The Cayman Caravan

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.

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Cayman Caravan logo

NOTE:

The Cayman Caravan now has its own web site, which contains all the information andpaperwork you need to sign up for the event.


Every June a bunch of small airplanes gather in Key West and fly over Cuba. Cubadoesn’t shoot at them or scramble MiGs. In fact, Cuban controllers actually look forwardto the big day, when about a hundred airplanes fly through Cuban airspace on their way toCayman Aviation Week. The Cubans call it the "Rallye". The organizers call itthe Cayman Caravan. And organized it is. Paul Bertorelli, Val Oakley and Ross Russo havethis thing down to a science.

Mike Busch's Cessna T310RAVweb Editor-in-ChiefMike Busch was one of the guest speakers atAviation 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 theCaymans for both of us. For me, the idea of logging some time in a turbochargedtwin-engine airplane from Southern California to Key West was exciting enough. The CaymanIsland 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 annualrunning of the Cayman Caravan. Aviation Week is a creation of the Cayman IslandsDepartment of Tourism (DOT) and is a week-long celebration of aviation. It consists of aseries of aviation safety seminars, a banquet, an airshow, a static display at theairport, 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 thebig box-office performances at Oshkosh, Wright/Patterson, Reno and Miramar. This year itfeatured an F-14 exhibition and a bunch of smaller airplanes. It’s a big deal to theCaymanians, a bit ho-hum to the visiting Yankee aviators. On the other hand, no one goesto Oshkosh or Dayton for the snorkeling.

Cayman Caravan tee-shirtThe flight from Key West to Grand Cayman plans out to 328nautical miles, easily within range of all but the slowest of singles. Prior to 1997, theCaravan was restricted to instrument-rated pilots flying on instrument flight plans. Butthis year, five VFR airplanes were accepted to make the crossing. (The policy on VFRs forthe 1998 Caravan is still under review.)

Our Destination Direct flight planning software told us that to get from SouthernCalifornia to Grand Cayman, we could save a few hundred miles by flying a great circleroute through northern Mexico, then over the Gulf into Cancun. The overwater leg fromCancun to Grand Cayman is the same 328nm as the Caravan route from Key West. But theshorter route isn’t always the smartest route, and it was worth a few extra miles to buildthe Caymania with our fellow Caravaners. Besides, if we went through Mexico we’dmiss 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 allhandled by the Cayman Caravan staff when you pre-register. Then from the moment you arrivein Key West, you’re in experienced hands. Caravan staffers meet your plane and drive yourparty to the hotel, then they guide you through all the paperwork you’d expect for aflight over Cuba to a foreign country. They take care of obtaining your Cuban overflightpermit 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, andthe FBO at Key West rents everything you need for the trip. The afternoon before departureis 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 Caravantakes place over two days, with roughly half of the airplanes making the crossing eachday. The evening before you depart Key West, you’re asked to attend the Caravan dinner at6 pm followed by a thorough briefing at 7 pm. An FAA weather specialist is present at eachbriefing to provide the latest forecasts for the route. All the flight plans are pre-filedby the staff. The airplanes are divided into flights of four…Alpha 1, 2, 3 and 4, Bravo1, 2, 3 and 4…etc. Mike Busch’s 310 in which I was flying was assigned to be "Mike1" but Bertorelli swears it was a coincidence.

Key West SAR logoThese foursomes depart Key West at scheduled departure times spaced 15 minutesapart, and each plane in a foursome is assigned a different cruising altitude to assureseparation enroute. The flights-of-four provide something akin to the buddy system in theevent of an aircraft in distress. We were briefed that in the event of a ditching, thehighest plane coordinates communications with the search-and-rescue while the lowest planemaintains eye contact with the swimmers until a SAR helicopter arrives on the scene. It’sa good procedure, but so far nobody has had to use it.

Key West to Grand Cayman

Key West to Grand CaymanFromKing Air to Skyhawk, everyone flies the same route. Cuba uses Flight Level altitudesreferenced to a 29.92 altimeter setting, so for 5,000 you report "Flight Level zerofive 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 andprovides 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 Centercontrollers speak both Spanish and English on the frequency, and their English isgenerally excellent. Don’t expect to hear that Ricky Ricardo "Lucy you got a lottasplainin’ to do" brand of English. I’ve heard worse accents in West Virginia.

Paul Bertorelli and Val OakleyLike protective parents, Caravan organizers Paul Bertorelli andVal Oakley stay on the ground in Key West until the last flight is in the air. Paulmonitors the departures, stays in touch with Key West Tower, Navy Key West Approach andMiami Center, and keeps a cell phone handy in case he needs to resolve a last-minutepaperwork problem with Havana Center.

Paul has visited Havana Center in-person and developed a terrific rapport with theCuban ATC folks. "The Caravan is a big deal in Havana," he explains. "Theyhave their modest daily flow of overflights and then all of a sudden there’s this surgethat really tests their limits. They really get fired up for it, almost as if it were asporting event." Paul adds "For some reason there were an unusually large numberof turnbacks by Havana Center this year, south and northbound. In any case, we correctedeveryone of them and all got through. Only one actually returned to Grand Cayman. Weturned 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 legusing a yoke-mounted Lowrance AirMap. I was navigating and handling the radios in theright seat with a Magellan EC-10X. About halfway across Cuba, both of our GPS’s lost theirposition fixes virtually simultaneously. Both units, inpedendently powered and withindependent antennas, lost the satellites for a couple of minutes, then reacquired. OtherCaravanners had similar experiences in that area. Just a blip? Intentional jamming byCuba? Intentional jamming by the Pentagon? Intentional jamming by Langley? Bertorelli onthe phone to Havana? Whatever, plan to tune in the Varder NDB just for grins, or if notADF-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 SurVOR, then to ATUVI intersection. About half way to ATUVI, Havana Center will announce"radar service terminated, contact Cayman Approach." From there it getsinteresting. Cayman airspace is a non-radar environment, so they depend on DME reportsfrom the GCM VOR. "Say DME" is what they’ll ask you. They don’t ask for yourradial (although since they have your flight plan they know which direction you’rearriving from-in our case North) or your altitude. The pre-departure briefing asked thatwe cancel IFR as soon as feasible after being handed off to Cayman Approach, because thevolume of arrival traffic during the Caravan is more than can be accomodated usingnon-radar IFR procedures. Frankly, the traffic can get a little frantic as you approachGrand Cayman — it’s especially nerve-wracking when another aircraft reports the same DMEdistance that you’re showing but you can’t see any traffic — but it seems to work.

Owen Roberts International AirportGrand Cayman ATIS isavailable over the VOR frequency, but rumor is the tape hasn’t changed since 1964. You’llprobably hear "Wind variable at 5 knots, 2,000 scattered." Aim for the west endof the island, fly south over Seven-Mile Beach, hang a left at the cruise ship and you’reon final for Runway 8. More Caravan staff greet your arrival at Owen Roberts airport inGeorgetown, CI and whisk you through the paperwork there. Within minutes, you’re on yourway to your hotel. The Marriott (which was the Radisson until June of 1997) was the hubhotel for Aviation Week events this year, but there were wide range of prices for hotelrooms in other parts of town.

The Aviation Week Seminars

Ross Russo briefing the groupThe safety seminars during Aviation Week focused on topics ofinterest to general aviation pilots. On Friday, AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Kent Eckhartreminded us that an accident is usually a consequence of a series of bad decisions, anyone of which might’ve changed the outcome. Jim Toombs from FAA Southeastern Region spokeabout the FAA’s safety counsellor program. TWA Captain Dave Gwinn, a world-reknownedexpert on aviation weather radar, covered the fine points of how Center radar systems canbe used for weather avoidance by pilots of non-radar-equipped aircraft. (Dave exudes thekind of confidence that enables him to respond to ATC instructions with "Roger, Ihave your request".) AOPA General Counsel John Yodice discussed three noted aviationlaw cases, including lessons learned from the Bob Hoover debacle. After lunch, Mike Buschheld a two-hour session how to get piston engines to TBO and beyond…and then held atwo-hour encore Q&A session out in the hall that might’ve gone on all night if not forthe banquet.

On Saturday Kent Eckhart discussed the details of a fatal Baron 58 accident at Atlantaa few years ago. Jon Doolittle offered an aircraft insurance survival kit. Marian Dittmanfrom the FAA explored the ValuJet accident. And Dr. Ian Fries wrapped up the seminarsessions with a fascinating talk about keeping your medical certificate in the face ofadversity.

I thought these were first-rate seminars. Each was relevant to GA pilots, and thespeakers 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 theCaymans than talk airplanes! It’s a place with a fascinating history (dating back toChristopher Columbus), a fascinating culture combining elements of England and theCaribbean (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 wealthiestpeople 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 canchoose 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 warmand spectacularly clear "Netscape-green" sea and you’ve gotta get in it to seeit.

June is the-off season in Cayman. Unlike your friends who came here in January, youwon’t have to wait for tables in restaurants, traffic will be relatively light, andshopping will not be the crush of humanity that it is in high season. Downside is it’shotter in June (expect daytime highs in the 90s), but you can solve that easily by jumpinginto the water for a while.

Some Do’s and Don’ts

Key West Int'l good, Navy Key West bad!Don’t landat Navy Key West. It’s $200, a bunch of paperwork, and guarantees you the Vasco de Gamaaward 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…andthat might eat into your fuel reserves. It’s hard to miss Grand Cayman: it has a VOR andan 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 thatMike and I talked to said it meant certain death. Apparently scraping up the body parts ofscooter-renting tourists and shipping them back to the States is big business in GrandCayman.

Do rent a Jeep or a Geo Tracker and go exploring. You can buy a CI driver’slicence for $5 CI. Grand Cayman is only 22 miles by 8 miles. If Seven-Mile Beach gets toohectic, go for a drive to Rum Point on the North Shore…it’s gorgeous. A tip: rentalcars have white license plates, locals have orange. Best not to ask directions from a carwith white plates.

Don’t miss the great food. I can personally recommend Chef Tell’s Grand OldHouse, Papagallo, The Cracked Conch, The Wharf, The Lighthouse, Portofino, and The IslandSpice House. They’re all superb.

Hell!Dogo straight to Hell. (It’s a district of Grand Cayman just north of Seven-MileBeach…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 tothe real thing, unless you flunk a ramp check.

Don’t forget to save room for dessert. After sampling it everywhere, Mike and Idecided that the Holy Grail of Key Lime pie was Portofino on the extreme east end of GrandCayman, with honorable mention to The Lighthouse.

Georgetown, CIDo plan to rent a car or Jeep if you plan to try the great food. Cabs areplentiful but not cheap. A Jeep or Tracker costs about $42 a day. A round-trip cab ride toPapagallo 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 theFarmall tractor suspension and the CI roads will quickly make you forget what a great mealyou just had.

Do get used to the kind of vague answers you get in the islands. The locals areextremely nice, but they’re definitely not in a hurry. "Right away" means"in the next half hour or so". "A long time" means "longer thanmy attention span." "A long way" means "further than I care to walk inthis 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 getit back home. The bottles have the logo painted on. If you don’t like Stingray, try a RedStripe from nearby Jamaica.

Don’t expect too much from your hotel TV. They carry CNN, ESPN, and localstations from New York City and Raleigh. No Weather Channel (but remember, it’s always2,000 scattered and five miles) and no CNBC.

Do expect to be able to get on the Internet using a 976-number through CaymanCable and Wireless (the local phone company). But be sure you understand your hotel’spolicy of surcharges for local calls. C&W’s Internet guru advised us that access tothe net costs just 12 cents per minute CI, but when we checked out and looked at our hotelbill, the phone charges were astronomical and we had to make a fuss to have themcorrected. In fairness to C&W, this appeared to be something new that the bugs may beout of by next year. For more info, try postmaster@candw.ky.

Don’t forget sunscreen. If you check the "Caucasian" box on yourpassport application, it’s definitely on your Minimum Equipment List when you go below the20th parallel. Our SPF 45 protected us very well, but we saw plenty of painful-lookingsunburns walking on the beach.

Do take the boat to Stingray City. A stingray — the marine creature, not thebeer — looks a little bit like a F-117 but you can see it. And unlike their fearsomereputation, they’re very friendly and like to play with humans, especially ones bearingfood.

Don’t bother with the Queen Elizabeth Botanical Park. It costs you $5 CI for a25 minute walk through a humid forest of dense tropical foliage some of which ispoisonous. And they say the Queen has no sense of humor.

Mike Busch befriends a baby sea turtleDo visit the seaturtle farm. Hundreds of turtles of various sizes spend all day practicing aquatic holdingpatterns. The babies are incredibly cute, and the oldsters are enormous.

Don’t have lunch at the snack bar at the turtle farm. Just on generalprinciples. It struck us as being in questionable taste to serve turtleburgers at the endof the turtle farm tour….kind of like serving "Mouse-On-A-Stick" as you leaveDisneyland. (If you’re hungry, walk next door to The Cracked Conch, one of the betterrestaurants on the island.)

Do get used to converting octal to decimal. By law, the exchange rate is fixedat $80 Cayman = $100 US. Hey, it’s easier than Celsius to Fahrenheit or metric to SAE. Ofcourse you can carry this conversion thing too far. One day our waitress announced that itwas 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 theleft. Pulling out of your first parking lot onto the correct lane in the road will remindyou 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 fornewbie American tourists. (Brits and Aussies have no problem.) If you see a Jeep withwhite license plates headed toward you in the wrong lane with its wipers on (and it isn’training), 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 toleave, most of your flight plan will already be on file at Grand Cayman. You get a paperbriefing 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 lotquieter than MIA or somewhere farther north and they’re familiar with the Caravanlogistics. Plus, you’ve got that rented raft and those vests to return. Mike and I clearedCustoms 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 flyand Mike’s leg on the radios, but neither of us noticed the GPS hiccup going north. Andwhen Havana Center handed us to Miami Center they said "see you next year." Andwe replied, "you sure will!"

Flying Down to the Cayman Islands (video)Ifyou 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’sbig enough that you feel part of an adventure, but not so big as to overwhelm you. TheCaravan organizers handle the international aspect of the trip so you can pretty much justconcentrate on flying and having a good time.

Mike and I decided our favorite T-shirt was "It’s an Island thing…youwouldn’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 asit’s up. Meanwhile, you can get more information about the 1998 Cayman Caravan from theirweb site at http//www.cayman-caravan.com. In addition, anexcellent videotape entitled Flying Down to the CaymanIslands is available from Current Productions ($29.95) and may be purchasedonline here on AVweb.

Joe Godfrey