This was the actual conversation that started the journey for this green commercial pilot. I was two months into my first pilot job flying skydivers at a small Canadian drop zone in a Cessna 182, when my boss approached me with this question. Our company had the opportunity to have a winter contract in Belize running the same operation for our off-season, and we were quite excited about the prospect. This would require ferrying our little Cessna all the way down there, and I was eager and a bit nervous in anticipation of this pretty daunting task. The final route flown took me 3600 nautical miles from Qualicum Beach, British Columbia, Canada across mountains, desert, rural farmland, ocean and coastal jungles to Belize City, Belize.
All the planning, packing and preparation were finally done, and the day came to depart. This came after a week of weather delay as some of the thickest fog I had ever seen had blanketed Vancouver Island. Our plane is certified for day VFR operations only, so my progress was at the mercy of daylight length and good VMC.
The first leg of my flight was international and short. Thirty minutes across the Strait of Georgia brought me into Bellingham International in Washington State to clear US customs. All of our paperwork was in order and I was in and out in 10 minutes. I checked weather and made plans for the next leg.
My original plan was to cut across the valley routes through Washington, Oregon and through Boise, Idaho, but all the valleys in the Pacific Northwest were socked in with impenetrable fog, and were forecasted to stay for days. My employer wanted me to make headway regardless, so I continued my way down the West Coast, looking for a clear route across the mountains with no luck. My first day wound up finishing just outside Portland, Oregon in a town called Troutdale. I had a long way to go yet as I had only covered 276 miles that day.
Day 2 of my journey started with more promising prospects, though this would include some VFR on-top time through the Oregon valleys. After conversing with the weather briefer, I was confident that the weather would be clear at my planned destination of that leg in Winnemucca, Nevada. The weather was just as expected as I cleared the Blue Mountains at 9,500 feet and heard aircraft on the radio shooting ILS approaches in the valley below me. Upon reaching southeastern Oregon and western Nevada, I had clear skies and an uneventful flight.
My second and final leg for that day was planned to St. George, Utah. The weather again was forecast to be favourable with a tailwind the whole way to boot! This was indeed the case as I observed my GPS-indicated ground speed to be 165 knots. This leg of the trip was the most desolate and remote terrain I had ever flown over with mountain peaks reaching 11,000 feet, and long stretches of soulless desert. My approach into St. George airport brought some unexpected views that I was definitely not prepared for.
Upon clearing the Pine Valley mountain range, I began my descent once clear of its 10,000-foot peak, past breathtaking red sandstone cliff walls to the 2,800 foot field elevation. I had an unexpected gust of wind at short final with full flaps, and somehow my flap lever disengaged and all my flaps dumped out at once. Fortunately, I reacted quickly with nose down and smooth power application and continued a stable approach without having to initiate the go around. I later determined that the flap lever was not fully locked into position on the final setting.
Day 3 of my journey would clear me out of the mountains with my first landing in Moriarty, New Mexico. I encountered unexpected headwinds to start, slowing my groundspeed down to 75 knots at times. Fortunately, I had planned for delays such as this with fuel considerations, along with having a ferry tank with an additional two hours of cruise fuel. This leg also brought me over the most memorable place I have ever flown: the northern arm of the Grand Canyon, Marble Canyon. I have no words to describe this remarkable view.
I completed the rest of the leg with a pretty routine flight, some more mountain terrain with spectacular views. Part of the way I did encounter solid cloud ceilings with the terrain sometimes less than a thousand feet below me and the cloud layer 500 feet above.
Landing in Moriarty was somewhat odd and memorable, as I was expecting a busy airport with its long runways – I didn’t encounter a single soul. I actually saw tumbleweeds blowing by and just had to laugh.
My final leg for this day became very uneventful as the terrain began to drop from here and became pretty featureless and flat. I found it amusing how I was missing the stress and excitement of the more hazardous mountains. I completed the day in Addison, Texas, giving me a taste of busy Dallas airspace and how little priority I was compared to the big guys. I was three miles from my destination for about 30 minutes as they vectored me around and around.
Day 4 brought more pretty straightforward and uneventful flying. I crossed the remainder of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and continued into Florida. I ended the day in Daytona Beach, where the plane would receive its required 50-hour inspection, as per Canadian Commercial aircraft standards.
After spending the weekend in Daytona, I departed Monday afternoon for Key West, after a quick detour to Deland, Florida, to pick up some parts and say hello to the staff at my old flight school. For the route to Key West, I followed the whole coast down, and the highway through the keys, arriving into Key West right at sunset.
Day 5: This was it, the long and final leg – 580 nautical miles from Key West to Belize City, with half of that over straight, open ocean. I was certainly anxious as I lined up on runway 27, knowing that upon clearing the end that I wouldn’t see land in my-single engine plane for 250 miles. The route included solid cloud layers for 80 miles, an ATC rerouting away from Cuba that added 50 miles to my flight, and some erratic instruments at times.
I lost my GPS for an hour and a half and had to hold compass headings, and lost contact with ATC for 30 minutes in my transition from Miami to Havana Centre. Additionally, the needle on my altimeter at one point was swinging through 500 foot increments! One can imagine the relief I felt upon finally seeing the Mexican coast in the distance.
Because of my rerouting, I became concerned about my fuel reserve and pulled the power farther back, with 19 inches of manifold pressure and 2200 RPM. This slowed me down to 110 knots groundspeed and made the eventual trip length five hours of flight time. It was a good decision as I found upon landing that I had a little less than an hour of reserve fuel remaining for cruise flight.
Another hurdle I experienced was the fact that my electric fuel pump installed for the ferry tank would not run for more than one minute without tripping its circuit breaker, so I had to hand-pump the ferry tanks! It takes about 30 minutes of pumping to empty the 25-gallon bladder, which is quite taxing while attempting to hold straight and level along with a heading.
From Cancun, the navigation was quite simple as it was coastline flying all the way to Belize International Airport. I located the airport with little difficulty, though my GPS indicated that it was 10 miles farther south than it actually was. Customs was quite an interesting experience, but that would be a story for another time, I suppose.
Once all of our paperwork was stamped and clearances granted, I headed back to the plane and took off for my short, 27 nm hop north to the Ambergris Caye, the island in which I would be flying skydivers over for the winter. Upon landing, I found that I was to be immediately taking off again to drop our first skydiver before the sun set. What a wonderful end to a journey of a lifetime for this newbie, with the sun sinking on the Caribbean horizon.