Ilopango International Airport in San Salvador, El Salvador, sits on a bluff with deep ravines at both ends, volcanoes all around, beautiful but unfriendly terrain for landing a jet. Fortunately, the weather is clear.
Unfortunately, I’m descending into a mountainous bowl and don’t see the airport until I’m almost on top of it. There’s no way to keep the runway in sight, and I’m concerned about whether there’s enough room within the confines of the bowl to descend safely.
So I decide to follow the recommended approach procedure designed for landing in bad weather. It provides a ground track (the God’s-eye view), and a vertical descent profile as seen from the side. If I remain on the published ground track and meet all the altitude restrictions shown on the chart, safe separation from the ground will be guaranteed. That provides some comfort, because I’m unfamiliar with the terrain and can see so little of it below the jet.
The ground track takes me over the field and well past it before turning back to the airport. The descent profile looks like a set of steps, hence the name “stairstep.” Multiple altitude restrictions increase my workload by requiring a level-off followed by a descent, then another level off, etc.
As I complete the turn back toward the airport, I’ve descended enough to see it and ask the copilot to request a visual approach. It’s the quickest way to get this over with. But the tower controller’s English is barely understandable, and I’m not positive of the clearance. After three unsuccessful requests for confirmation, I point the nose at the airport, tell the copilot to acknowledge “clearance” to land, which I’m not entirely positive we have, and call for the before-landing checklist.
After doing what the copilot often refers to as my “fighter-pilot thing,” we touch down on an undulating excuse for a runway surface, shudder to a stop, and immediately notice weeds growing though the asphalt on the only taxiway available. A 180-degree turn on the runway takes us back to a closed crossing runway that leads to parking. Crumbling pavement and more weeds foretell an adventure in our collective futures.
I climb out of the cockpit to open the main cabin door and the owner of the airplane (a really nice guy) asks what all that turning and banking was about and were we sightseeing? I can’t pass up the opportunity and tell him that I figured he and the other passengers weren’t so pressed for time that they wouldn’t enjoy the view. He took me seriously for only a second or two.
Then we’re subjected to the most intensive customs and immigration experience of the trip. A group of sullen teenagers with assault rifles encircles the airplane while officials look in the all the bags, open up every access door, tell us no, this isn’t the correct paperwork, and finally, “When are you leaving, Captain?” Once again, advance preparation has failed to inform anyone who needs to know.
The passengers depart the airport for their meeting and it’s time to refuel. Ah, yes, another performance-limited takeoff. We’re only a little over 2000′ MSL, but the temperature is much hotter than in Mexico City, and we want to carry more fuel for the longest leg of the trip. Calculations show me that if the temperature remains at 85 degrees F or below, we will use all but 387′ of runway. It’s already 80 degrees, and only mid-morning. Gulp.
Based on forecast maximum temperature, I load the planned fuel after waiting an hour and a half for the fuel truck battery to be changed. During this time, a helicopter with POLICIA stenciled on the side hovers around the airport, kicking up dust and gravel under our jet airplane. I guess they don’t have any air-taxi guidelines for Salvadoran helicopter pilots. The engine intakes get a very careful inspection.
We wait for passengers. The copilot wants to take a nap, so he goes into the lounge and tries to use a couch. For some unexplained reason, the cushions slant toward the floor at about fifteen degrees. He dozes off and ends up rolling onto the floor. Next he tries the airplane, but starts sweating so much he returns to the deserted cafe where I had taken refuge. He arranges four chairs to make a bed. He can sleep anywhere. I lay my head on the table and immediately give up on the idea of a nap. The previous diner at my seat must have had something in a red sauce.
Please visit Words On My Wing again soon for the conclusion of the SOB Trip.