By F. George Jackson
Almost every pilot has a dream; be it a bigger, faster plane, to fly a jet, make a long cross-country trip or to live on an airport, the list goes on. Mine was to do a long cross-country to Honduras.
I have worked in Central America as a volunteer half of my time rotating every six weeks for the past 20 years. This was the place I wanted to fly my plane to. From my home in Eastern Canada, a 4,000-mile journey would be a nice cross-"country."
As is necessary with a good cross-country, the planning takes longer than the trip. Mine was no exception. The thinking about it, the part we all do so well, took years, the actual preparation took three months. First I needed someone to accompany me. I telephoned my good friend Frank Hofmann, a director with the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association and professor of aviation at a local university, and asked if he could recommend a competent and hopefully, amiable co-pilot. The next morning I received a call from Charles Cartlidge, a graduate student of Hofmann’s, now an instructor at Laurentide Aviation. Over the phone he fit all the criteria and a personal rendezvous over lunch with this bright, cheerful young man assured me he would be the right person. Charles was ready to go the next day; but I wasn’t.
We divided up the tasks of getting maps, insurance, checking procedures necessary to transit four different countries and planned to leave when the first big high pressure area in mid-September presented itself.
A Jeppesen low altitude planning chart was great for the United States part. Buying all the appropriate sectionals was next and a set of Airguide Publications Flight Guides No. 2 and No. 3 gave us all the airport information for the U.S. we would need.
For Mexico I contacted the Baja Pilots Association. Their information is a must. They have a book with all of the Mexican airports (well just about) and a very informal description of them with places to stay, local notes and all border crossing information. This group has an extensive amount of information and they can be found on the Internet. They offer insurance (a must) for Mexico that no one else wants to sell you, this costs $95 (US) for a year which covers liability and property damage. The Mexicans are fussy on the insurance point; your Canadian or U.S. policy will not do. The Baja pilots have a travel kit available that includes maps, etc. All you will need for Mexico. For transiting Belize, Honduras and the rest of Central America insurance was a problem and if you don’t have it you will be grounded. I got Central America coverage for $300 (Cdn) from Ahorros de Honduras for the trip (that is their minimum policy it covers four months). No visas are necessary in advance.
I left Iroquois, Ont., alone for Cedres Airport in Montreal to pick up Charles, a quick stop in Lachute at Aero Structures allowed us to leave on fresh oil and a final look by Ken and Guy’s well trained eye. All was in order. Flight plan filed for Syracuse and at 10 a.m., we were off.
We checked customs at Syracuse, a routine matter for Canadians and a pit stop for plane and pilots. We crossed the active at Syracuse to Piedemont Hawthorne where they actually roll out a red carpet for you to dismount your plane. A car was given to us and a map to restaurants (talk about service).
In Syracuse we were deflated as we met two young men who were on an around-the-world flight in a Twin Commander of the 1950s vintage. It made our journey look like a Sunday morning breakfast flight.
On to Columbus, Ohio where we decided to stay overnight. Such wonderful service at the U.S., FBO’s it was my first impression of flying "across the border" and I was never disappointed at a U.S. FBO.
Next day to Monroe, Louisiana. I learned this day how well flight following works in the U.S. They certainly have you pinned all the time. We flew for an hour hearing nothing, then the radio silence was broken by "Papa Yankee Yankee 12 o’clock a F-18 will pass you." He did from underneath then he went straight up in front of us. Makes one feel secure when in the hands of such great flight following service.
After a long flight across Texas, we arrived in Brownsville, our border crossing. Knowing what Mexican paperwork might be like we stayed there for the night planning an early departure for Mexico.
The Brownsville-Texas Matamoros Mexico flight is 10 minutes but they need 15 minutes advance notice to enter so a series of 360’s from one airport to the other gave us an on time arrival in Mexico. I was not disappointed about my expectation of paperwork we had to present ourselves in front of four different officials but we made it and were off with five days permission and all the transit papers we needed. From now on, every stop will cost landing fees but cheap fuel offsets the expense.
Mexico was a surprise in many ways. The first thing you notice is the radio silence after leaving the U.S. The good roads we followed down the coast and all the industrial cities I did not expect to see, the large fancy bridges crossing the rivers gave me an entirely different impression of Mexico’s size and wealth.
We stayed in Vera Cruz the first night where I treated Charles to Mexican beer and Mariachi music. I am familiar with Latin American so it was fun to show Charles all the sights and as I speak Spanish it was easy to get information and move around.
We followed the Gulf Coast to Ciduad del Carmen. What a huge amount of oil wells we passed this day. Mexico sure is involved in the petro business.
One of our anxious trips was before us. The long three-hour flight across the Yucatan. This is desolate country with only one airport (which is not on the map) along the entire route. For safety we took the route along the road. We could have crossed to Tikal, Guatemala but the mountains and vast jungle were just too risky for me. I have seen jungle. You come below the canopy of trees (big ones) and you are lost to the world from above. At Chatumal, Mexico (just north of Belize and below Cancun) we surrendered our papers and headed for San Pedro Sula, Honduras our final destination. What a thrill to see the destination airport as you cross the coastal mountains after a 4,000-mile journey.
We spent seven days in Honduras. Diving, touring, relaxing and meeting friends. Flying in Honduras requires a trip to the Civil Aviation office for permission. They will give you 15 days no problem, no cost. A good place to fly to, but now the trip home must be considered.
I wish I could say the trip home was uneventful. We left Honduras on September 27 in sunny weather which lasted 45 minutes then the whole world ahead of us turned to rain cloud and whatever other types of stuff mother nature had in her pot. Just north of Puerto Barrios, Guatemala one hour into our trip home, we were at 600 feet over the ocean looking for a hole to get into Belize as an escape, not a planned stop and not a pleasant situation.
Reflecting on this makes me thankful, as in all things for what our country offers. As an aviator we can get forecasts from competent weather people and a chat about what lies ahead. After you cross the Mexican border going south, you get present conditions where you are. If you wait, you can get present conditions at the destination (if you want to wait) what weather between, you are on your own.
We spent two rainy days in Belize (not a scheduled stop) the weather office there was good but the weatherman’s forecast was not. His advice "get out of here today or be ready to spend a week." Hurricane Keith was about to descend with all of its wrath. We decided to get across the Yucatan, a quick stop in Chetunal where the customs required us to lug everything from the plane to his inspection table for a "root around in the suitcase" exercise.
Off to Ciduad del Carmen across the Yucatan; 6,000 feet of big puffy clouds, "what flying is all about." For two hours the ceiling fell to 1,200 feet and it was hazy as we headed north to avoid the worst, then down the coast looking for our airport. Thank heavens for a trip where you follow a coastline but it tends to suck one into danger. We came through the scud for the last hour at 800 feet to Ciudad del Carmen.
I don’t feel like a good pilot writing about situations like this one but given the weather information we had it was about the only option other than a 10-day stay in Belize. The forecaster was right about the intensity of the storm and the airport flooded in Belize doing millions in damage to an already impoverished but pleasant nation.
We followed the coast of Mexico north to Matamoros listening to chatter from the helicopters servicing the oil rigs in the gulf and other than a half-hour of 40 mph headwinds at Minititlan it was beautiful weather. We stopped at Matamoros to surrender our Mexican papers then entered the United States at Brownsville, Texas. We cleared customs with no problems and flew on to Memphis where we did up the town and listened to the music.
From Memphis we flew to a great FBO at Bowling Green then on to Columbus for fuel, Syracuse for fuel, and a call to Canadian customs. We then made our first flight of the trip after dark from Syracuse to Kingston, Ont., where we cleared into Canada (without seeing anyone) then home to Iroquois.
The last three days of our trip was in clear skies, with the next week after our arrival being "crud."
This was not a long cross-country as I had imagined it would be, but it was an adventure. Not a day has passed since then that something on that trip hasn’t crossed my mind. It would make an interesting book. From the storm we circumvented to the burnt up Mexican A-320 Airbus we saw at Minititlan. Passing new and different countries and all the wonderful people at so many "new to us" airports.
I made this trip in my PA28-151 Piper Warrior (with 160 hp, two GPS’s, leather etc.) The plane did its job well averaging about 8.2 gallons of fuel per hour.
I share this journey with readers knowing you will not feel the thrills of the trip, but to motivate other pilots to fulfill the dream that all of us have about flying. We spent six days getting to Honduras from Canada, a week there and six days getting home. In total, a 19-day journey we will remember for a lifetime.
Want to do it? Stop dreaming. Get a good current instructor like Charles Cartlidge, (these young guys know all the new stuff that we old fellows never knew or have forgotten). Plan well and go. And to copy a phrase: "Life is short, fly fast."