Have a good understanding of the approaches — you're going into mountainous terrain, and the weather is characterized by convective buildups,” cautions Bob Lazear about flying into Colombia.
A senior captain for Costco, which buys lots of Colombian coffee for its outlets, Lazear is well familiar with operations into the South American country. “Expect fairly steep descent rates due to the high terrain. Have a good pre-brief on your approaches going into these airports because things happen very quickly, especially if avoiding weather in the process.”
Added another business aviation pilot who flies for a large North American technology and manufacturing corporation, “The terrain is always in the back of your mind.” The Colombian interior is characterized by a series of north-south mountain ranges, he pointed out. Furrowed into them are two main valleys where the country's capital, Bogotá, and third largest city, Cali, are located. Going in to either, “you have to be extremely careful. Ground prox is a wonderful lifesaver.”
Modern avionics featuring moving maps, enhanced and synthetic vision systems, and head-up displays are “very good for figuring out where you are and if things are making sense,” he advised. “There is not a whole lot of maneuvering room at Bogotá, especially taking off to the east, a very tight area. Out to the west it's pretty wide. If you have to land or do a missed approach to the east, the mountains come up pretty quick. We were cautious, but it was quite easy, as they have good radar and ATC.”
When considering aviation in Colombia, inevitably the December 1995 crash of aninto a mountaintop on approach to Cali's Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport comes to mind. While several factors contributed to the nighttime mishap that killed 163 people, the principal one was confusion and spatial disorientation on the part of the pilots (see sidebar). The accident stands today as a nearly iconic statement of the perils implicit in operating jet aircraft in and out of airports situated in mountainous terrain like the High Andes of South America.
A Country in Transition
And visitors used to worry about safety on the ground in Colombia. Those days are fast disappearing, at least in major Colombian business centers, as the last two governments have reached a détente, of sorts, with revolutionaries who for decades terrorized the country — and often foreigners who were kidnapping targets. With an economy growing at the rate of more than 4% a year since 2010, thanks to stable economic policies and a raft of free-trade agreements, Colombia has become a destination for business and thus business aviation.
As Costco's Lazear observed after a trip there this spring, “At Medellin there were three other N-registered aircraft on the ramp and at Bogotá there were five. I was surprised to see that many there.”
Additionally, Colombia hosts a small but growing population of locally based business aircraft, including pistons, turboprops and approximately 20 jets of various types including Citations, Hawkers, Challengers and Gulfstreams, with a G650 scheduled for delivery in November.
With an area of 439,736 sq. mi. (1,138,910 sq. km, or about twice the size of Texas), Colombia's geography is characterized by coastal lowlands that rise, much like California, into foothills and the aforementioned branches and high valleys of the Andes. (Before the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, the Isthmus of Panama north to Coast Rica was part of Colombia's territory until annexed by the U.S. at the direction of President Teddy Roosevelt.) Its elevation thus varies from sea level to 18,700 ft. (5,700 meters) at Pico Cristobal Colon, the fifth highest peak on the planet in terms of prominence.
Colombia's topography is also characterized by considerable volcanic activity — a fact of which all international flight crews visiting the country should consider in preflight planning. Major active volcanoes include Galeras, 14,028 ft./4,276 meters high, which erupted most recently in 2010, and Nevado del Ruiz near Bogotá, 17,457 ft./5,321 meters high, which blew up in 1985, killing 23,000 people, and again in 1991, plus at least five others.
Unlike many countries so configured, not all of Colombia's financial and population centers are clustered on the coast. Its three largest cities — Bogotá, the capital, Medellin and Cali — are all located inland in the mountains. A democratic republic, Colombia's multiethnic population numbers 45,745,000 with a nearly negative birthrate.
The 50-year-long conflict between the country's government and various insurgent groups — most notably the Fuzeras Amardas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC — that were funded in part by the republic's notorious drug cartels that escalated in the 1990s has been largely mitigated. Since 2006, some 30,000 former paramilitary members have been demobilized, with peace negotiations between the government and FARC commencing last year.
While efforts have been made to incorporate ex-paramilitaries into mainstream society, a small number have coalesced into criminal groups that continue, to a lesser extent, to prey on the civil population and visitors.
Meanwhile, Colombia's drug trade in cocaine and heroin continues to flourish in the highlands and cities, principally servicing markets in the U.S. and Europe. To counter this, the Colombian government has asserted its influence throughout the country and appears to be making progress in eradicating criminal elements. According to observers, what has saved the country from chaos and lawlessness is its strong democratic institutions, transparent elections and protection of civil liberties.
And this, in turn, is driving a strong economy with a GDP that stood at $500 billion in 2012. Following the signing of the U.S./Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2011, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has pursued FTAs with Canada, Mexico, the EU, Switzerland, Chile, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama, Turkey, Israel, South Korea, China and Japan, thereby encouraging $16 billion in foreign direct investment last year alone. Much work remains to be done, however, including reducing Colombia's 10.3% unemployment rate, one of the largest in South America.
Among Colombia's industries are oil and refined petroleum (the country is South America's third largest exporter of oil to the U.S.), coal, chemicals, cement, gold, textiles, clothing and footwear; and agricultural products including bananas, rice, tobacco, corn, sugar cane, cocoa beans, various vegetables, shrimp, timber and much-prized by Type As everywhere, its rich-flavored coffee. This bounty of legal largess is among the factors attracting international business.
Trip Planning and Handlers
Despite Colombia's turbulent past, arrangements to visit there are straightforward and relatively simple. For example, for stays of less than 180 days, visas are not required for citizens of the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the EU and most other countries maintaining trade relations with Colombia. The exceptions are Cuba, Syria, Libya, Morocco, North Korea and a handful of others.
Likewise, an aircraft can arrive in Colombia without a landing permit and stay for a maximum of 48 hours; other than the time limit, the only restriction is that it must remain at the port of entry (POE) where it arrived, and further travel within the country is prohibited. For stays up to 15 days, a permit is required. “This will allow you to fly within the country,” Miguel Ballesteros, director of operations at International Corporate and Cargo Services (ICCS), a handling agency based near Mexico City, told BCA, “but you must list the cities you will visit on the application for the permit.”
Obtaining overflight permits can be another matter. Some operators have reported the process as a bureaucratic paper chase, while others who have employed a local handler to represent them claim the undertaking is relatively easy.
“Overflight permits are required and can be obtained in less than a couple hours by a handling company,” Ballesteros said. “For overflights, you will be subjected to air navigation fees by the DGAC [Direccion General de Aeronautica Civil, Colombia's civil aviation authority] which operates the ATC system. To do it yourself is a very complex procedure, very bureaucratic. Handlers can cut through the bureaucracy, as some have waivers or local permits to deal with the government. Good luck if you are doing it on your own.”
Added Keith Dixon, manager, training and development at Colt International in Houston, “We go directly through our handler there to arrange for them, and we've been lucky in being able to get them fairly easily. On short notice, though, it can be 'stressful.' Recently, it's been a lot smoother.”
Colombia does enforce one rather unusual requirement: Operators applying for overflight permits must submit the serial numbers of their aircraft's engines and the ELT beacon code. “Other than those,” Dixon said, “they just need to the see the normal documents: airworthiness certificate, registration, insurance, and so forth.”
As at most other countries, visiting aircraft must arrive and depart at a POE in order to clear customs. Colombia has 10 of them, the five most popular being Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, Cartagena and Barranquilla, the last two situated on the Caribbean coast. “Two hours ahead of ETA the [local] handler should notify customs,” Ballesteros said. “The operator will have to show them a passenger list or GenDec [General Declaration] including crewmembers and passport numbers, expiration dates, and for crews including flight attendants, valid licenses and medical certificates.”
Operational requirements in Colombia are also fairly standard with no surprises for visiting operators. Procedures are universally ICAO Pans Ops, altimetry is QNH below FL 180, and the country has been surveyed in compliance with WGS-84. Airport surveillance radar is now common at major airports and air traffic controllers are said to speak excellent English. Pilots with experience flying in the republic say the weather tends to be fairly consistent due to Colombia's position on the equator, which lies across the southern third of the country, placing the nation within the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone.
A locally based business jet captain who asked not be identified described the overall weather picture as “not as bad as some people think: It tends to be fairly stable, as we do not have seasons since we are on the equator. Early in the morning in Bogotá it can be foggy.” Thunderstorms are common but tend to pass quickly. Ballesteros added that “There are very few accidents at the POE airports, and safety is good. There are no dramatic situations when you can risk a flight due to weather, as it changes so quickly.”
Colombia boasts 862 airports, placing it eighth in the world in total number, 121 of which have paved runways. Of those, two have runways more than 10,000 ft. long, seven between 8,000 and 10,000 ft. in length, and 41 measuring between 5,000 and 8,000 ft.
Descriptions of airports at the country's three most-visited cities, all open 24/7/365, equipped with surveillance radar and ILS approaches, and none requiring slots or noise-abatement procedures, follow.
Bogotá El Dorado International Airport (SKBO) serves the capital and is the second busiest airport in South America with 304,330 movements and more than 20 million passengers processed in 2011. El Dorado sits at an elevation of 8,361 ft. and is surrounded by high mountains. It is equipped with two parallel asphalt runways oriented 13/31, each 12,467 ft. long by 148 ft. wide to accommodate the associated density altitude. Due to the field's elevation and hot daytime temperatures, aircraft performance can be an issue, so takeoffs at gross weight should be carefully planned. Thus, early morning departures are recommended for some business jet types to take advantage of cooler ambient temperatures.
Bogotá El Dorado is unusual in South America in that it is equipped with two full-service executive-level FBOs: Aero Support and Central Charter. Both offer on-site customs clearance — if customs officials aren't too preoccupied processing a glut of passengers at the airline terminal — and parking. One pilot reported that if CIQ isn't available due to airline congestion, the operator's handler can take passports and GenDecs to the terminal while passengers and crew relax in the FBO lounges. Once cleared, it is about a 35- to 40-min. drive to downtown Bogotá.
Lazear pointed out that both FBO parking ramps are small, “requiring a lot of juggling of airplanes. They really pack them in, and I noted that at Aero Support the tug driver was being exceptionally careful, and thus, the process was slow This was the only drawback because other aircraft might have to be moved in order to get yours out. So I recommend to get out to the airport early for departure to give yourself enough time to 'unbury' your aircraft and get fueled, the latter which was no trouble for us, as we arranged it through a fuel release from our fuel contractor.” Lazear rated security at El Dorado as excellent, adding that the Costco flight department rarely hires security to guard its aircraft in Colombia.
“Familiarize yourself with the procedures so there will be no big surprises,” Lazear offered as general advice when going into any Colombian airport. “The majority of time at Bogotá, you are landing and taking off to the south. Note that there can be a mild tailwind on approach in this direction, and about a 5-kt. tailwind component is not uncommon.” Don't attempt circling approaches at night at Bogotá, either, due to the surrounding high terrain.
“Our departure from Bogotá was straightforward,” Lazear said of his most recent flight. “It took us forever, as they are not that efficient in terms of managing their parallel runways. The airport is very busy, and when an aircraft is 6 or 7 mi. out, they will not release anyone to take off. It's one landing and one takeoff, over and over, a single flow due to the mountains.” The anonymous U.S. pilot quoted at the beginning of this report pointed out that arrivals are often assigned speed restrictions to accommodate the high traffic levels.
“Medellin is the same way,” Lazear resumed, “only landing and taking off to the north; fortunately they do not have a lot of wind there.” Which brings us to:
Medellin Jose Maria Cordova Airport (SKRG) is located 30 min. from Medellin in the smaller city of Rio Negro. Its elevation is 7,025 ft., and the field is equipped with a single runway, 18/36, measuring 11,483 by 148 ft. There is no FBO at SKRG, and as at many airports outside of North America and Europe, passengers and crew must clear customs in the airline terminal.
On his recent trip to Medellin, Lazear said ATC “gave us vectors for a straight-in once they'd identified us on radar. We came in off the [RNG5] STAR — a transition just to get you down to the approach. The weather wasn't too bad — but we kept it tight because of some buildups nearby. We were visual for almost the whole way in.”
Once on the ground, “Medellin is a bit of a challenge,” Lazear admitted, “in that you have to park on the other side of the main commercial apron; no vans are allowed on the ramp, and so the airport requires passengers to walk across the apron. There's all this noise and exhaust fumes from the aircraft, and just to make it interesting, it might be raining.”
On the other hand, Lazear said handlers and airport personnel were knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. “We cleared customs in the terminal; the handler escorted our passengers to the immigration department where their passports were stamped. No one came on the airplane, and there was no ag inspection.”
The older field serving Medellin is Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport (SKMD), opened in 1932. Located at 4,940 ft. elevation in the center of the city and devoted primarily to domestic airline and smaller general aviation aircraft traffic, it is the second busiest airport in Colombia behind Bogotá International. It is not recommended for business aviation arrivals, as it is not a designated POE and sits in a fairly deep valley. Its single runway, 2/20, is 8,234 ft. long.
Fly the Full Procedure
Cali Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport (SKCL) is located in Palmira, 12 mi., or about a 20-min. drive from Cali. Its elevation is 3,162 ft., and its sole runway, paved in concrete, measures 9,842 by 148 ft. On the ground, arriving aircraft are directed to a dedicated general aviation ramp for parking, and crew and passengers are bused to the airline terminal for CIQ. Security at the airport is rated as high.
According to the unidentified U.S. pilot, the long north-south valley containing Cali International “starts to constrict as you go in. Watch for the rising terrain, as it's a fairly tight canyon. The valley runs north-south; it's not a complete box, but if you turn to the east, the Andes really go up high. Spatial orientation is really critical; use your modern cockpit aids.”
Katha House, chief pilot/aviation manager for UniFirst in Manchester, N.H., who captains a Challenger 601-3A internationally, lived in Cali for six months in the mid-1990s conducting jet transition training as a contractor. For operators who have not made an approach to Alfonso Bonilla Aragon Airport, she offers the following advice. “There is a string of the Andes between Bogotá and Cali varying from 15,000 ft. to 17,000 ft. in height,” she began. “Cali is 3,162 ft. elevation — that's a lot of altitude to have to lose in a short time going in there. In the daytime looking down at the field, it's clear you can't approach straight in — it's darn near impossible without having everything hanging out.
“That's why you have to do a procedure turn,” she continued, “crossing over the VOR at the airport, and going out southbound, then coming back in to lose the altitude and line up. Just as a reminder, before the 1995 American Airlines 757 crash, the controllers gave them a straight-in, but I also remind you that it's still up to the pilot to know where the terrain is.”
Today, House often goes into Cali for tech stops on her way to other countries south of Colombia. “I feel perfectly safe there,” she said, adding that it's a good idea to be able to speak fluent Spanish, carry a good English/Spanish dictionary “or better yet, “have a translation app on your smart phone.” In addition, “have all your paperwork in order, and double check that the handler has the GenDec.”
Colombian airports on the north coast. Along the Caribbean coast, close to sea level, are the cities of Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta, all seaports and business centers as well as tourist destinations with attractive beaches. Their airports — Barranquilla Ernesto Cortissoz International (SKBQ), Cartagena Rafael Nunez International (SKCG) and Santa Marta Simon Bolivar International (SKSM) — are all POEs equipped with VOR approaches, with Santa Marta also having an ILS.
According to an anonymous Colombian business jet pilot, the Caribbean coastal weather tends to be sunny and hot (30 C daytime, 20 C at night) most of the year. “On the Pacific side,” he said, “there are no POE airports, just domestic ones. Tourists tend not to go there, as the beaches are not as good as the Caribbean side, with the jungle coming right down to the water.”
The Security Issue
No discussion about Colombia today can proceed without touching on the subject of security, given the country's difficult and threatening past. As already noted, airport security in Colombia appears to be excellent. “We very rarely consider hiring guards at the places we go to,” Lazear said. “At Medellin, we parked across from the airport police station. Bogotá is a lot like Mexico, in that there are several layers of checkpoints you have to go through even to get to the FBO, so I had no concerns.”
But ask someone who lives there. “Starting about 12 years ago and continuing today,” the locally based business aviation pilot affirmed, “the drug business has been brought largely under control. Stay out of the ghettos, as you would anywhere. In the city centers there are good hotels. Airports are very safe with lots of security police. Each airport has private security and local police operating simultaneously. You can hire guards, but it's really not necessary.”
According to Lazear, who was born in Colombia, the son of missionaries, the country has vastly changed for the better. “I lived there prior to the drug and guerrilla activity. On the recent trips, I could feel the changes there, thanks to the former president. By and large, the country is safer than Mexico. As far as off-airport, we had arranged transportation at Medellin into the city [on a recent trip], as there aren't too many hotels near the airport. As it turned out, our car was a bullet-proof SUV! We stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel and walked around in the neighborhood and felt completely safe. It has really changed dramatically.
“We did our due diligence with our security department,” he continued, “and our people had a fabulous time visiting coffee plantations in the interior. The economy is booming and there's a lot of business there. The coastal towns are neat, as well.”
The unnamed U.S. pilot told BCA that security was a major consideration to his operation the first time he had to fly the company jet to Colombia, or as he put it, “How much a target you are arriving with an N-numbered aircraft.” He advised operators to check the U.S.website as part of their preflight planning for a trip to Colombia.
“On the ground,” he reminisced, “we asked the handler to provide us with an armored car, but it seemed relatively safe downtown where we stayed. Every main building you went by had a very serious guard at the door equipped with a sidearm. We did walk around as a crew for dinners, but when we went sightseeing, the handler provided a car with an armed bodyguard. There are areas you don't want to wander in, although things have significantly changed for the better.”
Use restaurants recommended by your handler or hotel, he further advised. “The guards at the restaurants wanted to know who we were before they let us in. At the hotel entrance, guards would look under the cars and conduct personal screening before allowing us into the lobby.”
But while the FARC may — repeat, may — be assimilating into Colombian society and the cocaine and heroin cartels possibly — repeat, possibly — are being brought under control and eliminated, criminal acts against foreigners can still occur. Colt's Dixon cited a recent case: “A couple of Spanish tourists were kidnapped in the north near the Venezuela border in late May. The FARC has denied they did it, and it seems to be an isolated incident involving visitors simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time. A ransom has been requested.”
On the other hand, Dixon maintained, Colombia remains “a standout country” in regarding improvements in security. “It has changed tremendously in terms of stamping out corruption, in part due to the U.S. government enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). All this is good for business.” Nevertheless, he said, “One of our clients that moves about through the country hires security for the aircraft and passengers.”
But Katha House had the last word: “In just about every city in the world, the only thing that makes the news is the bad stuff. So it is with Colombian cities. Consequently, I recommend to you that you have to listen to the locals to understand what's really going on. My Colombian friends say that since the Boston Marathon bombing, they're more afraid to fly to American cities than remain in Colombia ones.”