Virgin Islands Flying Experience

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.

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My wife and I have a time-share condo on St. Thomas (Magens PointResort). Our time-share week is always the last week in January. This is perfect for ussince we live in the Washington D.C. metro area and the weather is usually at its worstthat 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 thereare less than astronomical compared to some of the other islands. For my wife and me, itis a good compromise. I tend to be an active outdoor type and she is aloll-by-the-pool-and-shop type. St. Thomas offers the best of both worlds. She can shoptill she drops in the cruise port of Charlotte Amalie, and I can jet-ski, sail, scuba diveand 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 atCraig and Sally’s (perhaps the best restaurant in the USVI), we met Fritz Marburger. He isa former FedEx freight doggie who tired of flying the nightly trips from Baltimore toMemphis and back. His wife had the urge to open a boutique in St. Thomas. They made themove 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 metFritz. He suggested that we should go flying with him in the USVI. We did and I wasimpressed with the scenery, and the fun of it all. I pledged that when I got my ticket I’dfly 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. Ihave about 140 hours. When time came to think about our annual trek I started making thearrangements. First I called Fritz and reconfirmed what paperwork I would have to bring inorder to rent an aircraft. It was nothing unusual: just logbook, medical and pilotcertificates. He also reminded me that if we wanted to visit the British Virgin Islandsthat we needed to bring our passports. When I called, I made arrangements for a pre-rentalcheckout on January 26th at 9:00am. I also decided to bring my Lowrance AirMap GPS whichcomes equipped with the Americas database, my Jeppeson calculator, headsets and akneeboard.

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 scheduledfor my check ride with Dieter Bahr. He is one of the instructors on the staff. He checkedmy paperwork and went over some of the basics of the Cessna 172. I’ve got most of my timein my Skylane and learned to fly in a C-152, so the 172 was not a big change. Afterreviewing 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. Itwas the prevailing easterly trade winds that are always there except for around dawn ordusk. 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 outover a low range of hills over the harbor at Charlotte Amalie. There are always cruiseships 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 adeck of fluffy clouds that go from 3000-4500 feet. Since most of the islands are closetogether this means that most of the traffic is in the 1000-2000 foot area. So keepingyour eyes pealed for other airplanes is a necessity.

The checkride was uneventful. It was a basic subset of the PP-SEL tasks and includedstalls, turns, emergency procedures and some touch-and-goes for short field, and softfield take offs and landings. The only real surprise was the emergency landing drill. Mostof 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 inFlorida, 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 justbreathtaking. The downside is that avgas costs a small fortune, and there is a $10 landingfee at all USVI airports. Before the prop stops turning, the little pickup truck is thereto collect. Ten bucks seems a lot for a small airplane, but I guess it is part of theparadise tax. After the checkride was over and I scheduled the aircraft to use for most ofWednesday, January 28th.

Wednesday dawned okay, but not great. The weather was still solid VFR, but the cloudshad some rain squalls in them. I checked with the San Juan FSS — yes, the 1-800-WX-BRIEFworks in the USVI — and the briefer said that it would clear later in the PM butvisibility would "only" be 7 to 10 miles. Since we had other things to do wedecided 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 plusvisibility and scattered clouds at 3200 feet. I loaded my wife and one of her friends inthe rental car and headed for the airfield. After the preflight and preliminaries, wedeparted for St. Croix (STX) at 9:00 am. It was beautiful and uneventful. When you reach1000 feet you can see how close all the islands are. You can see the St. John and BritishVirgin Islands to the east, Puerto Rico to the north, and St. Croix to the south. Iavailed myself of flight following from San Juan Approach and kept out of the way of aUSAir 737 and a seaplane. The flight time to St. Croix was under 30 minutes, but I decidedto do an air tour of St. Croix prior to landing. St. Croix is not quite as mountainous asSt. Thomas and was mostly deforested in the 1600’s for planting sugar cane. There arestill 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 reportedthe winds from 140 degrees at 14 knots. Since I was landing on runway 09, this meant a50-degree crosswind. So much for the trade winds always blowing from the east. I was extracareful lining up, crabbing and making the right cross wind correction and only used 20degrees of flaps. This paid off, and I made a close-to-textbook landing. It’s always niceto 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 theUSVI FBO and have facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix. The facility was fully equippedwith a nice lounge and flight planning area and the staff was very friendly. They calledus 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 in1917 — and is picturesque. There is an old fort worth exploring and several neatbuildings to see. Since fewer cruise ships call at St. Croix, the pace is slower and thetourists are almost all there for a week or more. The shops tend to be smaller and moreinteresting. While the girls did some looking in the shops I visited the fort and some ofthe antique and dive shops. We had a nice leisurely lunch and decided that it was time tosee more. About 12:30 p.m. we headed for the airport and soon were in the air on our wayto 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 someunique features. St. John is mostly a National Park and very rugged. Norman Island is thesetting for Robert Lewis Stevenson’s "Treasure Island" and has a large sea cavethat can be seen from the air. Peter Island only has one feature, a single mansioncompound that is on top of a mountain. All the islands have neat coves where sailboatsanchor to snorkel, swim and party.

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

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 muchmore laid back and the people seem less aloof than in the USVI. The official currency isthe US dollar so there is no need to exchange currency. Tortola caters to the sailingtrade 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 reputedto have some of the best bars in the Caribbean. As we flew over at 1000 feet we counted 38sailboats in the harbor and 7 to 10 on their way in. The approach to STT was uneventfulbut the crosswind was still there. We got back on the ground around 4:30pm after havinglogged 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 youland 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 Ididn’t have any problems I always had that "what if" nagging in the back of mymind.

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 ofthe way. As a matter of fact if you’re on a cruise and your tired of shopping it might bean ideal escape. If you’re hot to brush up on your instrument skills and get some IMC, theconstant cloud cover at 3000 feet might be a good way to log some actual time. Lastly, ifyou’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 itmight be a heck of an adventure as well as lots of fun. If I don’t, then I’ll use one theACE 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