If overflying Cuba by light plane, attending two days of great aviation safety seminars, and spending a week sunning, swimming and gourmet dining in the Cayman Islands sounds like your idea of fun, start making plans now to join next June's Cayman Caravan. The author just got back from participating in his first Caravan and found it to be a marvelous adventure. Here's what to expect — and a lot of pretty pictures, too.
February 9, 1998
|About the Author ...
Joe Godfrey mixes his love of flying with a
love of music. He is an instrument-rated private pilot who flies a 1974 Bellanca
Viking based at Palomar airport just north of San Diego, Calif. He composes
music for commercials, films, broadcast and corporate media and has composed and
produced thousands of music tracks for America's largest advertisers. In
addition to writing for AVweb, Joe contributes to
The Aviation Consumer
and IFR Magazine.
He is a director and pilot for
Flight West, a non-profit organization that uses private airplanes to fly
indigent medical patients. He is married and lives in Leucadia, California.
So far, Joe is the only AVweb staff member who has logged time with Ella Fitzgerald and
conducted the London Symphony.
The Cayman Caravan now has its own web site, which contains all the information and
paperwork you need to sign up for the event.
Every June a bunch of small airplanes gather in Key West and fly over Cuba. Cuba
doesn't shoot at them or scramble MiGs. In fact, Cuban controllers actually look forward
to the big day, when about a hundred airplanes fly through Cuban airspace on their way to
Cayman Aviation Week. The Cubans call it the "Rallye". The organizers call it
the Cayman Caravan. And organized it is. Paul Bertorelli, Val Oakley and Ross Russo have
this thing down to a science.
Mike Busch was one of the guest speakers at
Aviation Week and when he offered me the right seat in his Cessna T310R, I jumped at it.
I'd been to the Caribbean before — Mike hadn't — but it was the first visit to the
Caymans for both of us. For me, the idea of logging some time in a turbocharged
twin-engine airplane from Southern California to Key West was exciting enough. The Cayman
Island trip was a bonus
and what a bonus it turned out to be!
This was the 11th annual Cayman Islands International Aviation Week and the 7th annual
running of the Cayman Caravan. Aviation Week is a creation of the Cayman Islands
Department of Tourism (DOT) and is a week-long celebration of aviation. It consists of a
series of aviation safety seminars, a banquet, an airshow, a static display at the
airport, and a fly-out from Grand Cayman to Cayman Brac (a smaller island) dubbed the
The airshow at Cayman Aviation Week is a bit short and small compared to the
big box-office performances at Oshkosh, Wright/Patterson, Reno and Miramar. This year it
featured an F-14 exhibition and a bunch of smaller airplanes. It's a big deal to the
Caymanians, a bit ho-hum to the visiting Yankee aviators. On the other hand, no one goes
to Oshkosh or Dayton for the snorkeling.
The flight from Key West to Grand Cayman plans out to 328
nautical miles, easily within range of all but the slowest of singles. Prior to 1997, the
Caravan was restricted to instrument-rated pilots flying on instrument flight plans. But
this year, five VFR airplanes were accepted to make the crossing. (The policy on VFRs for
the 1998 Caravan is still under review.)
Our Destination Direct flight planning software told us that to get from Southern
California to Grand Cayman, we could save a few hundred miles by flying a great circle
route through northern Mexico, then over the Gulf into Cancun. The overwater leg from
Cancun to Grand Cayman is the same 328nm as the Caravan route from Key West. But the
shorter route isn't always the smartest route, and it was worth a few extra miles to build
the Caymania with our fellow Caravaners. Besides, if we went through Mexico we'd
miss out on the flight over Cuba.
Organized To The Hilt
Good planning always makes a trip go smoother. Tail numbers,
passport numbers, room reservations, bus rides from the airport, flight plans...it's all
handled by the Cayman Caravan staff when you pre-register. Then from the moment you arrive
in Key West, you're in experienced hands. Caravan staffers meet your plane and drive your
party to the hotel, then they guide you through all the paperwork you'd expect for a
flight over Cuba to a foreign country. They take care of obtaining your Cuban overflight
permit and pre-filing your flight plan. It's almost too easy.
Life rafts and personal flotation vests are a strict Caravan rule, even for twins, and
the FBO at Key West rents everything you need for the trip. The afternoon before departure
is spent poolside at the hotel in Key West reviewing ditching procedures, Coast Guard SAR
(search and rescue) procedures, and life raft demos.
The actual Caravan
takes place over two days, with roughly half of the airplanes making the crossing each
day. The evening before you depart Key West, you're asked to attend the Caravan dinner at
6 pm followed by a thorough briefing at 7 pm. An FAA weather specialist is present at each
briefing to provide the latest forecasts for the route. All the flight plans are pre-filed
by the staff. The airplanes are divided into flights of four...Alpha 1, 2, 3 and 4, Bravo
1, 2, 3 and 4...etc. Mike Busch's 310 in which I was flying was assigned to be "Mike
1" but Bertorelli swears it was a coincidence.
These foursomes depart Key West at scheduled departure times spaced 15 minutes
apart, and each plane in a foursome is assigned a different cruising altitude to assure
separation enroute. The flights-of-four provide something akin to the buddy system in the
event of an aircraft in distress. We were briefed that in the event of a ditching, the
highest plane coordinates communications with the search-and-rescue while the lowest plane
maintains eye contact with the swimmers until a SAR helicopter arrives on the scene. It's
a good procedure, but so far nobody has had to use it.
Key West to Grand Cayman
King Air to Skyhawk, everyone flies the same route. Cuba uses Flight Level altitudes
referenced to a 29.92 altimeter setting, so for 5,000 you report "Flight Level zero
five zero." This year the Caravan used a block of altitudes from FL 040 up to FL 250.
Key West tower hands you off to Navy Key West departure who issues your clearance and
provides vectors TADPO intersection. From there you join the G448 airway to the Varder NDB
(located at Varadero, Cuba).
Not long after passing TADPO, you're handed off to Havana Center. The Havana Center
controllers speak both Spanish and English on the frequency, and their English is
generally excellent. Don't expect to hear that Ricky Ricardo "Lucy you got a lotta
splainin' to do" brand of English. I've heard worse accents in West Virginia.
Like protective parents, Caravan organizers Paul Bertorelli and
Val Oakley stay on the ground in Key West until the last flight is in the air. Paul
monitors the departures, stays in touch with Key West Tower, Navy Key West Approach and
Miami Center, and keeps a cell phone handy in case he needs to resolve a last-minute
paperwork problem with Havana Center.
Paul has visited Havana Center in-person and developed a terrific rapport with the
Cuban ATC folks. "The Caravan is a big deal in Havana," he explains. "They
have their modest daily flow of overflights and then all of a sudden there's this surge
that really tests their limits. They really get fired up for it, almost as if it were a
sporting event." Paul adds "For some reason there were an unusually large number
of turnbacks by Havana Center this year, south and northbound. In any case, we corrected
everyone of them and all got through. Only one actually returned to Grand Cayman. We
turned him around in less than an hour. This stuff happens. Hey, it's the islands."
Mike and I both had
"handheld" GPS units for this trip. Mike flew left seat on the southbound leg
using a yoke-mounted Lowrance AirMap. I was navigating and handling the radios in the
right seat with a Magellan EC-10X. About halfway across Cuba, both of our GPS's lost their
position fixes virtually simultaneously. Both units, inpedendently powered and with
independent antennas, lost the satellites for a couple of minutes, then reacquired. Other
Caravanners had similar experiences in that area. Just a blip? Intentional jamming by
Cuba? Intentional jamming by the Pentagon? Intentional jamming by Langley? Bertorelli on
the phone to Havana? Whatever, plan to tune in the Varder NDB just for grins, or if not
ADF-equipped, then tune in the Varder VOR which is a few miles away from the NDB.
After Varder you'll continue on G448 to the Cayo Largo del Sur
VOR, then to ATUVI intersection. About half way to ATUVI, Havana Center will announce
"radar service terminated, contact Cayman Approach." From there it gets
interesting. Cayman airspace is a non-radar environment, so they depend on DME reports
from the GCM VOR. "Say DME" is what they'll ask you. They don't ask for your
radial (although since they have your flight plan they know which direction you're
arriving from-in our case North) or your altitude. The pre-departure briefing asked that
we cancel IFR as soon as feasible after being handed off to Cayman Approach, because the
volume of arrival traffic during the Caravan is more than can be accomodated using
non-radar IFR procedures. Frankly, the traffic can get a little frantic as you approach
Grand Cayman — it's especially nerve-wracking when another aircraft reports the same DME
distance that you're showing but you can't see any traffic — but it seems to work.
Grand Cayman ATIS is
available over the VOR frequency, but rumor is the tape hasn't changed since 1964. You'll
probably hear "Wind variable at 5 knots, 2,000 scattered." Aim for the west end
of the island, fly south over Seven-Mile Beach, hang a left at the cruise ship and you're
on final for Runway 8. More Caravan staff greet your arrival at Owen Roberts airport in
Georgetown, CI and whisk you through the paperwork there. Within minutes, you're on your
way to your hotel. The Marriott (which was the Radisson until June of 1997) was the hub
hotel for Aviation Week events this year, but there were wide range of prices for hotel
rooms in other parts of town.
The Aviation Week Seminars
The safety seminars during Aviation Week focused on topics of
interest to general aviation pilots. On Friday, AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Kent Eckhart
reminded us that an accident is usually a consequence of a series of bad decisions, any
one of which might've changed the outcome. Jim Toombs from FAA Southeastern Region spoke
about the FAA's safety counsellor program. TWA Captain Dave Gwinn, a world-reknowned
expert on aviation weather radar, covered the fine points of how Center radar systems can
be used for weather avoidance by pilots of non-radar-equipped aircraft. (Dave exudes the
kind of confidence that enables him to respond to ATC instructions with "Roger, I
have your request".) AOPA General Counsel John Yodice discussed three noted aviation
law cases, including lessons learned from the Bob Hoover debacle. After lunch, Mike Busch
held a two-hour session how to get piston engines to TBO and beyond
and then held a
two-hour encore Q&A session out in the hall that might've gone on all night if not for
On Saturday Kent Eckhart discussed the details of a fatal Baron 58 accident at Atlanta
a few years ago. Jon Doolittle offered an aircraft insurance survival kit. Marian Dittman
from the FAA explored the ValuJet accident. And Dr. Ian Fries wrapped up the seminar
sessions with a fascinating talk about keeping your medical certificate in the face of
I thought these were first-rate seminars. Each was relevant to GA pilots, and the
speakers were all experts on their subjects.
Hey, It's Not Just About Aviation
But there's so much more to do during a week in the
Caymans than talk airplanes! It's a place with a fascinating history (dating back to
Christopher Columbus), a fascinating culture combining elements of England and the
Caribbean (sort of a Paul McCartney meets Bob Marley thing), and a fascinating economy
(based in large measure on offering a tax-free haven to some of the world's wealthiest
people while remaining on good terms with the countries whose taxes are being avoided).
The food is wonderful, and some of the duty-free shops are incredible.
But in my humble opinion, to really enjoy the Caymans you have to get wet. You can
choose to snorkel, snuba, scuba or swim, but by all means get your bod into the water.
There's a giant, magnificent aquarium down there under the surface of the wonderfully warm
and spectacularly clear "Netscape-green" sea and you've gotta get in it to see
June is the-off season in Cayman. Unlike your friends who came here in January, you
won't have to wait for tables in restaurants, traffic will be relatively light, and
shopping will not be the crush of humanity that it is in high season. Downside is it's
hotter in June (expect daytime highs in the 90s), but you can solve that easily by jumping
into the water for a while.
Some Do's and Don'ts
at Navy Key West. It's $200, a bunch of paperwork, and guarantees you the Vasco de Gama
award at the banquet. You want the single runway to the west of Navy.
Do land at Grand Cayman. If you miss it the next landfall is Venezuela...and
that might eat into your fuel reserves. It's hard to miss Grand Cayman: it has a VOR and
an NDB, and furthermore it's exactly where your GPS says it is.
Don't rent a scooter. Seriously. They look like fun but every single local that
Mike and I talked to said it meant certain death. Apparently scraping up the body parts of
scooter-renting tourists and shipping them back to the States is big business in Grand
Do rent a Jeep or a Geo Tracker and go exploring. You can buy a CI driver's
licence for $5 CI. Grand Cayman is only 22 miles by 8 miles. If Seven-Mile Beach gets too
hectic, go for a drive to Rum Point on the North Shore
it's gorgeous. A tip: rental
cars have white license plates, locals have orange. Best not to ask directions from a car
with white plates.
Don't miss the great food. I can personally recommend Chef Tell's Grand Old
House, Papagallo, The Cracked Conch, The Wharf, The Lighthouse, Portofino, and The Island
Spice House. They're all superb.
go straight to Hell. (It's a district of Grand Cayman just north of Seven-Mile
and as you might expect, it has a thriving postcard and tee-shirt industry.)
Take a picture, buy a shirt, mail a postcard. This may be as close as you'll ever get to
the real thing, unless you flunk a ramp check.
Don't forget to save room for dessert. After sampling it everywhere, Mike and I
decided that the Holy Grail of Key Lime pie was Portofino on the extreme east end of Grand
Cayman, with honorable mention to The Lighthouse.
Do plan to rent a car or Jeep if you plan to try the great food. Cabs are
plentiful but not cheap. A Jeep or Tracker costs about $42 a day. A round-trip cab ride to
Papagallo from the Marriott will cost you a lot more than renting a car for the whole day.
Don't expect a smooth ride from a Suzuki Maruti. It'll hold 8 pax, but the
Farmall tractor suspension and the CI roads will quickly make you forget what a great meal
you just had.
Do get used to the kind of vague answers you get in the islands. The locals are
extremely nice, but they're definitely not in a hurry. "Right away" means
"in the next half hour or so". "A long time" means "longer than
my attention span." "A long way" means "further than I care to walk in
this heat, mon"
Don't let it bother you. You're on vacation. Relax. Take a deep breath.
Do have a Stingray. It's the local beer and you can't get
it back home. The bottles have the logo painted on. If you don't like Stingray, try a Red
Stripe from nearby Jamaica.
Don't expect too much from your hotel TV. They carry CNN, ESPN, and local
stations from New York City and Raleigh. No Weather Channel (but remember, it's always
2,000 scattered and five miles) and no CNBC.
Do expect to be able to get on the Internet using a 976-number through Cayman
Cable and Wireless (the local phone company). But be sure you understand your hotel's
policy of surcharges for local calls. C&W's Internet guru advised us that access to
the net costs just 12 cents per minute CI, but when we checked out and looked at our hotel
bill, the phone charges were astronomical and we had to make a fuss to have them
corrected. In fairness to C&W, this appeared to be something new that the bugs may be
out of by next year. For more info, try email@example.com.
Don't forget sunscreen. If you check the "Caucasian" box on your
passport application, it's definitely on your Minimum Equipment List when you go below the
20th parallel. Our SPF 45 protected us very well, but we saw plenty of painful-looking
sunburns walking on the beach.
Do take the boat to Stingray City. A stingray — the marine creature, not the
beer — looks a little bit like a F-117 but you can see it. And unlike their fearsome
reputation, they're very friendly and like to play with humans, especially ones bearing
Don't bother with the Queen Elizabeth Botanical Park. It costs you $5 CI for a
25 minute walk through a humid forest of dense tropical foliage some of which is
poisonous. And they say the Queen has no sense of humor.
Do visit the sea
turtle farm. Hundreds of turtles of various sizes spend all day practicing aquatic holding
patterns. The babies are incredibly cute, and the oldsters are enormous.
Don't have lunch at the snack bar at the turtle farm. Just on general
principles. It struck us as being in questionable taste to serve turtleburgers at the end
of the turtle farm tour....kind of like serving "Mouse-On-A-Stick" as you leave
Disneyland. (If you're hungry, walk next door to The Cracked Conch, one of the better
restaurants on the island.)
Do get used to converting octal to decimal. By law, the exchange rate is fixed
at $80 Cayman = $100 US. Hey, it's easier than Celsius to Fahrenheit or metric to SAE. Of
course you can carry this conversion thing too far. One day our waitress announced that it
was 110 degrees outside and I instinctively asked "Is that Cayman or US"?
Don't tip in restaurants. They add 15% to everything before you see the bill.
Do expect your credit card charge to be different from the amount of the check.
Every charge slip I got was already converted to $US before I signed it.
This one's really important. Don't drive on the right. Do drive on the
left. Pulling out of your first parking lot onto the correct lane in the road will remind
you of the accomplishment you felt on the day of your first solo.
Don't signal turns with your windshield wipers. This is a rookie mistake for
newbie American tourists. (Brits and Aussies have no problem.) If you see a Jeep with
white license plates headed toward you in the wrong lane with its wipers on (and it isn't
raining), just hope to heck you're not on a scooter to Hell.
Gee, Do We Really Have To Leave?
Aviation Week will pass all too quickly. When it's time to
leave, most of your flight plan will already be on file at Grand Cayman. You get a paper
briefing from a live human being, then you fill in the P-time and requested altitude.
Caravan folks recommend that you return to Key West to clear US Customs. It's a lot
quieter than MIA or somewhere farther north and they're familiar with the Caravan
logistics. Plus, you've got that rented raft and those vests to return. Mike and I cleared
Customs and Immigration at Key West in 15 minutes flat.
The trip north over Cuba was as uneventful as the trip south. This was my leg to fly
and Mike's leg on the radios, but neither of us noticed the GPS hiccup going north. And
when Havana Center handed us to Miami Center they said "see you next year." And
we replied, "you sure will!"
you like the fly-in spirit of Oshkosh, Sun & Fun and AOPA Expo but not the crowds,
you're gonna love the Cayman Caravan and Aviation Week. With about a hundred planes, it's
big enough that you feel part of an adventure, but not so big as to overwhelm you. The
Caravan organizers handle the international aspect of the trip so you can pretty much just
concentrate on flying and having a good time.
Mike and I decided our favorite T-shirt was "It's an Island thing...you
wouldn't understand." Maybe, but I can't wait to try again next year, mon.
A Cayman Caravan web site is under construction and we'll provide a link as soon as
it's up. Meanwhile, you can get more information about the 1998 Cayman Caravan from their
web site at http//www.cayman-caravan.com. In addition, an
excellent videotape entitled Flying Down to the Cayman
Islands is available from Current Productions ($29.95) and may be purchased
online here on AVweb.