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May 28, 2007

For the David Board fans among you, here is a new adventure by the aerial Swashbuckler.

Ferry Flight from St Croix Feb 2007

There were a few troubling negatives about the job. The bad news yet again, was this would be another long journey over a difficult and desolate environment, with no navigational radios on board the aircraft that actually worked. The good news was that this old Cessna 150 did have a working transponder and a functioning encoder. There was also a nice modern 9 watt communication radio, so it didnt look as if talking to traffic controllers and flying through controlled airspace was going to be a problem en route. But, after a good many years and thousands of hours of flight time, you sort of expect there to be negatives in the ferry flight business. The owner of this particular aircraft told me that the lack of navigation radios would not be a problem as he had a hand held GPS receiver that I could use! Well, you may as well offer a Jewish pilot a ham sandwich in case he gets hungry, or a flying Catholic Priest a box of condoms, or a female Muslim aviator a lime green thong bikini! Offering this Welsh pilot a GPS of any kind is akin to casting aspersions on his religion, his manhood or his grandmother! The owner didnt realize it but he was insinuating that I was a flying heretic, a numb-skull, or Scottish!

It turned out that the GPS he was offering was an old Garmin GPS III. Out of politeness I asked if I could bone up on the Garmins users manual before the flight, (I just knew he wouldnt have one). For a second or two he just gave me a blank look, then he deftly sidestepped the question and started telling me how this particular GPS was really easy to use! For a few precious seconds I lost it and laughed out loud. When my fit of giddy mirth had subsided, I wiped a tear from my eye and told him that I would probably decline his kind offer as I didnt really need a GPS. Oh, he responded in bemused disbelie, So I take it that you have a GPS of your own then? I resisted the urge to ask him if he had a ham sandwich, a box of condoms or a lime green thong bikini, but instead, with one raised eyebrow I answered him with an emphatic No sir, I am trying to give them up! But as long as the aircraft has a working compass and a working clock, - those two items, together with current VFR charts and VFR weather conditions, are all that I really needed. Then I added, The airplane does have a clock and a compass, right? All US airplanes have a clock and a compass - dont they? He looked at me with a sheepish grin and told me that he had just purchased a brand new compass for the airplane but he had left it back in Florida, and he wasnt sure about the clock because he personally never used one. For a moment I considered pointing out the fact that for good reasons the clock and the compass had to work in the airplane to get it passed an annual inspection. But on deeper considerations I decided against it. For one thing, we were in St Croix, and my only way home at this point was this old Cessna 150. And for another, I was really looking forward to the adventure. But under these new, and slightly dubious circumstances, I decided that maybe I would indeed take the GPS along for the ride. However, unless it became absolutely imperative, I had no intention of actually using it!

Now to some that last statement may sound strange, or perhaps even a little arrogant, so perhaps I should explain something. You see I am a pilot in the old sense of the word. And years of experience as a pilot has taught me that you can chose to navigate while flying an airplane, using your brain, a clock, a compass and a map, or you can abdicate that wonderful privilege and opportunity and put your trust blindly in the soulless, heartless microprocessors that are buried in a GPS radio to perform that most sacred of tasks. But should you chose that latter, nothing is more certain than that you will quickly lose your confidence and to some degree eventually even your hard earned ability to navigate, and I for one could not afford to have that happen. It has always been the ability to navigate that has nourished, encouraged and maintained my interest in flying. Now here I was in a situation where I had a real opportunity to practice and test my art and abilities. To navigate for a nice long protracted period of time and lastly but most importantly, on someone elses dime. Deep down I knew that I would be a fool to pass up such an exquisite opportunity, regardless of how difficult or potentially dangerous the mission may prove! So I wasnt about to abdicate the opportunity to navigate to a piece of mindless plastic! No way! Besides that, what if I did and somewhere over open ocean, the batteries in the GPS failed? What if I did and China or Russia or North Korea shoots down one of our satellites instead of one of their own? What if The what ifs seemed endless, overwhelming and ultimately persuasive. And so I threw the GPS contemptuously in my carry on bag and promptly forgot all about it!

My Plans are Made and I am Cleared For Take Off!

The night before my departure found me alone and below deck at the chart table of a sail boat called, believe it or not; Navigator! Navigator, a 47 foot sloop, served as my accommodations in St Croix while I waited for weather that suited my adventure! I had a mug of grog in one hand, and a fine mechanical pencil in the other, as I feverishly labored over a delicate and detailed plan for the next days flight back to far-away Florida. And the more I studied possible routs, the easier the whole proposition looked to me. True, there would be phases where I would have to rely solely on my skills of dead reckoning but equally true there would be others phases where I could relax and find my way by simple the simple art of pilotage and enjoy some really spectacular scenery as the world below me crept by at a mere 100 miles per hour.

By mid morning the following day I had filed my international flight plan, checked the weather and the airplane, drank three cups of coffee and was airborne under a clear blue Caribbean sky. The compass was slightly low on fluid but working well with a wad of paper towels jammed between it and the windshield to stop it vibrating epileptically, and the clock, which wasnt working, had needed only a fuse to coax into ticking flawlessly once every second. And now I was eagerly awaiting the first check point which for me is always the most critical event of the day.

The island of St Croix I discovered had a single ocean pier on the western end of the island that just happened to present the perfect ground feature for the first check point along the way as it lay in a direct line between the airport and the Isla de Vieques. The Isla de Vieques is a small island maybe 12 miles long and 4 miles wide and lay directly on my course of about 320 degrees. This Island is used mostly as a bombing range by the US military much to the annoyance of many radical Puerto Ricans. It is about 34 miles beyond the sandy beaches of St Croix and would be an almost impossible target for me to miss in these clear conditions. So the trick this morning was to fly a steady heading of 320 degrees from the airport to the coast line and see exactly where the pier turned out to be relative to my ground track. When I crossed that beach and bid hasta la vista to the Virgin Islands it would be easy for me to calculate any drift induced by either wind or instrument error and then to calculate a correct course so that 22 minutes later I arrived right over the Isla de Vieques. At that point, I would also know precisely what my ground, or should I say sea speed, would be. From there it was onwards to the big Island of Puerto Rico. I decided that I would fly right down the center of the island, as it is about 100 miles long but only between 25 to 30 miles wide then turning north I departed Puerto Rico at the western most tip called Centro Puntas for the 65 mile open water crossing of the Mona Passage and my first landing in The Dominican Republic.

Fortunately for me, someone or something had placed a very large rock in the ocean that conveniently functioned like a giant mile marker on the skyway to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. This rock, called Isla Desecheo, juts out of the ocean 750 feet tall and is only about a square mile in area. Its location about 20 miles off the Puerto Rican coast line and again makes it perfectly placed for checking the drift angle. It also served perfectly as a signal, or an alert, that it was time to contact the Dominican authorities as I was fast approaching the invisible international boundary between The Dominican Republic airspace and what is really US (Puerto Rican) airspace. And so, a little over 40 minutes after leaving the coast line of Puerto Rico behind me, I was on final approach to Punta Cana. This trip was turning out to be a cake walk, and still no need to use a GPS!

Punta Cana and the Dominican Republic.

A couple of hours, 17 galls of fuel and $300 later, I was airborne again and on my way to Greater Inagua in the Bahamas. I was disappointed, angry and annoyed. For me Punta Cana had to be the most expensive airport in the world to land at. The fuel didnt actually cost $17.65 cents a gallon, but it may just as well have! The problem being that there was not one, but two so called handling charges levied on me the moment I set foot on the tarmac. One was for $50 and later I got another one for $75. Then there were three customs charges, two of $15 (entry and exist taxes) and one for $22 because it was a Sunday. Then there was a landing fee, and a parking fee, and it was made clear to me that I was expected to pay a gratuity on every charge as you would in a restaurant. Money, money, money every step of the way! Add this to the $90 for the actual fuel and it all added up to just over than $300. But even if I had stopped in Puerto Rico I could not have made it to the Bahamas without a fuel stop, so I was obliged to stop somewhere in the Dominican Republic for service. If it is at all possible however, I strongly recommend that you avoid Punta Cana. Well, unless you are very wealthy to where paying the equivalent of $18 per gallon is of no particular concern. I have to wonder how much money in tourism a place like Punta Cana loses every year, because of the over aggressive fleecing of the flying traveler. Even the Pilots guide to the Caribbean has a not so subtle hint of this problem in their description of the entry procedures for the Dominican Republic.

Punta Cana to Greater Inagua is only a flight of 300 nautical miles or so, and a good portion of it almost parallels the Dominican coast line as that coast falls away behind you to the south. But Greater Inagua is a stretch for a Cessna 150 armed with a climb prop and impeded by a moderate head wind. And I dare say I could have done it comfortably enough in good weather - but when the visibility started to fall and the clear blue skies were replaced by a dark foreboding ceiling of battleship grey that progressively and oppressively pushed me lower and lower - forcing me always down towards the ocean, I became understandably very concerned. That morning I had been warned by flight service that a tropical depression might be forming in just this area and suddenly it felt like I could be riding right into the jaws of Hades as I inched my way north by north west. Then I knew that my dead reckoning would have to be perfect or I reckoned I might wind up as shark bait before the day was done. Also, the delay dealing with the Dominicans had cost me precious time, and the light was just beginning to fade and, worst of all, it was beginning to rain!

A Fight Breaks Out

OK, I thought, time to swallow my pride, now where did I put that GPS? So began my scramble through the anarchy that was contained in my bag. Miraculously after a minimum of cursing and complaining, I found not only the GPS, but some batteries to bring it to life!. But then I was faced with a multitude of new tasks and distractions - like flying with one hand and loading the batteries and programming the GPS with the other, and thats precisely when the fight broke out! Well, I call it a fight, but it was actually more like a barroom brawl. Problems were coming at me without warning from everywhere I looked. For some time the ride had been getting steadily rougher. This made the airplane behave more like a mechanical bull in a Dallas bar than the machine that Cessna promises in its P O H. Even the charts that I was using now became strangely stubborn and cumbersome to handle. Even the print began hiding in creases that seemed to suddenly be turning up everywhere. You try folding a large paper map with one hand riding a bucking mechanical bull sometime! My charts also seemed to have developed a knack of hiding themselves and when found, turning themselves upside down. But worst of all, the handy dandy GPS once it had gone through its endless sacred rituals of warnings and searching for signals - seemed to have developed a somewhat sinister mind of its own. In fact it was not only sinister but strangely cynical too. The next thing I knew it started playing peculiar and pernicious games with my mind! With one hand on the yoke trying to control the bull and the other hand wrestling with the charts and the other hand holding this demon GPS I was trying to scroll through pages and enter way points and all the time losing track of my time and position.

To make matters worse, this GPS it seems had an endless list of strict and esoteric rules - rules that it wanted to play by. And unfortunately they were rules that I didnt really know very well. Rule number one was, if you dare to try and tell me what to do without showing me the respect that I demand, I am going to let you program in all of the letters for all of the way points you are trying to enter and then, just when you think you are done bossing me around, I am going to refuse to accept your request on some technicality, dump all the work you have done and go right back to showing you the way to my home base on the west coast of Florida!

YOU SON OF A . I was yelling and loosing my temper and by now the airplane was clearly in cahoots with the GPS. Then, just when I felt like I was learning faster than the GPS, and starting to outsmart it a little, it started playing dirty! As my fingers tried to put in the letters NDPP or the identifier for Puerto Plata, with the correct protocol on the correct page, the GPS screen started changing, as message after message blocked my view. OFF COURSE ALARM! It would yell at me. What do you mean alarm, am I not alarmed enough for you? I would clear that and go back to entering data and a few desperate seconds later all my work was gone again The voice in my head was yelling Press page, press page again, keep the wings level.., whats your heading? Then there was a bump, and my fingers would hit the wrong button and I had to start the process all over again Press page Press page again. Are there it is, Now enter, scroll down.., stop. Enter N P P "AIRSPACE ALERT! SPECIAL USE AIRSPACE AHEAD IN 10 MILES" Before I knew it I was back to Press page, press page. And so on. Then M no back to N then P then" OFF COURSE ALARM!" Heading! Altitude!

Then there came the first flash of lightening! - Right in front of me too. I remember thinking, Now who the hell invited this guy to the fight? Then there was a huge spine jarring bump and the 20 pound life raft that was supposed to be my best friend, suddenly decided to move from the rear of the airplane and appeared right next to me on top of the charts in the co-pilots seat. Damn! I exclaimed in disbelief! What the heck do you want? Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to grab the seat belt that was lying loosely at its side and strap the fat bastard down Take that! I yelled in triumph. Alas, my glory was short lived however as we suddenly hit yet another invisible monster bump that caused everything to crash around in the cockpit and the GPS that I had laid down for a moment on the glare shield took off and flew to the back of the airplane narrowly missing my right eye in the process! Why - you little! I said turning my head to follow its trajectory and looking back there I discovered that the bag that I had left open after searching for the GPS had now vomited its contents and the anarchy that was once confined to my bag was now on the loose and having a wild party in the back of the airplane! And somewhere in that party was the GPS doing the Salsa with one of my shoes and a pair of my dirty socks!

Finally, in desperation, I all but gave up on the GPS. I focused my attention on the airplane and descended to 500 feet above the water and flew away from the storm and almost directly south. I knew that the Island of Hispaniola, almost 400 miles long, lay directly ahead east to west across my path of flight. It was out there some place and my instincts told me that I was headed in the vicinity of Puerto Plata. Just about 20 minutes later, and a little before dark, the Hispaniola coast line came in view. Just to the right of my course I could see the runway lights of Puerto Plata and my trial for the day was over as suddenly as it had began. Thankfully, this raucous party had not been a long one, but it had taken a lot out of me. I landed and found that the welcome I received was a lot warmer than the one I had received in Punta Cana. All I needed now was a soft place to lay my head and a dry place to sleep! I was safe, I was secure and I was remarkably unscathed. And all that night in my hotel room, I could hear the torrential rain pouring down on Hispaniola. This was the same rain that had followed me south and back to the island of Hispaniola. In fact it rained so hard that night that it flooded all of the tiled floors on second and third floors of the hotel that I had chosen to stay in. Now that is some hard rain!

David Board

Steve Weaver Aircraft Sales - Route 3 Box 696 - Phillipi, West Virginia - Phone 304-457-4523 - Fax 304-457-4799 For a restorative vacation for both your body and your soul, consider a week on the banks of the unforgettable Tygart River, in the heart of West Virginia. Click for more.

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