Virgin Islands Flying Experience

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Thought that you had to be a high time pilot with a twin to fly the Caribbean? Think again. The author just returned from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he discovered that it was no problem to rent a Cessna Skyhawk, see the islands, pick up some flight time, and do something unique while on vacation. Here's all the key info for planning such an adventure, plus some great photos.

NOTE:

Click on any of the photos that accompany this article to view larger, higher-resolution versions.

My wife and I have a time-share condo on St. Thomas (Magens Point Resort). Our time-share week is always the last week in January. This is perfect for us since we live in the Washington D.C. metro area and the weather is usually at its worst that time of year. Going to the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) is a pretty easy decision. There are good air connections from most major U.S. cities, and the prices to get there are less than astronomical compared to some of the other islands. For my wife and me, it is a good compromise. I tend to be an active outdoor type and she is a loll-by-the-pool-and-shop type. St. Thomas offers the best of both worlds. She can shop till she drops in the cruise port of Charlotte Amalie, and I can jet-ski, sail, scuba dive and sport fish on the rest of the island.

Charlotte Amalie Harbor
Charlotte Amalie Harbor
with cruise ships.

I got the idea of flying in the USVI during our trip last year. While dining out at Craig and Sally's (perhaps the best restaurant in the USVI), we met Fritz Marburger. He is a former FedEx freight doggie who tired of flying the nightly trips from Baltimore to Memphis and back. His wife had the urge to open a boutique in St. Thomas. They made the move and Fritz wound up as the chief instructor at ACE Flight Center at Cyril King Airport (STT) in St. Thomas. Last year I had just started to get my private ticket when I met Fritz. He suggested that we should go flying with him in the USVI. We did and I was impressed with the scenery, and the fun of it all. I pledged that when I got my ticket I'd fly myself and visit some of the nearby islands.

I'm now a PP-SEL with my own Skylane (N2011X) who is working on my Instrument Rating. I have about 140 hours. When time came to think about our annual trek I started making the arrangements. First I called Fritz and reconfirmed what paperwork I would have to bring in order to rent an aircraft. It was nothing unusual: just logbook, medical and pilot certificates. He also reminded me that if we wanted to visit the British Virgin Islands that we needed to bring our passports. When I called, I made arrangements for a pre-rental checkout on January 26th at 9:00am. I also decided to bring my Lowrance AirMap GPS which comes equipped with the Americas database, my Jeppeson calculator, headsets and a kneeboard.

Getting checked out

On the 24th we flew to St. Thomas, checked in to our condo, and started our vacation. On the morning of the 26th I showed up at ACE with all my documentation. I was scheduled for my check ride with Dieter Bahr. He is one of the instructors on the staff. He checked my paperwork and went over some of the basics of the Cessna 172. I've got most of my time in my Skylane and learned to fly in a C-152, so the 172 was not a big change. After reviewing the critical V-speeds, buying a Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands Terminal Area Chart, and checking out the life raft and life vests, we were off for my checkride.

The aircraft we used is a 3,600 hour Skyhawk that is fully IFR equipped and in okay — but not pristine — shape. STT is in Class C airspace, and it's single 7,000-foot runway (10-28) is more than ample. One of the first things that I noticed was the brisk wind. It was the prevailing easterly trade winds that are always there except for around dawn or dusk. They usually clock in at 10-12 knots and are predominantly from the east.

Charlotte Amalie Harbor
Climbing out of St. Thomas
over Charlotte Amalie Harbor.

The takeoff at STT is impressive. It is almost always on Runway 10 and you climb out over a low range of hills over the harbor at Charlotte Amalie. There are always cruise ships in the harbor and it is very picturesque. The practice area is to the East near St. John (about 10 miles away).

Surprisingly there was lots of traffic. Besides the wind there seems always to be a deck of fluffy clouds that go from 3000-4500 feet. Since most of the islands are close together this means that most of the traffic is in the 1000-2000 foot area. So keeping your eyes pealed for other airplanes is a necessity.

The checkride was uneventful. It was a basic subset of the PP-SEL tasks and included stalls, turns, emergency procedures and some touch-and-goes for short field, and soft field take offs and landings. The only real surprise was the emergency landing drill. Most of the islands are very hilly and if there is no airfield the procedure is to land on — or just offshore of — a beach. I guess this is second nature if you learned to fly in Florida, but it was a bit disconcerting for this dry-land pilot.

Descending into STT
Descending into the STT airspace
over Red Hook.

I quickly discovered that the upside of flying in this part of the world: the scenery. The green and brown islands contrasting with the blue and blue green ocean are just breathtaking. The downside is that avgas costs a small fortune, and there is a $10 landing fee at all USVI airports. Before the prop stops turning, the little pickup truck is there to collect. Ten bucks seems a lot for a small airplane, but I guess it is part of the paradise tax. After the checkride was over and I scheduled the aircraft to use for most of Wednesday, January 28th.

Wednesday dawned okay, but not great. The weather was still solid VFR, but the clouds had some rain squalls in them. I checked with the San Juan FSS — yes, the 1-800-WX-BRIEF works in the USVI — and the briefer said that it would clear later in the PM but visibility would "only" be 7 to 10 miles. Since we had other things to do we decided to postpone the trip for a day since a key part of the excursion was to sightsee.

St. Thomas to St. Croix

Thursday seemed flawless. I checked the weather and it was perfect. 30 miles plus visibility and scattered clouds at 3200 feet. I loaded my wife and one of her friends in the rental car and headed for the airfield. After the preflight and preliminaries, we departed for St. Croix (STX) at 9:00 am. It was beautiful and uneventful. When you reach 1000 feet you can see how close all the islands are. You can see the St. John and British Virgin Islands to the east, Puerto Rico to the north, and St. Croix to the south. I availed myself of flight following from San Juan Approach and kept out of the way of a USAir 737 and a seaplane. The flight time to St. Croix was under 30 minutes, but I decided to do an air tour of St. Croix prior to landing. St. Croix is not quite as mountainous as St. Thomas and was mostly deforested in the 1600's for planting sugar cane. There are still numerous stone windmill towers all over the islands that look like little castles.

As I started my approach to STX, I got a surprise. I checked the ATIS and they reported the winds from 140 degrees at 14 knots. Since I was landing on runway 09, this meant a 50-degree crosswind. So much for the trade winds always blowing from the east. I was extra careful lining up, crabbing and making the right cross wind correction and only used 20 degrees of flaps. This paid off, and I made a close-to-textbook landing. It's always nice to do a landing like that when you have a stranger in the plane.

At St. Croix we parked the aircraft a Bohlke International Airways (BIA). They are the USVI FBO and have facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix. The facility was fully equipped with a nice lounge and flight planning area and the staff was very friendly. They called us a taxi and we headed into Christiansted for some sight seeing and shopping.

Christiansted shows its Danish heritage — the U.S. bought the USVI from the Danes in 1917 — and is picturesque. There is an old fort worth exploring and several neat buildings to see. Since fewer cruise ships call at St. Croix, the pace is slower and the tourists are almost all there for a week or more. The shops tend to be smaller and more interesting. While the girls did some looking in the shops I visited the fort and some of the antique and dive shops. We had a nice leisurely lunch and decided that it was time to see more. About 12:30 p.m. we headed for the airport and soon were in the air on our way to sightsee and visit the British Virgin Islands.

Touring the islands

British Virgin Islands
British Virgin Islands.

The sightseeing part was breathtaking. All the islands are interesting and have some unique features. St. John is mostly a National Park and very rugged. Norman Island is the setting for Robert Lewis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and has a large sea cave that can be seen from the air. Peter Island only has one feature, a single mansion compound that is on top of a mountain. All the islands have neat coves where sailboats anchor to snorkel, swim and party.

Having the ground mapping GPS was a blessing. It's sort of hard to get lost, but it is nice to use a reference since judging distance over the water is a skill that must be developed.

Yost Van Dike Island
Boats in the harbor at
Yost Van Dyke island.

We then flew in to Beef Island (TUP) for a visit to the British Virgin Islands (BVI). After going through customs caught a quick cab to Roadtown on Tortola. The BVI is much more laid back and the people seem less aloof than in the USVI. The official currency is the US dollar so there is no need to exchange currency. Tortola caters to the sailing trade and things are somewhat more upscale. After a couple of hours of some sightseeing, drinks for the girls and a coke for me we returned to the airfield and headed back to STT.

On the way back we flew over Yost Van Dyke island. It is a party haven and is reputed to have some of the best bars in the Caribbean. As we flew over at 1000 feet we counted 38 sailboats in the harbor and 7 to 10 on their way in. The approach to STT was uneventful but the crosswind was still there. We got back on the ground around 4:30pm after having logged 2.6 hours on the Hobbs meter. It was a wonderful experience.

Postscript

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. It was pricy, since gas is outrageous in the USVI, the price of the plane (wet) was $80 per hour, and it costs an extra $10 every time you land the airplane. But it was fun, it was beautiful and it was a good flying experience.

What would I do different? Not much except to bring my handheld VHF radio. Although I didn't have any problems I always had that "what if" nagging in the back of my mind.

USVI from 1500'
US Virgin Islands from 1500 feet.

If you have a BFR coming up then the USVI might be the perfect place to get it out of the way. As a matter of fact if you're on a cruise and your tired of shopping it might be an ideal escape. If you're hot to brush up on your instrument skills and get some IMC, the constant cloud cover at 3000 feet might be a good way to log some actual time. Lastly, if you're a flying junkie like I've become, it is a great place to get your "fix" while your on vacation.

I'm already thinking seriously about flying N2011X down to STT next year. I think it might be a heck of an adventure as well as lots of fun. If I don't, then I'll use one the ACE aircraft to make a day trip to Puerto Rico or to one of the other islands.

Key Information

Airline Services:
St. Thomas is served by Delta, American and U.S. Airways direct from the U.S. There are also numerous connections from San Juan Puerto Rico.
 
ACE Flight Center: (809) 776-4141
 
Bohlke International Airways: STT (809) 777-9177 STX (809) 778-9177
 
Magens Point Resort (809) 777-600
 
Dining:
Craig & Sally's—Best food in the USVI (809) 777-9949
Alexander's Cafe—Great for lunch (809) 774-4349
Cuzzin's Caribbean Restaurant & Bar—Best local food (809) 777-4741
 
Passport/Proof of Citizenship: Required for British Virgin Islands entry