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 an American Airlines Boeing 757 into 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.”