The Aviator's Guide to the Caribbean
Ambergris Caye, Belize from our Piper Navajo
I had this trip easy since my compatriots and the owners of N111EF (a Piper Navajo twin) are experienced Mexico visitors. Nevertheless, I learned some things about flying to foreign countries. The trip itself is more remarkable for the destinations than the flying, although I lament that I spent almost 40 hours in the right seat of a Piper Navajo and couldn't log one single hour--I'm still a student pilot as I write this and we had no CFI on board. Drat!
Anyway, to read about the destinations, click here.
Now what did I learn about flying in the Caribbean? I've summarized it below.
A little research is always a good thing, especially since the FAA requires you to know everything you possibly can before taking off. We researched this trip in several ways. First, there was an excellent book called the Bahamas and Caribbean Pilot's Guide. You can find it on the web here http://www.pilotpub.com/. I highly recommend it. There's lots of good color pictures and narrative about how to do it. It's really the only way to get airport and facilities information for the area, and a must-have for your flight bag while on the actual trip.
Next, we watched a video tape called "Flying down to the Caribbean: A Private pilots guide: Part One". The tape is available from Current Productions, Prescott Ariz. This proved to be useful primarily because it showed how routine this flying can be, and because it got us even more fired up to go do it when we saw all the videos. The tape chronicles the exploits of a couple Mooney pilots who go down. There are some good recordings of conversations with the towers in these areas.
We researched hotel and dive operator accommodations via the Internet, and through some friends. Choosing the right accommodating and tour operators can really make the difference between a great vacation and a very so-so one. I wasn't willing to settle on a hotel or operator unless I could find substantial positive recommendations. In this case, we weren't disappointed.
Lastly, there is a whole raft of charts and approach plates you'll need to line up to take one of these trips. Interestingly, VFR sectionals are largely unavailable below the Mexican border. Instead, you get to use IFR charts, which carry a lot less information on them. It was handy for us to have a laptop with Jeppesen FlightStar along as an additional reference, though we used it for planning at the hotel stops rather than in-air.
Your US pilot training will serve you well with overseas procedures. While you will hear the controllers speaking Spanish in some countries, if you address them in English they will respond in English. It all sounds pretty identical to what it is in the US, and it was familiar to me, even though I'm a student pilot.
There are some small differences, primarily in the area of support. There is no FlightWatch to call about weather. You can usually get whether from the Center, but not always, and it is least likely to be available when you are requesting whether for a region in a different country from the Center. Be prepared to wait for it too. They don't have a computer terminal, they are just picking up the phone, calling, and jotting down notes to read back to you. Be sure you know how to read your METARs. That's usually what you'll get at the ground briefing centers. Just toss a decoder card into your flight bag if you don't have one already.
If you are used to Internet support for weather, sometimes you'll have it and sometimes you won't. Aim for the larger airports if you think you'll need more support as they will have the plusher FBO's with more services.
Filing flight plans is pretty straightforward, but the forms vary from place to place. Usually there is someone in the aviation office to help you out. Forget about finding standard ICAO forms, and make sure you have the airport identifiers ready.
At the Puerta Vallarta FBO Checking Weather: One of the nicer FBO's...
Weather and Navigation
Speaking of weather, what did we encounter? Well, Tropical Storm Allison, the first of the season, kept things stirred up while we were coming down through Mexico and on to Belize. Also, remember it gets very hot down here so remember to look at the density altitudes. We wound up filing IFR 90% of the time. The fact that VFR sectionals are unavailable for most of these places is telling you something also.
The clouds tend to build right over the islands. In fact, if you get lost, head for the biggest builders you can find. Chances are you will find land directly beneath.
For navigation, a GPS is invaluable. The pocket ones have gotten so cheap that I can't imagine wanting to fly down here without one. We had two pocket Garmin units and the in-dash Garmin GNS-430 handling our nav needs. VOR with DME will be essential for following the instrument procedures on approach and departure at your various airfields. These guys seem very fond of DME arc flying, so you may want to be polished up for that.
Always be aware of your weight and balance, density altitude, and length of the field you are taking off from on landing on. Frequently, you will find that short field procedures are needed on the smaller islands. You might want to brush up on that before heading out. Make sure you know how to make your airplane perform.
Fuel management is also important. There are far fewer airfields, particularly if you are over water. Plan those alternates and be sure you have enough fuel to get where you are going. The weight of the fuel is also going to be important. You'll be loaded up with baggage and people, and facing some density altitude. Depart as early as possible to avoid some heat.
Aviation, Immigration, and Customs Officials
Every country has them, and you will deal with all three at each new stop for the country. Be sure your first stop in a country is equipped for customs, not all (in fact very few) airfields are. The aviation officials will know English, and can help you out. Customs and Immigration may not. There are tons of forms to fill out. One helpful recommendation is to preprint the forms and bring carbon paper. You are often required to provide many copies to the beaurocracies of these little fiefdoms you will visit. The preprinted forms and carbons really simplify this task. There are forms for airplanes, pilots, and passengers. The closer the form is to aviation-related, the more standardized it is. Be sure to have with you all the important paperwork for the plane and pilot. We got asked for airworthiness certificates, licenses, medical forms, and just about every other imaginable thing. Of course you will need your passport. Be ready to fill out lots of visa applications and customs declarations. Our chief pilot kept all the paperwork in a well-organized portable file cabinet, and it saved us invaluable time over and over again when he could immediately lay hands on the right documents. Frequently you will be given stamped forms that must be returned when you leave the country. Don't loose these!
If you are going to visit a Spanish-speaking country, be prepared to have to deal a bit in Spanish. I'm not sure I'd want to go if I had no Spanish. Just a little bit of rusty Spanish will go a long way. Most of these officials want to help, but they may simply not speak any English.
Frequently, the officials will come out on foot, in a car, or on a golf cart to greet you. Like many law enforcement types, they will initially be very severe and stern. They are looking for you to acknowledge their authority. If you do so, things get easier almost immediately. If you give them attitude, you may find things become impossible even faster. Remember, you are a guest in their country.
Fuel and Repairs
I don't know much about repairs overseas, but from the look of things it might not be pleasant. Just remember, you can have parts overnighted almost anywhere. Look for the larger FBO's to do any real work. I know people who have had mechanics flown in to do their work. Invariably, you will need to let a native participate.
Regarding fuel, we made a point of ordering fuel as soon as we set down. We expected water, dirt, and other contaminants, and it can take a minimum of 2 hours for this sort of thing to settle to the bottom of the tanks after a refueling. It also helps to eliminate condensation area from the tanks in these humid locales. As our expedition's "line boy", I generally stayed to deal with the refueling and check the oil while the others went on to customs. You want to watch the refuelers to make sure you get what you asked for. Check the fuel grade, make sure the follow proper refuelling procedures, and note what their guage shows for fuel quantity. In many of these countries you will want to pay cash for fuel. It's significantly cheaper, and in many cases they may be unwilling to accept credit. Be sure to take enough cash for these contingencies!
For our particular aircraft, the Piper Navajo, it was important for me to make sure they filled the tanks fully and that they didn't push the nozzle too far in and damage the bladders.
It's also important to keep a close watch on engine oil. You'll probably be making longer hops in hotter weather than normal. Oil is the lifeblood of these engines so we have to keep it topped off. Be sure to have enough oil ahead of time. Many places you land may not have any oil available for sale. We were careful to keep 3 or 4 quarts in the wing locker at all times.
Frankly, we expected more of a hassle from US customs than anywhere on our return. After all, we had tasted the forbidden fruit of Cuba and many other places and we had heard some real horror stories. We flew back through Ft Lauderdale Executive and it proved to be an excellent choice. Customs there were courteous, helpful, and fast.
There is an overwater aircraft-to-aircraft communication channel in most areas of the Caribbean. You are frequently out of range of the controllers, so we'd tune in here on our second radio and see who was out there monitoring. Probably our best catch was a banner towing guy flying off the Lousiana beaches as we made our long haul from Florida to New Orleans. We had him loud and clear 100 miles away. He was bored, so was willing to engage in a lively conversation.
Flying Over Water
And speaking of flying over water, you'll need to carry a survival raft and some personal flotation devices. I recommend the suspender-type for the PFD's. We had better luck procuring these from maritime suppliers than aviation suppliers in our area. They are available for rental. Be sure you put them somewhere you can get to them in the event of an emergency. They won't do you any good stashed in a wing locker!
This is one I should have known but learned about the hard way. We had to fly over a short section of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico, which are quite high. They're basically an extension of the Rocky Mountains on down South. We were at a height of 10 thousand feet. As we often do, we pulled out our Nonin Pulse Oxcimeter to check the oxygenation of our blood. Most of us were okay, but one guy was down to 85%, which is where impairment begins and he was really feeling it. It turns out that after guzzling a gatorade, and without aid of further oxygen, he was able to get that number back up above 90%. We were careful to make sure we were drinking some fluid at all times from that point forward.
It's darned hot down here, so don't forget to keep drinking your fluids!
Stupid Cell Phone Tricks
This isn't really a pilot thing, although I have seen a lot of pilots make cell phone calls from airplanes. If your phone isn't working down South, there are a couple of tricks to try. First, try the US country code: instead of dialing "1", dial "001". Second, substitute "880" for an "800" area code. These two tricks got my cell phone to work almost everywhere but Cuba. The Bahamas and Grand Cayman are even easier because they respond to area codes and needed no country code information.
All material © 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.