Leaving Providenciales, some things began to change while others stayed the same. It seemed we were incessantly asking for deviations around towering clouds, like before, but reliable weather surface weather reports, forecasts, and weather radar became few and far between. To add to the interest, the weather display on the handheld Garmin 496 went Tango Uniform - all it said was "No XM signal."
The routing to Borinquen (nobody but Jeppesen refers to it as Aguadilla) was Grand Turk VOR - Amber 555 - IDAHO - direct. I could see on the Jepp low-altitude en route chart that HARDY was on the FIR (Flight Information Region) boundary, so I programmed it in the Garmin, too. Sure enough, Miami asked me for an estimated time to HARDY ... It may still possible to teach an old freight dog new tricks.
About 120 miles out from IDAHO intersection, Miami Center informed us that they'd be losing radio contact and that I should contact San Juan Center upon reaching HARDY. If needed to contact Miami prior to that, they suggested asking another aircraft to relay. An interesting concept when over the ocean in a small aircraft, but I have to say that I didn't really feel any apprehension flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it's all the hours I've spent maneuvering over San Pablo Bay or Monterey Bay in Northern California.
80 miles or so out from Borinquen, I was finally able to retrieve the surface weather using their newly commissioned ATIS frequency. This frequency is not yet printed on the Jepp charts; Another reason to check NOTAMs carefully, I guess. The ATIS recording sounded pretty normal until it got the the part about "altimeter missing." That's like a mailman who doesn't deliver mail in the rain when their motto says "Neither rain, nor ..." Okay, I had the surface winds and I knew they were landing runway 8, but how could the altimeter be missing from a non-automated ATIS recording?
San Jaun Center handed us off to San Juan approach, who cleared us direct to the VOR. There were some pretty large clouds and a solid cloud deck between the airport and us, so I asked to go direct to ODEZZ, the intermediate approach fix for the TJBQ RNAV (GPS) RWY 8 approach. Approach told me I could do that, but they would be unable to give me an IFR approach clearance since they couldn't provide an altimeter setting. Again with the missing altimeter! Who had it? Why was it missing? I'd find out later.
We went through a thick, bumpy cloud layer, broke out in light rain and as I turned onto the intermediate approach course, I called the airport in sight and was cleared for the visual approach. Oh, and there was a NOTAM on the ATIS warning pilots of a 1 foot deep hold on the runway, just left of the centerline, at the 5000 foot marker.
We landed, avoided the hole on the runway, and were directed to the Customs and Border Protection ramp. There is a stark contrast between clearing customs in Provo and customs in the U.S. In Provo, they greet you, call you "captain", shake your hand, and welcome you to their country. In the U.S., we were the only two people in the customs area and we were surrounded by about a dozen armed CBP agents. Either it was a really boring day at the office or they were prepared for something really bad. We were friendly and polite, which eventually seemed to ease their tensions - and the tension there was palpable. After all of our papers were filled out and found to be in order, our passports scrutinized, my pilot and medical certificate examined, the aircraft's registration removed from the aircraft, our luggage x-rayed, the interior of the aircraft inspected, and we were free to go. CBP did return the aircraft registration so I could put it back in the plane, but they confiscated a orange and an apple we'd purchased in California. Fruit would have been allowed if we'd not stopped in Provo. After all this, I turned to the lead agent, offered him my thanks and my hand. He looked nervous, then reluctantly shook my hand. What a mess ...
We then taxied to the Western Aviation FBO parking and were happy to once again be among friendly, happy people. I even heard the story about the missing altimeter. it seems the person who installed a new altimeter for the tower had not been paid by the airport. The installer has refused to certify the altimeter until they get paid. Since the altimeter is not certified, the controllers cannot give out altimeter settings. Some large aircraft are flying in and out of this airport. JetBlue, Continental, and FedEx. Oh, and there's a hole in the middle of the runway and no one seems to have enough asphalt or concrete to fill it.
With the plane put to bed, I found Aguadilla to be a quietly intriguing city. We had a nice stay at the newly constructed Marriot, which I highly recommend. We also had a wonderful dinner at 1867, which is kind of hard to find in what used to be the old officer's mess, but it's worth the effort. The restaurant's name comes from their approximate latitude and longitude - 18˚ North, 67˚ West. The quality of the menu compares favorably with many San Francisco Bay Area restaurants.
We hoped to not arise quite so early for the next day's leg of the journey.