Fly until the map turns blue…and then some

17 min read

Hal and his iconic 1963 Aztec

“Take the Aztec to Nevis” Sporty’s founder/chairman, Hal Shevers, stated last fall. We took this statement seriously because it is fully in line with the company’s philosophy.  We fly airplanes, we teach people how to fly airplanes, and we reward employees for earning their pilot’s certificate. We use airplanes to get from where we are to where we want to be and in the process, invent, discover, and test products pilots use to help them get from point A to B.

These experiences foster development of the leading edge products and educational courses for which Sporty’s is famous. A February trip to Nevis in the West Indies would present the opportunity try some products and escape the Ohio Valley winter. This is the first of three installments about our adventure in Sporty’s iconic 1963 Piper Aztec. Follow along on our Caribbean adventure and start planning your own.

Part I – Introducing a new standard lapse rate

Our flight path to Nevis

Our Caribbean adventure was a round trip to Nevis, West Indies but also included a stop in Georgetown, Bahamas with a two night stay in the newly renovated Peace & Plenty Inn. Our plan for the trip was to fly from the Clermont County Airport (I69), home of Sporty’s, to Exuma International (MYEF) with a fuel stop in St. Augustine, FL at Northeast Florida Regional (KSGJ).  After a two night stay in Georgetown, we’d be on to Nevis with a fuel stop in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

I have never been asked for it, but international travel requires the pilot to be in possession of a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit (FCC License)  The Permit does cost $70.00 to obtain but it only expires when you do so the one time cost is pretty cheap amortized over your lifetime of flying. Come to think of it, I have never been asked to show my pilot’s license or medical in the Bahamas either, but I always carry them. As the trip approached, a checklist was developed to make sure everything would be ship-shape as being in another country over a thousand miles away is no time to remember what you forgot.

Caribbean Checklist:

  • Aircraft – Reserved and check that it will be properly serviced for the trip (required inspections, oil etc.)
  • Equipment – Buy or rent required safety equipment (Coast Guard approved life vests – raft is optional but comforting)
  • Pilot – Required documents and be current and familiar with the aircraft’s equipment, avionics, performance, etc.
  • Passports – Required for each person on the trip. Get a copy early to ensure everyone has a valid passport and as the pilot, you will need the information for Customs.
  • eAPIS manifest submitted and international (ICAO) flight plan filed.
  • Prepare four copies of the Inward Declaration and Cruising Form (officially three are required but it always seems they want one more and besides it gives your passengers something to do on the trip).
  • Call the intended airport of entry and make sure that fuel is available and confirm the hours of operations (both for FBO service and Customs).
  • Charts – more on that later.

With Passports in hand, I filed our eAPIS (electronic Advanced Passenger Information Service) manifest online. Although, in my opinion, it seems a little “big-brotherish,” it is a requirement so Customs and Border Protection can “match up” who is entering and leaving the country.  The system is pretty easy to use, but when registering, the pilot is given a unique Sender ID consisting of random letters and numbers.  Pilots need to keep this along with their password as another eAPIS must be filed upon returning to the States.

The eAPIS manifest must be filed at least an hour in advance and, additionally, the pilot is required to estimate where and when the aircraft will cross the coastline. In my past flying, that estimate would involve an E6B computer (made of aluminum), calls to Flight Service to get winds aloft, and a lot of measuring only to arrive at a number that would be kind-of-accurate – to the nearest day.  Thanks to my iPad and ForeFlight, the calculation was made quickly and accurately using the latest forecasts.

Cruising at over 190 mph (evidently in 1963, Piper was still measuring the world in statue miles), the Aztec that day would gain 65 degrees of temperature as it lost 15 degrees of North Latitude. As pilots, we learn that on a “standard day,” temperature decreases 3.5 degrees for each 1,000 feet of altitude we climb and is known as the “Standard Lapse Rate.”  On that Saturday, I found a new Lapse rate in that the average temperature increased 4 degrees for each degree of latitude we lost!  I don’t know if this is as reliable as the altitude standard but I am willing to collect additional data with more winter trips south (hint to Boss).

Changes in Latitudes Changes in Altitudes

On February 2, 2018, the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, emerged from his burrow to see his shadow, proclaim six more weeks of winter, and presumably crawl back into his home. Early the following day, friends Dan and Ann, my wife Rose Ann and I, left our homes to proclaim a week long end to our winter. I had put the Aztec in Clermont County’s heated hangar the day before allowing the preflight and loading to be conducted in relative  warmth (it was 15 degrees outside).

With just a few taps we could calculate weight and balance and even move luggage between the front and rear baggage compartments to allow a more cruise friendly aft loading

The aircraft was filled to capacity with fuel and a week’s worth of clothes for both the warm weather to which we were going and cold weather gear needed now and for our return. We also had our Coast Guard approved raft and life jackets, a few snacks and us.  Fortunately the Aztec is renowned for its roomy interior and high capacity forward and aft baggage compartments. Weight and balance was simply calculated using our Foreflight App confirming we were within zero fuel, gross weight, and center of gravity limits.  The App’s ease of use allowed us to “play” with the distribution to move luggage safely aft which should result in at least a small increase in True Airspeed.

Still warm from the hangar, the engines started easily with just a few strokes of prime. The propellers eagerly bit the frigid air as we initiated our takeoff roll after the run-up confirmed all was well. First Officer Dan’s call to Cincinnati Departure gave us our expected clearance to St. Augustine (KSGJ) via the Electric City VOR (ELW) near Anderson SC at 9,000 feet as we climbed through a thin broken overcast. Upon reaching altitude, and completing the cruise checklist, we were able to sit back and watch the land below as it transitioned from the snow covered hills of Kentucky to the mountains of east TN and NC. And we watched as the lowlands of SC and GA turned from winter gray to spring green.

An active Bulldog MOA necessitated an easterly change of course bringing our first view of the Atlantic Ocean near Hilton Head. Then somewhere a little northwest of Savannah, we received a radio call familiar to anyone who has flown from the “North 47” into Florida.  “N702SP we need an altitude change for Jax Center, do you want eight or ten thousand?”

Early on in our flight training we learned about the hemispheric rule. In order to decrease the likelihood of head on collisions, IFR aircraft flying generally east should fly at odd thousands of altitude and west-bounds should travel at even thousands (VFR traffic should add 500 feet). There is really very little east and west flying in Florida because there are only a hundred or so miles from its east to west coast, therefore, the rule gets modified to even thousands southbound and odd thousands northbound. We chose 8,000 as we would soon be descending into our fuel stop at St. Augustine.

Making use of our Stratus 2S ADS-B receiver, Dan accessed the runway wind components for KSGJ which indicated a fairly strong (20 kt.) crosswind for the 8,002 feet long runway 31. The ATIS and Tower confirmed 31 as the active runway offering a chance to use my crosswind skills. After landing, we received taxi instructions to the Atlantic Aviation FBO to fill the Aztec’s bladders and empty ours.

Flying Past the Edge

Prior to this trip, I had come to rely on ForeFlight’s US IFR and Sectional charts for navigation. Years ago, a coast to coast trip required a whole box full of charts to make sure you could navigate wherever the winds, clouds and mountains dictated. Packing all of those charts, plates, and supplements into my iPad ended my need for the big box and the big flight bag. But flying to Great Exuma (and beyond) created a new dilemma as the procedures end at the Florida shore and the US Low IFR charts end just past Nassau.

I have heard that folks in the 15th century chided Columbus and were convinced his trio of ships were destined to sail off the uncharted edge of the earth. How was I going to navigate beyond the edge of my charts?  My problem was solved when Foreflight teamed up with Jeppesen to provide chart overlays for their powerful app. With the purchase of the Latin America / Caribbean Jeppesen coverage, my iPad was set with VFR and IFR enroute charts and procedures extending from Mexico and Central America through the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, West Indies all the way down to Trinidad and Tobago.

Jepp charts provide all the same features like panning, zooming, route changes by rubber banding and waypoint information right there under my fingertip. Although the Private Flying in the Bahamas website promotes that “the weather is usually as clear as our water,” it is not unusual to see some rain showers every day. When those showers occur while approaching an airport for landing, having those Jepp plates comes in mighty handy.

The map turns blue

After fuel and lunch, we launched for our three hour, ten minute flight to Georgetown, Exuma (MYEF). Our flight plan took us down the Florida coast on the V3 airway over Daytona Beach, then just west of the Kennedy Space Center to Melbourne. From Melbourne we were cleared direct to Great Exuma airport crossing the coastline at 2:12 pm.  A scant two minutes later than Foreflight had predicted when I filed the eAPIS manifest six hours earlier. The moving maps on the iPad, G500 and GNC 750 turned blue – completely blue as most of the rest of our trip would be over the warm, calm and inviting waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

The IFR flight plan not only provided separation from traffic, but also that discrete transponder code required by national security to penetrate the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Soon Miami Center handed us off to Nassau Approach Control which vectored us eastward around those typical afternoon showers. South of Nassau and back in touch with Miami Center, the clouds below quickly became broken and then scattered. We cancelled IFR and dropped down to 1,000 feet above the shore of the Exuma chain of islands that continued to our destination of Great Exuma.

Island Time

Spectacular view of the Exuma Islands as we descended below the clouds

Here in the states we are used to airports being open during business hours unless they are closed by NOTAM. We’re spoiled with fuel being available and Customs open at airports of entry. Many citizens of Caribbean nations have adapted the more laid back, Que Sera Sera, don’t-worry-be-happy attitude towards time and other commitments known as “Island Time.”  A complaint to a local about schedule is usually greeted with a knowing smile and the reply, “Island time mon.”

Travelling in the Caribbean it is always a good idea to call ahead to confirm any necessary service will be available when needed. The wind was blowing straight down runway 12 as we lined up for our final approach to the 7,000 feet long runway. A left turn onto the ramp revealed the lineman for Odyssey Aviation waiting to park us and the Customs inspectors driving to meet us in their golf cart. Assisted by the very courteous lineman, we unloaded the airplane and with the inward declarations and passports in hand, we were cleared by Customs. The FBO called a cab to take us to the Peace & Plenty Inn, our home for the next two nights.

The newly renovated Peace and Plenty Inn was our home for two nights

Bahamians drive on the wrong (left) side of the road. Our taxi was a van with right hand steering, but it was always a little disconcerting when at each intersection, we would line up on that left side. I never really got used to it. Soon we arrived at the Peace & Plenty which had just reopened under new ownership completing extensive renovations. After a leisurely check in (remember Island Time) we were shown to our rooms by one of the friendly staff. We had chosen rooms that viewed the harbor, had a nice roomy balcony from which to take in the scenery, comfy bed, clean bathroom, air-conditioning and a TV.  After unpacking we went down to the pool-side bar to “debrief” (a very important part of any flight) and take in the scenery.

It was February and about 78 degrees as the sun went down. We were sheltered from the breeze and a light rain shower by the brightly painted walls of the inn and I half expected to see Humphrey Bogart walk down the stairs in a seersucker suit.

Postflight “Debrief” at Peace and Plenty’s poolside bar

After the rain ended, we took the short walk around Victoria Harbor to Eddie’s Edgewater Restaurant to sample the local Bahamian Fare. We found the staff friendly and accommodating, the food hot, the Kalik cold and the prices reasonable. Maybe it was because we awoke at 06:00, or because we had flown for seven hours, or because we walked to and from supper, but for whatever reason, the bed at the Peace and Plenty was plenty comfortable for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Morning’s sunrise revealed a beautiful day with a few puffy cumulus clouds. At breakfast the food service manager told us to look out at the harbor, and if the boats were facing right (east), it would be a good day. The moored boats were facing to the right. The shore at the Peace and Plenty is rocky coral so after breakfast we made plans to visit Stocking Island’s beach just a brief ferry ride across the harbor. The hotel staff even arranged for the boat to pick us up at the hotel dock and provided beach bags and towels for the trip!

Stocking Island is a quick water taxi ride from the Peace and Plenty dock

The waterway to the island is well protected so we had a smooth boat ride over. As the Captain nudged the bow onto the beach we made arrangements for him to pick us up at 15:00. We hopped onto the sand and waved goodbye as he turned around to head back to Georgetown.

The beach was occupied but not crowded with both tourists and locals as we began to explore the island. We saw several swimming rays as well as a multitude of other fish and a signpost to remind us how far we were from “civilization.”

Quaint signpost to destinations around the world

Unofficial owner of the Chat N Chill on duty

Our part of the island was owned by the Chat and Chill whose motto is “the chat is free but the chill will cost you.”  The bar was open and the restaurant was supposed to start serving at noon. Noon “island time” apparently meant 13:00, but the burgers were good. I don’t know who the official documented owners of the Chat and Chill are but the apparent owners are a small cadre of local cats. Several signs reminded visitors the cats belong there and dogs should be kept on a leash.

After lunch we found an unoccupied picnic table and played a few games of Euchre while we continued to chat and chill with a couple of bottles of SANDS Light.  Soon enough it was 15:00 which saw the arrival of our trusty Captain and his ferry boat to take us back to the Peace and Plenty.

Are You Ready for Some Football?

The Georgetown Fish Fry is located about a mile and a half north of the Peace and Plenty and is a jumble of small, family owned restaurants that are frequented by tourists and local citizens alike. After cleaning up from our day on the beach we decided to walk up the Queens Highway and check it out. Along the way we stopped and queried locals as to which of the restaurants would be best and of course each gave a different answer. Once at the fish fry we randomly decided to dine at Shirley’s. Shirley herself is the head cook, her husband is the restaurant host/bartender and her son was our waiter.  The menu was varied but barbecue pork ribs were the special along with fresh fish. Our group reported each dish was great. One caveat, Shirley’s is a cash only establishment so be prepared and while the Bahamas have their own money they will gladly accept currency featuring the portraits of US statesmen. While we were eating it began a pretty steady rain prompting Shirley’s son volunteering to give us a ride back to the hotel.

It was Super Bowl Sunday and most of the Peace and Plenty guests and staff gathered in the bar to watch the game. I was surprised to learn how interested the Bahamians were in our brand of football. Talk of the game was prevalent everywhere we had been since landing on the island. Our plan for an 08:00 departure the following morning squelched my thirst, but it was fun to sit in the bar and cheer for and against the teams. I figure half of my readers are Patriot fans and the other half for the Eagles so in order not to offend I will not reveal my favorite. But after filing our flight plan, I did fall asleep happy.

The Peace and Plenty staff had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 07:00 for our planned 08:00 departure from Great Exuma. Odyssey Aviation had fueled the airplane and they also added the $29 per person departure tax on our bill. The hotel restaurant hadn’t opened yet so breakfast came from a vending machine at the airport. A call to Flight Service (1-800-WXBrief worked throughout the Caribbean) provided our last check on the weather. We were told to expect only some clouds along our course to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic and a landing forecast of few clouds at 3,500 was a welcome report.

Despite the fact it had rained each day and the airplane was sitting outside a check of the fuel from the sumps showed no signs of water. After completing the pre-flight inspection and adding a quart of oil in the left engine we were ready to depart for our next destination, Nevis.

To be continued…