Blue Water Air Force
CAP Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria Recovery Mission
By Tony Vallillo
CAP was involved early on in the recovery effort after Hurricane Maria blasted the island with 150+ mph winds and torrential rains. Although not a state, Puerto Rico nonetheless has a Civil Air Patrol Wing and the two Cessna aircraft assigned there were apparently kept safe from damage, and were available to fly sorties as soon as the airports got up and running again.
There are two airports in the San Juan area - the big international airport over on Isla Verde, TJSJ, or San Juan International as it is otherwise known, and a smaller airport much closer to downtown and Old San Juan, known as Isla Grande airport (TJIG). It must have taken a day or two for these airports to get cleaned up and operating after the storm, but soon after they came on line the local CAP Wing was tasked for mission flying in support of the recovery effort.
CAP does not fly helicopters, of course, so our participation in recovery efforts is more oriented toward airborne damage assessment, both by eyeball and more importantly by aerial photography. As I indicated in the first chapter of this missive, aerial photography (or AP as it is also known) is fast becoming the core mission of the modern Civil Air Patrol. And so it was that some of the local pilots, who could actually get to the airport and the two airplanes, started flying photo missions for FEMA, the agency in overall charge of the efforts.
Puerto Rico is a big island - very close to the size of the state of Connecticut - and it soon became apparent that additional resources would be needed - especially more airplanes - if CAP was to do as much imaging as FEMA wanted and do it quickly. Around 10 days after the storm hit, two Cessna 182's were sent down from Florida Wing to augment the efforts. In addition, the call went out for the Jumbo of CAP, the Gippsland GA-8 Airvan, and that is how yours truly became involved.
The GA-8 Airvan is an Australian design that bears a remarkable resemblance to the box that a Cessna 182 would have come in. It is a bush airplane - big, slow, easy to handle and with huge windows that are well suited for observation. The airplane was sought not only for photo missions, but also for those sorties when FEMA officials or other people might need to ride along to make a first person assessment. The Cessnas are not really suited for this since an AP crew is composed of three people and the missions require a full load of fuel. The Airvan, on the other hand, can carry up to 7 people in addition to the pilot, even with a full fuel load. The airplane seemed perfect for the job. CAP had originally purchased 18 Airvans and based them around the country in various states. Several are based on the east coast, including one at Maryland Wing and another a bit further south in Virginia Wing. It was to these two Wings that the call went out on the 30th of September to send the airplanes and two crews of pilots and photographers to Florida to prepare for an overwater odyssey.
I was actually a bit surprised when I heard that CAP was intending to fly the airplanes down to Puerto Rico, rather than just using the two they already had down there and flying additional crews in and out via commercial or military air. Long overwater flights in single engine airplanes were not something I had heard of CAP doing, at least during my 10 year membership. However, short of loading a few onto an aircraft carrier and taking them down there a la Jimmy Doolittle, there's really no other choice. I very much doubt a GA-8 would fit into a C-5, at least with the wings still attached, and so the only way to get them down there would be to fly them.
I have spent virtually my entire professional life as an aviator flying over one ocean or another; indeed, I have flown hundreds of trips in and out of San Juan and many more to just about every place in the Caribbean and mid Atlantic that a big jet can operate. But I had yet to fly far over water in a single engine airplane. My own SkySkooter would be hard pressed to operate even 10 miles away from land, considering that there is no place aboard it for a life raft, which is a vital piece of equipment for any flight beyond gliding distance of the shore. CAP does have a few missions that go beyond gliding distance, such as the various bay and shore patrols that some Wings have during summer months, but these are hardly blue water operations and land is always in sight and close at hand. The longest overwater mission I had previously flown involved playing target for Air Defense fighters out to around 70nm from Atlantic City a few years ago. We had life jackets, a raft, and we wore exposure suits for those flights, but you could still see the glow of the lights of Atlantic City after dark and there was thus some reassurance. This mission promised to be different.
The Airvan looks, on the inside, like a sort of miniature airliner, and the cockpit does bear some resemblance to a "flight deck" - including a big airplane style yoke attached to a control column that stands up out of the floor rather than out of the instrument panel. It even has an overhead panel with switches and circuit breakers, just like a Boeing only smaller! It appeals to the Walter Mitty in many of our general aviation members and many CAP pilots seek the training to fly it. But the appeal slams to a screeching halt the minute someone sits down in it. Unfortunately, it was apparently designed for comfort only for relatively small people. Indeed, the seats in this airplane are so uncomfortable that I have come to refer to it as the waterboard of aviation! None of the seats recline, and even the pilot seats are adjustable only over a very short range fore and aft. Some of us believe that these seats were invented by an impoverished chiropractor in search of a new and steady stream of patients! For anyone taller than around 5'7" or so, flight times longer than an hour are sheer skeletal torture. Sadly, because of its blistering lack of speed and the long stage lengths of any trip between the mainland and Puerto Rico, we would experience many flights longer than an hour. A great many.
The plan was for us to depart Martin State Airport, just north of Baltimore, on Sunday afternoon and fly down to the east coast of Florida that evening, whereupon we would strike out southeastward over the Atlantic the next morning bound for the Islands. But before we could leave, there was much to do by way of preparation. An international flight over water requires a great deal of additional equipment, charts and the like compared to a purely domestic operation. From my big airplane experience I knew that we would be dealing with border clearance forms in multiple countries, to say nothing of foreign charts and approach plates. These would somehow have to be acquired, which in itself was new to me since the airline had taken care of all of that for me back in the golden age of my employment.
In addition to the paperwork, there was the matter of keeping the sharks hungry. In a single engine airplane over water, the engine turns or the sharks dine! So we had to ensure that, in the event the engine decided not to turn, we crewmembers (especially yours truly who cannot swim a stroke!) would have a vessel of sorts in which to continue our journey. This vessel is the life raft, which is carried on all airplanes flying over water, even 747's. Unlike the Titanic, airplanes have enough raft space for all of the passengers and then some. For us that would mean at least a 4 person raft, since we would be making the trip with a complement of 4 crewmembers. Such a raft is usually about the size of a small suitcase when it is packed, and weighs around 40 pounds or so. In addition to the raft, we would each be wearing an inflatable life jacket on the over water legs; and these, which are somewhat larger and more sophisticated than the ones under your seat on an airliner, weigh around 5 pounds each.
Weight and balance was indeed our first big challenge for this mission, even in an airplane like the Airvan which has an excellent useful load. We each had to pack for at least one week, and this was in addition to a kit bag that was more than normally stuffed with gear. Then, on top of all of that, we had two large hard shell cases filled with high end camera equipment. Add in some extra oil for the engine, some chocks and tie downs, a small ladder for fueling, a pinch of this, a dab of that and full fuel tanks, and we ended up very close to the max gross weight of 4000 pounds for just about every leg. No space or weight capacity for the two cases of water per person that we were advised to bring down. We figured (correctly as it turned out) that Puerto Rico was probably awash in bottled water by that time, and we were not of a mind to flight test newer and higher weight limits for the airplane.
Our two photographers served as loadmasters for the positioning flights, and they did a superb job of fitting the proverbial 10 pounds of stuff into a 5 pound sack. The cabin was literally packed to the gunwales, and even though 2 of the original 8 seats had been removed there was still very little space remaining in the cabin for the crew to stretch out. Our loadmasters thus had to share the discomfort with those of us in the front seats. And they were limited to only 2 of the remaining seats due to the need to place our cargo carefully to ensure that not only the weight but also the balance was correct.
By the time all of our gear was stowed and the airplane refueled (it had just returned from a local mission) it was dark. I and my fellow pilot, Pete, had gone up in my Thorp Sky Skooter late the night before to get night current, so we were prepared for a night flight. By now we knew that we were not going to be able to get all the way to Florida, so we planned a flight to Columbia South Carolina (KCAE) where we would RON. This was just as well since we had no time thus far to acquire the international charts that we knew we would need. Probably OK to get them down south, or so we thought.
The flight down to KCAE was smooth and uneventful. Flying at night in VMC, such as we experienced on that first leg, is often a thing of sublime beauty and subtle enjoyment. This served to mitigate, at least to some degree, the mounting discomfort as the hours ticked by. Four of them. That's a lot in an Airvan and it was a wake-up call to the coming torments of the mission. By the time we unfolded ourselves from the cockpit at CAE we were ready for bed. And a hot tub, which unfortunately was not to be found!
Next day came the first of several setbacks in our progress toward the Island. We had been sent south from Baltimore without a life raft, having been assured that one would be rented for us in the Citrus State. But bright and early next morning, just as I was about to start the engine, my phone rang with the news that life rafts were too expensive in Florida, and that we should fly back north to Richmond VA to pick up a raft owned by CAP. Oh well, we thought, the weather was still beautiful; and, whether north or south, flying was flying. So off we went after our raft. Nearly 3 hours later we arrived at KFCI, the headquarters of the Virginia Wing of CAP, and hefted the raft aboard. Now we really were right at 4000 pounds! A quick bite of lunch, some fuel, and we were off once again.
We lacked the range to make Florida non-stop, so we decided to drop in on Savannah Georgia, KSAV, for some fuel. Just a quick stop to onload some fuel and offload some other liquids and we were away. We had been advised by our release officer that hotel rooms along the east coast of Florida were few and expensive, and so we decided to head for Kissimmee, near Disney World, since it was farther north and inland. The expense, you see, was due to the fact that Hurricane Irma had just churned up the length of Florida a week or two previously, and although Irma was nothing at all like what hit Puerto Rico, there was still some damage and power outages to contend with.
Since I speak of our release officer, I should probably digress for a moment and explain just what that means. In Civil Air Patrol no one just goes out and hops in an airplane and flies. A flight must be released (authorized) by a CAP officer who is designated for that duty. Many of us are so designated. The Release Officer (RO) ensures that the proposed flight is within the scope of what is allowed in CAP (no personal hundred dollar hamburger runs, for example) and that the crew is properly qualified and current to perform the mission. There is a bit more to it than that, and in essence the RO is in some respects like a "dispatcher light", although the RO has none of the joint responsibility for the actual conduct of the flight that an airline dispatcher has. For this mission we were working with an officer whom I knew very well from my years instructing at CAP's yearly mission aircrew school. We conferred with him before every leg and he was able to make some of the arrangements such as procuring the VA Wing raft. But as to the actual conduct of the flight we were on our own, as is the CAP way.
A word or two may be in order here about our crew complement. Two of the four of us were mission pilots, a qualification over and above basic pilot that indicates that we had been trained and found competent to perform all of the various maneuvers attendant to CAP mission flying. These maneuvers include all of the search patterns, photography patterns, and in some cases mountain flying procedures and techniques. Pete and I were both qualified in all aspects of mission flying. In fact, we are both CFII's and serve as instructor and evaluator pilots in CAP. Notwithstanding the old saw about the most dangerous thing in aviation being more than one check pilot in an airplane, we were both highly experienced. Pete has, perhaps, not so much total flying time as I have, but his single engine time is greater than my own so we were a good match. We had flown together often prior to this mission, and we both knew and practiced the principles of crew resource management. We set out with a clear notion that these principles would be needed throughout the mission, and we were correct.
We had two crewmembers qualified as aerial photographers, which is a relatively recent qualification in CAP. Only in the last decade has that role been quantified and a formal training and qualification program put in place. Although I am a long time serious amateur photographer and a dab hand with a camera, I have yet to actually obtain that rating from CAP. Richard and Mike served many roles beyond photographer, during the long hours we spent droning to and from Puerto Rico, including loadmaster, cabin attendant when it was time to pass forward our comestibles, and even auxiliary trim actuators! You see, the Airvan has a wide CG envelope, but since the weight of an adult is not insignificant there is a marked trim change when anyone moves about in the cabin. Fortunately for we pilots, Mike and Richard had very little room to move around in, and the trim changes were minimal. We actually had a hilarious inflight discussion about how we might control the airplane both laterally and longitudinally by calling commands to the two of them to move fore and aft, or lean right or left! We also had a bonus extra in this crew - Richard is also a mission pilot, and lacked only the GA-8 qualification. All in all, a highly qualified and experienced crew with extra skills to handle the challenges of an unprecedented mission.
Bright and early Tuesday morning we awoke to discover that the weather, which had been quite favorable as late as the previous evening, had decided to give us the back of its hand. Low clouds raced overhead, driven by winds that, although more or less down the runway, were flirting with CAP's maximum limit of 30 knots. When we arrived at the airport, the heavily loaded airplane was dancing around merrily in its tie downs, and the prospect of going anywhere seemed a bit remote. Further weather analysis showed marginal VFR conditions at best, with scattered rain storms in all quadrants. When faced with a situation like this procrastination is often the best policy, so we camped out at the FBO for awhile to see if things might change. By mid day things did change a bit, just enough for us to be able to depart within the wind limits, and we took off into a sky filled with bumps and jolts not unlike the mechanical bull at Gilley's. Strangely enough, above 2000 feet things smoothed out, which was just as well since by then we were on instruments. Pete and I had been splitting legs, and my old luck reasserted itself -- starting with this leg he seemed to get all of the good ones! Good ones, to a professional pilot, means the ones that are at least a bit challenging, the ones you can tell war stories about later after you arrive! For the rest of the mission I seemed to get the clear skies and Pete got to add to his actual instrument time.
We battled our way against strong headwinds (in an Airvan even a 10 knot wind is a strong headwind!) and with the help of ADSB and ATC radars we managed to dodge the buildups. Our destination was KFXE, Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, from whence we hoped to launch our assault on the Bahamas the following morning. After landing ground control directed us to Banyan Aviation, one of the large FBO's at the airport. This turned out to be quite fortuitous, since Banyan has had long experience handling outbound international flights (in fairness I must say that every FBO along the Florida coast probably has the same expertise).
One of the first things we discovered after we tied down was that Banyan had the most over-the-top pilot shop we had ever seen. This was almost a Wal-Mart of aviation, with goodies to appeal to any pilot. I immediately headed toward their large display of navigation charts and approach plates, feeling certain that a place like this would have everything we needed for a flight to Puerto Rico. But alas, even Banyan did not have approach plates for anyplace east of Florida. Any US military field would have the DOD Flight Information Publications for the Caribbean/South America area, but CAP had apparently not considered that and there was no such field anywhere near Lauderdale where we could have gone to get them. After we got to the hotel a few hours later, I set myself to the task of finding out how I could get tooled up, chart-wise.
All of us had iPads, which have become a mainstay of general, and even airline, aviation these days. The three pilots on the crew, Pete, Richard and I, had three different EFB apps -- Garmin Pilot, ForeFlight, and Wing X Pro. Nothing like diversity! I therefore set myself to the task of finding coverage for the area between the mainland and Puerto Rico. I started with Garmin, since I was the one who used Garmin Pilot, an outstanding app that I use in the Skooter because of all of the offerings it is the most like a real GPS navigator. I called Garmin and was told that they do indeed offer a Latin America coverage. I have always found the folks at Garmin to be exceptionally helpful, and when I told them who we were and what we were preparing to do, they authorized a short subscription for me at no cost. This literally made the rest of the mission possible, and I must take this opportunity to thank Garmin for their support.
When I downloaded the Latin America data to my iPad, however, I discovered that the data did not include approach plates. As I attempted to summon up the approaches for Nassau I was met with a screen that indicated that MYNN had no instrument approaches. This I knew to be untrue, since Nassau is an international airline destination, so I inquired further -- only to find that since most EFB's use the US government charts, and other countries publish their own, approaches could not be included in a coverage such as Garmin itself provides. However all was not lost, because Garmin and Jeppesen, the company that provides worldwide data to just about everybody, had recently teamed up and Jepps were available for Garmin Pilot. A quick call to Jeppesen confirmed this, and I was able to arrange a shorter-than-usual subscription on a one-shot basis that provided me with all of the approach procedures for the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. Finally, we were properly tooled up and ready to go.
Banyan also provided us with a superb briefing on border clearance procedures, along with a packet that included every form and bit of paperwork we could possibly need. At last all was in readiness. We had the data, we had the forms, and we had the knowledge we would need to avoid creating an international incident. We awaited only the cooperation of wind and weather.
Alas for us, a disturbance over Cuba had formed over the last few days and was responsible for the strong winds that were beating upon the east coast of Florida, as well as several large areas of rain and embedded thunderstorms all along the Bahamas chain. And to add to our woes another hurricane, Nate as I recall, had formed over the Yucatan and was headed up towards the gulf states. This threatened to have at least some impact on Florida later over the weekend, which would further interfere with our plans. We found ourselves between competing weather disturbances.
Most flying organizations, including the military, the airlines, CAP and just about everybody else, use a concept called Operational Risk Management to keep flying as safe as possible. To simplify the concept, we look for risks in an operation and come up with ways and means to mitigate those risks. Normal overland flying entails some risks, such as engine failure. These we compensate for by such means as ensuring that the airplane is in good condition, and by training to handle an engine out landing, as well as by always keeping track of where a good landing site might be. Bad weather is another set of risks, and we compensate by instrument training, equipment and procedures as well as by constant practice of these procedures. But in all things, we must recognize the limitations of man, machine and organization.
Single engine operations in IMC and overwater are a particular concern for many reasons, and not just because of the possibility of engine failure. East of Florida there is no weather radar coverage and no ADSB, which means that without airborne weather radar we had no way of avoiding thunderstorm buildups other than visually. Without ADSB we would lose all of our weather information on the iPad, and would have to rely on voice radio to get weather reports; which, although not a huge burden, certainly turns the clock back a decade or so in terms of progress. We were also dealing with an area that had been at least sideswiped by several hurricanes over the last few weeks, and we would need access to good NOTAM information.
And then there was that other concern - ditching. If the engine did quit, we knew that it was an even chance that the airplane might end up on its back after splashdown. This is the reason Navy pilots undergo training in the Dilbert Dunker. Getting out of an upside-down airplane that is sinking, perhaps rapidly, is a terrifying prospect, and attempting it in conditions of darkness is tantamount to suicide, at least for a non-swimmer like me. In an attempt to mitigate that particular risk we decided, as a crew, that we would do no overwater flying in conditions of darkness. This limited some of our options but we felt it best in the interest of survival.
Another consideration was fuel. This was actually a simple matter - since the airplane could indeed legally fly with our load and full fuel, we simply filled it up at every stop. Unless you are on fire, there is no such thing as too much fuel. But again, overwater operations differ from land ops. We would be flying to island destinations, mostly with but a single runway, and often with no close-by alternate. The normal 1 hour of fuel as a reserve might not be sufficient, particularly since some of the alternates had no fuel available. If we ended up at a place like that it might be a long wait until fuel could be ferried in for us. This was why, as an example, the big military airport at Grand Turk (MBGT) was not suitable for us - jet fuel only! We always had an alternate and we made sure it had avgas.
All day Wednesday we sat around the hotel, waiting for a break in the weather that never came. By Wednesday night we were thinking that perhaps this operation might not come off after all, an embarrassing possibility considering the press send-off we had gotten at Baltimore. When we awoke at O-dark thirty on Thursday, things still looked poor, with two separate Sigmet areas for embedded thunderstorms up to 40,000 feet and down to the wave tops that pretty much covered the Bahamas down to the area of Stella Maris. A text message from our RO, who was located in Texas and was thus awake an hour "earlier" than we were, agreed with our assessment. Confident in the agreement of 5 experienced minds, we immediately sought refuge in the sheets and resumed our interrupted slumbers.
By breakfast time some hours later the newest sigmets had just been released, and with them a glimmer of hope appeared -- for the two areas of storms had moved apart and there now appeared a pathway between them of more than one hundred miles width, perhaps enough for the Airvan to slip through. The RO had earlier offered the suggestion that we might consider a more southerly route; and this we now did, selecting in the process an airway that ran south of our original plan of A-555. This airway (A-315) split the lane between the sigmets, and offered us a path to an island called Exuma, a bit south of Stella Maris and more than halfway to Providenciales which was to be our stepping off point for San Juan. Although the late hour would mean that we would probably have to RON at MYEF, since Provo (as we generally referred to Providenciales) would not be reachable before dark, it at least offered a path through the weather and on into an area of relative clearing. The flight to Puerto Rico the next day looked to be an easy run, weather wise.
The airplane was ready for us when we got to the airport, and we were off in good time, with yours truly at the controls for the first leg "feet wet". We planned a direct course to Bimini, ZBV, and thence onward along A-315 to a waypoint a few hundred miles southeast called AMBIS, from which we would proceed directly to Exuma. As we droned southeastward we were soon passing waypoints that I remembered from my earlier days flying jets - places like SWIMM and HODGY which appear on the high altitude charts and/or STARS as well as our low altitude maps. The weather was mostly cloudy until we got to Andros Island, the biggest in the Bahamas, and from then on we were wondering just what the sigmets had been all about. Indeed, there were only a few widely scattered buildups, and most of the sigmet areas on either side of our clear lane (and indeed it was very clear!) would have been easily navigable. Oh well, better to err on the side of caution....
The waters of the Bahamas are often exceptionally shallow, with large areas looking as though a ditched airplane might never submerge. The colors of these waters are beautiful in a way difficult to describe or catch on film, and a flight here at any altitude is an experience of sublime beauty. Once beyond Bimini we were never completely out of sight of land, although with a glide angle only marginally less steep than the Space Shuttle the Airvan could reach only those islands that we more or less flew directly over. We were cruising at 7000 feet, and by some strange optical illusion the islands seemed to drift by at much the same rate as I recalled that they appeared to from 35000 feet going nearly 500 knots. The clock never lies, though, and the passage of time reminded me that we were in an Airvan and not an Airbus. More's the pity. But as I beheld the subtle beauty of these waters I was again reminded of that great gem of aviation wisdom -- if flying is this much fun, why are we in such a hurry to get it over with? On that day, however, we actually had an answer to that rhetorical question -- because we're in an Airvan, dummy!
We had three hours to enjoy the front-office ocean view before setting down at Exuma. This was a place I had never been in all of my previous travels, and it is always interesting to put another destination in the logbook. The FBO was outstanding, and the friendly Bahamians there shepherded us through customs and immigration quickly and efficiently. They arranged a hotel for us, since we decided that we had not enough time to get to Provo by nightfall. In due course a taxi arrived to take us to our digs for the night, which turned out to be a small resort (every hostelry on any of these islands is a resort of one kind or another) right on the water, which was not surprising since the island itself is only a mile or so wide, although of much greater length. There, watching the sun set over the shallow waters of the Atlantic, we celebrated the completion of the first of what we hoped would be many uneventful overwater flights. Box score: Fliers 1, Sharks 0.
The next day dawned bright and beautiful. We consulted the international Flight Service and found that the forecasts were as good as the view out the window. So off we went to the airport, and filed our flight plan to Provo (MBPV). The big advantage of EFB programs like Garmin Pilot or Wing X Pro or ForeFlight is that you can do your flight planning off-line without Wi-Fi, although you will get better enroute times if you have access at least to the winds aloft.
And so it was that since I was familiar with the airspace and routes, I took responsibility for the flight planning. All I had to do at the FBO was to fill out an international flight plan with our details and off it went into the fax machine for submission to the tower. This differs from domestic procedure where you can file directly from the app -- out of the country you often have to file a paper flight plan. Due to my years of experience with the ICAO flight plan, which has only this year been adopted in the USA, I had no difficulty with the format.
Getting airborne was merely a matter of waiting for our clearance to be coordinated with Provo and for a few airliners to precede us down the runway. Off we went into the blue skies, above waters of just about every possible shade of blue. The actual navigation was being done using GPS, of course, although I tuned each VOR along the way that might have been of use to us. We always had at least one iPad running as a navigator along with the onboard GPSComm, the Apollo 480. The 480 was the first WAAS GPSComm in general aviation, and even today it is a very sophisticated unit. It pioneered many features in GA that had previously been available only in airliners or high end bizjets, such as load-by-airways, holding patterns, GPS steering (the capability of an autopilot to steer to the magenta line) and a few others. The later generations of GPSComms and the latest software updates for the G1000 have all of these capabilities, but the 480 had them a decade ago.
All we lacked in the Airvan was an autopilot -- did I forget to mention that?! Pete and I took turns playing autopilot, and we were kept on our toes by a slight but annoying tendency the airplane displayed toward a dutch roll. A dutch roll is a rolling and yawing tendency usually associated with swept wing airplanes. But it proved mildly difficult to keep this straight-winged Airvan precisely on heading and altitude for any length of time worth mentioning, and when it did happen it was purely a matter of luck. It was by no means all over the sky, but particularly in IMC the beast needed constant attention and gentle control inputs to fly to our high standards of tolerance.
In a mere two hours Providenciales hove into view ahead, and after a few airliners had preceded us we were cleared to land straight in. This was to be merely a fuel stop, so the border clearance procedures were streamlined and the longest wait we had was for a helpful FBO employee to run into town a few miles distant to acquire for us a few sandwiches for the long leg to San Juan. We were airborne again in around an hour and a half.
Our course took us first to Grand Turk (GTK). This island, which is mostly taken up by a military and NASA installation, has long been a linchpin in the communications network for all space launches and overflights. I flew a trip or two into MBGT in C-141's when I was a shave tail louie back in the early 70's. Grand Turk is the last of the islands in what, geographically, is still the Bahamas chain, albeit a different country. Beyond GTK we had only open ocean ahead of us, and it took but a few minutes to see the waters change from the pastel hues of the shallows to the dark blue of the briny deep. Indeed, a few hundred miles further south and east lies the second deepest part of the world's oceans -- the Puerto Rico Trench. I shared this knowledge with the rest of the crew, and assured them that the airplane would indeed sink low if we had to put it down anywhere near our course.
Our route after GTK was A-555, which is a straight shot to Puerto Rico. We would follow it only to IDAHO, after which it heads toward SJU VOR. Our route would lie along an airway called Route 6. We planned to turn off Rte 6 at CORAF, which is an approach fix for the Isla Grande airport (TJIG). This leg, the one between GTK and SJU, is one which is not often flown in single engine airplanes. Within the Bahamas, and even down to the Turks and Caicos, there is often a good deal of single engine general aviation traffic. Many Florida fliers take the plunge and navigate the relatively short legs and typically benign weather that exemplifies flying in the Bahamas. There are many airports among the islands, and some fly-in resorts as well, and the beaches and other attractions are quite appealing, particularly to pilots with a certain willingness to trust in God and Pratt and Whitney! But south of the Turks, we were out of sight of land altogether for over three hours, which is a more serious undertaking than a mere weekend of fun.
Out of sight of land, but not of other airplanes. Throughout the entire leg from MBPV to TJIG we were entertained by a continuous parade of jets high above, all going to more or less the same place at least for starters. Some of them, bound for further destinations, would overfly SJU but many were destined to land there. Of course a number of the islands further east, like St. Maartin, were still shut down by one or another of the hurricanes, so there was not as much traffic going further downrange as there might normally be. At one point, about halfway through the leg, we were overtaken and passed (nothing new there!) by a flight of five airplanes up around 16,000 feet; a C-130 refueling tanker and four Osprey tilt-rotors all headed for San Juan. They were in view for almost 10 minutes and provided us a bit of entertainment along the way.
At the HARDE intersection we entered the San Juan Oceanic airspace. Up to about 50 miles northwest of HARDE we had been talking to Miami center all the way from KFXE, but they said goodbye and switched us over to San Juan, noting that we might not be able to contact them for awhile at 7000 feet. This turned out to be true, and we spent most of the next half hour incognito, albeit with the ability to relay reports through other airplanes, which we did upon arrival at HARDE. In due course we could hear San Juan and they could hear us, and all became well with the world once again.
From GTK onward our route roughly paralleled the coast of Hispaniola, the large island upon which sits the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was now mid afternoon and Hispaniola was crowned with an immense agglomeration of cumulus and cumulonimbus buildups, a typical condition there and one through which I had had to pick my way on occasions too numerous to remember back when I was flying to and from Santo Domingo in the Boeings and Airbuses. Fortunately, we were now admiring these from a distance of nearly 100 miles, and they did not interfere with our passage. Shortly after contacting San Juan southeast of HARDE we could see that Puerto Rico was also crowned with a similar diadem, which of course is also usually the case. San Juan itself sits on the coastal plain, and so is often not directly affected by the afternoon storms, except for the occasional shower that breaks off and slides down the hills toward the sea. Lo and behold, that was exactly what was in store for us that Friday, which became obvious when we were close enough to pick up the ATIS at Isla Grande. Marginal VFR to light IFR with rain showers and, of course, the ever present east winds awaited us and a number of other flights also bound for TJIG at that moment.
When we were switched over to San Juan approach we found that we were number four or so for arrival, and actually wound up getting holding instructions at the initial approach fix for the RNAV to runway 09. Pete was getting all of the good legs again! We had actually switched legs so that I could handle the radios for the long overwater segment and the approach into San Juan, accustomed as I was to the procedures and the accents. Now Pete got to add to not only his instrument time, as we plowed through some light showers and ragged clouds, but he also got to experience an honest to goodness holding stack, which was something I had not seen in decades. There were at least three of us stacked up over MALCU, and at one point we could see one of the airplanes below us wheeling through his turn along with us.
Sunset had by now come and gone as we were cleared for the approach. Conditions were not too bad, with around 2 miles visibility, but the airport had a rain shower going on and we had to fly through it on final approach. That made it a bit difficult to pick up the runway until we were around a mile out, and the PAPI lights being sited on the right side of the runway instead of the left was a bit puzzling until we got a bit closer and could differentiate between the runway and the two parallel taxiways on either side. But Pete is an old hand at this sort of thing, and he aced it as I expected he would. We turned off and followed tower's instructions to get to the customs building, where we shut down and uncoiled ourselves from the seats. We had made it! Box score now Fliers 3, Sharks 0. Film at eleven.
It was eerie taxiing around TJIG just at dusk as we headed over to a flight school where we were told to park and refuel after clearing customs. Everywhere were signs that things were not normal, and we could see damaged airplanes piled in heaps in several areas of the ramp. Clearly, something massive had happened here. We passed one crumpled Cessna 172 which, we learned the next day, had been flipped over in the flare by the rotor wash of one of the many military helicopters operating at TJIG. Tragically, the pilot had been killed. We shut down in silence and began to unload the airplane completely for the first time since Baltimore.
A short time later a CAP van came around the perimeter road and pulled up on the ramp beside us. This was to be our ride to our accommodations for the week. On the way down we had been told that we would be billeted either in a hotel downtown or in a sort of "cot city" that FEMA had set up in the Convention Center, also downtown near TJIG. Having not had to endure a cot since my time on active duty during Gulf War One (Desert Storm), I had hoped that we would end up at the hotel. But lo and behold, our destination was neither of these places. Indeed, we were about to begin a nautical adventure of sorts, for our billet was to be aboard what amounted to a troop ship, which was docked at the Port of San Juan, a few miles inland on the bay.
There are a number of Maritime Academies in the US, one of which is the federally operated US Merchant Marine Academy, and several others which are run by one state or another. In particular, both New York and Massachusetts have maritime colleges as part of their state university system -- Mass Maritime and SUNY Maritime. Each of these has a training ship, both of which are 1960's vintage cargo ships of the so-called "stick ship" variety; i.e., break-bulk ships that have onboard derricks to load and offload cargo. These represent the last generation of merchant shipping prior to the current container ship revolution. The two colleges each acquired a ship of this kind and modified it for use in training large numbers of cadets. Most of the cargo holds of each ship were converted into berthing spaces for upwards of 500 to 600 cadets, and the result was a ship that closely resembled the troop ships of the World War II era. Our digs was to be the SUNY Maritime ship SS Empire State VI.
Since some of the cost of modifying these ships came from Uncle Sam, the ships are considered a reserve asset, and are occasionally used as floating hotels in disaster situations such as this where they can dock close to the action. These two ships were used to house many of the responders, volunteer and paid, who were working for FEMA to assist in the recovery and clean-up.
FEMA itself had commandeered an entire hotel adjacent to their headquarters at the Convention Center, and had also contracted for a small cruise ship which also served as a floating hotel. Altogether there were accommodations for thousands of people. The ships were self contained little cities, with power, air conditioning, fresh water and most of the amenities of modern life. As a long time devotee of armchair nautical lore I was fascinated by this opportunity to spend some time on something other than a mega cruise ship.
We checked in at dockside, and then it was up the gangway and onto the ship itself, whereupon we were met by members of the crew and brought immediately to the mess hall. Now this was a crew that knew how to treat airmen who have just spent an entire day in an Airvan! The food, as it turned out, was really good - I have been on two cruises where the food was not as good as on the Empire State! Dinner time turned out to be the best time of the day. As for the accommodations, we ended up in a berthing area that held upwards of 50 men (women had their own areas, of course) in bunks three high that looked very much like the quarters for enlisted men on a modern submarine. I, fortuitously, got a bottom bunk, a necessity for one so un-athletic. Pete, though, ended up with the top bunk. Not only was this climb a strain, but the top bunk was right underneath the air conditioning vents, a situation that resulted in his eventually coming down with a head cold after we got back to the States a week later.
Overall, I found the arrangements satisfactory. At 5'8" I was a good fit for the bunk, and the mattress was actually fairly new and comfortable -- miles better than a cot of any kind. The blanket was quite thin, but adequate to protect one from the maritime air conditioning. It turns out that air conditioning on a ship in the tropics is not like that which we are accustomed to at home. The system cools the air nicely but removes little or none of the humidity, so that everything in the area was always just a bit damp. It took a minute or two after crawling into the sheets for body heat to warm up the slightly cold and barely damp bedding. But once things got warmed up a bit everything was fine. Indeed, the only problem we encountered during our stay was from several of the non-aircrew inhabitants who were apparently sorely afflicted with apnea. The snoring of one of these, berthed immediately across the narrow aisle from me, was enough to awaken the denizens of Davey Jones' locker, to say nothing of penetrate the industrial strength ear plugs that I always have available when sleeping en masse! But my slumbers, though occasionally interrupted, were never put to such disarray as to make the next day's flying unsafe, so in the end no harm no foul.
Early the next morning we awakened and made our ablutions, followed by an excellent breakfast. After that a quick van ride over to the CAP command post, which had been set up in a women's and children's hospital about a mile from Isla Grande. Our area was actually one of the nurses' locker rooms, and was painted a bright pink color, which clashed with our blue polo shirt uniforms, and even more with the green flight suits which some of the CAP pilots wore (I rarely wear the green bag in the tropics because it is typically quite hot and uncomfortable, but in the heat of San Juan it really mattered little which uniform I wore - they would all be wet by the time the day was done).
We were quickly given our first flight assignments of the mission - I would take the Airvan and two photographers and photograph a grid of 10 miles square over in the middle of the island just south of Arecibo, while Pete would take one of the Cessnas and fly as a communications relay aircraft over the center of the island. I had taken the liberty of purchasing a San Juan sectional chart the evening we arrived, and so I had something a bit larger than the iPad with which to plan my first sortie. But I also programmed the grid on the iPad, and it was well that I did so. After we took off and headed west, I discovered that the 480 GPS would not respond properly to the inputs I needed to make in order to fly our grid pattern with it. Since I had taken the precaution of plotting it out on the iPad, I was able to use the GPS in that device to fly an accurate pattern over the ground so that the photographers could do their jobs.
Almost immediately after takeoff the scope of Maria's impact on Puerto Rico became painfully obvious. In the dusk the evening before, we could not see that the hills were mostly brown, like New England in late autumn, and not the tropical green normally associated with a rain forest. Today it was obvious that just about every tree on the island had either been uprooted or snapped in two, and every leaf had been scoured off these trees to boot. The trunks lay askew like some giant's game of pick-up-sticks. This was the situation just about everywhere we looked. On the other hand, the buildings appeared, from around 1000 feet agl, to be in much better shape than I had anticipated.
Judging from pictures of the island of Dominica, which had been nearly flattened by the storm, and looked more like ground zero of some nuclear detonation than an inhabited island, the damage to structures here was less intense. My first impression was that roughly 80 percent of the buildings we saw appeared to have suffered no major structural damage, such as roofs blown off or total collapse. Although there were a few structures in each village and town that did appear to be destroyed, most of the buildings, and just about all of the ones that appeared to be relatively new, seemed to be surprisingly intact. Now it is admittedly difficult to judge structural damage from 1000 feet or more in the air, but overall the picture was much better than I thought it might have been. Also it seemed that every paved road we looked at, even in the mountains, had cars driving upon it, which seemed to indicate that a great deal of road clearing had already taken place by now, roughly two weeks after the storm hit.
We took our pictures and made our way back to Isla Grande, in beautiful weather as my luck typically dictated. That sortie took around 2.5 hours, and we were not tasked to fly again that day, but instead returned to the command post and set about planning the next day's flying. FEMA wanted a complete survey of the islands of Culebra, St. Thomas and St. John, so it looked like the sharks might get another shot at a meal! Some quick iPad planning revealed that it might take as long as three hours to get everything they wanted. The airport at St. Thomas was open, but mainly for airliners, and we would have to fly down to St. Croix to get avgas, were that to be necessary. On the plus side, the weather forecast was favorable and it looked to be a great day for flying.
Next morning the weather did not disappoint us, and after another excellent breakfast aboard the Empire State we headed back to the airport for our island tour. The distances involved are not great, and I recall flying between San Juan and St. Thomas in the 727 back in the day, a trip which must surely have been barely longer than the LGA-JFK short haul that I wrote about some years back. In the Airvan the times would be nowhere near as short, of course; and rather than simply land, we were going to be circling each island several times to get complete coverage.
Every takeoff from Isla Grande gave us a front row view of downtown San Juan, as we banked left after liftoff and flew through a small gap in the high rise hotels by the beaches. To go east, we followed the north shore of the island until we got to a point abeam the tower at the big airport, and then we were cleared to fly directly over the terminal building, followed by a turn to the east that put us between the two runways' departure paths. This course was held until we neared the light house at Fajardo, from which it was over the blue sea for 20 miles or so to the island of Culebra.
All of the Antilles are mountainous islands, volcanic in origin, and we had decided to use mountain flying techniques to do our photo runs. When searching mountainous areas, especially at high density altitudes (a condition which did not apply here, fortunately), it is almost always preferable to begin at the highest elevations and work your way downward. Small single engine airplanes rarely have the power to weight ratio to conduct searches or photo runs uphill, if the slope is steep. Here, of course, we had some control over what the slope might be, by choosing our path over the ground. But it would still be better all around to start at the top, and that is what we did.
Arriving above Culebra, we circled leftward around the higher points and worked our way down in a spiral pattern. The camera window is located on the left side of just about all of our airplanes, and this dictated the direction of the turns. It also made it easier since the pilot had a good view of the terrain. It took around 25 minutes or so to cover the entire island, which is not too large, and Richard, in the back, was snapping pictures furiously as we flew along. After satisfying himself that the images were of good quality, which is an outstanding benefit of digital photography, Richard cleared us to proceed to St. Thomas.
Now ATC got involved once again. They had let us do our own thing over Culebra, but of course the small airport there is uncontrolled and there was no traffic during the time we were busy taking our pictures. St. Thomas (TIST), on the other hand, had several airline inbounds by the time we broke off from Culebra, and we had to be vectored away from the approach path for runway 10. We conceived a plan which garnered the approval of ATC -- proceed north of the island and start once again at the highest elevations, circling the high hills first, which would keep us away from the airport and the approach path for awhile. This worked well, and by the time we got around to the west side of the island, where the airport is, all was quiet on the arrivals front. There was a single departure while we were working the area, but it was no problem for us to keep north of his path, a path I knew well since I had flown it myself many times.
Both at Culebra and St. Thomas the situation was much like that on Puerto Rico itself; namely, most buildings relatively intact but just about every tree on the islands a casualty. It was obvious that a lot of work had already been done over on the Virgin Islands, because the few structures that seemed to have lost roofs already had those blue FEMA tarps stretched tight over them. One again there was vehicle traffic on most of the roads, but what there was not was cruise ships. Normally the harbor at Charlotte Amalie is crowded with some of the largest ships in the world, and the town is overflowing with the thousands of tourists each ship disgorges. But on that day, the entire harbor was empty, save for a few container ships.
St. Thomas, being larger than Culebra, took longer to photograph. But after around three complete laps of the island we had it all, and from there it was a short hop over to St. John. This was much easier to work, since there is no airport there, and the island is largely given over to a National Park, so the areas of habitation, which were our targets, were fewer there than on St. Thomas. We made quick work of St. John, and as we did so I cast an eye off to the right at the British Virgin Islands.
We had to stay away from the boundary, since it is an international border, and we had not been asked to take any pictures over there. But I well remembered several sailing charters I tagged along on back in the Pleistocene days of my airline career. A group of us new airline pilots chartered a big sailboat, and spent a week cruising the marvelous waters of the BVI. We did some diving on the wreck of the Rhone, which was also used a few years earlier as the location for filming some of the movie The Deep. I even made the acquaintance of the very barracuda that played a bit part in the film!
Pete had flown this sortie around the islands, and he wound up with one of the few landings he made that was not preceded by an instrument approach. After landing we made our way once again to the nurses' lounge at the hospital. Too bad the nurses were not there! The hospital itself was open for business, since they were possessed of an enormous diesel powered generator that not only powered the entire hospital but also spewed out exhaust and copious quantities of raw noise just across the hall from our temporary command post. Small wonder the nurses seized this opportunity to be off to quieter digs. In the midst of this din, Richard and Mike downloaded and processed the huge batch of photos we had taken. This can take awhile, and it was late afternoon by the time we were ready to return to the ship. Late afternoon often means rain in San Juan, and today's downpour was torrential. We ended up driving the van through water as deep as a foot and a half on the way to the docks, but we made it. Another day, another dollar!
The next day we did not fly, but spent the entire day at the command post. The sit around time on a mission is usually nothing but boring, although the respite from flying is valuable. Things can be especially boring in the absence of wifi and wireless data, both of which were spotty for obvious reasons. It was something of a miracle that the cell network was as functional as it was, given that only two weeks before everything was down and out. By this time there was talk of setting up a network of tethered helium balloons each carrying a cell antenna array, to provide broader interim service over a wider area of the island. But this scheme was not put into effect when we left, although it may have been set up later. (Author's note: it is being set up, although with tethered drones instead of balloons.)
There was also talk of providing solar panels and batteries to many of the homes, especially in the remote areas. This, too, was not in evidence when we were there, although perhaps something may come of it over time. The high tension electrical distribution lines that we saw during our flights all seemed to be intact, even to the cables between the towers -- I saw none missing. It was the local electrical lines that had been impacted severely. It will take quite a while to fix all of that, due in part to the difficulty of getting a large number of trucks and personnel to the island.
The following day we had a special mission. The southwest corner of the island had not been photographed due to a restricted area there surrounding an aerostat. An aerostat is a huge tethered balloon that carries a radar dish to monitor sea and low flying air traffic. Since the late 20th century a number of these balloons have been deployed around the fringes of US territory, in places like Key West and southwest Puerto Rico. The Aerostat itself had been wound back into its hangar for the hurricane and had remained there since, but the restricted area was not lifted for photo flights until our sortie on Wednesday.
This was a very long flight, in part because FEMA wanted saturation coverage of the grid, and that meant flying the entire grid from east to west, and then again from north to south. That evolution took over two hours, in fact almost three counting the travel time from San Juan over to this farthest corner of the island. Then, once we were done, Pete (who won the coin toss to fly today!) could not fly us back direct to SJU since the daily buildups were crowning the high terrain in the middle of the island. We headed back east, over Ponce, looking for a place to sneak through. Failing that we would have to fly all the way around the island. Fortunately, there is a nice valley midway along the island that allowed us to stay VFR beneath the clouds with several thousand feet of ground clearance. We worked our way through this valley, which leads to Caguas and beyond to the southern suburbs of San Juan. Although the island was capped by buildups, it had not yet started to rain, so we arrived without getting soaked. The rains occurred, as they always do, later in the afternoon, as we were on our way back to the boat.
The original CAP plan had been to keep the Airvans and the Cessnas in San Juan for several weeks, with aircrews rotating in and out via airline or one of the by-now-regular military shuttle flights that operated several times per day to various bases in the CONUS. Indeed, we had originally been scheduled to depart Puerto Rico several days earlier on one of these flights, with another Maryland Wing crew coming in to replace us (a plan which was scrapped after it took us nearly a week just to get there). Several iterations of this dance were expected to occur over the course of a month or so, at the end of which a crew would fly down and get the Airvan, bringing it back to Baltimore by more or less the reverse of the route we took. But by Wednesday morning we began to get messages indicating that the Airvans, at least, might be finishing up and heading home sooner than anyone thought -- by Thursday, to be specific. The question was raised: since Pete and I had flown the airplane down, and knew the route and the drill, might we be willing to take it back home? This would obviate the need to fly another crew down to Puerto Rico.
After a bit of talking among ourselves, we agreed and volunteered to fly the bird home. It would mean giving the sharks another bite at the apple, so to speak, but we had gotten to be old hands at overwater flying and the thought of another trip up the Bahamas chain, with all of the beauty attendant thereunto was enticing. After our marathon journey to the southwest corner was done, we set about planning a return trip. One of our photographers, Mike, had to be home by Saturday and, remembering the nearly week long slog it took for us to get down, decided that he would avail himself of military air, leaving the same day we were going, tomorrow (Thursday). With only three of us, the plane would be a bit lighter and possibly a knot or so faster.
The weather was not looking to be a factor until around Nassau and beyond, so we could return via the more direct route. This would be San Juan to Provo again (no getting around that leg!) followed by a run up A-555 to Nassau. That would most likely be our RON, since the winds were not favorable enough to make the run all the way to KFXE non-stop. Since we were westbound, 6000 feet would be a good cruise altitude. I filed the flight plan with international FSS over the phone from the ship Wednesday evening and all was in readiness for an 0800 departure on Thursday. Mike came to the airport with us to help us repack the airplane, since he had signed for most of the photo equipment, and we were carrying all of that home with us rather than burden him with it on the KC-135.
Once again, I volunteered to handle the radios on the Provo leg which meant that Pete had another leg in the left seat. By this time neither of us cared a hoot who flew! The torture was the same in either seat. We took off, turned left between the Caribe Hilton and the El San Juan and headed for CORAF again. The flight to Provo was a mirror image of the flight down - long! We saw a number of cargo ships on the ocean below us, but no cruise ships. Grand Turk was a welcome sight when it hove into view, since it meant that we would always be in sight of land from then on. Arriving at Provo, we were issued another hold, since several airplanes were inbound and there is no ATC radar. The lavatory was calling us, and it was with some reluctance that we headed for the holding fix rather than the airport. But luck was with us, for we were cleared to the airport even before we got to the holding fix.
We again had someone from the FBO go into town for some ham and cheese sandwiches, as we had on the way down. On that trip, a week ago, they were the best ham and cheese sandwiches we ever tasted! Today not quite so -- perhaps another chef was in town. But they still hit the spot an hour or two later, when we asked Richard to take up the role of flight attendant and pass them up. I had chosen to fly this second leg into MYNN in part because the original forecasts indicated the possibility of an instrument approach at Nassau. But my luck had not changed, and by the time we got there it was sunny and pleasant. We could see the Atlantis hotel complex over by the town, and the usual gaggle of huge cruise ships docked at this, one of the few ports in the entire area that was not really affected by the hurricanes.
Once we cleared customs we got a cab to our hotel, a quaint little place near the airport and well away from the town and the tourists, called A Stones Throw. The accumulated fatigue of the entire mission was beginning to show, and the meal we had there was outstanding and relaxing. We had discovered conch fritters on the way down, in Exuma, and we once again treated ourselves to them in Nassau. We capped it all off with a good night's sleep - the first on a real bed since we had embarked upon the SS Empire State.
By morning we were recharged and rejuvenated, and ready for the day's labors. A long day was facing us, since we were of a mind to make it all the way back to Baltimore on Friday. This looked quite doable, since CAP allowed up to nine hours of flight time in a 14 hour duty day. All of this had been waived for the mission, of course, but even within the regs it looked like we could do it, and do it safely.
We planned the leg into the USA to terminate at KPBI instead of Fort Lauderdale, since by going up to Palm Beach we could cut a corner and save a few minutes on the overall flight time. The route I planned took us over Freeport, although shortly after takeoff we were cleared direct. This leg was complicated by the extra notifications necessary to alert customs to our arrival. In addition to the electronic notification, which is done through a system called EAPIS, we also had to make a phone call to the KPBI customs office telling them when we planned to arrive. Thus far in the mission, accuracy of arrival estimates had been mostly academic, but now it counted. We were expected to show up on customs' doorstep within an hour of when we told them we were coming. Since the flight itself was only around 2 hours so in length our estimate would probably hold up.
Promptly 1.9 hours after takeoff we set the parking brake on the customs ramp at KPBI and presented ourselves and our paperwork for inspection. All of us had been through this drill many times - Pete is a seasoned international vacationer and Richard is actually a Slovak national. Customs and immigration personnel were friendly and efficient and we were cleared to proceed within 10 minutes or so (no doubt also due to the fact that we were the only airplane there at that point). This marked a significant milestone, since from this point on the flight was a plain vanilla domestic flight. Among other niceties I could resume filing the flight plans from the Garmin Pilot app!
One of the interesting aspects of a long series of flights like this is that the only fixed points are the origin and the final destination. In my professional career, every leg was set in stone and we simply followed our orders, or the schedule, with no deviation except for a diversion for cause. But these flights were our own to construct. We could have stopped in Exuma again, for example, or Freeport rather than Nassau, or any other airport in the Bahamas that had fuel. Likewise, we could now stop anyplace between Palm Beach and Baltimore for fuel, since we could not make it non-stop and probably would have been unwilling to endure the flight even if we could. As we planned the northbound journey we considered Savannah, Columbia, Fayetteville, Raleigh, and a few other places. But since the leg was mine, I decided to drop in again at a place I had not visited in decades -- Charleston, South Carolina, the home of my Air Force alma mater the 437th Military Airlift Wing as it was known then (simply the 437th Airlift Wing today).
Our fight plan from PBI to CHS called for Victor 3 up to Craig VOR, and then Victor 1 to Charleston. Victor 1 lies just off the coast, but probably within gliding distance of the beaches from our planned altitude of 7000 feet. In any event, we still had the raft and the vests so we had no hesitation about planning the flight this way. Although we should have been feet dry up to CRG, departure control vectored us a few miles out over the ocean before turning us north. We could again see the signs of hurricane Irma as we coasted out, although by around 2000 feet things on the ground resumed a more or less normal appearance. There were some scattered cumulus over the land but little in the way of clouds over the water. At 7000 feet, we were pretty much in the clear, and able to avoid the scattered higher buildups visually, although we also had once again the advantages of both ADSB weather and ATC radar to assist us.
We flew about 10 miles inland of Cape Canaveral, but could see the massive VAB building and the associated launch complexes in the distance. By the time we got to CRG Center offered us the option of going direct to CHS, a short cut that would take us well out to sea, but would also cut 5-10 minutes off the flight. Again, the deciding factor was the lack of comfort of the sturdy Airvan. We had the equipment to go feet wet one more time, and we also had the nonchalance born of seven previous overwater legs. Why not? And so we turned 20 degrees right and set a direct course to the City by the Sea.
We wound up having to dodge a few buildups on the new course, but it was no problem. One of the joys of IFR flying is the ability to get close to, or even inside of, clouds. Indeed, in the Airvan getting close to clouds is the only way one can get any sense of speed! Our cruise speed could only be considered sprightly by comparison to something like a Greyhound bus, but close to a cloud we at least could savor the illusion of speed. And, of course, there is endless delight in dodging to and fro in the cloud canyons aloft. Cheap thrills, perhaps, but rare enough not to be ignored. I indulged myself for the better part of an hour in such pursuits, and if nothing else it helped to keep my mind off the pains!
It took almost 4 hours to get to CHS, a portion of which was the fault of approach control, who decided, because of our arthritic speed, to vector us all over the low country to keep the approach path open for faster and presumably more deserving traffic. By the time we had shut down on the FBO ramp the Hobbs meter read 3.7 hours.
Over on the other side of the airport lay Charleston AFB, now festooned with C-17's rather than the smaller C-141's of my era, and somewhat modernized over the course of nearly 50 years, but still recognizable. I spent a few moments in the luxurious FBO lounge reminiscing about my life here in the early 1970's, and the many worldwide trips that I flew from this very runway. I once owned a small plane here, an early model Beech Bonanza, and flew it all over the low country, mostly in pursuit of hamburgers, or more often good seafood. There was not time for anything like that now, for we must needs be off fairly quickly to get to Baltimore before it got too late. We contented ourselves with snacks from the FBO and a few bottles of water for the last leg of the odyssey.
It fell to Pete to bring it all home, as I resumed my role of copilot. I had told Pete earlier in the mission that he was getting the opportunity to sample an airline trip. Indeed, our journey did bear a striking resemblance to a multi day airline pairing. We two worked together like an experienced airline or military crew, which was not surprising since those virtues are exactly what CAP preaches and teaches, and for the same reason -- safety. It was gratifying to think that CAP's training and procedures had equipped Pete to become a true crew dog, since most of his flying time is actually single pilot. But we had all the duties split down the middle as we droned northward, measuring our progress as much by the ATC centers we were handed off to as by the waypoints we passed. Actually, I had simply filed direct to Martin State Airport; and since Pete was in the left seat, and more often than not possessed of the luck of the Irish instead of his actual heritage, we were cleared direct to KMTN. There were, therefore, no actual waypoints passing, but we could see Charlotte, Raleigh and Richmond both out the window and on the GPS as they drifted slowly by.
Up around the Richmond area we were treated to a magnificent sunset off to our left, a fitting coda to the long and arduous mission. By this time we were able to get the reports and forecast for KMTN, which now indicated that the fun was not yet over, because a 600 foot ceiling and one mile visibility meant that once again Pete was going to get some instrument time. Indeed, by the end of the trip he pretty much had his instrument currency updated for another 6 months! But before he could inscribe all of this in his logbook, he had to fly this last approach; which, although not really to minimums, would still be demanding.
As we closed in on the Washington area we were rerouted, as is usual, to the east of the SFRA. By now an undercast had formed below us and we could only see a glow of light through the clouds to confirm that we were nearing our destination. Clearance for the approach took us down into the clouds, and as so often happens on the line, we had to earn our way to the ramp by finding the airport in the clag.
Martin State was using runway 33, which has an LDA approach with a glideslope. This, for all intents and purposes, is similar to an ILS approach, and flown in the same manner. At the end of such a long day it is often challenging to keep the needles together on an instrument approach, but Pete had us positioned nicely at the point where I called the tower and asked for the runway lights to be turned up full. This is an old pilot trick, and behold -- in an instant the runway appeared from nowhere, directly in front of us! It was then merely a matter of landing upon it, and we were down and home.
We taxied in light drizzle over to the ramp, where we were met by the same CAP people who had given us our sendoff almost two weeks before. Fortunately, the drizzle stopped by the time we were ready to unload the airplane, which took almost as long as it did to load it. We refueled the trusty Airvan and I sneaked in an affectionate pat on the cowling as a thank you for her long and faithful service on this mission. Over the course of 12 days and nearly 60 hours of flying she had performed flawlessly, with no maintenance issues whatsoever -- just when we needed such a performance most! Final box score - Fliers 8, Sharks 0. A perfect game indeed!
Every generation or so, CAP is involved in a major mission that serves to define it in the coming years. The Steve Fossett search, the hurricane Katrina recovery, and now the hurricane Maria recovery will always be front and center in the legacy of Civil Air Patrol. But this one was unprecedented -- a long overwater trip that crossed international borders. It demonstrated that CAP is capable of flying with the best of them, in every circumstance that our equipment and training will allow. Pete, Mike, Richard and I are proud to have been involved in this one.
Afterword: If you think you may be interested in getting involved with the Civil Air Patrol, I encourage you to take a look at www.gocivilairpatrol.com and visit a local squadron. We would love to show you around and encourage your participation. A flight simmer has a lot to bring to CAP, and we do a lot that would no doubt be of great interest to you. I look forward to seeing some of you on my crew someday!
Also by Tony Vallillo: Civil Air Patrol - USAF Auxiliary