As you may have read in my previous article, I had successfully ferried a 1956 C182 jump plane from Vancouver Island in Canada 3400 NM to San Pedro, Belize on the Ambergris Caye. The contract agreement for the company I worked for was to fly and drop tandem skydivers for three and a half months of the winter season, December to April. I was two months in when I needed to leave the country to return to Canada to be with my wife, who was just diagnosed with cancer and was to begin treatment soon.
My employer flew in another pilot who had previously worked for him to replace me, and I checked him out and trained him in the local procedures with no problems.
I left Belize thinking I would likely not return, as the other pilot was planning on ferrying the plane back to Canada at the end of the season. Three weeks later, I was in Quebec, and my employer gave me a call. He informed me that they were finishing their contract early, and they needed ferry the plane back now.
Unfortunately, the other pilot was not able to do the ferry, partly because he didn’t have the correct visa to enter the U.S. in a private plane. My employer could not find any Canadian licensed pilots to retrieve the plane and asked if I was willing to take a week to do the ferry. After consulting with my wife (who is now cancer free!), we decided that it would be good to help them out.
At six AM the next morning, I was on a flight from Quebec City to Belize International Airport. The plan was to land, clear customs, and head right out to the plane on the ramp and ready for takeoff, with a 200 NM flight to Cozumel, Mexico. Seeing as how I had already done all these procedures in reverse, I was less apprehensive than I was on the initial ferry.
Upon landing in Belize, I saw our little plane out on the tarmac, all packed and ready to go. I disembarked the 757 and went through customs, and learned that my employer and the staff had already departed on an earlier flight, leaving me to deal with exit documents and immigration procedures myself. Everything went smoothly, and I was soon back at the plane doing pre-flight preparations.
After fueling up and calling the tower for my clearance to exit the country, I started up and took off. After all was said and done, I was in and out of Belize in about two hours. I climbed to 9,500 above the typical puffy cumulus clouds, and headed north. An hour and 30 minutes later, I was landing in Cozumel, Mexico, not sure of how things would transpire.
Everything actually happened smoother than I anticipated, as we again utilized the help of the company Caribbean Sky Tours to handle all of our airspace usage, landing and handling fees. All the documentation was set up for me before I got there. I was the only plane landing that day and I got a lot of attention. I parked on the ramp and was greeted by about 20 people around the plane. Military, customs, fuelers, handlers and other ground crew. Everyone is speaking rapidly, and it was mostly in Spanish. My Spanish is only passable so I struggled to keep up. One of the handlers spoke to me in English though, so that made it easier.
After I went through all the procedures and my handler drove me to a hotel, I saw that it was not actually that difficult to fly through Mexico, it’s just a few more procedures and expenses. Overall, my experience was great and the Mexicans were extremely helpful and friendly. My handler found me a really nice hotel for only $US50 as well.
The next day, my preflight and departure went very smoothly, and I departed for my flight across the Gulf to Key West. I had plenty of fuel reserve this time and didn’t even have to utilize my ferry tank. The weather was great as well, and I could even see Cuba’s shoreline this time, as ATC allowed me to continue on my filed routing. I contacted US ATC and crossed the ADIZ with no issues, and landed in Key West. I went through US customs in about 10 minutes, which surprised me, given my flight origin.
After lunch in the airport restaurant, I departed again northbound, this time deciding I would fly straight north over the Everglades. My planned destination would be Deland, Florida, as I had friends there that I could stay with for the night.
The weather was again great, though I could see a front running southwest to northwest, just north of the Panhandle, so I was not sure what the next days would bring. I landed in Deland with only one small issue. My transponder was only intermittently showing ATC my altitude so they were not too happy about this as I neared Orlando’s airspace. They told me to remain clear of Bravo, and then eventually cleared me to overfly Sanford Airport direct to Deland.
The next day, a solid fog set in, so I wound up waiting to depart until the afternoon. I was able to have breakfast with my old commercial and instrument instructor, so that was a bonus. Finally, the fog lifted into a totally clear day, and I was able to depart, with a planned destination of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
I did wind up flying through the aforementioned front, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I was cruising at 6,500 ft. with broken cloud tops at 6,000.
I stayed the night in Hattiesburg, leery of the forecast in Texas for the next week. There appeared to be thunderstorms in the west moving eastward, but I would try to see how far I could get.
I planned my flight to Jackson, Texas, which is a very small town with not very many facilities. A few miles out from the field, I dropped through a gap in the cloud layer and began to experience the roughness of the 30-knot winds. My landing into Jackson was one of the most difficult I had encountered, as it turned out to be a 90 degree crosswind at 30 knots.
I confess that it wasn’t the smoothest landing, but it was passable given my experience and the circumstances. On the ground, I checked the weather again and saw that the storm was getting closer. I saw that the town of Jackson was very small with very few facilities, so I opted to depart again to Tyler, Texas, which was 30 miles to the north and a much more agreeable place to wait out a storm. I departed with no issues and landed in Tyler with a bit more ease as there were multiple runways to lessen the crosswind component. I wound up spending a week in Tyler due to thunderstorms and low-IFR conditions.
When I was finally able to depart, I encountered the worst turbulence I have ever experienced, from Texas all the way through Arizona. Due to the high winds and rough air I was already experiencing, I decided to stay out of the high terrain of the Rockies and kept my route south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to St. Johns, Arizona. I think this was a good decision as I experienced very strong downdrafts passing over my first mountain ridge just southeast of Albuquerque.
In St Johns, I got a taste of high altitude operations, with the field being over a mile above sea level. My morning departure was delayed until afternoon waiting for the frost to melt off the plane and for my makeshift blower heater (a hairdyer!) to warm the engine. I departed again and made my way across the desert, finally able to turn northbound at Bakersfield, California.
The next day I flew from Bakersfield to Redding, California, where I then had to wait four days for the weather to clear in the mountains north of there. When I finally departed, it was a bit of an unnerving flight as it was mostly VFR on top of a mostly solid cloud layer over the mountains at 10,000 feet. I descended through a break in the layer to arrive in the valley surrounded by green hills in Roseburg, Oregon.
At this point I was nearing three weeks in this journey, and was just wanting to complete it. I continuously double-checked my decision-making in regard to safety and get-there-itis. It looked like the whole Pacific Northwest was covered in solid cloud layers from 2000-4000, along with scattered rain showers. I decided, with the abundance of airports along the route, that I could safely fly below the layers, and land or turn back if weather became unfavorable.
Flying at low altitude brought some other hazards to consider, as I encountered a lot more birds and local general aviation aircraft. I even encountered a drone with approximately a six-foot wingspan being flown apparently illegally at 2000 ft. through Seattle’s airspace. I informed ATC about it and they were even able to track it on radar.
From Roseburg, I stopped in Portland, and then Bellingham, Washington. I filed my flight plan and finally crossed the Canadian border landing in Nanaimo, British Columbia. I had a little trouble with customs as they seemed to think I needed a “Certificate of Title” for the aircraft, along with all the other required ARROW documents. They finally let me go without explanation and I concluded that they were confused and didn’t really want to admit it.
From there, it was a 12-minute flight to the 182’s home base, Qualicum Beach, British Columbia. As I lined up for a five-mile final to runway 29, I felt a bit emotional as I reflected back on this trip. I did it! I completed a journey that not many new commercial pilots would get to experience. In total, this round-trip was 64 hours flying time.