SOB Trip Part 1

I’m reluctant to answer the phone because I know. Something in my gut tells me there’s a trip coming up, and it’s going south of the border.  I don’t even bother to glance at the caller ID, and in fact close my eyes as if that will make the caller lose interest and go away. It doesn’t.

“Joe’s Bar and Grill.”

Laughter mocks my greeting. When the caller finally stops enjoying it so much, she says, her words drenched in fun, “You can’t fool me. Just try to guess where you’re going next month. I’ll wait as long as it takes.”

That’s how people act when they know you so well they can predict your reaction. And the really aggravating part is, I’ve never met her. She’s a voice on the phone. Ordinarily that would earn the caller a hang-up, but I can’t do that. We share the same boss and have worked together well for years. She, his personal assistant, and I, his pilot.

Resisting the urge to break the connection and later blame it on a rogue cell phone tower, I acknowledge that this really isn’t Joe’s. “I’m just guessing, but my heading indicator probably won’t show anything even remotely close to north.”


Relief spreads over me like the soothing waters of a hot shower after a day on the slopes. It’s summer in Austin, Texas, closing in on triple digits, but that mind image still feels good under the circumstances. “One guess is all your gonna get. Where to this time?”

“Not so fast. You didn’t specify whether you were guessing about the outbound portion or returning home.”

All that mental hot water runs down the figurative drain. I’m standing in my kitchen shivering. My excuse about not having a pen and paper handy doesn’t work, and she insists I write down the basics so I can start planning immediately.

I’ll be taking a Cessna Citation III jet filled with executives to Mexico and South America and I need to get cracking! I groan, or maybe it’s a whimper, and begin planning. The original itinerary after many iterations: Austin to Mexico City to Panama City to El Salvador and return to Austin.

The last week before the trip is filled with a flurry of emails and phone conversations to cover all the details of flight plans, weather, handling services at the various locations, customs and immigration, over-flight authority (to cross the border on the return and proceed direct to Austin), TSA Waiver Authority (advance permission to return to the US after visiting certain countries), over-flight permits for Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the Central American ADIZ (or they come up there and shoot you down), landing permits for each of the locations, and a myriad of other items. An early and persistent question is, “How many passengers can you take from Mexico City non-stop to Panama City?”

Without trying to be flippant (well, maybe a little bit), I answer, “Let’s consult the crystal ball.” Then I guess about what the temperature and pressure altitude will be in Mexico City on our departure date and time.

I am soooo tempted to explain all this to illustrate the problem, but I don’t. I do take the time to remind myself that the Citation III does not like what are called “high/hot” conditions. The airport serving Mexico City sits at 8466′ MSL. Considering the average temperature and barometric pressure conditions expected there during our short visit, the jet might be weight-limited for takeoff. Since I can’t leave any passengers or bags on the ramp, other than trying to adjust our departure time, my single option for improving airplane performance is to limit the fuel load. After crunching the numbers, the bottom line says that only if the constellations line up correctly can I carry enough fuel to reach Panama City without a fuel stop.

Based on these considerations, my planning strategy the night prior to departure from Mexico City will include loading less fuel than needed to fly non-stop to Panama City. That next morning, I’ll make the final decision based on current conditions. For now, I provide the passengers with timing for both scenarios and ask our handling service to obtain a contingency landing permit for a refueling stop at San Jose, Costa Rica. As the clock ticks inexorably toward our departure, I check and re-check until I am totally checked out.

Please visit Words On My Wing again soon for SOB Trip Part 2.

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