Ahh…the Caribbean…a lovely locale. Beautiful beaches, blue-green water, and cool music…what’s not to love? I got to spend a few days in Barbados getting ready to fly a Cessna 421 back to the US, and really enjoyed the island. This particular C-421 had been in service as an inter-island charter airplane, and had spent the last 8 years flying all over the Caribbean. The owner was moving up to a King Air, and Ridgeaire ended up buying it with plans to make it pristine and offer it for sale. My job was to get it to Texas in one piece.
To tell this ferry pilot story accurately, I’d have to tell the darker side of being a ferry pilot – “hurry up and wait.” I showed up in Barbados with a to-do list that was short and easy. Then I hit snag after snag and delay after delay getting this list accomplished. I needed a Barbados validation of my pilot license, a simple step that you would think would only take a few minutes, right? Well, the government bureaucracy of Barbados is much like our Federal Govt. They took a simple request, WAY over-charged for an easy paperwork drill, and then took two full days to get it done. Then came the ferry permit, which was accomplished by the same office – and you know how quickly that was done…not! I waited an waited and waited. I got a hotel room and went for the beach while the details were sorted out. Finally, when everything was negotiated and complete, it was time to leave, I had to get fuel. The guy that fueled the airplane did a fabulous job, but then would only take cash for the fuel. Ever try to get $1,200+USD in a foreign country? It took me 2 hours to do it, and I owe my new friend Randy huge kudos for helping me, but it was done. With everything accomplished, it was time to fly away. It was later than I wanted, but I was ready to go to the Dominican Republic and maybe further.
I took off at about 5pm in beautiful weather. Barbados is really pretty from the air.
After I raised the landing gear, I noticed that the HYD Pump caution light was illuminated. I knew the gear had come up, but I didn’t want to hurt the airplane by pressing on ignorantly. I decided to continue the climb and do some quick reading to try and determine the best course of action. I considered the maintenance support that was available in Barbados and considered the possibility of hurting the airplane. After my quick read through the pertinent parts of the POH, I decided to pull the HYD Pump circuit breaker and press on forward. The gear worked perfectly, except for the light, so with my updated/confirmed mental knowledge of the landing gear system, I felt comfortable. (I later called a Cessna 421 guru and learned that I made a wise choice. One of the gear uplock switches had malfunctioned and I did not hurt the system at all by continuing the mission.)
Most of the flight northwest bound was uneventful. The Caribbean was amazingly smooth, far smoother that anything over the North Atlantic that I’ve seen. The air was also very smooth. It was a peaceful flight, and I even had a really good sunset to enjoy.
The peaceful Caribbean was lulling me into complacency. It was just going too smoothly. I approached Puerto Rico at nightfall and began to see flashes of lightning in the distance. Nothing big, but it did get my attention. I began to talk to San Juan FSS about the weather ahead and learned that there were in fact some storms to deal with. I thought long an hard about my options. I didn’t want to divert and cause a logistical customs issue at the wrong airfield, but I sure didn’t want to fight bad weather in an airplane the I had not yet grown to trust. As it turns out, I got to build some trust with my new mechanical flying friend.
20 miles east of Santo Domingo, DR, the weather was clear…I could see the city lights and even a boat or two in the darkness. Then, with the onboard radar working, I found the weather. ATIS reported 2000m visibility and heavy rain. American, Jet Blue, and others were chatty with ATC about their options. I entered the clouds at 6,000 ft and got vectored for the ILS to RWY 17 at MDSD. Bumpy, rain pelting the windshield, and my radar screen all of the sudden quite colorful, I proceeded.
I landed in Santo Domingo DR in a driving rain. I don’t mean a little rain, I mean one of those “cow pissing on a flat rock” rains. It took me five minutes to taxi to the FBO because I had such a hard time seeing, even with really good airport lighting. The guys at the FBO were at my airplane with umbrellas and did a super job of helping me get inside. They found me a nice hotel, and even helped me through security. After that ILS approach, I was ready for bed and wasn’t about to test the Caribbean at night anymore. The peacefulness of the Southern Caribbean was contrasted with the downpour in the Dominican Republic. I decided to tackle the western Caribbean after a night’s sleep and a good breakfast. The C-421 was beginning to build my trust…
Departing Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic was another fueling fiasco. Although I checked prior to arrival, and they said they took debit cards, when I asked for fuel, they said they only too cash. And to make things worse, they would not even accept local currency. They only took USD or Euros. Unbelievable! I had to go to the ATM and get local currency and then go to a money exchanger (think “3rd world payday lender” down a dark alley, and you’ll be close to accurate) to convert the local currency to USD. To make matters more frustrating, the guy that actually fueled my airplane asked for my debit card after refueling. Evidently, they do take debit cards and the guys “helping” at the FBO were wrong. They apologized profusely, but the delay cost me a precious hour and additional costs for the exchange. I shall avoid MDSD in the future!
The flight out of MDSD was routine, but there were lots of clouds which blocked the view of the Dominican Republic. As I flew east-northeast, the weather got better and better. Soon I was in the clear with only scattered fair weather cumulus below me. The Bahamas are particularly beautiful from the air. The pics just do not do it justice. The blue-green waters dotted by seemingly thousands of small islands make this a place that it seems one could get purposely lost and never found. It looks like a great place to “go off the grid”. The shallow waters are simply stunning.
The C-421C is behaving quite nicely. She has introduced no additional problems and I’m gaining confidence in her ability.
As I came up on the US Coastline near Ft Lauderdale, I was amazed at the amount of growth along the coastline. Just north of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale is the Airport of Entry in that part of the world, and there is virtually no change in development from Miami to the north. Large buildings line the coastline and the inland waters provide protection for the large ships that use the port. It is quite impressive, even for an American, but it was a stark contrast to any other place I visited or flew over on this trip.
My landing was uneventful, and the passage through US Customs was relatively easy. My biggest arguments against this part of the trip…I HATE airport fees (landing, approach, or operational) as this seems to be the main way of funding for poor countries with abysmal aviation markets, not the US where 99% of the airports do not have associated fees. After going through US Customs, the next step is to stop at the desk to pay a landing fee for KFLL. As much as I could tell, the fee goes to the City of Ft. Lauderdale and their airport. However, I MUST land at KFLL to clear customs. So, it is nothing more than a government sanctioned crime scene as pilots are forced to land and forced to pay. And…here’s another crime being committed at KFLL…the FBO’s charge $8.00/gallon (while most of the US is paying around $5.50/gallon as of this writing). They know they can because they know people come from afar in civilian airplanes must land there for US Customs, and they know they will need fuel. So, even though there’s 3+ FBO’s on the field they all just shoot for the moon and charge whatever they want. I’m sure there’s plenty of airport fees involved in that price too, which means that the City of Ft. Lauderdale is really banking on their airport. So…I have learned to HATE KFLL because it is nothing more than government mandated thievery. I specifically avoid airports in the US that charge landing fees, and next time I fly from the south into the US, I’ll search to find the best way to avoid funding KFLL’s misbehavior. America has the best aviation market in the world, and I HATE people who purposefully try to destroy it to their own benefit. It’s the goose and the golden egg story…kill the goose and the golden eggs will stop.
OK…after that rant I feel much better…I’m on the way home on the third leg of the trip and have dirt and an abundance of airports underneath me. I’ve made this Florida-to-Texas flight literally hundreds of times, so this part is fairly routine to me. There is lots to see, though. The Emerald Coast is really nice, and I have fond memories of Ft. Rucker and its environs from my military flight training days. ATC would not let me fly over the Gulf of Mexico, and I did not protest too much. I’m still in an airplane that is unproven, although running very well right now. Going through the Southeast US only adds about 20 minutes to the trip, and it adds a boatload of security knowing I’ve got places to land in case things go wrong.
It has been a good flight, and one that I hope to do again soon. I made it in 13 hours of flight time in two days. The C-421C got me home, and gained my trust. It is dirty and ready for a good cleaning, but it is not alone…I’m the same, and shall enjoy a shower and my comfortable bed tonight.