Arriving in the US, aviation paradise!
After a last morning swim in the lovely blue sea of Sosúa (Puerto Plata), we left for what was going to be our third flight over water. This time above the Bahamas and other exotic islands like Turks and Caicos, but also close to Haiti, Cuba and Guantanamo bay (!).
It was March 16th and our destination was the USA where we were going to stay for some time. We needed to take care of some administrative stuff (Green Card appointments, our house which is rented out …) and, more importantly, we were planning to fly around the national parks in the West while waiting for the warmer weather required to cross the North Atlantic. Mount Rushmore, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yellowstone: here comes LV-GQF!
Thanks to the staff of Servair at MDPP, departure took us less than 30 minutes from the moment we arrived at the airport, including the time it took them to heat the water for Alex’ coffee in the microwave of the FBO. Amazing! In those 30 minutes, we went through immigration, took the cover off the airplane (we call it its pajamas😊), checked it, loaded our luggage and put our life vests on.
The rafts and bags were still on the backseat where we had left them the day before. And Alex’ pilot suit was also ready for a professional looking arrival. I was already wearing mine because it makes me feel safer, the clothes definitely make the woman.
After one last look at the beautiful Puerto Plata bay, we headed North and climbed to 8000 feet.
Once leveled, as usual, Alex “leaned” the engine. For those of you who are not familiar with piston planes, it means that he reduced the fuel flow to the least possible fuel content in the fuel-air mix that the engine requires for its explosions. This is called flying “lean of peak” versus “rich of peak” and just like there are passionate Republicans and Democrats, there are passionate defenders of each of these two flying methods, which frequently creates heated discussions. Lean of peak advocates put forward the fuel savings (13 gallons per hour versus as much as 17 or more), meaning you have more range; the rich of peak advocates argue that their method is better for the engine and prevents wear out. It is true that “lean of peak” is a little rougher, makes a little more noise. In any case, Alex is a “lean of peak” kind of guy and I like it too because it is less harmful for the environment and reduces the number of refueling stops needed on a trip. He was already pretty comfortable with the technique but got fully convinced after a seminar with Melvyn Becerra, a great Chilean pilot, aviation expert and good friend who we met in the 2020 Navegeta to Chile.
Alex uses either of two methods to lean the engine: one is using the engine monitor computer and reducing the fuel content in the air/fuel mix until the last cylinder to reach its maximum temperature becomes 50 degrees Fahrenheit colder than its hottest point, the other is to use the simpler “Ricky rule”. Ricky (officially Ricardo Montesano) is our fantastic Cirrus flight instructor in Buenos Aires, he prepared Alex for his IFR and Commercial Pilot exam and me for flying the Cirrus. His rule is that you have reached the optimal lean mix when the EGT of the hottest cylinder (there are 6 of them in total) reaches 1450 degrees F. I probably did not explain this very well but if you are interested, I can put you in contact with one of the passionate pilots I mentioned above!
For our purposes, we could probably not have flown the distances we had if we had operated rich of peak. However, even with a lower fuel consumption, we stay aware of our “green circle” at all times. And in this case, green is not land but it is still good.
On the picture below, the full range of the airplane is shown by the green circle. The dotted circle is the range if you want to stay within the 45 minutes of legal fuel reserve. In this case, when we were leaving Martinique, we could have reached Haiti if we wanted but not Cuba and certainly not the USA. And the FOD (Fuel on Destination, top right corner) told us that we would have 25 gallons left when we landed in MDPP (Puerto Plata), which is very comfortable.
The other green circle we were watching was the “glide range”, thanks to the Foreflight App on Alex’ iPad. This one shows until where the plane can glide if you were to have a sudden engine failure. It depends on your altitude (and wind and other factors), on the picture below it looks like it had a radius of about 12 nautical miles at that moment.
If there is land in the circle, I always feel a little better than if there is not, and every time it is full of water, I am happy to have my life jacket on, even though combined with the seat belt/harness, it makes me feel like a sausage as you can see below.
The orange device is our In Reach MINI tracker, it is my job to turn it on when we start a flight.
This flight was going to last a little over 4 hours but about 25 minutes after take-off we were already transferred to Miami control. There were still a lot of islands to cross but we suddenly felt we were almost there and relaxed a little. We started to laugh at the funny names the imaginary points had in this area, wondering who had come up with them. They certainly had a sense of humor: MALVN (pronounced Malvin), ZIN (pronounced Zulu India November), ACMEE, DUNNO, FOWEE, JUNUR and the charming LUVLY!
We also played “island spotting”, the first one to distinguish an island in the distance under the clouds would win. There were so many islands of all sizes that we continued looking for them for a long time, some were as much as 50 miles away. There was Long Island for example, and then also tiny little pieces of rock that looked like island-crumbs.
I spotted Long Island, easy because it was on my side of the plane
Not sure what this one was...
And below are the island crumbs (AKA keys):
A little further North, the water started to look exactly like the pictures of the Bahamas: the transparent shiny light blue water was real!
The closer we got to Miami, the more chatter there was on the radio and the more air traffic appeared on our screen. Until then, we had been one of a handful of planes in the areas we flew through, now we were one of many in the land of aviation. And there were airports all around.
On the screenshot below, the light blue squares are airports/runways, the black arrows are other aircraft, the green lines representing the direction of their flight.
I remember once having heard someone say that there are less airplanes in the whole of Argentina than there are in the air on any single day in the US. No more island spotting or laughing at funny names: we had to pay attention, listen carefully to what was going on, especially when we heard “Lima Victor Golf Quebec Foxtrot”. Fortunately, our call sign is a little complicated for US air traffic controllers who are used to aircraft starting with “November”, so in the few seconds it takes them to pronounce our full name, we have time to prepare ourselves for the instructions. Apart from turning the tracker on, my job is also to listen to instructions because, especially in unfamiliar territory, two pairs of ears are better than one and together, Alex and I can usually figure out what we need to do or read back.
When we landed in Miami Executive (KTMB), we immediately requested to taxi to the Customs building as we had been taught by other pilots who had experience in traveling to the US. After we parked and turned the engine off, we believed the officers would come to our plane but no one moved so after a while we decided to step out and go towards them instead. As soon as we opened the door, the CBP officer gently reprimanded us: we should have called by phone 24 hours in advance to let them know we were coming, now she had to report us and we might need to pay a fine. We thought we had done everything correctly: we had filed the EAPIS, we had bought the CBP “decal” and even called CBP the evening before to confirm the decal was in order, but we hadn't specified we were arriving the next day. However, the officer let us go through immigration and to the bathroom (fully understanding the hardship of a long flight…) and very professionally set us free once the rest of the paperwork was completed. We don’t really know if we will ever get the fine or not.
This is what the CBP sticker more or less looks like (this one is not ours because ours has not arrived yet, we just had proof of purchase)
Back in the plane Alex filed a VFR flight plan using Foreflight on his iPad and litterally minutes later we were taking off to go meet John Bone, our fellow Cirrus round-the-worlder, who was waiting for us in Naples, . Did I mention the US is an aviation paradise?