March 9th, first long flight over water from Cayenne to Fort de France, Martinique.
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
I am writing this “only” on March 18th and I apologize to the readers who are really looking forward to the next leg of our trip but we have been a little busy flying, landing, finding a place to stay, eating, sleeping, planning the next leg and enjoying the people we have met at each stop. I do have some good news for you though: there are now videos from the GoPro camera attached to the tail of the airplane on Alex’ youtube channel. You can access it via Youtube (search Alex Gronberger) or by clicking the “our videos” button on the home page of this 360-journal.
March 9th was the big day where we flew 800 nautical miles (almost 1500 km) in total, of which about 85% -more than 4 hours- over water. Even though everyone had told us “the airplane doesn’t know it is flying over water”, we were a little nervous about it despite our brand new equipment: life vest, individual raft, waterproof survival bag, satellite phone, solar charger and Garmin tracker. The night before we had made a checklist for what to put in the bag:
- Cookies/nuts/cereal bars
- Chargers (battery/solar) & cords
- Tracker and/or sattelite Phone
- Rain jacket and down jacket in case we get cold in the raft
- Travel john (I will explain more about this item in another post soon)
Rafts and waterproof bags on the back seat, ready to grab
In addition to the over-water flying stress, we needed to land in Martinique before 2 pm and the flight would take 5h30, so we wanted to take off no later 8 am to have a little safety margin. Although we expected departing Cayenne airport would be faster than Belem, we did preferred not to take any chances, especially since we still had to refuel the plane. We had checked the night before and knew that the Chambre de Commerce staff would be there starting 6 am to help us, so we decided to get to the airport at the same time as them. We ordered a taxi for 5.30am and set our alarm at 5 am to have just enough time to get dressed and heat the water for Alex’ coffee in the electric kettle.
At 6 am sharp, we were at the airport but there was no one from the Chambre de Commerce. They were not in their office and did not answer the phone. While waiting for them, we went to the Police to get our passports and ICAO General Declarations stamped for the exit, but after that we were just standing there in an almost empty airport, asking every person we saw if they knew how to reach the “PCE” (apparently that was the name of the Chambre de Commerce office in the airport). Finally, a little before 7 am they came in and we were able to go through the motions: through security to their office to pay for the landing & parking fees and order fuel. The fees turned out to be very cheap (42 euro), especially considering we had the same size parking space as the Boeings!
Can you spot LV-GQF on the security screen?
The fuel however was another story, the truck only came to us at 8.30 because the operator had gotten stuck at a roadblock. It was clear we were going to miss our landing slot in Martinique and I had already sent Jerome (from Easy Fly Martinique) a message to give him a heads up. When finally, at around 8.45 we climbed into the cabin, I checked my phone before putting it away: Jerome had answered that we were still OK because Martinique was one hour behind Guiana! We were saved by the time difference, I felt like Phileas Fogg in “Around the world in 80 days”! From then on, we only had to worry about water and headwinds.
Flying 4 hours over water in a single engine plane is a psychological challenge: around you, you see only water,
On the GPS screen you see only blue and a few imaginary points with strange names that were invented for IFR flying.
You know there is no way you can reach any airport if you have a mechanical problem and even though you do have your life vest, a bright orange raft etc… and the water is probably not very cold because it is the Caribbean, you don’t really know how quickly, if at all, they will find you. And it didn’t look like there were many ships around to help either… Time passed very slowly and the only thing we could do was a) try not to think about the situation, b) remember the airplane does not know it’s flying over water and c) eagerly await the arrival at the next imaginary intersection point.
On this route we had KALEP, MILUX, TRAPP, KELSO, BGI, BORUS and DURIV before reaching TFFF. The scary water crossing started at MILUX, the entry of the Paramaribo control area, and ended over Barbados at BGI. Close to Barbados, we knew we would be able to relax: it was green and green means land.
The other thing that helped us deal with water-angst were the communications with the various control centers because they make you feel you exist. At MILUX, we were transferred from Cayenne to Paramaribo and a little later a friendly female voice at Paramaribo instructed us to report when we reached TRAPP. Luckily she added that if we could not reach Paramaribo anymore, we should “squawk 4473”, i.e. change our transponder code (the personal code an aircraft transmits for each flight plan), and call Piarco center which controls the Trinidad and Tobago area. This sounded much easier than it was because at TRAPP we could hear neither Paramaribo nor Piarco nor any other aircraft. It was dead silence over the water on our way to KELSO which was more than 200 nautical miles away. It was one of those moments where I thought “why again am I doing this ???”.
In the hope of being found if we ditched, we blind-transmitted our position every now and then, not knowing of course if anyone would ever receive it. After about 30 minutes, we heard another aircraft, callsign Lanco 1819, trying to communicate with Piarco, they did not succeed either but at least we were not the only ones out there. Another 30 minutes later, about 75 nautical miles South of Piarco, we heard Lanco 1819 again but this time we could infer from their messages that they were speaking with the center. Alex immediately asked them to relay our existence and position to Piarco and when they relayed the center’s acknowledgement back we suddenly felt much safer. A little later we could actually communicate with Piarco ourselves and it was not long before they transferred us to Barbados center. That is when we started to feel we had arrived in the Caribbean paradise! Blue seas, white beaches were but a few miles away, and when we finally saw land in the distance, we were ecstatic: we had made it!
From Barbados onward, time flew and before we knew it we landed at Aimé Césaire airport in Fort de France (TFFF), asked -in French- to exit the runway via “Charlie” as we had been instructed by Jerome and reached the ZAG (General Aviation Area) where he and two pilot friends were waiting for us. They had been tracking our trip and knew exactly when we would land, we felt super welcome and decided to stay on the island for a few days. It already looked beautiful when we approached, and we were soon to discover the rest of it.
Excerpts of this trip can be seen in the video: 360WE LVGQF Leg 6 Guyanne to Martinique