The Cayman Caravan

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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.

Cayman Caravan logo

NOTE:

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's Cessna T310RAVweb Editor-in-Chief 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 "Brac Attack."

Cayman airshowThe 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.

Cayman Caravan tee-shirtThe 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

Cayman Caravan '97 Pilot's GuideGood 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.

Caravan tails in the sunset at Key WestThe 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.

Key West SAR logoThese 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

Key West to Grand CaymanKEYW to MCWRFrom 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.

Paul Bertorelli and Val OakleyLike 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."

Over Cuba (sectional)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.

Bonanza over Grand CaymanAfter 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.

Owen Roberts International AirportGrand 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

Ross Russo briefing the groupThe 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 the banquet.

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 adversity.

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

Seven-Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, CIBut 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 it.

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

Key West Int'l good, Navy Key West bad!Don't land 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 Cayman.

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.

Hell!Do go straight to Hell. (It's a district of Grand Cayman just north of Seven-Mile Beach…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.

Georgetown, CIDo 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.

Ross Russo after a StingrayDo 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 postmaster@candw.ky.

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 food.

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.

Mike Busch befriends a baby sea turtleDo 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?

Sunset off Seven-Mile BeachAviation 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!"

Flying Down to the Cayman Islands (video)If 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.

Joe Godfrey