Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Don't Stop the Carnival

When I've not been staring out our hotel room at the ocean with my mouth open for hours at a time, I've been giving dual instruction to the aircraft owner. There is more flying to be done to satisfy insurance company requirements. My first impression is that flight training in the Caribbean has a pretty high overhead since you often (if not always) need to file an ICAO flight plan and prepare a GEN DEC (general declaration) for customs. Most inter-island flights involve going to another country and you have to clear customs each time you land.

Yesterday, we tried to ask the local ground controller for permission to taxi for a local training flight, but it was pretty much confusion and mayhem. He didn't understand what we wanted and we didn't understand what he wanted to hear us say. Finally we figured out how to describe what we wanted to do - A local training flight, 10 miles southeast, between flight level 045 and 065, two souls on board, 4 hours 30 minutes fuel. We were able to do some maneuvers - slow flight, stalls, steep turns, Vmc demonstration, and one landing. It's still not clear to us if the tower will allow us to practice landings. I heard afterward that if we ask to "fly the circuit" they will understand and let us practice landings. We'll try it one of these days, but today's flight was to the south to Le Raizet airport on Guadeloupe because they have an ILS.

The ICAO flight plan form is not that big a deal, once you've filled it out a few times. And if you do any training down here, you'll get lots of practice at filling them out. Once you have the form completed, you most often need to fax it to the local ATC authorities - often the local tower. And then you need to call them to make sure they got it. The folks at the local FBO 2000 were incredibly helpful. They faxed our flight plan, called to make sure the tower received it, and prepared two Gen Dec packets for us - one for departure and the other for our return.

We got our clearance from ground much more quickly today than yesterday since everything about our request was "normal." Based on yesterday's experience, we also decided to do our run up prior to calling for taxi. The tower likes to have you "back track" (their phrase for "back taxi") on the runway before take off and I'm not a big fan of doing a run up on an active runway. They also use the term "line up and wait" and that is something that all U.S. pilots will soon have to get used to hearing. The other odd thing is that the controllers won't give you your clearance before you taxi, they give it to you as you are back tracking on the runway. Odd ...

The flight from V.C. Bird to Le Raizet is only 54 nautical miles, almost exactly the distance from Oakland, CA to Santa Rosa, CA. We requested the ILS 11 and were given vectors in a fashion very much like what I'm used to in the U.S. It's clear that Raizet Approach not only has radar, they know how to use it. In other parts of the Caribbean, I'm not so sure. The Raizet controllers were also very professional, though their tempo is more relaxed than what I'm used to back home.

The Raizet controllers spend about 60% of the time speaking French on frequency, which makes sense given the official language of this island is French. I on the other hand, do not speak much French at all. I hope to learn more someday, but for now I guess I'm just an ugly American. The end result was that it was difficult for me to get a mental picture of what was going in the sky around us.

The aircraft owner flew a credible ILS, we landed, were given instructions to taxi to the base of the tower, and shutdown. As soon as the engines stopped, we were met by a customs official who seemed please to see that we had our Gen Dec filled out and our passports and pilot's certificates available. He asked us some questions, looked inside the plane and then said we were okay and left. Then another airport worker/official arrived in an official-looking car and tried to figure out what we wanted to do next. You see he spoke French, we spoke mostly English, and the result was a sort of hilarious carnival ride.

The confusion started with whether or not we wanted something to eat. We tried to ask where we could get something to drink, but our helper thought we wanted a restaurant. He gestured that we should get in his official car. We did and soon we were whizzing around the airport toward the main passenger terminal. Once there, we entered an office where we paid a landing fee of US$26. Our helper then led us through the bowels of the Le Raizet airport baggage handling area, around a maze of tunnels until we finally passed through a nondescript door and erupted abruptly into the main passenger terminal as if falling out of a secret compartment.

Our helper led us to a convenience shop where I selected two bags of chips and a bottle of water. The aircraft's owner chose a salami sandwich and then we tried to pay. The woman behind the counter could barely contain her contempt for us, or so it seemed to me. I offered her a credit card. She sneered and shook her head - "Nooouhh!" I produced a different credit card, she rolled her eyes and reluctantly tried to process it. That didn't work. An Air France flight attendant was now waiting behind us along with another customer or two. Things were getting tense.

Suddenly our helper was leading me back into the concourse toward the Bureau de Change. I motioned toward an ATM of a type that I had successfully used with my ATM card in France last summer, but he ignored my pleas of "ATM, ATM!"

The woman at the currency exchange clearly found me pedestrian. I slid US$20 through the slot and she shook her head. She wanted more. I slid another twenty through and she just gestured that she needed more for this to be worth her trouble. I slid one more twenty through and she snatched the bills with a sudden alertness and agility. She quickly produced a U.S. ten dollar bill and about 30 euros. I thanked her in my terrible French, she grimaced, and I made it back to the convenience store.

Soon we were led back through airport's large intestine to the landing fee office. The staff there was very gracious and they spoke excellent English. I filled out the flight plan form, we used their fax machine, and I was headed for the door when one of the women grabbed me. I forgot I needed to call to make sure the flight plan was received. She dialed the number and handed me the phone just as a voice was streaming French at me. I made out a few words and stammered:

"Ah, do you speak English, by chance?"

"Yes, I do. Do you speak French?"

"No, not really."

"Well you should, it's really a wonderful language."

"I'd like to learn, it's just that I've been so busy filling out all these flight plan forms ..."

After this playful banter, I asked if he had received the flight plan. He had. I asked if he knew whether the tower would allow us to do a couple of ILS approaches before heading back to V.C. Bird. He asked me to standby and got on the other phone. I could hear him in the background, asking someone something in French, then he said, "Yes, it should not be a problem at all."

Our helper took us back across the airport to where we left the Duchess. I asked where I could find a toilet and was directed to another building near where the plane was parked. A man inside saw me through his office window office and gestured. I went to his office and he asked if I was the pilot with the Duchess. When I said I was, he explained that we would need two flight plans; one for the ILS approach and one for the return to V.C. Bird. He had already filled out the second flight plan for us, guestimating the correct departure times. Talk about service!

We started up and soon were airborne and handed off to Raizet Approach. They vectored us around for the ILS 11, we flew through some bumpy clouds, reported established, and were handed off to the tower. We tried to ask the tower if we could do a touch and go, but they just replied with something about flying the missed approach. Unsure if we were permitted to do a landing, we just did a low approach, then announced the missed approach. We went around again for another ILS and this time the tower gave us departure instructions back to V.C. Bird.

The plane's owner was getting tired, so I did some of the radio communication. I read back the instructions as best I could, but the tower had used the name of a SID that I didn't recognize. I fumbled back "... climb and maintain flight level 060, QNH 1014, and we'll comply with the departure." That wasn't good enough. He repeated the instructions, again using a word I couldn't recognize or find on my Jeppesen SID. So on my second readback, I said "... we'll comply with the departure to KASKI" and that seemed to placate him.

As we approached V.C. Bird Approach's airspace we were handed off and the aircraft's owner checked in. The controller asked us to report KASKI, which is on the FIR (flight information region) boundary. A phrase the approach controllers often use here is "report your passing level." Said with a Jamaican-like accent, this had me confused until I realized it equivalent to the U.S. phraseology "say flight level leaving." The aircraft owner flew the 12 DME ARC RWY 07 approach. It's a VOR approach, but "VOR" doesn't appear in the title and it has no final approach fix depicted. At any rate, it ended with a nice landing.

Flying here has really taken me away from my ordinary flying routine in California. Tomorrow's agenda is a training flight to St. Kitts, St. Maarten, and Anguilla. All I can say is Don't stop the Carnival.


crazyscot said...

Back track is the standard phrase in the UK as well. Possibly that's the ICAO-preferred term? "Line up and wait" is pretty commonplace here too at towered fields.

From what I've experienced and read, a certain laxness of readbacks is peculiar to the US and Canada. I'm not in controlled airspace all that often, but they really do want that precise readback. I was at a busy airport flying some practice surveillance radar approaches at the weekend, here's a snippet:

Radar controller: "G-YZ Advise when ready to copy missed approach instructions"
Me: "Ready to copy, G-YZ"
R: "G-YZ On the missed approach, climb straight ahead, not above 2,000', at the upwind end of the runway turn left then depart the zone VFR direct to [my home field]."
Me: "On the missed approach, left turn at the upwind end of the runway, not above 2,000', depart the zone VFR direct to [home], G-YZ."
R: "G-YZ Readback correct."

Not enough people in the GA world pay enough attention to their radio work, and it shows. Certainly in the London area, it's busy; he who hesitates gets stepped on. A couple of years ago I got clearance to transit through a busy class D zone - one renowned for not being friendly to transits - and I'm sure it was because I was trying to sound confident on the radio and didn't waste any of their time.

Blake said...

Great post.

Its interesting to see that what you consider to be phraseology "quirks", is normal here in Canada.

"back track"
"line up and wait"

even ICAO flights plans are all the norm.

However, they usually give you your ifr clearance before you start taxiing.

John said...


There are bound to be differences in phraseology in different places and that's part of the challenge when flying in another country. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that the phraseology I'm used to in the U.S. is right, I'm just saying it's different. Add in unfamiliar accents and communications can become a real challenge.

As I mentioned, "line up and wait" is something that U.S. pilots will have to get used as I'm told that the U.S. controllers will soon start using that phraseology. However, the whole QNH/QFE thing and the varying flight levels is something I won't miss when I get back home.

John said...


I think saying that laxness in read backs is peculiar to the U.S. is a pretty broad statement.

I've heard poor radio work in many places and I think it's all too easy to assume that it's the controller, the other pilot, or the other country that's being lax. Regardless of the language spoken, precise radio work takes effort. Many pilots and controllers need to make a better effort, in my opinion.

Read through by blog archives and you'll see that I am a proponent of precise phraseology, too. I might emphasize the accepted U.S. phraseology, but when in Rome ...

crazyscot said...

Fair comment. Indeed, when in Rome!

Anonymous said...

Your experiences with the insane bureaucracy of forms, fees, peculiar procedures, necessity of filing a flight plan to do circuits, etc. is a wonderful testament to how free and open we flyers have it in the U.S. This "helper" you mention is a common phenomenon at airports outside the U.S. There always seems to be a resident "facilitator" or two at third world airports and you better accept the help (and pay the stipend) whether you need it or not - or find your departure clearance rescinded for mysterious reasons after you've taxied a mile and a half to the takeoff point. So then you taxi back and fulfill some niggling demand, wasting much fuel and time.

South Africa comes close, but to my knowledge there is not another country on the planet where we aviators have it so free and good as here in the U.S. Just try and think of another country where you can go get in your airplane at two in the morning, fly across the country and not ask anyone's permission or even talk to anyone if you don't want to.

Our current government may be currently led by clowns, but your experiences are a good reminder that the U.S. doesn't completely own that market. And it's a good pointer too for those who may not realize what a paradise we U.S. pilots enjoy.

John said...


Just to be clear, the man who assisted us in La Raizet did not asked to be paid nor did we pay him. That would not always be the case on future flights.

Before we U.S. citizens get all high and mighty, I'd like to remind my readers that virtually every flight I've made here involved crossing borders from one country to another.

In the U.S., we can fly long distances while remaining in the same country. That alone makes things simpler, but it's really just an accident of the political geography and nothing more.

Flying into the U.S. from another country is just as wacky, maybe more so as entering another country in the Caribbean. Read my earlier post about entering Puerto Rico. At least all of the countries down here use the same gendec form, unlike the U.S. which insists on using its own.