the field you have two schools dedicated to teaching in gyrocopters and there is one skydiving club.  Pilots are encouraged to go to the big kitchen of Mr. Oreamuno, the landlord, where he would treat you for all the food you can eat.  The hospitality is second to none and the “hangar talking” is the norm.

We headed back to the capital circa 9:30 AM due to family obligations and to avoid stronger winds. Winds had already started to pick up.  Updrafts were developing from 3000 AGL as we were entering the valley.  No thunderstorms yet.  We followed one of the corridors and upon approaching Pavas you can notice that the airport is on a cliff.  Thus, Pablo chose to land long on the runway to avoid the turbulence close to the threshold area.  We landed towards the second taxiway and easily exited the runway, yet I could see Pablo working hard demonstrating his crosswind landing skills in a taildragger.  All that training is paying off.

So, what are my conclusions from the flight?  As always, get the right training and use the right equipment for the missions you want to fly and complete.  Pablo’s perseverance in choosing the right training is another lesson on finding smart ways to get our wings for a bargain.  Last, get familiar with other regulations, they are there for a reason.  Understand that reason and use it to raise your safety margins.

Last but not least, Pablo is more than happy to take WVFC members visiting the country for a flight. Feel free to contact him.