Last year when I was in Brazil I was asked if I wanted to go on an unusual side trip and gave my default answer, which is “Yes, I’d love to go.” I always figure I can get details later.
Before long I found myself in the right seat of a Phenom 100 on my way to Botucatu, an airplane subassembly facility a few hundred miles inland from Embraer’s big airplane factory in São José dos Campos. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’ve never heard of Botucatu. It is, and this won’t help, where they build the Ipanema, a single-seat crop duster that has been in continuous production for around 30 years.
Don’t tell anyone, but Botucatu got picked as a destination because my planned trip back to the States in the Phenom 300 was delayed by a couple of days and the media guys at the factory were looking for a field trip for me, trying to find something interesting for me to do on an unplanned off day and to get me out of their hair. The idea sounded great to me. I didn’t care where were going, just that I was going to get to go flying in the Phenom 100, Embraer’s very cool entry-level jet.
A couple of different destinations were floated, but we somehow settled on Botucatu, which is located in an agricultural area that produces sugar cane, oranges and wood pulp. It also produced the current Queen of Sweden, I’m told, who happened to be visiting with her husband the king during my time in Brazil. I’m pretty sure the timing of their trip was not intended to coincide with mine.
Now, the name “Botucatu” is pronounced just like it’s spelled, which doesn’t help at all when you’re trying to tell someone where you’re going and you don’t a printed copy to refer to. B-O-T-U-C-A-T-U. Brazilians admit to getting tongue-twisted by the name, which I was told is an Indian word that means “good air.” I was told that by just about everybody who caught wind of our visit to Botucatu to the point where I stopped believing it myself. Anything that widely repeated can’t possibly be true.
In any case, to underscore the unusual nature of my request to fly out to Botucatu, my demo pilot/taxi driver/informal jet instructor in the 100 that day, Capt. Eloy Bayer, when told of our destination very innocently and politely asked, “Why are we going there?” Not like it was a bad place, just a place he couldn’t understand choosing to spend a good chunk of a day to visit.
“To see the Ipanema!” I fibbed. I just wanted to go flying. He listened and nodded politely, but you could tell he was taking the idea under consideration.
My trip to Botucatu was my first experience flying in Brazil, and I quickly learned that aviation there is an unusual mix of cultures, climates and unfamiliar regulations. Above 20,000 feet, everybody speaks pretty good English. Below 10,000 feet, the supposed universal language of aviation seems unknown. Furthermore, there are rules to flying in Brazil I have yet to fathom, for example, about when and why you set the altimeter and what you set it to. I was grateful that Eloy seemed to understand what to do. When I asked what the procedures were, he politely started to explain before realizing how unlikely his explanation was sounding. After a bit, he explained that ATC will tell you when to switch and what to set, and he left it at that. It was a perfectly reasonable response to someone who sometimes asks too many questions.
And don’t get me started on the metric system. It’s all meters and kilograms down there and I’m still working hard at thinking about fuel in pounds instead of gallons.
In any case, as we flew along, it occurred to me why Eloy was less than crazy about this trip. The weather was pretty crummy that day, and the controllers along the way didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about our mission either, or our route of flight, which was a nearly non-stop series of deviations leading in the general direction of Botucatu. Moreover, every request that Capt. Eloy made took quite some time to even get acknowledged. And he was clearly concerned about our fuel situation, not knowing just how long we were going to be left to slog along in the muck at piston airplane altitudes, where jets go through fuel like Niagara goes through honeymooners’ money. We’d already been left down low for a while by the time Eloy mentioned to me that Botucatu didn’t have jet fuel.
It also took me a little while to convince Eloy that I really wanted to fly the airplane, not just get ferried in it. He apparently never got the memo. It was a lot to ask. There he was juggling weather, non-responsive controllers and a flight to an uncontrolled field better suited to crop dusters than to bizjets. Asking him to show me the ins and outs of the Phenom did seem a little much.
Finally, he promised I could fly it on the way back. At some point he did inform me that he’d never even been to Botucatu. And after making a pattern at Botutacu, I realized another issue. Eloy was too polite to mention that he probably thought it a questionable idea to give me my first landing in the Phenom on a 60-foot wide rolling country runway.
Adding to the fun was the fact that the flight had been scheduled to be back in São José after a 15-minute stop. Now, I’m faster than most guys, but 15 minutes is hardly enough time to see an entire seven- or eight-building factory that makes parts of at least five airplanes. So we negotiated shamelessly, finally talking the good captain into an hour on the ground for us to see the sights and enjoy the good air at Botucatu.
After swearing for the third time that we’d be back in one hour exactly—we all pointed at our watches—we left Eloy waiting at the airplane, where he insisted on being, I presumed so he could rev the engine in anticipation of our return.
Undaunted, we went ahead with the contingent of remarkably hospitable managers, each of whom wanted to tell me all about the factory during the hour-long fast jog that turned out to be our tour.
The plant was remarkable, a true world-class aircraft manufacturing plant complete with robotic riveters and floors so clean I could see the blur of my fast moving reflection as we strode purposefully down one production line and then the next, watching airplanes going from skins to completed fuselages in very short order.
The real highlight of the trip, however, was visiting with the manager of the Ipanema line, who told me about the ag plane’s successful conversion to ethanol in some detail—given our schedule, asking about it in “great” detail, which is my usual practice, was out of the question.
And I do have to report that when the hangar doors were both open, the air at Botucatu was indeed very good, even a bit refreshing. Maybe there’s something to the story after all.
Just as I knew he’d be, Eloy was waiting at the plane when we got back, not tapping his foot exactly but kind of like that, so I pointed out that we were exactly two minutes early. He didn’t seem to appreciate the information as much as I’d hoped he would.
We taxied out, well, back-taxied out, as Botutacu’s pleasing atmosphere has not been enough to win it an actual taxiway quite yet, though as a concession to the jets that occasionally ferry people there for 15-minute trips, they did widen the end of the runway so the jets could at least get turned around.
We lined up and Eloy gave it the gas and we climbed out at the kind of ridiculously cool deck angle that jets climb out at. He turned to me and said with a smile, “your airplane.” I smiled right back and dug into my first flight in the Phenom, dodging thunderstorms while hand-flying a remarkable little jet while listening to a constant stream of Portuguese-speaking pilots and controllers go about their business.
Listening to the steady stream of Portuguese on the radio I understood nothing save an odd frequency here or there. I joked to Eloy he should probably handle the radios. He seemed okay with that plan, smiled, and later coached me to a very passable first Phenom 100 landing.
By the end of the day Capt. Eloy and I had become friends I like to think.
A character in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel Cat’s Cradle said something that stuck with me when I first read it back when I was a kid, that “unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
When you’re flying, that’s very much the case. I try to never let pass the opportunity to go somewhere new. It’s all too easy in flying as in life to tread familiar ground when excellent adventures, such as those you might find at Botucatu, are waiting just around the corner revving the engine.