This article was last updated on: October 2019
My visit to North Korea was something very interesting for me, but reaching all the way there from here is quite the voyage.
The country is almost at the other side of the planet from Colombia. Well, it would be like Indonesia more technically, but you know what I mean (right?).
The Colombian peso was worth something, I had some savings, some miles, and I had some available time. Circumstances were by all means better than the ones present nowadays, at the writing of writing this.
I also some friend friends spread around the world that made this trip so much easier. Those I still have, fortunately.
So with the North Korea trip as a base, I ended up arranging a round trip route in which could be said that I left from one side of the globe, and arrived via the other.
In fact this was the second time that I did it. But it was the first time that I did it only for knowledge, pleasure and friendship purposes, planned to be that way from the get go.
I use the word “planned” lightly here. There were many things that just came up along the way, and that I will tell you in due time.
When I was living in Thailand, in the 2010 part, I also arrived there via one side and returned to Colombia via the other. But that wasn’t really planned to be like that.
Of course, I will later write about that as well.
So let’s keep in this second around the world tour, let’s continue here.
I was just passing by in some of the cities, in others I remained several days (and even weeks). Total route was:
Medellín – Miami – Fort Lauderdale – Atlanta – New York – Boston – Washington – Atlanta – Miami – Los Angeles – Tokyo – Nagoya – Osaka – Nagoya – Ibaraki – Shanghai – Beijing – Pyongyang – Samjiyon – Pyongyang – Hamhung – Pyongyang – Shenyang – Beijing – Moscow (Monino) – Kiev (Pripyat – Chernobyl) – Helsinki – Oulu – Rovaniemi – Oulu – Helsinki – Copenhagen – Amsterdam – Munich – Copenhagen – Amsterdam – Liège – Maastricht – Eindhoven – Amsterdam – Oranjestad – Willemstad – Medellín.
As I say, it was a long trip, in which I shared with many friends I still keep, and saw and experimented many things that made me curious.
It’s been one of the best times of my life up until now, and I remember it very fondly. In part that’s why I want to write this, so I don’t forget.
And well, I think it’s going to be very long, including what I wrote before this about North Korea, Kiev and Chernobyl, that were part of this trip. So this first article will only have a part of the route.
Here I will write about the Medellín – Miami – Fort Lauderdale – Atlanta – New York route.
Here I go.
The first stop point in all this was Miami.
I remember the nonstop flights at that moment were expensive (they usually are).
But I had some Avianca miles, and set off to see what could I do with them. There was some availability, and I ended up reserving a Medellín – San José Costa Rica – Miami flight.
It was so much better for me, I was going to see San Jose (I had a several hours stopover), and I was going to try the Taca Embraer 190.
Three days before the flight they called me to say Taca had cancelled that flight, and therefore they were going to move me to the nonstop Medellín – Miami flight.
Exactly one of the flights that had been super expensive when I had been browsing to reserve. For a “normal” person that would have super convenient and positive.
Not for me, I wanted the milk run.
But anyway, I couldn’t do anything that didn’t mean more expenses. Well, I had already flown in the Avianca Airbus A320, and I wasn’t going to see San José or fly in the Taca Embraer 190. But the plan was still on, and unchanged.
So that was that. Nonstop and in Airbus A320 to Miami.
Airplane: Airbus A320
Flights from Colombia to the United States usually don’t allow for web check-in. So I had to go early to the Airport to make sure I got a window seat.
I got my desired seat, passed emigration and sat in the waiting room.
I was just relaxed there when I heard my name through the loudspeaker. I was being called to the police office.
I wondered what could they have seen in my luggage since I only had clothes, a pair of books, and a few things for my relatives in USA.
Anyway, as long as they hadn’t put a strange package in my luggage between check-in and that moment, I had nothing to fear.
I made my way to the police office then, and my suitcase was there indeed.
They opened it in front of me to check, and the suspicious thing was a small jar of cape gooseberry jelly that I was bringing to a cousin of mom’s.
They savagely pinched the jar, and put some of the jelly in this thing to determine whether it was cocaine or what, Airport Security style.
When the test came back negative I was let go, and my suitcase went back to its embarking procedure. The jar was left with a hole though, I hoped it wouldn’t spill in the flight.
My Airplane arrived from Bogotá, and it happened the First Officer in that flight was my great friend Andrés D. We know each other since high school, and we always had the same passion for Aviation.
He just had more luck in this road than I’ve had up until now, and he was already a First Officer. It was a great surprise for me.
My Airplane that day was going to be N281AV.
The very full flight left on time, and we taxied to the active runway.
It was the last time I would see Antioquian and Colombian land in two months. Other than my mom and my dogs, I really wasn’t going to miss it.
It was a normal flight, via the usual route. I think the photo below is Jamaica, it could be Cuba as well.
We began the descent, and the visibility began to decrease.
Over Miami proper it was raining copiously.
We kept descending and approaching. Now flying lower in final approach, the visibility improved markedly.
And so, we arrived.
The only bad thing was a baby crying all the time.
There are few things more uncomfortable than that, and the worst thing is that you can’t do anything because it’s simple biology in a closed space. Basically all you can do is endure it and that’s it, total helplessness.
But it’s horrible! Maddening!
I am very glad for things airlines like Japan Airlines are doing to help improve things a little in that regard.
As I was saying then, we landed in a rainy Miami, with quite the melody to top.
I would find an even worse melody years later in an Air Canada Boeing 777-300. I will tell you about that in due time…
Since the crew was known to me, I asked for authorisation to take a quick cockpit photo before deplaning.
My friend told me to wait white he reset the clock, lest people believe he was a messy Pilot. When he did that I took the photo, and then we all left.
Those days the arrival time of Avianca’s flight from Medellín to Miami coincided with the arrival time of Lufthansa’s flight from Frankfurt, and they arrived to the same terminal.
So you had to run like hell to immigration unless you wanted to remain a precious few hours in line.
Lufthansa’s flight was on Boeing 747-400 or Airbus A380-800! Imagine the amount of people in the immigration line…
I had to run as I said, and that’s exactly what I did.
The line was kind of long still, yet I managed to beat most people coming from Frankfurt. It didn’t beat my earlier two hours record in line in Miami years before, coming from London.
I made it through immigration, and I was supposed to go to the house of my friend Eliza. I decided to spend the day with my First Officer Friend instead (obviously telling Eliza I was going to be late, no problem was had with that).
I didn’t have a concrete plan in Miami really, but I had many friends there back then, so I was never without something to do.
On one hand was Eliza, of course. We drove around, walked around Fort Lauderdale, and she was my companion when buying some shows now that I remember.
Back then, as I’ve said many times, the Colombian peso was worth something.
I remember buying a pair of shoes, and being told a second pair would be just 25 dollars if I decided to buy it. Back then it was less than 50.000 Colombian pesos. Now it’s about 85.000, and the wages haven’t really gone up.
How much would those shoes cost in Colombia? Assuming they sold them and my size was available (usually doesn’t happen). Well, much more than that…
That second pair lasted years.
On the other hand, my friend Julián O. was there getting his Pilot’s licence.
I went with him on a night flight lesson on a Cessna 172 with a Cuban instructor called Yasmany, and I gave him something his mom had sent from Colombia with me.
Julián was getting his licence at a flight school in Tamiami Airport, full of general Aviation, and also movements of the firefighting and police forces.
Arriving in Tamiami there’s a Douglas A-26 Invader that participated in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Its registration is FAL931.
The flight was a cruise to Palm Beach if I recall correctly, and then back.
On the return leg we were allowed to overfly Miami International Airport. That isn’t very common because it’s a very congested airspace, but traffic was low at that hour, and controllers had no problem.
In the gallery below you’ll see more photos of the night training flight with my friend.
I was with his friends too just because. Obviously, I also took more Airplanes photos.
The session I had that day was nice because weather was very good, and so were the light conditions.
Things that at the time of writing this in October 2019 no longer exist appeared, such as the Tampa Cargo Boeing 767-200Fs. Moreover, if you look at the through-the-fence photo (the second of the gallery), almost all their fleet was in Miami at that moment.
Also Air France Boeing 747-400, Taca’s Airplanes with “red tuft” colours, and all the American Airlines Airplanes with no longer existing old colours. In the gallery below I leave you with a sample of the photos I took that day.
Airplane: Boeing 717-200
After those days with friends in Miami and surroundings, it was time to move on.
Now I was going to New York, and later I would meet with another friend called Rudy C. He is Colombian, from Barrancabermeja.
Rudy is super capable in his engineering, and he was finishing a PhD in the Universidad of Connecticut, in Storrs. At the moment of writing this he’s living in Germany, and he also got his Pilot’s licence already.
So after New York I was going to go meet him there.
Of course, from Miami or Fort Lauderdale there were many nonstop flights to New York, but most of them were in airlines or Airplanes I had flown in already.
Since I don’t like repeating as long as I can get away with it, I decided to go there via AirTran with a stop in Atlanta, flying in a Boeing 717-200. I hadn’t tried the airline, nor the Airplane, so all good.
I arrived in Fort Lauderdale Airport much earlier than I should on purpose, because I wanted to take some photos before departing.
On the roof of one of the Airport’s parking buildings there is an official zone for viewing Airplanes, easily accesible from the main terminal.
There are other places around the Airport too, but a car is needed to get there.
So I went to that place for a while and remained there. As with the earlier session in Miami, I took photos of things that no longer exist at the moment of writing this.
For instance, AirTran itself is now merged with Southwest, Virgin America with Alaska, US Airways with American Airlines.
There were other interesting things such as varied bizjets, and even a Grumman EA-6B Prowler belonging to the Navy Aviation.
Some photos I took in that moment below.
Boarding time came, I left the parking building and went into the terminal. I think that was the very first time I paid to check luggage, about 20 dollars of the moment.
I made it through the security filter, very nimble by the way (nothing to do with Miami), and went to the waiting lounge.
My flight was on-time, and I had arrived with enough time. All was good.
We boarded and I sat, beside me there was a guy with an about two years old child. That didn’t predict anything good obviously, but when it rains it pours.
It was now two flights in which children had disrupted the calm (don’t think this two years old child remained calm, noooo sir, no).
N926AT was going to be the Airplane for that day’s flight.
We left the parking spot on-time, and made our way to the runway. We were told we were number seven for takeoff, but it didn’t take long.
We took off and began a turn over the sea to fly toward Atlanta.
So I was in the window, the child in the middle seat, and the father in the aisle. Lo and behold, not much time passed before the kid started doing his thing. He started to kick me.
The father would try to calm him down and said:
–“Knock it off John Michael!”
But John Michael kept kicking me the whole flight.
On the outside I was all calm and serene like a zen master, but I wanted to gut the kid.
At least the father was embarrassed and apologised to me when we arrived (because there are some other parents whose son kicks somebody, and it’s the kicked party that happens to be in the wrong).
Nothing to do now, life goes on!
Do you remember the photo with the Wi-Fi sign?
Well, on top of it being my first time in AirTran and Boeing 717-200, this flight was the very first one in which I could use the internet in-flight.
It was supposed to be a paid service, but they had a 15 minutes free trial option.
I tried in on an iPod touch I had back then, and it ruled. Besides, I thought it was ridiculous it was faster than the internet I had back home.
For some reason, every time the 15 minutes free trial period ended, I just tried again and it would work again. I went like that, with internet throughout the flight divided in 15 minutes periods.
I still couldn’t believe it haha.
The flight proceeded and we started approaching Atlanta.
I always like to approach there because it’s a super congested Airport, with a very optimised air traffic control system that allows for little separation and parallel approaches.
It’s got five runways!
So when you approach, there’s usually another Airplane approaching to the runway that’s beside the runway you’re going to land on.
And you can see it through the window, approaching at the same time in parallel, I think it rules!
Crossing a runway with another Airplane almost over the threshold. Everything in Atlanta is like that, I love it.
We landed then, and taxied to our gate. It didn’t take long.
As usual, many people stood when they shouldn’t have and had to remain there waiting for they to open the Airplane’s door.
In the safety card or the magazine (can’t remember right now where exactly) I saw a sign that left the Airline very high in my head.
Well, that, and also that the price was right, the crew kind in general, the Airplane comfortable in general -nothing extraordinary-, and that there were on-time. You don’t ask for anything else.
The sign said:
–“If you are interested on looking at the flight deck, ask a crew member after landing”.
That is, they were actively encouraging people to do what many airlines deny for any silly reason, which is to see the cockpit and perhaps take a photo.
Despite the problems, they forget that in general Aviation is a fascination object for many people, even though they may work in very different things and maybe know nothing about it. Kudos to AirTran there!
So indeed, on landing I asked a flight attendant and she said that of course, that I may take as many photos as I wanted. So I took a pair in total relax.
I took the photos then, and left the Airplane.
I would have to board another Boeing 717-200 bound for New York – LaGuardia in little time right there in that terminal, just a few gates away (I didn’t have to use the underground train to change terminals they have there in Atlanta).
Airplane: Boeing 717-200
Waiting time in Atlanta went by pretty quickly, I remember having had time to eat a sandwich though.
The New York flight time was nigh, but I saw no Airplane at the gate.
At one point I thought there was going to be a delay.
Suddenly it appeared, it was the Boeing 717-200 with Orlando Magic colours, registered as N949AT.
AirTran had several Airplanes painted with sports teams colours, some you can see in my article about it. Well, I was going to fly in one of those this time. Not bad at all!
The Airplane was readied very quickly. Casually, it was the same gate I had in Fort Lauderdale, the C6.
We boarded quickly as well, and it was all on-time really, or maybe a short delay if anything. They had a very nimble operation.
We were pushed-back, started taxiing, and reached the active runway.
We passed beside a sign that says “FLY DELTA JETS”. That sign has lots of history behind.
Atlanta is Delta’s main base, and that’s the main reason for the Airport to be so congested, as you may know.
Atlanta city doesn’t have so much demand by itself, but the giant Delta and all the connections do have it indeed.
The sign was put on top of a hangar in 1968, back then Delta used to highlight the fact that they flew jet Airplanes in almost every advertising piece they had.
The sign saw the airline’s growth, Atlanta’s Airport transformation, and witnessed a whole era.
At a given juncture, Delta had a very bad economic situation, so much so that the sign began to melt (to melt as light bulbs do that is, normal)
They didn’t even have money to repair it, so the order was for it to be turned off. And it remained like that for a long time.
Delta left bankruptcy in 2007. In that moment, they managed to avoid a takeover by US Airways, something many people didn’t want.
US Airways ended up merged with American Airlines, go figure.
To celebrate their survival and freedom (because they avoided the US Airways takeover) they gave life to the sign again and turned it on, it was a whole event! Watch the video below.
And well, I was passing right in front. I knew all that story but I had never seen it in person. It was a great avgeek moment.
Anyway, were number eight for departure, but like in Fort Lauderdale, it didn’t take long.
Watch the video below, how another Airplane lands in the adjacent runway while we takeoff. I love those things!
In Atlanta in the initial phases of the flight the weather and visibility were very good. But after the flight’s midpoint, and just before arriving in New York, you couldn’t see anything.
I didn’t like that much because the arrival to LaGuardia can be quite scenic if the right conditions converge. But anyway, you can’t do anything with the weather.
Despite the visibility, the flight was quite calmed, and this time around there weren’t children crying or kicking me.
On departure I managed to see a very nice view of Atlanta Airport, the world’s most congested.
New York bound.
There was again 15 minutes free Wi-Fi, but this time around the 15 minutes were over and it didn’t let me to keep connecting like that haha. I was tracking my own flight, I thought it ruled!
We approached and landed in LaGuardia without being able to see much of what I wanted because of the weather.
We arrived about 10 minutes early, but there was a “traffic jam” in LaGuardia, and I think our gate was still occupied.
Pilots announced we were going to be some 15 minutes late at the gate, despite having landed early.
During all that I had the Donald Trump Boeing 757-200 in sight. Little did I know he was going to the United States president some years later.
Said and done, we finally made it to the gate and were able to disembark some 25 minutes after landing.
Welcome to New York.
I had to be somewhere on-time, so I left the Airplane quickly to catch the bus, since the metro doesn’t reach LaGuardia.
Somebody did something in the bus, and the driver teased him. I felt like watching a Seinfeld episode.