It was just last week I found myself once more in the oddly familiar surroundings of an airline terminal, really a rather pleasant one and in the particular area of gate 1 at the airport in Salvador, Bahia, Brasil …this after another of those savage 4.30 AM starts further north among the endless tower blocks and dawning coastal breezes that rattle the coconuts and clatter the fronds of Recife’s palms. Todays aviating is being conducted by Azul, an airline that I am quite fond of and on board what I have come to regard as my favored aircraft for almost anything short of crossing an ocean, the Embraer 195. A sleeker, more beautifully proportioned, comfortable and enlightened an aircraft it is impossible to find in the civilian mass market, or so i like to believe. The ubiquitous and ever stretching B737′s appear rickety, cramped and gloomy beyond all rhyme and reason in comparison to this somewhat smaller and undeniably svelte aircraft. ( Horses for courses, I know ) There’s something almost private jet like in the 195 and that is no bad thing. Gate 1 at Salvador is the nest from which Azul’s 195 for Ilheus flies to and from, a 40 minute flight that transports you from capitol city to the bottom end of the Marau peninsula and a world that rather quickly feels much closer to the nineteenth century than the current one. To a world that once was the sweet center of Brasilian Cacao commerce and undoubtedly made more widely known via the dusky, buxom Gabriela whose striking beauty and ways comes tantalizingly alive via the pen of Jorge Amado in a 1925 Ilheus where gunshot settled most everything!
Up and away into the wild blue yonder, the towering concrete condominiums and colorful colonial facades give way to the linen white surf line and the greens and blues of the atlantic and its inshore reefs. Offshore some twenty blue water freighters await a turn at the docks. A southerly heading above thickening cloud is offering intermittent glimpses of tropical vegetation, red dirt roads and isolated red tiled roofs to the right and an endless atlantic to the right …with Namibia presumably far, far away. The view afforded by the large and well placed windows and the 2×2 seating in this light infused cabin makes earth gazing very appealing indeed. Peanuts and drinks are barely dispensed with as the descent commences and anticipation becomes palpable as many on the plane are flying into Ilheus for a 7pm wedding …all ages, all eager. I’m paying attention to the seat back screen relaying elevation and speed over the ground because its readily apparent the ground now remains a cloud cloaked mystery.
Ilheus, in my somewhat limited experience seems plagued with weather systems sweeping in off the atlantic and my last attempt into these parts saw me abandoning all hope of flying and making a fraught 560 km night time drive from Salvador in an underpowered car on a truck infested, darkly dangerous and potholed, rain soaked “road”. With 530m elevation and 180 kts indicated on the screen the engines quickly come up to power and descent gives way to grudging ascent while the flaps slowly retreat on the wing’s leading edges. I turn to the as yet unawares Eli and ask her if she likes the thought of a weekend in Campinas, another mega city on the fringes of Sao Paulo and the 195′s scheduled next stop …more than 900 miles from our Marau bungalow and intended weekend retreat. I inform her wide eyes and questioning eyebrows that we have just missed the approach and I can see nothing of Ilheus other than thick scudding cloud and intermittent rain … and that given her habit of chatting with”higher powers” on these occasions I posit this as being as opportune a moment as any if it is to be a deserted beach she wishes versus another crowded city.
One of the young aviators up front at the controls informs us of the miss and his intention to go out over the ocean and fly a racetrack pattern for a while in hope of a weather window opening up. I can’t help but think that a wedding in Ilheus may be short a few attendees and our weekend on Marau forfeit as no way can anyone or anything induce me to make that drive down from Salvador again. This cat is already short of lives! Despite the sudden and stark chance of disappointment, the wide leather seats, properly spaced for real people (throughout the entire cabin) give comfort and the attendants ply us with airplane shaped gummy bears (of all things). The grim specter of Campinas recedes momentarily on an infusion of sugar laced gelatin. The flaps again begin to move down on the leading edge of the taut, graceful wing and the underslung engines throttle back as we are evidently going to try find the runway in Ilheus once more. Its a short strip that lays east/west and the eastern approach is over a mangrove swamp while the western exit into the prevailing trades is over a slender beach and a very fat atlantic. That’s it, plain,simple, short and wet at both ends so its critical to get a good look and fly it right. The 195 hums on through the thick cloud with just the odd jostle to its occupants as the numbers on the seat back screen come close to mirroring those of the first pass as once again the engines spool up, we go up and the whole process begins again. Upfront the boys behind the aviator specs report that the airport is officially closed at this point and that we are going to go loiter out over the atlantic for a little more time as we have fuel enough for more expansive ocean views and plenty of gummy airplanes to chew.
Azul’s girls take great care of their charges as the little jet makes patterns up in the brilliant sunshine to the east of where we really want to be. Azul is an airline that seemingly makes no bones about hiring attractive young women outfitted in immaculate uniforms to efficiently work the cabin while their sparkling smiles and kind demeanor bear zero resemblance to the disgruntled rudeness of some who might long ago have been pensioned or furloughed from what seems to be the majority of our own US airlines. This is more like flying in the days when it was a real treat and an understood priviledge. Interestingly enough Azul has as its founder the very same bright man that started JetBlue in the USA, David Neeleman …and has he ever spied a burgeoning market down here as at the same time bringing a touch of class and value. A little hilarity is creeping into the cabin as one of the wedding party is suffering as dramatically as only a nicotine deprived Brasilera ( in exceptionally tight clothes) can …This is a girl that needs a smoke and we all should understand her plight. Its more humorous than perhaps it sounds as we chase our tail around the sky. With quite a few more gallons of jet fuel burned up we again descend over unseen tropical forest and towards that tiny strip of tar lying between mangrove swamp and ocean reef. Eli now communes with everyone from the Pope on up …in order that we get to touch down on this third attempt. Unfortunately at this low altitude her pleas and prayers are falling on deaf ears and the pilot announces that once again the airport is closed to landing and his best course of action for all on board is to head back north to Salvador from whence we came in order to take on more fuel and then come back and shoot approaches until he delivers the wedding guests to Ilheus. Pretty remarkable if you ask me and I tip my hat to Azul and all the effort and expense being expended here by its young crew.
The 195 whips back up to Salvador in short order, dips a wing over the ships at anchor and drops in over the sand dunes running quite far inland and developed for all manner of enterprises while a couple miles away the outline of the beach is evidenced by the rank upon rank of high rise condominiums that cling to the shoreline. Its almost like looking at some adventuresome kid’s lego creation. Not gate 1 for us this time but a spot out on the apron where a staircase is run up against us and a fuel truck eases under the right wing to replenish the fuel burned in all our ” up down, flying around, looping the loop and defying the ground”. The forward door is opened up and the fresh air pours in. While a sort of suppressed scramble ensues for the bathroom our nicotine deprived beauty is busy trying to sneak down the staircase against the laughing objections of the Azul girls. Am thinking not only can she not go out there on the apron unattended, she can’t possibly think she can smoke within twenty feet of the Petrobras truck, busy pumping us full of jet fuel. Then again, maybe she can …its different here. Again its rather humorous as she sets up a clamor of half hearted protest and whole hearted pleading. The pilots, lounging in their seats are half turned to take in the “views” up the cabin aisle, legs propped nonchalantly on the central console, Ray-Bans perched low while discussing just how close they had come to nailing one of the approaches. They seem supremely confident that the next time down will be a charm. Apparently the Campinas HQ isn’t overly high on their list today either, while delivering a wedding party to Ilheus is. Customer service Azul style.
Fueled up and jetting along southwards we get to make a simple downwind and final turn into Ilheus pretty much under wide open blue skies and over the throw net fishermen standing up in their canoes floating out from the edges of the million or so red mangrove’s roots, half exposed by the tide. Vigorous braking and and a touch of reverse thrust leaves us with a few meters of tar to spare and when parked in front of the low white terminal we can all alight the 195 and clamber down the air stairs into pleasant sunshine for a beach weekend, a wedding and yes …at least one of us for a smoke! Wandering off in search of Avis across the cobbled street its three cheers for Azul and the 195. I’m amazed that we are not in Campinas rather than soon to be headed up the tar road to Itacare and onto the mud road to Algodoes and Arandi.