The Author is David Reed, a commercial pilot for over 40 years. Over these four decades he has had many events occur, some interesting, some exciting, a few that were frightening and a lot of misadventures. Every story in this blog is true.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Caribbean Storms

       The 1980's was a very good time for me. I was the only charter pilot in Grand Cayman, and I often flew to various Western Caribbean destinations like Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Panama. The weather was almost always perfect, as it often is in the Caribbean. Sunny skies, mild temperatures, steady breezes. One trip I did often was to fly a businessman to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It was just over three hours of non-stop overwater flying. The blue Caribbean was always calm, and halfway there, if you were lucky, you passed over a tiny island called Swan Island, though I called Gilligan's Island. Navigation aids were virtually non-existent, so my procedure was to aim to the left of a direct line. When I got to the Honduran coast I would simply turn right and follow it to the group of grass huts, marking the entrance to the valley where San Pedro Sula is. There was a fairly modern navigation aid at San Pedro Sula, called a VOR, but to keep maintenance easy they installed it on the airport. Because of the high mountains on three sides, it was virtually worthless until you got right over the valley. My airplane, N2718B, a 1955 Aero Commander, had a VOR set in it and not much else, but the engines ran good so I had no worries. 
       One day I flew this nice businessman to San Pedro again, only this time the weather wasn't so nice. Thunderstorms were developing all along the route of flight. I didn't have radar or satellite weather, and ATC did not have a radar either. In fact, I couldn't even reach ATC until I was within an hour of the airport. So we are bumping along in the clouds and the rain, and after two and a half hours I was getting concerned. Concerned because my bladder had been shaking for the entire time and it
was now screaming for relief. I had filed an IFR flight plan before leaving Grand Cayman, and it called for me to fly directly to a beacon in northeast Honduras, then fly west toward San Pedro Sula until I got over the valley and could receive the VOR. This beacon was right out of the 1950's, and was nothing more than an AM radio station with no music. The single needle in the cockpit pointed to it, but gave no indication as to how far away you were. You only knew when you were over it by the needle swinging around to point behind you. The receiver had another unexpected function: it would point at lightning with amazing regularity. So I'm trying to pick up this 1950's beacon signal, some 80 miles ahead of me I estimate. It points ahead, then left, then right, then back left, then ahead again. The ride is even darker and rougher than before and I thought "Oh the hell with this. I'll descend down until I'm under the clouds and go in visually, like I usually do." Bladder agrees. Knowing the mountains are somewhere in front of me, I start a circling descent. Down we go, lower and lower, with nothing in sight. Finally, around 200', I see the ocean below, a raging storm of an ocean and almost zero visibility. Rats! I climb back up and ATC asks when I expect to cross the beacon. "ETA 1315" I reply, 1:15 pm. That time comes and goes, and ATC calls again. "ETA 1345" I reply, now more of a guess than anything else. 1:45 pm comes and goes. Another call from ATC. Shoot, I must be getting close, the signal is fairly strong now. "ETA 1400" I reply, and it darn well better be because the bladder is near bursting. Just before 2pm The needle suddenly swings around behind me, marking station passage. I call with my position and give my ETA to San Pedro Sula. Still in the clouds, I know the ground is near by as I fly over the high ground near the mountains. Finally I cross over the ridge and the VOR jumps to life! Quickly I call the control tower who clear me to descend to the airport. Flying a race track pattern around the VOR I descend and find the cloud bases aren't too bad here, and I get the runway in sight. Cleared to land I make a quick approach, land short and taxi quickly to the ramp. My passenger, seemingly unconcerned with any it, gives a cheery wave and heads for the terminal. I grab the customs guy and say, "Bathroom! Now!"
       I clear customs, which is always interesting. Three offices to visit, dropping off $5 as a "gift" at each, then check back out, visiting the same three offices with more $5 bills. I get fueled up, take a deep breath, start the engines, take off and head down the valley to the ocean. As the trip home progresses, the weather continually improves, until about halfway there the sky is clear and the ocean has calmed down. Three and a half hours later I land in Grand Cayman and head for the Holiday Inn bar, which is the happening place on Wednesday nights. I've earned this one!