In March 2005 one of my long, overdue, wishes became a reality. I always wanted to visit Bolivia to photograph the old Sky trucks, but somehow it never happened. Early March 2005 I found myself and two good friends on my way to South America with final destination Cochabamba Bolivia. We had already booked our flights in Holland with Lloyd Aereo Boliviano - LAB and our connecting airport was Sao Paulo. We crossed the Atlantic Ocean onboard a British Airways B747 from London Heathrow airport. After a gruelling 12 hours flight we landed in the early morning hours at Sao Paulo Guarulhos international Airport. Our onwards flight was late in the afternoon 17.25 hours (LT) so we killed time, wandering around the airport terminals, trying various snackbars and checking out the observation lounge.
Later on we decided to join the long check-in queue at the LAB counter. Never in my life had I stood in such a long line! We finally made it to the gate and boarded our flight LB942, which was the CP-2324 (B727-2M7 c/n 21823). We were seated in the business class section of this aircraft and enjoyed some friendly service & cool drinks. Our flight to Santa Cruz Viru-Viru airport took 2 hours and 30 minutes and was a smooth ride. At Santa Cruz our connecting flight was already waiting and so we switched planes, this time boarding LB848. This flight was operated by CP-2464 (B727-223 c/n 22464) and it took us about 40-45 minutes to Cochabamba.
I remember this flight well; it was already dark as we approached Cochabamba. I remember seeing city lights at wing level as we were descending! It made me a little nervous as the city of Cochabamba is surrounded by high mountains. We landed with a hard bump and the engine’s thrust reversers immediately kicked in. Welcome in Cochabamba sounded, in Spanish, over the intercom. I later learned that this sort of approach and landing is very much the norm for this airport. We exited the 727 via the aft air-stair and walked to the terminal. I noticed numerous military guards on the ramp, also normal in Bolivia. Luckily all our bags made it to Cochabamba as well, and within minutes we were on our way to our hotel,
the Gran Hotel ambassador in the heart of the city.
A couple of days later we received an invitation to visit the LAB maintenance centre, which is next to the main terminal. Our friends from LAC made the contact. We were greeted by Mr. Antonio Vargas Alcocer (LAB - Jefe Depto Garantia de Calida) who escorted us around the facility.
Inside the main hanger a 727 was in a heavy C-check while outside a LAB B767-300ER was receiving some minor attention. Around the corner we entered a withdrawn B727-100 series CP-1223 and walked through its cabin and cockpit. This aircraft had finished it’s flying career and was now used as an instructional airframe.
When we arrived in Bolivia, we heard from our friends at LAC and from the TV that the Bolivian president, Carlos Mesa, had just resigned from office. In a western country this is just political news, but in Bolivia this normally means civil unrest! We didn’t notice unrest in Cochabamba and left the issue alone. With some time to spare we decided to visit La Paz airport, the highest international airport in the world with its elevation at 4.057 meters (13.310ft) and to hang-out as tourists. Simultaneously this gave us another opportunity to fly on a 727 tri-jet. At LAB we checked the schedule and found out that the morning flight was served by LAB oldest 727: the CP-861 (B727-1A0 c/n 20279). At just 50 dollars we booked ourselves a one-way ticket on flight LB810.
So on the 8th of March 2005 we boarded CP-861 for an early morning departure. Outside it was still misty and we seated ourselves at the back of the 727 Spartan cabin. This way we could enjoy the sound of the original Pratt & Whitney JT8D-7 turbofans engines. We taxied off the ramp and back-tracked for our take off position from runway 32. At 10 minutes past 07.00 hours we started our take-off run. It’s seemed to take forever but we soon rotated and made a steady climbing turn away from some hills. Looking out my window all I could see was barren mountains going up and up. We soon got into the cruise and I sat back and enjoyed the scenery below. As we arrived into the La Paz area I noticed the snow capped peaks coming closer. We started descending over the city of El Alto on a downwind track. Then we made a left hand turn for base and final approach. I noticed that the engines where becoming louder and louder. On our final approach for runway 10 it almost felt that the engines where running at full power. We landed smoothly but couldn’t help notice the many bumps on the runway. They where really shaking the old 727 jet! I guess we made it into La Paz J.F. Kennedy International Airport, and no parts fell off the plane.
We wanted to stay for a couple of days at La Paz and visit Lake Titikaka and the Tihuanacu Ruins. After meeting our LAB contact, who arranged our taxi for the whole day we enjoyed an excellent airport tour by Mr. Antonio Lara Reuvella (LAB – Jefe Div Mantenimiento), who took us to see the old DC-6s and C46s at El Alto. At noon we sampled some typical Bolivian lunch at the airport cafeteria and got into our taxi for down town La Paz; in order to secure out hotel. We decided to visit the TAM office instead and check out their flying status after their crash with a Convair 580.
We did not have any luck and ended up driving back to El Alto for our Tihuanacu tour. El Alto is a busy place and a bit dangerous for European tourist. As we drove out the city we encountered our first road barricades. The first one were not difficult to drive around, but they became bigger and higher and some were on fire. We concluded it wouldn’t be safe to go on. We instructed our taxi driver to turn around and head back to the airport. Clearly we were not here at a good time. Back in the terminal we decided to fly back to Cochabamba where the atmosphere was much nicer and friendlier. We checked with Aerosur and sure enough they had seats available for the late afternoon flight 5L-119 leaving at 18.25 (LT).
We spend our last hours of the afternoon at the little cafeteria above the check-in counters. It had plenty of dirty windows over looking the main ramp. A half hour before our departure Aerosur 727-200 CP-2422 arrived signalling us to head for the gate. As always I entered the CP-2422 via the aft air-stairs and had my last look across the ramps to El Alto. It was already getting dark as we took off for Cochabamba. I settled back in my seat thinking what a hectic day it was at La Paz.
Our last two days where spend in Santa Cruz. We explored the city and visited the downtown airport, where we saw one of the last operational C-46s in Bolivia. Additionally we visited the old Lockheed L749 Constellation, painted in Aerosur colours, and standing in a small park near a busy road. Santa Cruz has a very different vibe compared to the rest of Bolivia. The climate was more tropical and the people have lighter skin colour, you could sense that you where closer to the Brazilian. On the 16th March we checked in at Viru-Viru airport which is about a 30 minutes drive out of the city for our flight to Sao Paulo. The small terminal is very modern and taking pictures is forbidden. While waiting for our flight Aerosur 727-200, CP-2422 turned up at the gate on time. We departed at 09.40 local time for a 2 hours and 20 minutes flight. Via our friends at LAC we got the name of the captain and introduced ourselves as two crazy Dutch photographers. The friendly crew under the command of Captain Eduardo Beltran invited us into the cockpit and allowed us to stay for the landing at San Paulo. We arrived on time but our British Airways flight was delayed for 12 hours!
With thanks to Andre van Loon
Postscript: March 2006
In 2006 we where back in Cochabamba visiting our good friends at Lineas Aereas Canedo – LAC. This time our port of entry to South America was Caracas Maiqetia International Airport where we connected with LAB airlines for some more B727 flying. Here is my full 727 itinerary:
|05 March05||LAB LB942||B727-200||CP-2324||Sao Paulo – Santa Cruz||2.20 hours|
|05 March05||LAB LB848||B727-200||CP-2464||Santa Cruz – Cochabamba||0.40 hours|
|08 March05||LAB LB810||B727-100||CP-861*||Cochabamba – La Paz||0.40 hours|
|08 March05||Aerosur 5L119||B727-200||CP-2422||La Paz – Cochabamba||0.40 hours|
|15 March05||LAB LB845||B727-200||CP-2427||Cochabamba – Santa Cruz||0.45 hours|
|16 March05||Aerosur 5L300||B727-200||CP-2422||Santa Cruz – Sao Paulo||2.30 hours|
|05 March06||LAB LB954||B727-200||CP-1276||Caracas – Bogotá||2.20 hours|
|05 March06||LAB LB954||B727-200||CP-1276||Bogotá – Santa Cruz||3.50 hours|
|05 March06||LAB LB844||B727-100||CP-861*||Santa Cruz – Cochabamba||0.40 hours|
|11 March06||LAB LB869||B727-100||CP-861*||Cochabamba – Santa Cruz||0.40 hours|
|11 March06||LAB LB954||B727-200||CP-1367||Santa Cruz – Caracas||4.20 hours|
Note*: CP-861 first flew from Renton in 12-08-69 and was delivered to Lloyd Aereo Boliviano in 12-02-70 and it operated continuously to LAB until around March-2007. It is now Stored at CCB with total hours 66900 and total cycles 79800. (It is reportedly the World's high cycled B727)
A/c Never suffered any major incidents. No other Boeing jet aircraft has flown so long for the same carrier as CP-861. Right up until retirement in Mar07, aircraft was notching-up up to 16 cycles a day flying 90% of LAB Bolivian domestic routes. Engines never hush-kitted so as not to sacrifice power or reverse thrust on the 3 engines
With thanks to Máximo Gainza, Alexandre Aero-Transport-Data Bank & Marcelo Magalhăes
I photographed LAB 727-2K3 CP-1276 (c/n 21082 – delivered 8-10-75) at Miami International Airport during March 1986. Who would have though that I would fly it 20 years later!