Marco Finelli joins the crew of an Air Italy flight from Italy to Brazil.
Mission To Parnaíba
The vivid colours, the rhythm of the samba, and the relaxed attitude to life are what many tourists most remember about Brazil. Italian charter carrier Air Italy is now offering flights from Europe – or, more specifically, from the north Italian city of Verona – to the Parnaíba area of Brazil’s beautiful and unspoilt Piaui region in the northeast. As increasing numbers of holidaymakers prepare to travel longer distances in a bid to find unspoiled territory, ‘new’ destinations are getting harder to find – but Parnaíba is certainly one of them.
However, as its airport currently has only basic terminal facilities and its sole runway is only 6,890ft (2,100m) long, the number and type of visiting aircraft are limited. There is also no provision for jet fuel. These factors limit European visitors to long-haul aircraft such as the Boeing 757-200ER, and even they have to make an intermediate stop in mid-Atlantic at Sal, in the Cape Verde Islands, on the inbound flight. On the outbound leg, a quick ‘hop’ to Fortaleza to the east means the aircraft can drop off more tourists and refuel, enabling it to make a non-stop flight back to Italy. Italian investment in the area has led to a weekly Air Italy B757-200 service being launched on behalf of tour operators Prima Classe Brasil, Viaggiland and Boavista Services.
Leg One – Verona – Sal
On a typical winter’s day in northern Italy, in low cloud and rain, the author arrived at Verona’s civil airport in plenty of time for a 10.00 local departure. The first leg of the
flight was to the airport on the Ilha do Sal to refuel. Once checked in and through security, passengers were bussed to the aircraft, B757-230ER EI-IGB, c/n 24738, which was parked on a remote stand. In common with other Italian airlines, passengers were ‘greeted’ at the door by a member of the flight crew – in this case Captain Alex Nicoletti – and the cabin crew manager.
Once the handling supervisor, the airline’s station manager, and the technical support engineer from Lufthansa Technik had completed their customary turnaround paperwork in the cockpit, the author joined the flight crew, strapping into the ‘jump’ seat behind the Captain on the left-hand side. It was time for engine start-up, but two passengers were missing and there was a short delay while they were ‘found’ and quickly bussed to the aircraft. At 09:54 local time, the doors were closed and the emergency slides armed. First Officer (FO) Fabrizio Morise sat in the right-hand seat and read out the ‘Before Start’, ‘After Start’ and ‘Taxi’ checks, while Captain Nicoletti prepared the aircraft for flight.
With all the checks complete, taxi clearance was received from Air Traffic Control: Padova Control clears Air Italy 442 to destination Golf Victor Alpha Charlie, via SID Bologna 6 Sierra, climbing to FL110 and request level change en-route, squawk 0261, read back. (Padova is the area radar control, GVAC is the International Civil Aviation Organisation designator for Sal Airport, SID = Standard Instrument Departure, FL = Flight Level, squawk = International Friend or Foe [IFF] setting.)
The aircraft is carrying 76,000lb (34,500kg) of fuel and 97 passengers, plus six cabincrew and four pilots. Today will be a long day for the crew, who have to operate three legs: Verona-Sal-Parnaíba-Fortaleza. At the end of it, they will take a few days rest before picking up a company B767 to return to Italy. Verona, which shares its facilities with the Italian Air Force, is a good airport for long-haul charters due to its 10,879ft (3,316m)-long runway. With no appreciable wind, the crew elects for Runway 22, which has a slight downhill component, as the aircraft has a high take-off weight of 227,280lb (103,094kg).
Air Italy 442 is cleared to line up and take off when ready, reports Verona tower after a landing executive jet has cleared the runway. FO Morise will carry out the take-off – Captain Nicoletti has been controlling the aircraft on the ground. You have control, he said – I have control came FO Morise’s reply. He then advances the throttles and the B757 starts its take-off roll. 80kts is called out, followed by V1 and Rotate. Once clear of the ground and with a positive climb, the gear is selected ‘up’, and as the aircraft accelerates, the flaps are retracted. Initial heading is to the Bologna VOR (navigational beacon) under the control of Garda Approach. Flying on instruments due to the cloudy conditions, the aircraft is soon released to the control of ‘George’ (the autopilot) with a clearance to route directly to the LUPOS airways’ intersection, climbing initially to FL230. Under the control of Milan Radar, the flight is cleared progressively to the reporting points at BORDI, VANTU and then COCON. According to the Flight Management System (FMS), the aircraft is due to arrive at Sal at 15:40. Once in French airspace, we are cleared to climb to FL340 and route over Spain – abeam Barcelona, Valencia and Seville – before turning south towards the Canary and Cape Verde Islands.
Long Haul and ETOPS
Captain Nicoletti is a training captain for the airline, and the relief pilots FO Marco Landoni and FO Deborah Napoli join the crew on the flightdeck for a ‘refresher’ tutorial on long-haul procedures – in particular Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards (ETOPS) – and the aspects of the flight to be considered when operating over water a long way from a suitable diversion. Twin-engined aircraft can be cleared by their regulatory authorities to (for instance) an ETOPS 120 limit. This means that in the event of an engine problem, they can be no further than 120 minutes flying time from a suitable diversion: for aircraft like the B777 this can be as much as ETOPS 216. In Europe, this limit is never close to being exceeded, but when flying routes over large areas of water (or desert, or ice), careful thought must be given to routing. Captain Nicoletti asks the pilots about navigation, weather, loading, weight and balance. The crew had already prepared a loadsheet for Sal to Parnaíba and then a draft for the Parnaíbia-Fortaleza section.
Continuing To Sal
Before we make our descent, Captain Nicoletti briefs the crew on the approach to Sal Airport, planning a VOR/DME (VHF Omnidirectional Range/Distance Measuring Equipment) approach, followed by an Instrument Landing System (ILS) to Runway 01. The procedure involves flying over the beacon at 2,500ft, heading 208° outbound and descending. At 9 miles range at 1,500ft, a left turn inbound is initiated on to 012°, where the aircraft should intercept the localizer, and at five miles, the glide slope. The missed approach procedure is to remain on runway heading, climbing to 2,500ft. At 8.3 miles DME a left turn must be made inbound to the VOR. At 124nm (230km) from Sal, the descent is started at an initial rate of 2,000ft per minute. Once in contact with Sal Approach, the planned procedure changes to a radar-controlled approach and the flight follows instructions from the ground. Weather conditions are good, with a light northeasterly wind. Flying past the island, we bank right, recognising the resorts in the main town of Santa Maria. Landing clearance is given and the aircraft touches down on the runway after a flight time of 6 hours and 11 minutes. The external door is opened, but apart from the ground handlers and a flight dispatcher – who brings an updated flight plan and new weather information – none of the passengers gets on or off. This will be a simple ‘splash and dash’ – a quick stop to refuel. Back on the flightdeck, though, everyone is busy. Captain Nicoletti, FO Morise and FO Landoni deal with the necessary paperwork, while FO Napoli carries out the external after- and pre-flight inspections and monitors the refuelling. The next flight needs another 14 tonnes of fuel, giving a total of 24 tonnes. This is because Parnaíbia does not yet have Jet A-1 available and the extra is needed for the subsequent 40-minute ‘hop’ to Fortaleza.
Refuelling completed, the door is closed and start clearance obtained. There is little traffic at Sal, and just ten minutes later we lift off from Runway 01. A left turn gives us a good view of Preguiza, the main seaport of the Cape Verde Islands, Maio, Santiago (where Praia, the capital of the chain is located), and Fogo (with its impressive active volcano). The first reporting point is POMAT, where the flight contacts Dakar Oceanic control, and following Airway UN873 progressively passes SAGMA, ASEBA, and TASIL before making a right turn to DEKON on UN866. At this point the first radio contact with Brazil is made, via Recife Oceanic. After DEKON, the routing is JOBER on UN741, and then we fly direct to the Parnaíbia Non-Directional Beacon (NDB).
Aircraft and Flightcrew
This B757 is in a twin-class configuration with 209 seats: ten are in Privilege (Business) Class, in a two-plus-two configuration. There are also 199 Economy Class seats in a three-plus-three configuration. B757-230ER EI-IGB, c/n 24738, was ordered by Condor for charter flight operations, and was the second of the type for the German carrier. It made its first flight on March 23, 1990, and was delivered on April 5, flying with Condor as D-ABNB until April 2001, when it was leased to Dutchbird as PH-DBB until May 2004. Transferred to Boeing Asset Management as N246BA on January 11, 2005, it has been leased to Air Italy since June 20 that year, and is currently owned by GAIF Ireland Three Ltd.
Captain Alex Nicoletti is 37 years old, and has amassed more than 7,800 flying hours. After general aviation instructional flying, he was with Air Europe for five years and then spent four years with Blue Panorama before joining Air Italy. He is qualified on B737s, B757s and B767s. Marco Landoni (28) has 2,500 hours. Also a flying instructor in general aviation (for four years), he joined Air Italy a year ago. Deborah Napoli is 37 and has 2,000 flying hours. She spent two years in the Dominican Republic flying turboprop Let410s before coming to Air Italy nearly two years ago.
Approach and Landing
Before starting the descent, Captain Nicoletti carefully briefs the non-standard approach, concentrating on all the aspects (such as the lighting) which set Parnaíbia apart from other airports. To complicate matters slightly, we shall be landing just before sunset, so the light will be failing. However, the weather is good, with an easterly wind, so an approach to Runway 09 is planned.
With the coast in sight, the aircraft descends to 3,000ft and everyone in the cockpit looks towards the airport, which is on the left-hand side. Following the NDB procedure, we make a left turn and a further descent to 2,000ft. Visual contact with Parnaíbia is made, due in part to the rows of cars around the perimeter – local people have come to watch the landing! With the undercarriage and flaps set for landing, the runway is in sight and Captain Nicoletti puts the aircraft down on the threshold some 4 hours and 13 minutes after leaving Sal. Reverse thrust means that the B757 stops with plenty of space to spare and taxies to the apron. This is another quick turnaround – like some of the passengers, the crew will stay on Fortaleza and take a well-earned rest.
Thanks to tailwinds, the aircraft will now proceed from Fortaleza to Verona on an 8hr 20 minute direct flight – a long way in a B757. Facilities at Parnaíba are simple but adequate. There are plans to install a fuel storage area, although the short runway means that aircraft will not be able to fly to long-distance destinations direct. However, anyone looking for a peaceful holiday in unspoilt surroundings should put this area of Brazil high on their list of possible destinations.
The author wishes to thank Captain Giuseppe Gentile (Air Italy Chairman), Captain Vittorio Bolla (former flight operations), Captain Alex Nicoletti and his crew, and Carlos Santos (TACV handling station manager in Sal) for their co-operation in producing this article.
Marco Finelli joins Air Italy and flies on the delivery flight of the carrier’s last 757 to the USA. For the full story see the February 2012 issue of Airliner World.