It was a cold February day when I decided that we would fly our 1994 Mooney M20R to Havana, Cuba. Restrictions for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba had recently been lifted. The island was only 90 miles from Key West. We had flown our Mooney to the Out Islands of the Bahamas in the past.
The only problem was that my wife did not want to go. I had floated the idea to her a few months prior when we were discussing a spring trip. She’s not as adventurous as I am, and visiting a Third World Communist country was not on her bucket list. She preferred relaxing on the beach in the Bahamas or Key West. I briefly contemplated a relaxing vacation but could not get the idea of flying our own plane to Cuba out of my head.
I decided we were going to do it.
I came up with a plan where we would meet my wife’s sister and my brother-in-law in Port Canaveral, Florida. They would take our kids on a three-day Disney Cruise while we went to Havana for the weekend.
I contacted a handling company to assist with obtaining the permits and planning our itinerary. We would be flying from our home base in Dayton, Ohio (DAY) to Orlando Executive (ORL). The flight was 695 nm or about four hours in our Mooney.
The trip was set for late March. I was concerned the weather might not cooperate, but when our departure day arrived, clear skies prevailed. We even had a nice tailwind for the first leg of our trip. The flight was uneventful. The kids slept most of the way. We passed Disney World and downtown Orlando on our approach to ORL.
After landing, we unloaded our bags and secured the plane. The handling company had dropped off our documents at the FBO. I picked up the packet containing our travel visas, permits, and other assorted items while checking in and arranging a fuel order. We then drove over to Port Canaveral to meet up with my sister and brother-in- law. We had a wonderful seafood dinner at a local dockside restaurant.
The next morning, I awoke early to check the weather and file our flight plan. Everything looked good for the flight from KORL to Jose Marti International Airport (MUHA) near Havana. The flight would be 339 nm via Key West VOR. I was showing 2 hours and 15 minutes. We drove back to Orlando Executive. I performed a preflight and obtained another briefing. We loaded our bags and were ready for departure.
My wife still had no idea of where we were going. I was afraid she would hear the clearance from ATC but the controller just said “cleared to MUHA as filed” and she did not catch on. After a short taxi and run up, we were in the air and headed to Cuba. Eventually, we were handed off to Key West approach. Only after we passed over Key West VOR still at 8000 feet did my wife suspect something might be amiss. She asked if we were going to the Cayman Islands. I kept quiet and continued to fly the plane.
About 10 minutes later, we were handed off to Havana approach. The controllers spoke excellent English and began giving us vectors and instructions to descend to 4000 feet. She knew something was up when the massive island of Cuba appeared on the horizon several minutes later.
There were some rain showers in the area with marginal VFR ceilings. We were vectored for the ILS runway 6 approach and had an uneventful landing. We taxied to the designated parking area and were met by friendly ground personnel who helped secure the plane and unload our bags.
We were taken to a terminal where we cleared customs and met our driver for the weekend. When we were on our way from the airport to our hotel in Havana, I asked my wife what she was thinking. She kept repeating, “I don’t know yet.”
We were in a completely different world. Cuba is so close to the U.S. in distance, but so far away in culture. After checking in at our hotel, we were taken to a beautiful seaside restaurant. We had a wonderful lunch of grilled fish and the best mojitos we’ve ever tasted.
That’s when my wife relaxed and decided to embrace the weekend. Over the next couple of days, we toured old Havana, strolled on the Malecon, visited Revolution square, toured Hemingway’s house, and met many wonderful people. It was an amazing experience!
The time to depart came way too soon! Internet service is not ubiquitous in Cuba. The hotel gave us tickets each with a long passcode that had to be entered into your mobile device each time you wanted to connect. The connection was still spotty and only good for about 20 minutes.
The morning of departure, I woke up early and checked the weather. I filed the eAPIS and flight plan at our hotel because I knew there would be no internet service at the airport. I also called the Customs office at Key West to notify them of our planned arrival time in Key West. We had planned to arrive at Jose Marti airport at 7:30 am and depart at 8:30 am.
We were not aware that the Cuban people do not usually open the airport until around 9:00 am. Once they showed up, we moved quickly through customs. Our departure from Cuba was a little later than planned, but otherwise uneventful.
After a short flight back to Key West, we were met by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. They asked why we were late. We explained that the Cuban people don’t share the same time concerns that we have here in the U.S. They understood and we were soon headed to Spaceport airport (TIX) on the Florida coast to meet up with our kids
They had a great time on the Disney cruise. We had the experience of a lifetime flying our Mooney to Cuba!