Today's flight was a roundtrip to Trinidad and it was a long one. Our goal was to log more flight time with less time pushing paper around though Immigration, Customs, ... We also needed to log an RNAV approach and Piarco International Airport seemed to fit the bill.
The trip down was a lesson in dodging build-ups. Most of the clouds were not too high, but they tended to be right in the middle of our route since there's often more lifting action over land and that's where the VORs are located. We were flying IFR and could have legally penetrated any of these clouds, but the airplane's owner will soon be flying non-pilot friends around and the object is to provide as smooth a ride a possible.
Most of the higher cloud tops appeared to be at 9000 to 10,000 feet and we were flying at 7000 feet. So we went through a couple of them to see what it was like. Some were benign and others contained some serious bumps. One way to predict how bumpy the ride might be inside a cloud is to look at how well-defined the edges of the cloud appear. If the cloud looks like cauliflower and the edges are distinct, look out! Another predictor of turbulence is the extent of the vertical development - the higher the cloud, the greater the lifting action and turbulence it contains.
Deviating around nasty clouds is easy. If I need to deviate less than 10 degrees or so for just a mile, I don't bother asking ATC. If I need to deviate more or for a longer distance, I tell ATC that I need to deviate left or right, the number of degrees of heading change, and provide an estimate of how many miles before I can go back on course. It's really pretty easy, but some pilots I've flown with are reluctant to ask. It's like making announcements on the common traffic advisory frequency at a non-towered airport: Pilots who are filled with bravado suddenly become shy.
For about 100 miles or so during the southern third of our trip it appeared there was no radar contact from ATC. We were asked to make several position reports along the way and the reply light on our transponder seldom flashed until a few minutes before were handed off to Piarco Approach.
The skies were hazy on the approach into Piarco and we had to penetrate some clouds before turning final. The airplane's owner stayed under the hood because the visibility on final was pretty good. He flew a good RNAV approach and did a nice landing.
The tower told us initially to turn left, which was toward the big terminal. Then, before we had turned, he changed his mind and asked us to turn right, toward the GA side of the airport. That was the way we were expecting to go. But just when I thought I'd seen everything, something new and unexpected crops up. The tower controller eventually brought us back to the runway and had us cross to the side where the main terminal is located. "Taxi via alpha, alpha one, hold short at Oscar, contact ramp services on ..." Well this was going to be interesting.
Ramp services told us to taxi to Gate 6, so we did. We stopped well short of the jetway so we could do a 180 degree turn and taxi out on our own power when it was time to leave. There was no one to marshal us in, but shortly after engine shut down, a gentleman appeared to assist us. We hadn't arranged a "handler" which is something you need to do at all major airports in the Caribbean since they are not set up to handle paperwork for smaller aircraft.
Heraman agreed to act as our handler, but warned us there would be a $250US fee. We had read about this and the aircraft's owner was prepared. We had also read that Trinidad requires 5 copies of inbound gendec paperwork, but it turned out they wanted 7 copies. For outbound gendec paperwork, they want a staggering 9 copies. But before we could deal with that, we had to visit the health office.
There was a lot of loud talking in the health office, much of it directed at us. They asked me if I had sprayed the aircraft and confused, I said no. The Boss there looked very frustrated and asked me again "Did you spray the aircraft before landing?" I assured The Boss that I hadn't and that I didn't understand what he was talking about.
The Boss stomped over to a cabinet, opened it, and it was filled with a hundred or so small yellow spray cans. He took one and handed it to me. "Our laws require you to spray the inside of the aircraft before landing." Then he turned to Heraman and said "You should not have brought them inside! We are supposed to meet them at the aircraft!" While he was berating Heraman, I looked at the can. It was insecticide - permethrin. The otherwise excellent Caribbean Pilot's Guide had made no mention of this requirement and perhaps it is fairly new.
Another gentleman was dispatched by The Boss to accompany us back to the plane. We opened the baggage compartment door and he sprayed the can inside the plane. Then I had to write a few words and sign each of the five pages of our inbound gendec saying that the plane had been sprayed and that neither of us was ill. While this was going on, an American Airlines jet was pushing from Gate 5 and I just had to get a picture.
The spraying accomplished, we returned to the health office and The Boss seemed satisfied and sent us on to immigration. We stood around in the office while the officials decided what to do with us. They looked at our gendecs, asked Heraman some questions, looked us up and down, asked Heraman some more questions, looked at our passports and pilot certificates. They then turned to a gentleman I assumed to be a senior official (he was wearing a pilot's shirt with captain's bars) and asked him some questions. He looked at me with a withering gaze, but I just returned his gaze in a calm, respectful manner. After this 10 second stare-down, he said something in a language or dialect I couldn't recognize and one of the women began stamping each of our inbound gendecs.
Heraman led us next to the main terminal area where the airplane's owner paid the landing fees. Heraman had some other paperwork to run down, so he said we could get something to eat in the adjacent food court and that he'd meet us there in 20 minutes. We sauntered over to a Starbucks imitation store, got a snack and sat down to relax. I glanced out the window and there was the Duchess sitting at Gate 6. I hoped that no one needed to use Gate 6. It appeared we would be there for at least another 20 minutes. I checked the departures/arrivals screen, but was saddened to see we weren't listed as occupying Gate 6.
We eventually made it back to the south side of the field, bought 250 liters of 100 LL fuel, and prepared to depart. The left engine started without a hitch, but the right engine's starter just went "whirrrrrr!" and the prop didn't move. $%@#! It was clear the starter bendix drive was on its last legs, but I was bound and determined to not spend the night in Trinidad.
I asked the owner to shutdown the left engine and ensure the master and mags for both sides were off. I got out of the aircraft and, with extreme care, I pulled the left prop through one half of a turn and asked the owner to try the right engine start again. "Whirrrrrr!" Double $@&*! With the mags and master off, I again turned the prop one more half revolution. When the owner tried the starter again, it engaged and he was able to get the right engine started. Phew!
I climbed back in, we started the left engine, got our clearance, and soon were winging our way to V.C. Bird as the sun set. But I was concerned about the next day. Knowing the right starter was suspect and that the right engine is a counter-rotating, a replacement starter would be hard to locate. We have more training to do, but I was wary about any more flying until this issue was addressed.
Yes, maintenance happens even in paradise.