Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In Search of Sunshine, Part III: Flying the Bahamas

Never having flown a small plane to a foreign country or across a long stretch of open water, I expected the flying portion of our flying/sailing trip to be a challenge. I'm not sure what I expected - paperwork hassles, mostly, and ATC communications difficulties, maybe some substandard airports, perhaps even unscheduled maintenance in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the flying turned out to be a breeze. Bahamian officials were welcoming and helpful, flying procedures were easy, communication was straightforward once we left U.S. airspace (!), and the airports were all lovely, if a bit busy at times. My Pacer and our rented Piper Warrior didn't so much as hiccup for the nine hours. Everyone in our group - me, Dawn, my brother Steve, his friend Jacquie, my friend & erstwhile sim partner Kevin, and his wife Jeannie - really enjoyed our time flying through the islands.

In fact the hardest part turned out to be getting Dawn down to Florida in the first place. Kevin and Jeannie drove from Atlanta, Steve and Jacquie used buddy passes several days in advance, and I was able to jumpseat - but Dawn found herself trying to non-rev out of Minneapolis on the first day of spring break for many Minnesotan kids. We came within one seat of getting out several times on Friday, were left at the gate that night with 32 seats open to Grand Rapids due to a gate agent's incompetence, and the next day found ourselves far down several standby lists of over 100 nonrevs. I finally took the jumpseat through Atlanta, arriving in Melbourne in the early afternoon. Dawn went home and instead flew directly to Nassau the next day. Thus, she missed the first day of our adventure - but was rewarded with a fairly memorable arrival.

We took off from Sebastian only two hours after I landed at Melbourne; my non-rev hassles meant a fairly hasty departure, which added considerably to my stress level. I refiled my eAPIS manifest with U.S. Customs & Border Patrol to reflect Dawn's absence from the Pacer, got a weather briefing from FSS, and filed international flight plans for both the Pacer and Warrior. There was a TFR out for President Obama's visit/golfing vacation to Fort Pierce; Sebastian was just outside the 30 mile ring, and by flying due east for 20 miles before turning towards Freeport we would remain clear. When ready to launch, I called FSS to open our flight plans, only to be told Sebastian was within the TFR boundaries (it actually wasn't active until the President's departure the next day; there was a steady stream of airplanes clearly not "squawking and talking") and put on an apparently indefinite hold for a squawk code. After 15 minutes I lost patience, decided we'd open in the air, and hung up. After takeoff, though, neither I in the Pacer nor Kevin in Warrior 27K could raise Miami Radio on any of the published frequencies! An active flight plan is an absolute must for crossing an active ADIZ, but because of the TFR, we couldn't turn south to delay crossing the ADIZ. I slowed down and called Miami Center, who said they couldn't open the flight plan but gave me an alternate frequency to contact Miami Radio. Thankfully this one worked, and just in time to enter the ADIZ.

By the time I had it all sorted out, we were nearly halfway to Freeport, pushed along by a 25 knot tailwind on the tail end of a cold front. We landed at 5:05PM, officially five minutes after customs closes. They cheerfully waited for us, but charged us a $50/airplane late fee in addition to the usual $50 cruising permit free. We spent the night at the cheap-but-cheerful Bell Channel Inn, walking to the Port Lucaya Marketplace for dinner and sneaking onto the Grand Lucayan's palatial grounds to access the beach. The next morning we departed Freeport early for the 60 mile crossing to the Berry Islands, where we overflew several cruise ships at Great and Little Stirrup Cays before cruising down miles of beautiful deserted beach at Great Harbour Cay. We landed here and took a short cab ride to Carriearl Boutique Hotel for their famous Sunday Brunch.

After brunch, we took off again for some low altitude air-to-air photography down the Berries before climbing for the 40-mile crossing to New Providence Island - better known by the name of its bustling city, Nassau. Here we had decided to split up; Steve and I would stop at the busy Lynden Pindling International Airport to pick up Dawn while the other three continued on in the Warrior to Norman's Cay, at the north end of the Exumas, for some beach time. This worked well as Nassau was extremely busy on this Sunday afternoon; it would have been much more stressful if I hadn't been here several times with the Mad Dog. We landed right after the Airbus from Minneapolis on which Dawn was sitting in First Class, sipping mimosas; upon exiting customs, she was met by her personal pilot and whisked off to her private airplane!


Thirty minutes later we were climbing southeastbound for the 44nm crossing to Norman's Cay, once the private lair of an infamous international drug kingpin. I was relieved to see Warrior 27K sitting safely on the ramp; I buzzed the beach to alert our friends to our arrival, circled over the visible wreckage of a DC-3 in the shallow lagoon, and landed for a few minutes to bask in the warm sunshine. Then we took off together and flew formation for 32 stunning miles of the Exuma Islands chain: the turquoise of the Grand Bahama Bank to the west, bleached cays and scrub-covered islets, shallow lagoons, narrow cuts, pristine reefs, empty sugar-sand beaches, and the deep dark blue of the Atlantic to the east. Staniel Cay came into view, and we entered the right downwind for Runway 35. The wind was blowing stink out of the northeast (as it had been all day), making for a rough ride down final and a last-minute sinker that resulted in a bad bounce and go-around. The second attempt was more successful and we shut down at the southernmost point of our adventure - over 1500nm from my Pacer's home base of Flying Cloud Airport.


We stayed two nights on Staniel Cay, renting a brand-new 3BR villa at the still-unfinished Embrace Resort steps away from the airport. The island is very small and remote, though it is the most developed settlement between Georgetown and Nassau. There are a few stores with limited hours and stock and quite expensive prices, making us wish we'd done more provisioning in Freeport (you can bring some provisions in from the U.S., and we did, but fresh fruits & veggies must be acquired locally). The famous Staniel Cay Yacht Club, with its large coterie of resident nurse sharks and stingrays, is a pleasant 10-minute walk from the villa. Overall, though, there's not a ton to do on Staniel Cay; like most of the Bahamas, the main action is on the water, making a boat a near-necessity. To this end we rented a 17' Boston Whaler to explore the beautiful, shallow surrounding waters on our "lay day." The nearly-mandatory first stop was Big Major's Spot, home to the infamous swimming pigs. Legend has it that passing sailors deposited a couple of porkers on the uninhabited islet about 40 years ago, intending to return for a feast that never materialized. Instead the pigs went feral, multiplied, learned to swim, and rooted out a lucrative niche hamming it up for tourists and cruisers in exchange for food scraps. Indeed, we weren't even to the beach when several large sows and boars boldly swam up, hoisting their torsos onto the gunwhales as they noisily begged for leftovers! They turned out to be very friendly pigs, and we spent a pleasant hour on their beach.

After that we explored a few small sandy cays with gorgeous beaches, and then powered on over to Thunderball Grotto, made famous by the James Bond movie of the same name. This is an island with a large sea-cave hidden inside; you access it by swimming through a low entrance, hidden at high tide, or jumping through a hole in the roof into water 25 feet below. It's a nice spot for snorkeling with a plethora of small fish at the entrances, and we had a lot of fun filming our jumps into the dark cave. By now it was 1pm so we had lunch in the boat, stopped at SCYC to stock up on (expensive!) cold Kalik beers, and motored a few miles south to Bitter Guana Cay to spend the afternoon exploring and checking out the endangered Exuma Island Iguanas. As the shadows got longer we returned the Boston Whaler and walked down to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club for conch fritters and sundowners. I wouldn't have minded another night or two at Staniel Cay to better explore the Exumas, but the next day we'd be flying north to start the next phase of our adventures aloft and afloat.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Dear MadDog

This is one of the hardest letters I will ever write. I'm leaving you. I didn't make this decision lightly. You're a great airplane, quirks and all, and we had some great times - even when you occasionally tried to kill me or get me violated. I grew to love you despite your faults, or maybe because of them. But now I've met someone new, somebody wonderful, and it's time for you and I to part company.

When we first met, I was both intrigued and intimidated by your age and experience, your heavy manual controls, your various aerodynamic protuberances, and your reputation as the heartbreaker of the fleet. I stayed up late at night studying your systems and practicing my flow patterns, and later flying the simulator in preparation for our first liason. And then we were together, at long last, and at first I was completely overwhelmed. Heck, it takes three hands just to get you started! But over the next several hundred hours, I became comfortable with your heavy demands, your old-school design, and your occasional nonsensical outbursts. I even started to think of them as normal. Right engine spools up eight seconds slower than the left engine? "It's a Mad Dog." VNAV mysteriously levels off at 6250 feet and refuses to descend further? "It's a Mad Dog." Get sent around because your Vref is 30 knots faster than the preceding 757? "It's a Mad Dog." Bumping through the tops because stall margin won't let you climb above FL310? "It's a Mad Dog." Number 17 in line for takeoff in ATL and it's 87 degrees in the cabin with the packs full cold? "It's a Mad Dog." I came to accept that this was just the way things were.

And yet...I heard tantalizing rumors of a sweeter, kinder plane, a pilot's airplane with boosted controls, great big engines, a long efficient wing, and a lithe, sexy airframe free of unsightly strakes and vortilons. Many of my captains knew her before they upgraded to your left seat, and in your more temperamental moments I'd hear them mutter, "Never should have left the ER!" Some of my fellow new hires were fortunate enough to fly her right out of the gate, and I couldn't help overhearing their gushing accolades of her attributes. I tried to defend you. "Yeah, well...the Mad Dog has control cables! She'll keep flying through a nuclear holocaust! And look how senior I am in the Mad Dog! I held a Saturday off last month!" But every time that other airplane taxied past, I couldn't help but cast an appreciative gaze her way. And when this bid came out, with a whole bunch of new slots in my home base, I couldn't resist her siren call. I had to find out for myself what all the fuss is about.

So I'm off on a whirlwind romance with the plane they call "The Boeing" in October. But you and still have the summer to make some last sweaty memories together. I'll never forget you, Mad Dog. And somehow I get the feeling that fate with bring us together once again, perhaps sooner than I think.