Sunday, June 15, 2008

Spice Island

Today's flight was to be the last one and would allow the airplane's owner to meet his insurance requirements for dual instruction. Our destination was Point Salines International Airport in Grenada with the contingency plan being a second, shorter VFR tour of Montserrat if we needed to log a bit more dual. I forgot to install the rechargable battery in my camera, which was still in the charger at the hotel, so no pictures on this trip.

We departed V.C. Bird after backtracking on the runway. I was aware that a British Airways flight was inbound to the airport, the tower asked us to expedite, but there was only so much we could do: The runway is nearly 9000 feet long and we entered the runway very near the departure end. As usual, the tower gave us our clearance as we were backtracking on the runway. I can't imagine why this is the standard procedure at so many airports in this area. I even heard a Liat Q400 that was holding short for landing traffic ask if their clearance was available. The tower just didn't seem to understand that it would be much safer if the IFR clearance was given while their aircraft was standing still.

About a third of the way down the runway, the tower told us to turn around abeam taxiway alpha and we were cleared for takeoff. As the airplane's owner turned the plane around, I asked the tower "say available takeoff distance from taxiway alpha." There was several seconds of silence, then they responded 1200 meters. I did an approximate conversion to feet and satisfied there was room, we started the takeoff roll.

About 30 miles from Guadeloupe, Raizet Approach offered us direct to GND (the Grenada VOR). We accepted immediately because our ground speed was a miserable 123 knots. It was obvious that we had a nasty headwind and the shortcut would save us some time. This provided a good opportunity to review the Garmin 530's winds aloft calculator and sure enough, we had a 30 plus knot wind, pretty much on the nose. But direct GND also took us away from Guadeloupe and I think the controller knew he was doing us another favor: There were several towering cumulonimbus clouds over the island and I wasn't excited at the prospect of flying near them.

I have enjoyed working with the French-speaking air traffic controllers of La Raziet and Martinique Approach. Sometimes their accent combines my unfamiliarity with the local navigation fixes and names to produce confusion, but the thing I like about them is that they are professional, polite, and cordial: Good traits in an air traffic controller. They also have radar, which seems to be in short supply in the Eastern Caribbean.

We were told by the Point Salines approach controller to report the island in sight for a visual approach, but we asked for the full VOR/DME runway 10 approach for training purposes. Not a problem, we were just asked to report turning outbound on the approach. The airplane's owner did a nice job flying a partial panel approach, complete with procedure turn. We landed with a stiff crosswind and made our way to parking.

Ground handling had been arranged by the airplane's owner and everything went smoothly. The fuel was expensive - $6.89US/gallon and only cash was accepted. We went through customs, paid the landing fee, got out outbound gendec stamped, filed the flight plan, and had time for a quick bite to eat.

Grenada is known as the Spice Island (not to be confused with the Spice Islands of New Guinea) because its economy is predominantly agricultural with the principal exports being nutmeg, cocoa, bananas and sugar cane. Tourism is also very important to the island and that drove the construction of their airport on the most obstruction free area of an otherwise hilly landscape. On the ramp I saw an Ameriflight metroliner and I must say they seem to be everywhere down here: Amost every island I've visited in the Carribean had an Ameriflight plane of some sort or another.

On departure, I asked ground if we could "fly the circuit" once (perform a touch and go) and then depart for V.C. Bird. He said he had our request and approved us to backtrack on the runway. We did our run-up in position (I'm still not comfortable with this practice) then said we were ready to depart. He cleared us for takeoff and cleared us for a touch and go. Wow! Familiar phraseology!

On the crosswind turn, I chopped the left throttle to simulate an engine failure and the airplane's owner brought us around for a simulated single-engine landing. We still didn't have our clearance to V.C. Bird, so we knew we'd have to copy it while airborne. The controller had not given us any departure instructions, so we turned crosswind and headed south-ish. Sure enough, we were
"cleared to V.C. Bird via Amber 324 FOF Amber 312 ANU direct, climb to level 090, maintain VFR until reaching level 040, report passing level 040 and joining the airway."

During the climb-out, we discussed a low instrument pressure reading we had noticed. This plane uses positive pressure instead of vacuum pressure to power the gyroscopic attitude indicator and HSI. The pressure was reading low and in the yellow. There are two engine-driven pressure pumps - one on the right engine and the other on the left. The pump failure indicator for each pump was not showing, so we weren't sure what was going on. The good news was that the HSI and attitude indicator were behaving normally, so we decided to continue and troubleshoot on the ground at V.C. Bird. We also discussed the dangers of getting distracted by a minor issue while airborne. If it ain't broke, don't mess with it.

Slow ground speed on the way down ended up making that leg over three hours long. Now it seemed we might be able to log another 3 hours or and satisfy the insurance requirements, but with the wind now on our tail we'd need to slow down. So back came the throttle to 18 inches of manifold pressure. We were still going 156 knots across the ground, so we reduced power to 16 inches and slowed us to 145 knots. Looking at our projected arrival time, we worried that might still be too fast.

Handed off to Martinque Approach, we were offered direct ANU. We asked to stay on our current routing "for training purposes" and the controller approved. They asked us to climb to level 100 and that's when we entered intermittent rain and began to see some darker clouds ahead covered by a high level cloud shield. The next controller was Raizet Approach and I remembered that the forecast for Guadelope and V.C. Bird had called for thundershowers during a vague, 12 hour period. As we got closer to Guadeloupe, we began to make out the outlines of a large build-up over the island and asked to divert 20 degrees to the left. After deviating about 10 miles, we thought we might be able to proceed direct to a fix on the FIR (Flight Information Region) boundary. When we rounded the first build-up, another cell came into view and it looked like there might be cells forming over Antigua, too.

Through the worst of it, we asked to descend and were transferred to V.C. Bird approach. They gave us a descent to 2500 feet and told us to join the 12 mile DME arc for runway 07 and report established. It looked dark and ominous to the west, but the 12 mile arc was mostly clear with light rain. Established, we were cleared to land with two other aircraft behind us. One of them didn't want to do the 12 mile arc because of the weather, but the conditions weren't that bad.

The plan was to do a no-flaps landing, land long, and make the right turn off toward the end of the runway. On final, I saw an aircraft only 2 miles away on a right base - the one that didn't want to fly the arc. This was going to be close. I asked the tower for a long landing with a right turn onto the "disused runway." They approved and we touched down about 1/3 of the way down the runway and hustled to make the turnoff. We cleared just as the other aircraft was approaching the threshold.

After we were parked, we noted that we had logged just the right amount of insurance mandated flight hours. We shutdown the left engine while watching the instrument pressure. As the left engine stopped, the pressure dropped to zero and both of the left and right pump failure indicators were displayed. It was clear the right engine's instrument pressure pump was probably dead. The check valve between the two pumps might also be suspect or the left pump might just be weak. Happily, there's an excellent mechanic on the field.

We'd seen weather delays, mechanical problems, and bad weather. We'd learned a lot about ICAO flight plans, local radio phraseology and procedures, and the gendec paperwork. I traveled to 8 different island nations in just over a week. Most importantly, the owner is now current and proficient and should get plenty of utility out of his airplane.

Before bidding the Duchess goodbye, I walked around and wiped down the engine cowlings with some wax and paper towels. I'd logged a lot of hours in this plane and have seen her through some difficult times. It's strange how you can get attached to an aircraft and though this trip turned out to be a lot longer that planned, I have to admit I'll miss her. After checking out with the ground handlers, I turned around and gave one long, last look at the Duchess of Antigua.


Matt said...

Thanks for sharing your stories of this trip. I really enjoyed reading about how things are done in the Caribbean, and it seems like a great experience for all involved.


Hamish said...

Wow — this has been fun reading — thanks! I admit it's a little strange seeing the familiar old Duchess of Oakland now transformed into the Duchess of Antigua, but I guess 83Y got a nice hangar out if it back here in Oaktown :-).

Head in the Clouds said...

Thanks for the stories! I'm intrigued by the idea of flying around the Carribean (though I'm not yet ready to do it in a single!).