Thursday, June 26, 2008

California's Burning

While the midwest is soaked and flooded, Northern California is choked with smoke. Here's a listing of today's TFRs (Temorary Flight Restrictions). All but one of the blue dots that depicts the various TFR are associated with a wildfire. From Big Sur (just south of Monterey) to Mt. Shasta, over 800 fires are burning and most are less than 40% contained.

Low winds have kept the fires from getting even larger, but the lack of wind has also created a smoke inversion layer. The visibility and air quality in the SF Bay Area has been pretty bad, but it's even worse in the Livermore and Central Valleys. As a result, flying has been a bit constrained. I did a couple of practice approaches into Concord and afterward, I felt as if I'd smoked two packs of Gauloises.

I hope these fires come under control pretty soon. Unfortunately, the forecast for this weekend is predicting dry lightning.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Caribbean Conclusions

At the end of any trip comes the inevitable realizations about lessons learned as well as the comparisons and contrasts. Before I get to that, I'd like to ask readers who find my blog useful to consider making a donation to support my continued efforts. Over the last two-plus years, I've been writing regular blog entries that I hope are informative, useful, and entertaining. Writing takes time and, well, time is money.

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After 4 weeks "on the road," here are my observations about radio work, position reporting, paperwork, fueling, immigration/customs, weather briefings, airport security, and GA flying versus airline flying.

Aviation Phraseology

Purists insist that rules about communication need to be followed, and to a degree they are correct. I consider myself to be a bit of a purist, by the way. Rules and accepted phrases are intended to allow pilots and controllers to communicate efficiently and prevent mistakes, but rules can't cover every situation. In spite of efforts to standardize what is said on the radio, there will be local variations and spur of the moment improvisations because rules can't cover everything. For pilots who intend to travel to the Caribbean, here are my suggestions for radio communications.

If you don't understand what a controller has said because of their accent or phraseology, don't delay responding while you try to puzzle out what they said. Instead, promptly reply with something like "I'm sorry, could you say again please, slowly ..." If you think you know what has been communicated, but are not sure, then by all means paraphrase what you have heard and don't fret too much about phraseology. Remember that the goal is communication - the exchange of meaningful information - not a stylized dance.

If you are a U.S. pilot, get used to including November in your callsign. The usual practice in the U.S. is to omit the November part of your callsign when you include your aircraft manufacturer or model. Outside the U.S., the November prefix needs to be included. You may find the habit of omitting November to be as tough to break as I did.

There often will be no radar service in the areas in which you have choosen to fly, so brush up on position reporting. A abbreviated position report format is PTA-Next, which stands for:

Position (name of the fix)
Time (in Zulu)
Altitude (or flight level)
Next fix and your estimate for reaching that fix.

This is especially useful when handed off from one ATC facility to another, for example:
Raizet approach, November 1234 Delta, MEDUS, level niner zero, 1933 Zulu, estimating TASAR at 1950 Zulu
Approaching a terminal area that has no radar, expect to be asked to report your position relative to a VOR or NDB:
Say your distance and radial from Alpha November Uniform VOR
You can preempt this request by offering it when you check in:
V.C. Bird approach, November 1234 Delta, level niner zero, 25 miles out, ANU 192 radial, information Foxtrot

During pre-flight planning and while en route, pay particular attention to FIR (flight information region) boundaries. They are depicted on Jepp and FAA IFR low altitude en route charts as well as on World Aeronautical charts. You can be prepared to provide an estimate to the FIR boundary by including the fix that falls on the boundary in your GPS flight plan, if you are GPS equipped.

You will probably be asked to "Report your estimate crossing the boundary" or "Report crossing the boundary," which mean when you think you'll cross the FIR boundary or when you are actually crossing it, respectively. Below is an excerpt from the Caribbean Low Altitude En Route Chart and you can see the blue dotted line representing FIR boundary around the Turks and Caicos. I've circled MICAS, a waypoint you might enter into your GPS flight plan if you were inbound on the airway A555.

Here are a few phrases that I got used to hearing and their U.S. equivalent:
"November 34 Delta, you are radar identified" = Radar contact.
"Say your leaving level" = Say altitude or flight level you are descending through.
"Say your passing level" = Say altitude or flight level you are climbing through.
"Backtrack runway zero seven" = Backtaxi on runway seven.
"November 34 Delta, copy ATC clearance." = IFR clearance available, advise ready to copy (Be prepared to do this while taxiing).
"I'll call you back" = Standby
Paperwork, Flight Plans, Customs

Become familiar with ICAO flight plan forms. They aren't difficult, they're just different. Both DUAT and DUATS offer HTML version of these that you can experiment with, but remember that flight plans originating outside the U.S. and its territories will need to be filed with the local ATC authority. This means you'll have to use the paper version and fax it or hand-carry it to the appropriate office.

Below is an excerpt of a DUAT ICAO flight plan form. When you specify your aircraft's equipment, start with S (for standard) and then include every other type of capability your aircraft has. The Duchess I was flying was GPS equipped with two VOR receivers, two glideslope receivers, and DME so the acronym I came up with was SD GLO. The RMK section is where you can enter remarks and I always put ADCUS, which is supposed to indicate to ATC that they should "advise customs" at your destination on your behalf prior to your arrival. Prior notification of customs is a requirement for all countries.

The part of the ICAO flight plan that references dinghy is referring to what you might know as a life raft. You'll need to put the number of life rafts, the number of people the rafts can hold, whether or not they are covered, their color, and the survival equipment it includes. Next comes emergency radio equipment, survival equipment and life jackets.

When flying in the Caribbean you are required to carry a life raft and one life jacket for each occupant. Most commercial life raft you can purchase come with a survival kit that includes signal flares and other equipment. I strongly recommend that you also have a hand-held, waterproof VHF transceiver and a 406 Mhz GPS personal emergency locator beacon. Lastly, enter your fuel endurance in hours and minutes.

Learn about General Declarations or gendecs. You can download a PDF version here. Here's an example of how you might fill one out. Be sure you have at least four copies of your inbound gendec when arriving and four copies of your outbound when departing.

Customs Handling

Though it can be costly, you can save a lot of time and hassle by contracting with a handling service if your destination is at a large airport. The handler will expedite the processing of your gendecs, get you through immigration/customs, direct you to where you pay landing and departure fees, and arrange re-fueling. Handling service charges range from $100US to as much as $250US and you can usually find the appropriate phone numbers in the Bahamas and Caribbean Pilot's Guide.

There is generally less hassle and less waiting at smaller airports of entry where you may be able to figure out your own handling without much trouble.

Landing fees and taxes are usually not payable with a credit card. Some offices accept the EC (Eastern Caribbean dollar), others want Euros or U.S. dollars, so call ahead or just always have plenty of cash with you. Larger airports usually have ATMs that may allow you to obtain the local currency.


Fuel can be very expensive and at many smaller airports, 100 low-lead aviation gasoline is often not available. Again, check the excellent Bahamas and Caribbean Pilot's Guide for phone numbers and details.

Where fuel is available, credit cards may not be accepted and you may have to pay in cash. U.S. dollars seem to be preferred or, in some cases, required. Phone ahead to be sure fuel is available and to learn of the payment methods accepted.

I recommend supervising the re-fueling process. Afterward, always check the fuel quality carefully. I found traces of water and debris after being refueled in a couple of places. I recommend the GAT jar for sumping fuel because you can easily drain a substantial amount for a more thorough inspection.

Weather Briefing and Thunderstorms

Detailed weather data can be hard to come by in many parts of the Caribbean. METARs and TAFs (airport weather observations and forecasts) can be had through a variety of sources, but the forecasts can be annoyingly vague. Pilot reports and winds aloft forecast seem to be rare or non-existant. Here's what a DUAT output looked like for part of my trip. Not much information, is it?

Nexrad images are available for Puerto Rico, but other than the long range base reflectivity product there are no other weather radar products that I could find. Various satellite images are available and there is a high level prog chart that gives you an overall idea for the Caribbean weather patterns.

Many airports do not broadcast any surface weather conditions over the radio, but some do so over the voice portion of a VOR. The tower (if there is one) will provide you with the conditions, otherwise you are on your own.

I found most thunderstorms to be isolated and easy to see and avoid, but embedded thunderstorms are possible. The XM weather feature on our hand-held Garmin 496 quit working after we left Providenciales and didn't work again until we returned to the U.S. mainland. Pilots of GA aircraft without on-board radar need to weigh their options and risks carefully. If you don't have radar or a strike finder and you can't stay in visual conditions while you maneuver around build-ups, you probably shouldn't be flying. Flying early in the morning can help you avoid most thunderstorms. If you're faced with an approaching thunderstorm, delaying your departure by only a few hours or a day may be all that's needed to substantially reduce your risk.

Get used to writing down two altimeter settings and taking note of the transition altitude for the area in which you are flying. You'll use QNH when you're below the transition altitude. Above the transition altitude you'll refer to your altitude as a flight level (or just level) and set QFE on your altimeter. Some ATC facilities see that you are a U.S. registered aircraft and provide the altimeter settings in inches of mercury as a courtesy, but don't count on it. Some altimeters display millibars and inches of mercury in separate Kollsman windows and you can set the G1000 preferences to millibars. Otherwise, you should have a millibars to inches conversion table handy.

Airport Security

I don't recall seeing armed police presence at any of the Caribbean airports I visited, save the ones in U.S. territories. Another difference between U.S. CBP and immigration/customs in Caribbean countries is the manner in which you are treated. In Caribbean countries, the authorities may search your bags, examine your travel documents, and ask you questions about your travel plans, but the people doing this are not armed and only once (in Trinidad) did I feel there might be a presumption that I was guilty until proven innocent. The U.S. TSA posts signs promising to treat you with dignity and concern, but the very fact they have to post such a sign seems intended to prepare you for just the opposite. In the countries to which I traveled, I was generally treated with respect by people who felt no need to post a sign saying that this would be the case.

Outside the U.S., pilots are referred to as "captain," a title of respect that recognizes you are in command of an aircraft. I felt U.S. Customs and Border Protection and TSA officers simply saw me as a potential threat. When they determined that I wasn't, they just dismissed me and went on to the next potential "target." Be prepared for culture shock if you re-enter the U.S. or one if its territories after spending a bunch of time in other parts of the Caribbean.

My comments and opinions are based on my firsthand experiences and it is not my intent to stir patriotic fervor or righteous indignation in my U.S. readers. If you don't like what I've said here, by all means feel free to disagree. Remember that the U.S. is (or at least was) based on the freedom to dissent, not the requirement to conform to one accepted viewpoint.

Flying Yourself versus The Airlines

Piloting an aircraft through Caribbean airspace will take longer and cost more than being transported in an airliner, but the GA route is a heck of a lot more fun and, in some cases, substantially faster.

Take our return flight from V.C. Bird airport in Antigua to San Juan, Puerto Rico on American Airlines. We arrived at 1pm for a 3:05 departure. We allowed plenty of time to get through the lines for departure tax (yes, there's a tax even for airline passengers), immigration, and security. Then we waited about an hour and a half before they began boarding the aircraft.

Near as I can tell from the cabin announcement, the 757's APU was deferred (inoperative) and we required an "air cart" (a supply of high pressure air) to start the first engine. Getting the air cart took about 30 minutes and while we waited on the ramp in the blazing sun and high humidity, we essentially had no air conditioning. The cabin crew was great. They opened a couple of doors for better ventilation and the flight crew did their best to keep us up-to-date on what was happening.

Once the air cart arrived and the engines were finally started, we had air conditioning and there was more bad news. We were already over 45 minutes late for our departure when the captain informed us there would be an indeterminate delay: The tower had informed them "something was on the runway." No one knew exactly what was on the runway, but we sat and waited, and waited, and waited. After nearly two hours of waiting on the ramp, we finally made our way to the runway for takeoff. During this time, the cabin crew handed out ice water, even though no refreshments were scheduled for what should have been a short 45 minute flight.

We never found out what was on the runway or why it took so long to clear, but I have a theory. I had landed on the same runway the day before and had noticed that two large, parallel strips of pavement at the threshold had recently been surfaced. On the landing rollout the previous evening, I could smell the fresh asphalt and oil. In addition, there was no white center line stripe for the first 900 feet or so. My theory, and it's just that, was some of that fresh pavement buckled or otherwise deteriorated. This is a plausable theory since a Virgin Atlantic 747 and some other pretty big aircraft had arrived earlier in the day. When we took the runway for takeoff, I noticed that a new white stripe had been painted since I landed the evening before.

We finally arrived at San Juan a little past 7pm, over 3 hours late. On the way, there was a loud, troubling, low-frequency buzz coming from the left engine. It changed with the power settings and was very pronounced at takeoff and climb thrust, but diminished at cruise and went away almost entirely during descent. Departing the aircraft after landing, I passed the head flight attendant and mentioned "I hope the flight crew knows about that nasty low-frequency vibration on the number one engine." He gave me a sort of dismissive smile and said "I'm sure they do, sir, I'm sure they do."

Had we flown the Duchess to San Juan, we could have arrived at the airport at noon and it is very likely that by 1pm, we would have finished the preflight, had our gendec paperwork, and our flight plan filed. The flight to San Juan would have taken about 1 hour and 45 minutes - arriving at approximately 2:45pm. After landing, clearing immigration, customs, and paying our landing fees would have taken about 45 minutes, putting us curbside at about 3:30pm which would have been 25 minutes past the scheduled departure time of our airline flight. The Duchess would have arrived nearly an hour earlier that the scheduled airline arrival at San Juan or more than 4 hours before our delayed arrival.

But you ask, how could the Duchess have departed if there was something on the runway? Well it turns out the tower was allowing intersection departures on the runway, but the takeoff distance remaining was too short for a 757. So the Duchess could have beat the airlines handily, albeit at a higher cost. Of course the airlines have more sophisticated equipment that would have made the flight safer had the weather been bad.

There ends my Caribbean Conclusions. I hope my little travelogue has been informative, interesting, and that it may encourage other U.S. pilots to explore the Caribbean themselves.

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.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Barbados TSRA

The abbreviation for thundershowers in aviation weather reports and forecasts is TSRA, which stands for "ThunderStorms and RAin." As boring as that little bit of trivia may be, real life thunderstorms certainly get your attention when you are airborne or planning to become airborne. TSRA figured into today's return flight Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados.

The replacement starter for the right engine arrived a day earlier than FedEx said it would. This was made possible by knowing someone who knew someone who worked for FedEx. Having someone who had an intimate knowledge of how packages clear customs didn't hurt either. So Roy, our local FAA-certificated mechanic, had the new part installed, tested, and signed off by 11am. Roy has over 30 years of experience working on all sorts of aircraft. After finishing the installation, Roy did a thorough walk-around inspection of the aircraft. I'd say he falls into the category of "excellent mechanic."

The flight to Barbados was mostly uneventful, with just a bit of cloud dodging here and there. The last 100 miles or so of this route put us just over 50 miles from the nearest island, but we were on top of the clouds much of the time and that seems to reduce one's awareness of these matters. A partial panel (attitude indicator and HSI covered) ILS to runway 9 was performed by the aircraft owner under the hood since we were in mostly visual conditions. After landing, ground instructed us to taxi to a gate area, but we were not at the main terminal per se and there was no jetway waiting for us.

This airport is much more GA friendly and organized that Trinidad. Everything went very smoothly once we were on the ground because we had arranged a handling service for the price of $170. I called them 20 miles out and the service was waiting for us. They arranged fuel, took our gendec paperwork, processed it, filed our flight plan and got us access to the main terminal so we could have a snack.

I had an uneasy feeling about the towering cumulus clouds that appeared to be closing in on the airport from the east. When we got back to the airplane and prepared to depart, the sunshine was gone, the wind had picked up, and a steady rain had begun falling. The Barbados Terminal Area Forecast called for a 40% probability of TSRA within a 18 hour period, but there was nothing more specific. We received taxi instructions and our clearance, then made our way to the runway. We were told to hold short at the second entrance to the runway from the end. We did our run-up there and I noticed an American Airlines jet was sitting on the runway in position, behind where we would enter the runway. I still didn't like the idea of departing with so little weather information.

After the run-up, we called for departure and were told to standby. The tower asked American if there were ready to go. They said not yet, they were reviewing their weather radar returns. The tower then cleared us for takeoff and I said we'd like to wait and we'd also like to know what American was seeing on their radar. The American crew told us there were three different cells: One to the east, one northeast, and one to the south. They were trying to work out a strategy for picking their way through the mess. I thanked them and looking to the south and west, thought I saw a way out for us.

I told the tower we were ready and we did a sort of right downwind departure fairly close to the runawy. We went through some clouds and then came out in a cloud canyon of sorts. It was a clear shot to the west, so that's what we asked for. The controller kept offering us a turn right on course, but there was a large build-up to our right. I said we'd have to proceed west for another 10 miles before we could turn. In general, most of the tropical thunderstorms I've seen on this trip have been isolated and easy to spot and avoid if you are in visual conditions. Get in the clouds with no radar and no XM weather and you're really rolling the dice.

We picked our way to the west, remaining in the clear and gradually turning northwest as we passed the larger build-ups. We heard the American flight depart and they asked for several deviations as they made their way to the east before turning northwest. Eventually we got a climb to level 080 and soon we were able to join Amber 628, our assigned airway. It was just a 25 mile deviation or so. As I heard the American flight get a frequency change, I wished there had been another opportunity to thank them again for their assistance. Now to the northwest about 50 miles, we had perspective on what we had avoided (though the wide angle lens on my camera doesn't really convey the scale very well).

The flight back was over mostly scatter clouds and the 12 DME ARC RWY 07 approach (again partial panel) into V.C. Bird went pretty well. I probably have just one more flight tomorrow, then my pilot duties on this trip will complete, we'll be on an American Airlines flight to San Juan, and this trip will become one unforgettable memory.

Friday, June 13, 2008


This morning we confirm that the starter bendix on the right engine is toast. I helped a local mechanic remove the right engine cowling to inspect the starter and then remove it. He tried in vain to locate a replacement starter bendix at one of the two sources on the island, but no dice. The right engine is counter-rotating, so quickly locating a replacement bendix is unlikely.

The aircraft owner called the previous maintenance shop in California and it turns out they had ordered two starters for the right engine quite a while back by mistake. They still had one sitting on the shelf. The odds of that are too mind-boggling to calculate. They agreed to ship it overnight priority.

Overnight doesn't mean the same thing here as it does elsewhere. For one, the package will have to clear customs which means the starter probably won't arrive until Thursday, possibly as late as Friday morning, maybe not until Monday. I am scheduled to head back on an airline flight in a few days. I'd like to stay longer, but we've been on the road for three weeks now. It's been a wonderful trip and a great adventure, but there are things we have to attend to at home, bills to pay, and I need a haircut!

Since the plane is grounded, we locate an Elite simulator at a local flight school and arrange to rent it. I am very familiar with the Elite software, so I figure this should be a piece of cake. We'll do some holds and a partial panel approach or two. This should make good use of the time, but the simulator turns out to be flaky - the flight controls and the avionics stack periodically seem to loose power and that wreaks havoc with the Elite software. We muddle through a few procedures before calling it quits.

Since the Duchess has a Garmin 530/430 setup, we switch to using the Garmin 530 PC simulator to talk about missed approach procedures, ad hoc holds, and various other Garmin gotchas. After half a day, we've completed about all we can do without the actual aircraft. Hopefully the plane will be back in shape for a flight on Thursday afternoon, maybe two flights on Friday, and perhaps one more on Saturday.

For now, we wait.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Taxi to Parking

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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Paper Chase

Saturday's schedule included a series of instrument proficiency training flights for the aircraft's owner. It also involved a lot of running around at most of the airports to get the various pieces of paper stamped and into the correct hands so we could depart on the next leg. Having been through the process several times, I think I'm getting a handle on the overall sequence of events. There are some cool pictures toward the end of this post, if you want to skip this boring stuff.

Before taking off from your departure point, you'll need to file an ICAO flight plan and file it with the local ATC authority. This is often done by fax, but sometimes you'll need to hand carry it to the appropriate person.

Secondly, you need to prepare an outbound general declaration document (usually referred to as your gendec). You'll need at least four copies (some destinations require as many as five copies). Your outbound gendec needs to be stamped by the authorities at your departure airport and they will usually keep just one copy for their records. If you plan to land at your destination and then continue to another airport, it's important to have a set of outbound gendec prepared in advance. Four copies are usually required for the outbound, but I'm told some authorities (like Trinidad) require as many as nine copies.

Here is our arrival at St. Kitts.

Once you have landed at your destination, the next step is to clear immigration by showing your passport, pilot's certificate and your inbound gendec. Immigration will usually keep a copy of your inbound gendec and they'll stamp the other copies for you. If you have an outbound gendec, they'll want to see it, too. Then they'll send you to customs.

At customs, they may x-ray or inspect any baggage and items you are carrying. If you left most of your stuff in the plane, this step will be a bit easier. They'll want to see your inbound gendec and then they'll clear you to enter the airport. Your next stop will the administrative office that handles arrivals and departures.

The administrative office (it goes by different names in different countries) is where you'll pay any arrival taxes and landing fees. They'll want to see a copy of your inbound gendec, your passport, and your pilot's certificate (or license). Sometimes there is a fee for each person on the aircraft and sometimes there are additional taxes, too. In my travels in the Caribbean so far, I haven't seen the fees for two people amount to a total of more than about $50US.

This same administrative office is usually where you'll pay any departure fees and taxes, too. If you are departing, they'll need to see your outbound gendec. They'll stamp and sign your outbound gendec, keep a copy, and they usually have a fax machine you can use to file your flight plan. But sometimes you'll need to hand-carry your form to the appropriate ATC office. Pictured below is what has to be the world's slowest fax machine at Juliana International in St. Maarten. I kid you not, the paper fed at the rate of about 1 millimeter every 10 seconds.

After your flight plan has been faxed or delivered and you've verified (by phone or in person) that it has been received, it's time to go through security so you can get back to your aircraft. At larger airports, they usually expect to see a boarding pass so you'll have to explain that you are a pilot and are flying a small aircraft. Be prepared to show you pilot's certificate (or license) and your outbound gendec.

Our situation was some what unusual since we were planning to do approaches into three different airports, hoping for a quick turn at each airport. We'd have to land at each airport clear immigration and customs, pay taxes and fees, file our flight plan and clear security before departing on the next leg. FBO2000 at V.C. Bird is a top-notch operation and all we had to do was tell them where we were going. They prepared all the gendecs for us. We just had to keep all the papers organized as the trip progressed; Not a trivial task.

After flying an approach and landing at St. Kitts, we departed for the VOR DME RWY 9 approach into Julianna International in St. Maarten. If you're wondering, yes, this is the airport where crazy tourists stand on Maho beach to be sandblasted by the jetblast from arriving and departing aircraft. You can see just a few bored tourists sitting on the guard rail by the beach when we arrived. I guess the Duchess didn't seem that impressive to them, but then they didn't know that she had flown over 4000 nautical miles to get there.

Next on our schedule was the RNAV RWY 10 approach into Wallblake Airport in nearby Anguilla. Unfortunately, Julianna Tower was not interested in helping us fly the approach. Instead, the tower had us do a climbing right turn after takeoff to cross over the St. Maarten VOR (near the arrival end of runway 09). They handed us off to Juliana Approach who gave us direct to Wallblake for a visual approach. Since we were in and out of the clouds, we asked for lower so we could call the field in sight. They weren't interested in that request either and handed us off to Wallblake Tower to plead our case. Wallblake tower gave us a descent to 1500 feet and we saw the airport. After landing, the total flight was less than 0.3 hours - kind of like a flight from Oakland, CA to Hayward, CA.

We did the usual paperwork drill at Wallblake, but it is so much smaller and low-key that the process was a lot easier. When it came time to file our flight plane, the woman who had collected our landing fee told us to go through security, then turn right and walk to the tower. As we approached the base of the tower, I expected to see an office.

All we saw was the door to the stairs leading up to the tower. So we opened it and headed up several flights of stairs to the last flight - a steep, ladder like arrangement. We entered the tower cab, handed our flight plan to the controller, and she did the rest. I mentioned how rare it is in the U.S. to be allowed to enter an ATC facility and asked if I could take pictures. "Of course" was the answer.

We clambered back down the ladder and the stairs to the plane, making a mental note to visit more airports like Wallblake in the future. In minutes, we were on our way back "home." V.C. Bird Airport is starting to feel familiar after just a few days. I know their routine, what they are probably going to ask us to do, and the controllers even seem to recognize our tail number.

Just a few more days of flying and I'll be headed back to the familiar, rapid-fire environment of the San Francisco Bay Area. But for now, we enjoy a bit of paradise.

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.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Hold Short, Landing Traffic

Try as I might, I couldn't really get as accurate a handle on the weather forecast for the last leg of our flight as I would have liked. I realize now how spoiled I have become by the excellent products and services provided in the U.S. by the National Weather Service. Terminal Area Forecasts for the larger airports throughout the Caribbean are available from DUAT, DUATS, the ADDS Weather site and from (though it doesn't currently display the PR Nexrad), but many surface weather observations are not available overnight when the towers are closed.

In an interesting twist, I was able to do flight planners with DUAT for every leg of this trip up to and including MBPV (Providenciales) to TJBQ (Aguadilla). I couldn't do a flight planner specifying TJBQ as the departure point. I called the DUAT help desk and asked why. They said their contract only requires them to provide flight planning for departure points in the U.S. and its territories. Hmm ... Last time I checked, Providenciales was not a U.S. territory, but I could create a flight planner with it as my departure. Puerto Rico is a U.S. insular possession, but I couldn't create a flight planner with it as my departure. Go figure ...

DUATS does allow you to do a flight planner from TJQB, but it doesn't always understand the Amber airway routings around the Caribbean. DUATS also didn't understand our destination, though it did accept the ANU VOR near the airport.

I awoke that morning to find, via the excellent free wireless service provided by the Aguadilla Marriott, that I had a reply to my query to XM about the unexplained loss of XM weather coverage on the Garmin 496. I'll just quote their response and leave it to you to decide how helpful it was:
XM is currently only licensed to provide service to the US (All states except Alaska and Hawaii), its territories and adjacent waters. Outside of these areas XM is very careful to not exceed the signal strength defined by international regulations. At some locations outside the defined service area, however, even if XM is within the transmission limits, the signal level is still strong enough for you to receive service. In general, it is not easy to answer coverage questions for locations outside of the U.S. since XM has not designed the system to work and has not tested outside the U.S.
I did end up filing an ICAO flight plan with DUATS and when I called TJBQ clearance, they soon had me ready to go. I got confused taxiing out, I'm ashamed to say, and started taxing to runway 26 instead of runway 8. Once I got that squared away, I completed the run-up, called for taxeoff clearance, but was told to hold short for landing traffic. I saw some familiar colors.

We climbed to 6000 initially, then San Juan Approach let us go to 9000. We prepared to go "feet wet" again, just south of Fajardo on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico.

During the climb, I let my pinch-hitter try her hand at climbing and the transition to level cruise. She did a great job, so I let her do most of the flying on this two hour leg. We had talked off and on about some aerodynamic theory, which really seemed to help. Most of the time she was holding our GPS track within +/-0.1NM and our altitude within 20 feet.

Then it started to dawn on me: Our trip was almost complete. Approaching V. C. Bird airport on Antigua, we checked in with approach and they gave us QNH and QFE in millibars instead of inches of mercury. Luckily there's a conversion chart from millibars to inches of mercury in my Jepp book. Again I had to remind myself to use flight levels (above 4000 feet in this area) and to include November in my call sign. The controller gave me some detailed (and confusing) instructions which, combined with her phraseology and accent had me a bit confused. After some back and forth, I realised she was asking me to report 35 miles from the VOR on the 292˚ radial.

After making the 35 mile report, she then told me to "proceed direct to OMREL, descend and maintain two thousand five hundred, report leaving flight level 50, report established inbound, cleared for the RWY 07 approach." I fumbled my way through the readback, realizing how accustomed I've become to U.S. controller's phraseology. I'm not complaining. In fact I found each and every foreign controller to whom I spoke to be polite, patient, and professional even if I had trouble understanding them.

After landing, we cleared customs with the help of the kind folks at FBO 2000. Again, it was a calm, low-key, and polite affair as we were graciously welcomed to this island nation.

Soon the next chapter of our journey will begin.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Altimeter Missing

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.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Feet Wet

After being thwarted the day before, we resolved to launch at 6am and get out over the Bahamas before the sun started the atmosphere boiling again. The forecast called for thunderstorm cells to remain active just off the east coast of Florida, but hope springs eternal and I went to bed an optimist.

Before turning in, I needed to prepare an ICAO flight plan, something I've actually never done before. One of the reasons is that AOPA successfully lobbied the FAA to not implement them and to keep the old, U.S.-style flight plan forms. Sometimes I wonder about AOPA, especially since ICAO flight plan forms will soon be required if you plan to file RNAV-direct.

Lucky for us, there's DUAT and DUATS, which both provide an HTML-based ICAO flight plan that's pretty easy to use. I'm a bigger fan of DUAT that DUATS, mostly because DUATS seems like it was designed by nerdy, programmer types. Having to enter altitudes in a certain way, having some time formats being incompatible with certain output formats makes me feel like I'm beta-testing another programmer's code. These are things that grate on my nerves, but in fact DUATS would turn out to be more useful for filing ICAO flight plans that DUAT.

My approach with DUAT was to create a flight planner with the desired route. When I can get the DUAT flight planner to accept the route, I've always been able to file an IFR flight plan using the same route. One small problem, DUAT doesn't provide winds aloft data for the Bahamas and Caribbean. In fact, I can't really find anyone who provides winds aloft forecasts for this area. Spotty or non-existent surface observations, incomplete or poorly formatted terminal forecasts, and no NEXRAD weather radar images would turn out to be a recurring theme on the last few legs of our trip.

We were up at 4:30am with the intention of being out of the hotel by 5am and loading the plane by 5:15am. I went to DUAT to file two ICAO flight plans for my next two legs, but the first one came back with an error in the route. The cryptic message said I had to use DCT between segments. "Which segments!" I screamed. I fooled around, but couldn't get it to take anything. So I resurrected DUATS. Cursing and swearing my way through, I actually got both flight plans filed and we got out of the hotel a bit later than planned.

The sky was still dark and frequent cloud-to-cloud lightening was clearly visible to the east, exactly where we'd be heading. With the plane preflighted and loaded, I called for my clearance and was told there was a problem with my flight plan and we had to wait while Miami Center fixed it. The controller called back with my clearance and no sooner had I written it down and read it back, the controller said to wait because Miami Center was changing it again. This happen three more times before I was given my final clearance. A quick glance at the 496's Nexrad images made me think that Miami Center was trying to concoct a plan in advance to keep us out of the convective activity and to be honest, the plan looked pretty good.

Once we were airborne, there was a constant stream of requests from every aircraft aloft to deviate this way or that. And we were one of them. With the aid of the 496, we ultimately decided to deviate 30 miles to the north to get around the action rather than risk trying to penetrate the line using Nexrad. The ultimate combo would of course be on-board radar and Nexrad.

Ultimately our early-to-rise strategy worked. We got around the worst build-ups east of Miami and only had to dodge a few clouds with vertical development up to 14,000 feet or so. This was pretty easy because we were in the clear and they were easy to see. A ten degree turn left or right was usually all that was required. These build-ups were often smack in the middle of our route because we were headed to VOR or NDB on an island. If you ever get lost while in the Bahamas or the Carribean, just heard for a towering cloud because it's probably right over a land mass.

This was a long leg - around three hours and forty-five minutes. Without a winds aloft forecast, I was closely watching our ground speed and using the Garmin 530's Density Altitude and Winds Aloft feature to monitor winds aloft. We had an 8 knot headwind component which was not a problem. Anything more than a 20 knot headwind would have meant we'd have to land earlier than our planned destination or get below the minimum 1.25 hour fuel reserve requirement I'd set for myself.

An hour past Stella Maris, we began to hear smaller aircraft asking to deviate around build-ups in that area. It had been relatively clear when we'd passed through, mainly due to a high cloud shield that was preventing the sun for reaching the ocean and working its usual mischief, but those high clouds had now dispersed. I never found out for certain, but I suspect the high level clouds might have been some leftover moisture from the recent tropical storm over the Yucatan.

After three hours and 10 minutes, Miami Center handed us off to Provo Approach and we began our descent to Providenciales. This is where the controllers started sounding a bit different and the flight procedures began to be new for me. The transition altitude for Provo is 6000 feet so you refer to an altitude of 6000 feet or higher as a flight level; 9000 feet becomes flight level 090. You set your altimeter to QFE when you are flying at or above the transition altitude. Below the transition altitude, you set QNH in the Kollsman window, which should correct the altimeter for local atmospheric pressure and show your height above sea level (not corrected for temperature). Below the transition altitude is also when you start referring to your altitudes in thousands and hundreds of feet. At least altimeter settings were still in inches of mercury. That wouldn't be the case later.

I had to consciously remember to include November in our tail number and to refer to altitudes above 6000 feet as flight levels. If you are IFR, the controllers ask you to estimate when you will cross a FIR (flight information region) boundary fix. This is like the ADIZ (air defense identification zone) that surrounds the U.S., but quite a bit less paranoid. If you have a FIR fix programmed into your GPS, estimating you time to that fix is easy. The controllers also want you to fly an approach if you are IFR, even if you are in visual condition. I suspect that many of the approach control facilities have no radar and flying an approach provides them a way to know your position and to provide separation with other aircraft.

They may also ask you to report your distance from a fix when it isn't easy to do it. I had to put the 530 into Etch-a-Sketch mode at one point to tell them my distance from the Intermediate Approach Fix because my 530 was only telling me my distance to the Initial Approach Fix, which was the current waypoint. Below is a photo of base to final at Providenciales.

The staff at Provo Air Center were great. They helped us clear customs, which was a polite and low-key event, then helped us find a bite to eat while they refueled the plane. When we returned, they checked with Provo Approach to ensure our flight plan for the next leg was available. It wasn't. Somehow DUATS or Miami Center lost it, but the Provo staff faxed my paper version and soon we were motoring past Grand Turk Island on our way to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.

But our thunderstorm dodging wasn't done yet and the XM weather display on the 496 quit working after Provo. Prior to reaching Provo, we had scrolled ahead to look at the Nexrad images for Puerto Rico. Now all we saw was "No XM Signal." Bummer!