Floats in Alaska! The Ultimate Flying Adventure

If you haven’t thought about adding a Seaplane rating to your license, you should!   I’ve considered it for years, however it wasn’t until this summer, 2014, that I put my plan in place.  My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner!  On the other hand, if I had then I probably would only be flying Float planes!

While up in Alaska  for the Iditarod  earlier this year –  Flying in Alaska – I explored options for obtaining my rating in our northernmost state.  This summer I was flying back up to Alaska in the CJ3 and had enough time to obtain the rating.  I found many good options for the course, however Alaska Floats & Ski owned by Don Lee looked like the best course.  They offer many packages, including one with lodging, which worked great for my needs.  I wanted to be as close as possible to the planes! Don’s Alaska Floats & Ski is located on  beautiful Christiansen Seaplane Base (AK8).

Alaska Floats & Ski - Christiansen Seaplane Base
Alaska Floats & Ski – Christiansen Seaplane Base

Located only a few miles from Talkeetna Airport (PATK) and the adjacent town, it is a spectacular location.  Talkeetna is about 2.5 hours from Anchorage on the Parks Highway, and 2.5 hours from Denali Park.  One of the great things about having a plane in Talkeetna, is you can fly to Denali in only 40 minutes in the PA-22 (Pacer) for an incredible view (more later).

I arrived at Don’s place on Monday morning and Lindsay, the Office Manager, quickly greeted me at their FBO.

Alaska Floats & Ski FBO - Lindsay the Office Manager
Alaska Floats & Ski FBO – Lindsay the Office Manager

Lindsay showed my their lodge and  let me choose between the Cessna and Piper rooms.  It was a tough choice!  The rooms are very nice, with a kitchen in the lodge if you want to prepare your own meals.  The lodge is only a few steps from the dock.  When I wasn’t flying, or sleeping I could be found studying, or writing, by the dock – even if it was raining.  Even at 11 p.m. I would be sitting by the dock enjoying the almost endless daylight.

Ground school with my CFI - Roger Anderson
Ground school with my CFI – Roger Anderson

Alaska Floats & Ski has a number of aircraft for their bush and float courses, some of which are converted to skis for the winter.  They typically fly Piper Pacers (PA-22) in their programs.  Here are some of their fleet, with the bush planes kept at the Talkeetna airport.

Alaska Float & Ski Float Plane Fleet
Alaska Float & Ski Float Plane Fleet
N7150K - Taxiing In at AK8
N7150K – Taxiing In at AK8

My primary training platform was N7347D, a very nice PA-22/20S.  With the floats, it took some time to get used to using more rudder than I’ve used in land planes.  It reminded me of sailplanes, which are also more sensitive to rudder input.  Once you get accustomed to that, it becomes second nature.

N7347D - My training platform
N7347D – My training platform

Don has a very welcoming staff, with a number of CFIs, all of whom have extensive experience across the fleet.  Don and Roger are also A&Ps, and their maintenance hangar is adjacent to the dock.  Sometimes after flying, we would sit by the dock and have beers — at ‘ramp temperature’.

Don and the gang

Seaplane Flights

We started ground school just after I arrived, then Roger and I started flying that same afternoon, taking my first flight in a Piper Pacer, let alone a float plane.  After donning a life vest, I learned that you want to have the plane ready to start the minute you are cast off from the dock – you don’t want to be drifting in a powerless plane in the lake. We started off by learning to taxi – without brakes!  The floats have very small water rudders which are somewhat effective if you are moving. We taxied to the north end of Christiansen Lake – which was fun by itself, watching the water go by with my door open.

Taxiing for Takeoff - view from my cockpit window
Taxiing for Takeoff – view from my cockpit window

The water rudders on the floats are only down when taxiing at idle or using the Plough technique, otherwise they are up.   The trick is to make a 180 degree turn and have the water rudders up by the time you are straight for takeoff.  Too early in the turn, and your can’t turn, too late and you are busy with other takeoff items.  With enough turning momentum you can raise the water rudders by 135 degrees, then add power and you are ready to go when lined up.

With full power, 10 degrees of flaps, and full back elevator we accelerate, albeit slowly.  As you accelerate the back elevator is gradually reduced until the plane settles ‘on the step’.  The step planing position is when the airplane is on the mid point of the floats and has the optimum, smallest, contact point with the water.  It took me some time to actually feel when that attitude is obtained.  Once there your elevator pressure is almost neutral and you wait to build up speed to attempt lift off around 50 MPH.

We had a smooth (glassy) surface which is actually more challenging than a rough water surface since the surface tension wants to keep the floats on the water.  One way to accelerate the process is to pull the plane onto one float – reducing the drag. Roger taught me to bump the flaps up, just a little and turn the ailerons to life a float.  Presto!  We are airborne – looking at the trees at the end of the lake.  I took advantage of the lower terrain on the left end by turning the airplane just over the water as I climbed.

In the photo we took off from the far right, then followed the lake to the upper left on the first departure.  The lodge and dock on the the far side in the middle. What a thrill!

Christiansen Lake Seaplane Base Alaska - AK8
Christiansen Lake Seaplane Base AK8

We headed to a series of lakes, the first being Rockys Lakes.  You always assess the landing area, including the winds, before landing.  Without an ASOS or even a wind sock, you are dependent upon your own observations. If there is wind, the upwind portion of the lake will be smooth – in the wind shadow.  Ripples will start to form around 2 knots, and waves at 4 kts.  As the lakes increase in size, the waves also get larger farther downwind.  All things to consider, including trees which surround most of the lakes I used!

Splash-n-Gos Getting My Seaplane Rating

Roger did a great job preparing for my first wet landing.  After assessing the first lake, I established a pattern and slowly decelerated to 80 MPH, flaps at 10 degrees. (G)as (U)ndercarraige – floats down and gear up (for amphibs) (M)ixture (P)ower (throttle, carb heat test).  Usually when water is on the runway, I’m considering hydroplaning – this time I’m landing in water.

Rockys Lake
Rockys Lake

I was glad that Roger picked a big lake for the first landing. Our goal was to land over the small peninsula just forward of the strut, a low lying area of marsh. The wind was light which made it nice, however the surface was fairly smooth which also removes some of the visual clues.  When setting up for landing on water, you don’t flare but attain a landing attitude which is close to level.

My first touch down was a bit rough and the pitch was a little low, so we ended up with a bow wave in front of the float.  The lift off was quick, since the bow wave reduces the surface tension and up we went.  I love touch-n-gos and the opportunity to do a large number of splash-n-gos was awesome!

We then practiced glassy landings, one of the most challenging landings.  When the surface is glassy, or you have reduced visibility, it is difficult to ascertain your height above the water.  The trick is to choose a visual reference (trees, grass, etc.) before you fly over the water.  At that point you set your final landing attitude.  The altitude above the water, is now totally controlled by power — with the landing attitude constant.  You must avoid looking at the water below and instead focus out in the distance.  You no longer have your side visual references. Surprise!!! You landed.  Roger said every glassy landing is a surprise.  On one landing I was so close to the marsh on final, that I landed on it then slide onto the water!  It was a very smooth landing in the water.

Next was confined landings over trees.  Similar to a short-field landing on a runway, you come over the trees on a steep approach with 30 degrees of flaps, round out to the landing attitude then – Splash!  It was more fun than any short field landing I’ve ever done.

Ten landings later, we headed to Fish Lake on the way back to base. Before landing at Fish Lake we saw perhaps the tallest structure out side of Anchorage!  It appeared that the owner was never satisfied with the view from their house, so they kept building another level!  I hope my wife doesn’t want me to do the same thing to our house —- it would take time from flying.

When a View is Really Important
When a View is Really Important

On the way back to AK8 we practiced on Fish Lake, which is just a few miles from our base.  It has a nice approach over the road to Talkeetna, then over the trees.

Fish Lake - Short Final
Fish Lake – Short Final

In the evening, which is still daylight since the sun didn’t set until almost midnight,  Roger and I decided to explore some mountain lakes – Rainbow, Sockeye, and Pineapple Man.  All of them are beautiful, with Pineapple Man offering some challenges since it is in a valley and on approach you can’t see the lake until you are almost over it.  Roger taught me to use ‘lead-in’ lakes, flying over the first, then turn left 80 degrees for the second, then finally seeing Pineapple Man after passing the second lake.  Since the lake has some large rocks, you fly over it for 1/2 mile, then turn right and Splash!

These lakes became my favorites, the location in the mountains and unique challenges made for fun landings.  Over 2 flights we made a large number of landings, many of which were on glassy surfaces.  On Rainbow, it was so calm that even on multiple Splash-n-Gos I could still see my wake.  We also practiced step taxiing and that wake also remained for several minutes.

My Wakes at Rainbow Lake
You can see the wakes from the step taxi and two previous landings


Talkeetna is a quaint town, just a few minutes from Alaska Floats & Ski.  It is only a few blocks long, and is worth the visit.  There are various places to stay, shop, and eat.  One of my favorites is the Wildflower Cafe, offering some of the best meals in Alaska.  You will find many other options in the town, including homemade ice cream!

Homemade Ice Cream at Wake and Shake - Talkeetna
Homemade Ice Cream at Wake and Shake – Talkeetna


Side Flight – Denali Glacier

Roger signed me off for my checkride after our third flight, however I wanted to fly more.  We decided to fly up the Kahlitna Glacier which is the largest glacier in the Alaska Range, land at a few lakes on the way back, then fly down the Chitna River back to base.  We lashed fishing poles to the wing struts, just in case we wanted to fish on one of the lakes.  Denali was obscured in clouds, however the flight up the glacier was still spectacular.  Flying under the clouds, we explored all the way up to the base of Denali, and could see Mount Foraker (17,402) above us.  The glacier is covered with mountain debris on the lower sections, the result of extensive erosion by the moving ice.  Flying low over the glacier we could view the deep glacier blue water in small pools.  Along the way we viewed extensive ice falls, and flew up over the base camp used at the base of Denali for the climbers.

Flying Up the Glacier - Fishing Poles Ready
Flying up the Kahlitna Glacier – fishing poles ready
Kahlitna Glacier
Kahlitna Glacier
Mt. Foraker - AK
Mt. Foraker – AK

The Checkride

Now was the time to prove to the FAA that I could fly float planes.  Ray Hodges, was the FAA-designated examiner.  Ray owns his own float plane (PA-12) and flew up from Palmer to administer the examination.  Ray immediately put me at ease, then presented me with a 6 page written test.  The items dealt with aerodynamics, FAA regulations, and general knowledge on how to safely operate sea planes.  I had studied over the previous 2 days with material provided by Roger, which did a great job of preparing me for the check ride.  The ground portion of our check ride took a bit over 2  1/2 hours, then it was off to demonstrate my skills in accordance with the Practical Test Standards (PTS).  We flew over to Larsen Lake, close by to AK8.  The surface was calm, so most of my landing were made using the glassy techniques.  The check ride included various maneuvers including: step turns, plough turns, high altitude operations, constrained (short) operations, glassy landings, and a few others. Since Roger had thoroughly prepared me for the test, it was not a surprise.

Larson Lake - Checkride Central
Larson Lake – Checkride Central

It was great landing back at AK8 and then Ray told me I had passed and now was a Commercial Single Engine Seaplane pilot!

Rich and Ray Hodges DPE with SES
Rich and Ray Hodges DPE with SES


Right after receiving my new rating, I wanted to fly again.  I talked with Don Lee and I wanted to explore the Susitna River.  With the recent rains it was moving fast with the high water and looked like a challenge. Don taught me how to determine the best landing option, especially with downed trees in the river, and taxiing in the moving river up to the shore for beaching.  It was interesting landing in such fast moving water, an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.  Don is an excellent CFI, with considerable experience and I realized I only touched the surface of this great opportunity to fly a float plane.

After arriving back in Anchorage, the first thing I did was go looking for another float plane to fly!  I scoured the Lake Hood Seaplane Base (PALH), the largest in the world, and found a Super Cub to rent with a CFI.  Richard Whyte at Acme Cub Training was available, so we went up to explore lakes north of Anchorage.  PALH has both water runways, and runways.  It is directly adjacent to Anchorage International Airport and it is an experience not to be missed.  You are flying float planes in the pattern, watching 747s landing nearby.

Super Cub - getting ready to launch from the dock
Super Cub – getting ready to launch from the dock

The Super Cub flies differently than the Pacer, and has 20 additional horse power.   Landing is very similar with minor changes in landing attitude.  I had never flown a Super Cub, yet the training I had received helped in flying that aircraft.  After an hour and half, it was time to head back to Anchorage.

Flying float planes is an incredible experience, and I recommend it highly. You can’t beat Alaska for the variety of lakes to explore and Alaska Floats & Ski provide a great opportunity to explore those lakes.

One caveat, once you fly on floats you might get hooked!  I’m now finding myself looking in Controller for Lake Amphibians  —  just looking of course 🙂


Return to Haiti – San Diego to Haiti – April 2014

A Little Background

In 2010, over a span of 3 weeks, with the generous support of aircraft owners who gave me access to their planes, friends who helped financially, and those that helped with flying, I was able to make over 70 flights in support of earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. Ever since leaving Haiti on March 17, 2010 I wanted to return and continue to help where possible. It wasn’t until this year, 2014, that I was able to accomplish that goal.

Haiti has held a strong pull on me since that first landing in Jacmel Haiti on Feb 4 2010. Prior to the Haiti flights, I had flown over 20 flights through the Bahamas, and visited numerous Caribbean islands. Flying to Haiti never crossed my mental radar,  and was never on my list of islands I wanted to visit!

On my first first to Haiti in February 2010, I found people who survived a horrific natural calamity and living in extremely challenging conditions.  I also found a resilient people with a captivating culture and  beautiful art who I hoped to help in whatever ways possible. Some of those flights are detailed in my earlier Flight Logs .

One of my favorite photos during my 2010 trips was taken by a friend and professional photographer, Robert Caplin. Robert took a number of wonderful photos of flights we flew together. Daphka had her leg amputated and I was flying her to the States for additional care.  She was my co-pilot at FL270 (27,000 feet).  I didn’t know any Creole and she didn’t know any English, but somehow we communicated.

Rich and Daphka Hug in Cockpit
Rich and Daphka Hug in PC-12 Cockpit at FL270

I first learned of the Consolation Center (Centre le Reconfort) Haiti Orphanage, located in Les Cayes , during a flight with my friend, Brandon Campbell, when we flew a PC-12 into Les Cayes airport (MTCA) to bring supplies to Dr. Robert Leger. After the earthquake people were fleeing  Léogâne (the epicenter with 80-90% of buildings destroyed) and Port-au-Prince to the outlying areas for medical assistance. Dr. Leger was the only surgeon in Les Cayes at the time and hence the primary physician helping victims.  I later met one of his first patients, a young girl, on one of my flights.  She was the first to have a limb amputated in Les Cayes.

Dr. Leger with his first amputee patient and her adopted sister
Dr. Leger with his first amputee patient and her adopted sister

In March 2010 during a second series of flights in a Piper Meridian, I first visited the Consolation Center itself  with our son Rick, after having earlier met Yvald Francois who helped at the orphanage. At that time 15 young girls were living in a very small building with very little  food.  Over the course of a week we flew daily trips from Cibao International airpot (MDST) in Santiago, Dominican Republic, bringing them a large amount of food, supplies, toys, and additional medical equipment for Dr. Leger. We would find out what they needed then search the warehouses at the Santiago airport for x-ray film, medicine, sutures, and food.  We flew over the mountain range that separates the two countries, almost always in Instrument Flight conditions (IMC). In this photo you can see two building thunderstorms with significant precipitation.  The farthest cell is partially shadowed by the closest cell. We are at 28,000 ft MSL and the cell tops are at 30,000 ft MSL.

Vertical RADAR profile of cells over the Central Range between DR and Haiti
Vertical RADAR profile of cells over the Central Range between DR and Haiti. The cells are 38 degrees to the right.

In 2010 the Consolation Center was in the process of  building their first structures, with the help of  sponsors in the United States.  An engineer in the US had designed buildings using discarded shipping containers, and grain silos!

Composting toilet using a shipping container
Composting toilet using a shipping container
Shipping container converted to a bathroom
Yvald and Rich checking out a shipping container converted to a bathroom

They were designing a sustainable center, with composting toilets, sufficient agriculture to support the children, and a new co-ed school. Since 2010 we have also held an annual ‘Hope for Haiti’ benefit at SDSU sponsored by our Black Science Students Organization (BSSO) for the Consolation Center.

Our last flight from Haiti back to San Diego was from Les Cayes on March 22, 2010.  We were trying to  help 2 young girls who were at risk of losing their limbs from infection within the next 2 days.  After working with their medical teams and ensured that the UN could do the medevac in their helicopter, we headed home. Rick and I knew we would be back.

Flying to Haiti: My first return visit since 2010

It took more time than I had hoped to fly back to Haiti.  I started planning the return flight in earnest, in February 2014, a trip that would subsequently cover 6500 miles (5650 NM). After contacting Eddy Constant, the Consolation Center Director,  we decided the highest priority would be to improve the availability of technology for the school of 300 children that is run by the Center. A friend generously offered to purchase 8 Android tablets for the school and the search for pre-trip supplies was underway!

The center’s only internet is a single 2G cellular connection so I planned to install a wireless network to provide access, albeit slow, for the tablets and the few old computers they had. I also knew that school supplies are difficult to obtain, so we loaded up on those as well as crafts for the kids. I don’t like to have extra room on the supply flights and also wanted to help my friend, a physician from Alabama, who donates substantial time helping in Port-au-Prince.  He was one of  the first physicians to fly down to Haiti in 2010, flying his Cirrus SR22 down and subsequently saved many lives.  It was his photographs and emails that told a story I could not resist.  To this day, he flies his plane to Haiti many times a year.  I knew he could use some help delivering supplies to Haiti so I called him up.  He and other colleagues had procured medical supplies that would be helpful at St. Damien’s, a pediatric hospital in Haiti.  We scheduled a detour in our flight out to Haiti to bring them down with us.

The plan was now set:  fly my Cirrus SR22 N412DJ from San Diego to Haiti loaded with supplies, pick up some medicine along they way in northern Mississippi, then head to Haiti via Florida and the Bahamas.  A friend, George Mazis, who is also a pilot, offered to share expenses and share the piloting. We also decided to stop by the Bahamas on the return trip, which was a bonus!

San Diego to Florida

Rich and George Ready to Rock at MYF for Haiti
Rich and George Ready to Rock at MYF for Haiti

Two days into our trip, we spent a total of 17-hours chasing a strong storm ahead of us.  Our destination was Meridian, MS where medical supplies were waiting for us.  The onboard weather in my SR22 indicated large areas of heavy precipitation, cyclonic activity, and hail.  We decided to stay over in Lufkin, TX to wait it out.

Significant weather along our route - SIGMETs, AIRMETS and precip
Significant weather along our route – SIGMETs, AIRMETS and precip

After an overnight stay in Lufkin Texas (KLFK) (a great place to stay with good fuel prices)  we diverted north a bit to John Bell airport (KJVW) in Raymond, Mississippi to pick up medicine for St. Damien’s hospital.

Loading medical supplies at JVW (Raymond MS) for St. Damien's
Loading medical supplies at JVW (Raymond MS) for St. Damien’s

The massive storm was still blocking our way so we weaved a path to Pensacola Florida (KPNS).

WX through Florida Panhandle
WX through Florida Panhandle

If you need to stop, Pensacola is a great place to visit.  The FBO was extremely helpful and we spent some time at the Naval Aviation Museum.  For aviators, it is definitely a place to visit.  Just 30 minutes from the airport you arrive at the Pensacola Naval Air Station and the museum.

Pensacola Navial Aviation Museum
Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum

We flew down to Panama City, FL (KECP) for the night.  The next morning the Radar was still depicting severe weather, so we maneuvered around the worst cells and headed to  Fort Lauderdale Executive airport (KFXE).

Weaving our way to Fort Lauderdale (FXE)
Weaving our way to Fort Lauderdale (FXE)

Fort Lauderdale FL Exec (FXE) to Exuma, Bahamas (MYEF)

I always use Banyan Air, Fixed Based Operator (FBO), when at FXE.  Don and Sueanne Campion, the owners, were extremely supportive of the earthquake relief efforts and Sueanne joined me in Haiti when we flew an adopted child and her father to the US.

On the flight to Exuma we were in the clouds intermittently, in between we could see the beautiful water that surround the islands.  There are very few instrument approaches in the Bahamas, and none on the ‘Out’ islands, so after canceling our IFR flight plan we descended through the clouds and broke out at 2,500 feet AGL (also MSL) to see the Exuma island chain and Exuma International Airport (MYEF).

Approaching Exuma
Approaching Exuma
Turquoise Water Off Exuma
Turquoise waters off Exuma

The chain stretches over 120 miles and contains over 360 cays (islands).  Exuma’s first European settlers were Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, hence the largest settlement is named Georgetown after King George III.  The folks at the Odyssey FBO are always nice to see, and I’ve used their services often.  On my relief flights they would expedite all handling for me so I could continue my flights.  This time was no exception.  The Bahamas are one of my favorite places to fly, and I never tire of seeing the islands.  After refueling at Odyssey Aviation, we launched for our longest over water leg to Port-au-Prince (360NM – 414SM).

Exuma, Bahamas (MYEF) to Port-au-Prince, Haiti (MTPP)

Florida (FXE) to Port-au-Prince (MTPP)
Florida (FXE) to Port-au-Prince (MTPP)

Our flight plan took us to ACMEE, then JOSES intersections before reaching Haiti.    On the way you can see Cuba on our right, and Great Inagua island on the left. Great Inagua is a major waterfowl refuge, salt production site and a little used airport. There is little else on the large island, however it is nice to know that an airport might be close by, if needed!

Approaching ZIN intersection - Great Inagua, Bahamas
Approaching ZIN intersection – Great Inagua, Bahamas
Great Inagua
Great Inagua

At JOSES intersection we left US Air Traffic Control (ATC) and were told to contact Haiti ATC (Port-au-Prince Approach) sometime around the coast of Haiti, near Cap-Haïtien. Since the Haitians do not have RADAR for aircraft flow control and their communications systems don’t reach very far, it took a number of attempts to contact them.  We finally connected with them well past Cap-Haïtien.   Since there is no RADAR, each pilot must report their position and estimated time at the next waypoint.  We were cleared for the RNAV (GPS) Rwy 28 approach.  It is an interesting instrument approach with a number of step-down fixes in order to clear the terrain, with reporting at each one.  Port-au-Prince (MTPP) airport is near the ocean and is in a large basin.  I’ve made a number of night departures, which are interesting due to the high terrain in the area.  There was some confusion with Haitian ATC since they had recently changed frequencies and the Jeppesen chart data did not agree with the Garmin GPS information, which was confounded by confusion of pilots approaching MTPP.  We decide to monitor multiple frequencies and use our airborne aircraft traffic system – Honeywell TAS to confirm the location of other aircraft in the airspace. I didn’t want to rely on ATC for traffic separation, even in the clouds.

RNAV Rwy 29 MTPP - DJ approaching RIKOT
RNAV Rwy 29 MTPP – DJ approaching RIKOT

On an earlier night flight in 2010 you can see the obstacles on this departure from Port-au-Prince when I was flying a PC-12 after picking up relief workers for a flight back to Florida.

Departing MTPP at Night
Departing MTPP at Night surrounded by obstacles

Port-au-Prince Haiti

We made it!  Landing back at MTPP was amazing, it was great to be back in Haiti.  After taxiing to the main terminal, the customs handling was easy, with the officials extremely helpful especially in light of our mission.  We then taxied to the General Aviation terminal to unload medical supplies for St. Damien’s, other supplies for friends,  and meet up with folks.  One of my friends, Stacy Librandi now lives in Haiti after spending considerable time volunteering after the 2010 earthquake.  Stacy offered to be our guide in Port-au-Prince (PaP) which was invaluable.  The city can be challenging to navigate without someone with experience living there.

Unloading N412DJ at PAP
Unloading N412DJ at PAP

We couldn’t find many straight streets in Port-au-Prince that extend for any substantial length.  For us it looked like an Escher print!  Most of the earthquake rubble has been cleared, however damaged buildings are evident.  It is a very vibrant city, with sidewalk vendors selling everything from mangos, to toothpaste, to cellphone SIM cards.  In fact if you want to add minutes to your SIM card, you flag down someone who has a portable re-charge device, pay in Gourdes (the Haitian currency) and you are set.  Since the traffic is so congested, you have plenty of time for the transaction. The most popular public transport is the Tap-Tap, a communal taxi loaded with as many people as is physically possible, and sometimes more.

Tap Tap Port-au-Prince
Tap Tap Port-au-Prince
Patience you need to have some....
Patience you need to have some….

One of the busiest local  markets is the Iron Market. Originally destined to be the train station in Cairo, it was assembled in Port-au-Prince in the late 1800s.  Damaged during the 2010 earthquake, it was rebuilt and now houses over 900 vendors.

Port-au-Prince Iron Market
Port-au-Prince Iron Market

We stayed at a rather rustic B&B in the center of Peitonville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince.  With roosters outside our window, no screens,  cold water showers, and  breakfast it was an adventure.  There are a number of other lodging options in the city, including Best Western, Servotel (partially constructed with shipping containers), Hotel Montana (rebuilt after the earthquake) and a new Marriott under construction.  Peitonville is home to a number of foreign workers, primarily working for foreign aid groups or NGOs (Non-Government Organizations).  There are a number of quality restaurants, nightclubs, and other establishments in the area.  We found excellent restaurants, some hidden behind nondescript doors, modern grocery stores, and a large number of street vendors selling fresh produce. One great restaurant is Magdoos, which is owned by a friend of Stacy’s.

Dinner at Magdoos in Peitonville
Dinner at Magdoos

Outside of these suburbs are contrasting areas of severe poverty and modern buildings.  Haiti is trying to entice new investment and create job in a number of areas, including technology.  The country has a significant challenge to rebuild the infrastructure, and more importantly, improve basic services to meet the needs of all of its citizens.  A number of people still live in temporary housing, and in remnants of their once proud homes.  Despite these challenges, it was heartening to see improvements in roads, hospitals, and commerce.  All of which will help improve their lives.

Throughout our travels in Port-au-Prince I only felt in danger once, when attacked by a vicious dog, actually Stacy’s puppy. He was fascinated by the velcro strap on my sandals, opening and closing it repeatedly!

Haitian Attack Dog
Haitian Attack Dog

We visited Haiti Communitere, which is a grassroots organization that initially provided disaster relief with a dedicated of volunteers, and was founded by a friend, Sam Bloch.  In addition to providing help around the world, the Haiti group also is providing a valuable community-based center for people to explore alternative construction techniques, and even explore 3-D printing among other projects.  The community participants have devised methods to build homes from discarded styrofoam food containers, common discarded items, and composting and biogas toilets. It is a great community resource and is located very near the Port-au-Prince airport.

Recycled trash turned into a classy composting outhouse at Communitiere
Recycled trash turned into a classy composting outhouse (Haiti Communitiere)

For those travelers seeking a more traditional vacation, one hour outside of Port-au-Prince is Indigo Beach, the former Club Med with facilities that may rival other caribbean resorts. Jacmel is another great city to visit.  Heavily damaged by the 2010 earthquake, large portions have been rebuilt and is considered a cultural and art center of Haiti.  During 2010 Jane and I stayed at a great hotel on one of our trips flying children to the US for medical treatment.

We visited St. Damien’s pediatric/maternity hospital near the airport, the recipients of some of our supplies.  They have an excellent facility with many buildings, which survived the earthquake.  They, along with a number of other hospitals, are providing a critical service to the Haitian people.   The hospital is well run, with occasional help by visiting medical staff, project managers, and other volunteers. While there I discussed additional ways to possibly help them on future trips, which hopefully will happen.

Stacy and I wanted to explore the use of mobile GPS for emergency medical response in Port-au-Prince.  Since the streets are a maze and extremely crowded, Stacy’s concept is to train EMTs who can use motorcycles to provide assistance before the arrival of ambulances. They may also double as road assistance. Garmin graciously provided several eTrex 20 GPs.  I located maps of Haiti provided by the community source project OpenStreetmap. I was able to load them in the Garmin eTrex 20 units and they worked great and will be mounted on several motorcycles.  We were able to navigate throughout Port-au-Prince  (you can zoom into the street view) with ease.  Prior to the earthquake, there were virtually no detailed road maps.  The continual upgrading of the Haiti Open Streetmap project is encouraging.

Garmin eTrex 20 in PaP
Garmin eTrex 20 in PaP

Port-au-Prince (MTPP) to Les Cayes (MTCA)

It was interesting visiting Port-au-Prince, however one of my primary goals on this trip was to help the Consolation Center.  We headed to the airport and while filing our flight plan to Les Cayes, I thought I recognized the official at the counter.  After a few minutes, we both realized that we had met in 2010 at the Les Cayes airport.  At that time, Edgar, was working at the operations office at the airport.  His first child was born at that time, and his family needed some basic supplies. We found what he needed and brought him food, baby supplies, and toys for his child.  Now with two children, it was great getting reacquainted and I hope to see him on future flights.

Edgar Laplante and Rich at PaP airport
Edgar Laplante and Rich at PaP airport

George flew the leg over to Les Cayes, which is normally a 4 hour drive and only a 30 minute flight.  We wanted to tour the coast so we made a detour to see the sights along the south coast.  I had flown along the coast many times in 2010 and wanted to explore other areas that might be fun to visit in the future.  It is very sparsely populated with few roads, yet there were some spectacular beaches along the way.  I wanted to fly around Île à Vache located off the coast near Les Cayes, which was home to the pirate Henry Morgan in the 1600s. It is a beautiful island, regretfully the Haitian Government is using eminent domain to force the local population to leave so they can commercially develop the area.  As has happened so many times before in many countries, the indigenous populations are removed by those more powerful.

Île à Vache - Haiti
Île à Vache – Haiti

Les Cayes, Haiti

Les Cayes is located right on the water, and the first impression is that the street layout actually appears to be organized, with straight roads and thoroughfares, in contrast to Port-au-Prince.

Aerial view of Les Cayes
Aerial view of Les Cayes

The Les Cayes airport (MTCA) is very quiet, and landing there again great memories of helping people and meeting new friends. The airport surface is a tad rough, however it was an easy approach with fields surrounding the airport.

On Short Final RWY 8 - Les Cayes MTCA Airport
On Short Final RWY 8 – Les Cayes MTCA Airport

There were no tie-down points on the ramp, so with a few rocks and with help unloading we headed to the Consolation Center.

Unloading DJ again - this time at Les Cayes
Unloading DJ again – this time at Les Cayes

Consolation Center/Centre le Reconfort

The staff at the Consolation Center have done an excellent job in expanding the orphanage and school.  With a very practical approach to construction, layout, and agriculture, they have built a very efficient center for over 60 young girls and a school for 300+ boys and girls. They have expanded their farm, with the help of a group of farmers and agronomists from Iowa, with a wide variety of crops, chickens, goats, rabbits, and a few cattle.

Eddy's office which is a grain silo - easy to construct - storm resistant
Eddy’s office which is a grain silo – easy to construct – storm resistant
The silo base is anchored with rocks, then soil is added for a garden.
Eddy explaining how the silo base is anchored with rocks, then soil is added for a garden.
Site of the new Widows section of the Center
Site of the new Widows section of the Center.
Chicken coop
Chicken coop!
A portion of the Center's farm. It looks like a scene from Iowa!
A portion of the Center’s farm. It looks like a scene from Iowa!
Teachers catching up after school
Teachers catching up after school
Computer tech support!
Computer tech support!
Computer knowledge transfer with Max and Djeune.
Computer knowledge transfer with Max and Djeune.
The girls trying out the new Android tablets in the classroom.
The girls trying out the new Android tablets in the classroom.
The Center's new medical lab.
The Center’s new medical lab.
Gorgeous beach in Les Cayes
Gorgeous beach in Les Cayes
Lobster and fish dinner on the beach in Les Cayes
Lobster and fish dinner on the beach in Les Cayes
Eddy and Rich with the children at the orphanage
Eddy and Rich with the children at the orphanage
Port Salut artist making bracelets for our grand daughters.
I met a Port Salut artist and asked him to make bracelets for our grand daughters.

We had a very productive visit in Les Cayes, reconnecting with friends, setting up equipment, and determining how to help the Center in the future. The stay was too short, and we were headed home, with a brief stay in the Bahamas.

Haiti to the Bahamas.

Leaving Les Cayes airport, we met Edgar’s successor, Raymond.  He made the process easy, and fun.  I filed a flight plan to leave Les Cayes headed to Cap-Haïtien, the Airport of Entry (AOE).

Rich and Raymond filing out paperwork
Rich and Raymond filing out paperwork


The flight back through the Bahamas was great, just this time Cuba was on our left.

Back to the Exumas
Back to the Exumas

After clearing Bahamas Customs and Immigration on Exuma, we headed to one of my favorite resorts – Hawk’s Nest on Cat Island.  Hawk’s Nest has their own private airport right next to their resort.  After you park, it is only 40 yards to the lobby, then only another 50 yards to the beach!  For pilots, this is great.  You can visit your plane often during your stay, and even take it for a spin around the islands. I have been known to hop in the plane and visit another island for lunch, or just to swim on a deserted beach.

N412DJ parked at Hawk's Nest airport.
N412DJ parked at Hawk’s Nest airport.
The beach at Hawk's Nest, Cat Island.
The beach at Hawk’s Nest, Cat Island.

One of the least inhabited islands in the Bahamas, there were only a few people where we stayed. George and I decided to explore some of the beaches elsewhere on the island to snorkel.  At one deserted beach, I noticed a number of shoes that had washed ashore.  I wondered if they may have come from a Haitian refuge boat that I heard had sunk offshore.  While I walking on the beach a local Bahamian, Charlie, walked towards me.  He was looking for tar balls, which are created by leaking fuel from boats, to melt and use to seal a tub at his Mom’s house at nearby Devil’s Point.  I asked him if perhaps the  shoes may have come from that boat.  Charlie mentioned that a refuge boat had indeed sunk off shore.  A 30 foot boat with over 200 people on board.  While we talked, Charlie said “Some survived, and some perished…”.  It seemed a poignant reminder, and another contrast, of our trip to Haiti.

Shoes from Haitian refugen boat on the Cat Island Beach
Shoes on the Cat Island Beach

Cat Island has a number of quiet, secluded places to stay.  One is the Greenwood Resort on the east side of the island.  Favored by divers, and those who just want to hang out, it was nice to visit.  After a few hours it was time to head back and enjoy our last day before flying home from the Bahamas.

Greenwood Resort - Cat Island
Greenwood Resort – Cat Island
Various corals on reef at Cat island
Various corals on reef at Cat island

Bahamas to San Diego

We left the Bahamas through the New Bight International airport (MYCB) since Hawk’s Nest is not an AOE.  It is a short flight from Hawk’s Nest and the Immigration folks at the airport were nice, as usual.

New Bight International Airport Bahamas
New Bight International Airport Bahamas
More paperwork at Night Bight airport
More paperwork at Night Bight airport

We flew back to Fort Lauderdale Executive (FXE) for US Customs and Immigration.  Once you go through the process a few times, you realize how easy it is.  If you are prepared and have everything in order it doesn’t take much time to be back in your airplane and on your way.

The weather was worsening across Florida, following a very typical storm pattern that I’ve seen many times.  We decided to weave our way and head towards California and make it as far as possible in the same day.  There were a few significant areas of precipitation and very heavy rain reported along our route.  Tampa airport was temporarily closed due to extremely heavy rain, and it was right on our path home. I first filed IFR to KPIE (St. Petersburg).  The weather was between us and KPIE, however I calculated that it might move out of the way.  We could wait there until it cleared enough to maybe get to Tampe (KTPA).  The Foreflight weather on the IPAD had slightly different information than the XM weather on our MFD. In any case we would hope that the worst would move out of our path.

Foreflight weather KFXE to KPIE
Foreflight weather KFXE to KPIE

As we approached KPIE the first series of cells were moving east, however another one behind was quickly approaching.  By watching the trend of the cell movement and calculating our flight path, we determined one option would be to zig-zag and stay between the cells.  The weather information indicated they were moving at 30-40 knots.  We had a headwind heading to the northwest, however I knew that once we change direction back to the northeast we would have a significant tailwind, which would help propel us ahead of the second storm.

DJ XM Weather - Florida
DJ XM Weather – Florida

We we were approaching the St. Petersburg/Tampa area we could see on our satellite weather feed a large number of lightning strikes.  Using our onboard Lightning Detection system (Goodrich Stormscope) which can detect more type of strikes we could see a significant number of strikes on our path. We also had an advantage in that we can fly efficiently at lower altitudes, which allowed us to visually steer away from the largest clouds and stay below some of the cells, rather than try to navigate through them.

DJ's Stormscope Lightning Detection of cloud-cloud and cloud-ground strikes
DJ’s Stormscope Lightning Detection of cloud-cloud and cloud-ground strikes

Our calculations worked perfectly, and ATC was extremely accommodating especially since I changed our routing  numerous times over a short period to time, constantly changing our heading and even destination airport.

Along the way we stopped in Granbury, TX to visit a good friend whom I worked with in Haiti.  Ric and his wife Wendy not only have worked for years as volunteer physicians in Haiti, but have also adopted 5 Haitian children.  The first was Laney, the young girl who I flew out of Port-au-Prince late one night along with Ric who had just completed the adoption.  Not wanting to leave her 4 siblings back in Haiti, Ric and Wendy spent 3 years adopting them to add to their other 3 children.

After 40 flight hours, 10 days, and 6500 miles we landed back at Montgomery Field (KMYF).  That evening my first task, after kissing my wife, was to start visualizing and planning the next trip….


Flying in Alaska!

In March 2014, I had an opportunity to visit Alaska for my aviation consulting with a friend in a Citation CJ3.  Flying up to Alaska offers some of the most stunning scenery I’ve seen.  Our departure point for the last leg to Anchorage was Hillsboro (HIO).  Flying up the coast in the Citation CJ3, rather than the slightly shorter direct course over the ocean, offered spectacular views with virtually unlimited visibility.  Having previously lived in the Northwest, I always enjoyed flying by the mountains, especially Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Hood, today was no exception.  I remember flying low over Mt. St. Helens a year after it exploded, with the largest landslide ever recorded.  Today it looked peaceful, covered in snow.

Mt. Rainier Mt. Hood Mt. St. Helens
Mt. Rainier Mt. Hood Mt. St. Helens

As  we climbed to 43,000 feet MSL (FL430) the dark blue sky above the horizon was breathtaking, and we could  see the curvature of our planet.

Along the British Columbia Coast at FL430
Along the British Columbia Coast at FL430

The number of glaciers were too many to count as we flew up the coast.  One of the largest along the route is the Malaspina Glacier which is fed by the Seward Glacier north of Yakutat Alaska.


As we got closer to Malaspina, we could see the detail of the leading edge of the glacier as it moves into the ocean, including the ice field in the water.

Closeup of Malaspina Glacier

Flying into Anchorage, we encountered low clouds for the first time on our flight.  The clouds are frequently caused in this area when the cold moisture from the sound move over the warmer land and condenses.  In this photo, in the distance you can see the Sleeping Lady – Mt. Susitna.

Flying into Anchorage - Sleeping Lady (Mt. Susitna) in the background
Flying into Anchorage – Sleeping Lady (Mt. Susitna) in the background

Skiing in Alaska

With all of mountains in Alaska, I was hoping for some good skiing.  The only ski area near Anchorage is Alyeska, a relatively small ski resort.  The runs, except at the top which was closed, are narrow and were very icy (the marketing term is ‘firm’) from the recent weather.  After a few runs, and great views, I decided I’d rather be flying!

View from Alyeska Ski Area
View from Alyeska Ski Area

Flying IN Alaska

After flying up to Alaska in the CJ3, I wanted to explore the area at a lower level, and speed.  Despite having an extremely large number of aircraft based in Alaska, there are very few opportunities for aircraft rental. In Anchorage, I found Land and Sea Aviation located at Merrill Field (PAMR).  Anchorage has a number of airports in addition to the primary airport (PANC), including the largest seaplane base in the world – Lake Hood which is adjacent to PANC,  and military fields, all within close proximity.  This arrangement requires special consideration when flying, and a specific FAR – 93.  The Airport Facility Directory (AFD) contains specific instructions for departure and arrival routes for each airport.  If you want to view the airport weather in real time, the FAA also has a great network of airport cameras throughout Alaska that provide a useful way to check local conditions – FAA Airport Cams

One of the best ways to explore Alaska by air is by taildragger, especially since I miss flying on snow runways and gravel strips.  Land and Sea had a plane to fill my need, a Citabria! For my checkout, I met Tracy Kraun, a great CFI with loads of taildragger experience.  At a cruise speed of 90 KIAS – and fun to fly, it fit my needs!

Citabria N5169X Uncovered and Ready to Fly!
Citabria N5169X Uncovered and Ready to Fly!

Equipped with the most advanced avionics 🙂 we were ready to taxi for departure.

Citabria Glass Panel
Citabria Glass Panel – at least glass lenses on the instruments!

The views down low are as spectacular as from 43,000 feet.  Departing to the northeast we could see the White Mountains on our right, on our flight up to Willow AK (PAUO) airport to practice landings.

White Mountains in the Background
White Mountains in the Background

I picked Willow airport, since it is next to Willow Lake, the actual start of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race that was starting the next day.  The airport traffic area was filled with volunteers – Iditarod Air Force – who help shuttle supplies and people for the race.  It was great doing wheel and three-point landings with so many taildragger airplanes, and helicopters, in the pattern.  Landing on the snow has always been one of my favorites, it keeps you on your toes (and heels since the Citabria has heel brakes).  It was fun getting familiar with the Citabria with such breathtaking scenery.

Downwind Willow AK Airport
Downwind Willow AK (PAUO) Airport

After a number of patterns, it was off to Goose Bay (Z40) to practice on a gravel strip.  I’m closing in on having flown into nearly 700 airports, and what better way to add an airport than Good Bay.  On the way we were able to view the reflection of the White Mountains in the water.

Mountain Reflection - Goose Bay AK
Mountain Reflection – Goose Bay AK

Goose Bay is adjacent to the Sound, with a small cliff on one end.  The water in the Sound is very cold, hence the ice seen in the foreground.  Flying over such cold water was a great incentive to remember carburetor heat, and pay attention to the landing!  The gravel is in very good condition, and the State does a great job of clearing the runway since it is used so often. Our next stop was back to Merrill Field.

Final Approach Goose Bay AK - Z40
Slipping on Final Approach Goose Bay AK – Z40

What a great way to experience Alaska!

Anchorage Area - showing flight path. Red dots indicate weather reporting stations
Anchorage Area – showing flight path. Red dots indicate weather reporting stations

Iditarod Great Sled Race

We were planning of flying up to Willow to watch the start of the race on Sunday March 2nd.  During pre-flight the tail wheel was flat – so 2 hours later, in a car, I was at Willow Lake.  If you haven’t seen the Iditarod, it is well worth the visit alone.   At the start there were many countries represented, with mushers of both genders, all starting on an amazing race of 1049 miles with incredible teams of dogs!

Iditarod 1049 Miles - Starts Here
Iditarod 1049 Miles – Starts Here

The start is a party of its own.  People bring ice-tents, BBQs, and  you name it to watch the start of the race.  There is Caribou sausage and other fare you only see in the north! The temperature was a balmy 30 F, which is too warm for the dogs who perform better in 0 F and below. Each team uses a group of musher handlers just to keep the dogs organized and happy.  The dogs are so excited, they were jumping and ready to start this grueling race.

Musher Handler with Lead Dogs
Musher Handler with Lead Dogs
Awaiting Their Turn
Awaiting Their Turn

When released by the starter – the dogs literally leap ahed on their way to run the equivalent of run 40 Marathons!

Dogs Starting Their Run for 1049 miles
Dogs Starting Their Run for 1049 miles


I flew to Fairbanks (PAFA) to conduct some work for an airborne climate monitoring research project on behalf of  SDSU.  While at the Fairbanks airport, I found a location where I could rent a Cessna 172 for a quick low level flight around the area, before heading back to Anchorage.  As with Anchorage, there are many aircraft at Fairbanks but few places to rent.  I found a small, and well maintained, fleet at Warbelows Flight School which is owned by Andrew Warbelow.  I asked Shane Jones, one of their CFIs, to join me on a checkout flight in one of their C172s. They know how to keep the planes flying, right down to -30 F.  Each one of their tie down spots has an electric outlet for engine and cockpit heaters, as well as access to a large pre-heater.  It was great starting a warm airplane, with a comfortable interior!

Getting Ready to Fly with Shane PAFA
Getting Ready to Fly with Shane  at PAFA

The area around Fairbanks has some interesting features.  The airport itself keeps one runway snow-covered for use by ski-planes!  Just outside of town is the Fort Know gold pit mine.  The dust from the mine even has a gold hue!

Downwind Fairbanks AK PAFA
Downwind Fairbanks AK PAFA
Fort Knox Gold Mine Fairbanks
Fort Knox Gold Mine Fairbanks

On the way back to Anchorage, the view of Denali was truly spectacular.  With a peak height of over 20,000 feet the mountain looms over the geography with glaciers emanating in various directions.

Denali National Park

If you get the change, I highly recommend exploring Alaska.  Whether you fly your own airplane to our northernmost State, charter a flight, or rent a plane to fly in Alaska, you will be rewarded with an amazing experience.

The flight back to San Diego was enjoyable, watching the sun set over the Pacific. Over northern California we encountered a spectacular light show.  I was flying the CJ3 at FL450 and we could see numerous lightning strikes – below us!  The high altitude capabilities of the CJ3 allowed us to safely fly above the storms, avoiding changing our flight path.

CJ3 Lightning - Flight back from Alaska at FL450. The strikes were from the storm below.
CJ3 Lightning – Flight back from Alaska at FL450. The strikes were from the storm below.

Flying to Mexico – San Diego to Puerto Vallarta


We are fortunate to have a great country just to the south to visit, Mexico. I’m writing this on our trip from MYF (Montgomery Field, San Diego) to Puerto Vallarta (MMPR), a 4.5 hour flight  with friends in their Piper Meridian with one stop in Ciudad Obregon (MMCN) for fuel and our AOE (Airport of Entry). I’ve flown to Mexico in various aircraft from single pistons, to turbines.  All very enjoyable trips.

We have always found welcoming people, reasonable fuel prices similar to the US, and nice places to visit. Whether you are flying VCR or IFR in a C172 or a Cessna Citation you will have an amazing experience.

Preparing to go

Prep your plane

It is a good time to do a very thorough check before your flight. While maintenance it’s available at some airports in Mexico , it is not as easy to obtain service as the U.S. I always take extra oil when flying outside the U.S.  When flying turbine aircraft that require anti-icing additives such as Prist,  take enough cans for your flights since most fuel providers do not have it available and if they do, it can be expensive.  Don’t risk fuel icing in flight, with the high humidity it isn’t unusual to land and have extensive condensation on the wings after high altitude flying.

A 406 MHz ELT is now required in Mexico for all aircraft.  If you don’t have one, it is a no-brainer even for flying within the U.S. A 406 MHz ELT may make the difference between being found or not, since 121.5MHz is not being actively monitored by search organizations and the new ELTs  can provide an extremely accurate position.

We always fly with extra water and food, and carrying a survival kit which includes a portable NAV/COM can be a great idea if flying over sparsely populated areas.


Insurance. Some, but not all, domestic policies provide the required Mexican liability coverage so check with your broker. If they do, obtain a Spanish translation of the coverage. When in doubt  a supplemental plan is available through many brokers as well as Baja Bush Pilots ($250-275/yr).

Make copies of your required insurance coverage, registration, airworthiness, and for good measure you license and medical. The Mexican officials generally don’t keep the copies any more, however it can make it easier to have them readily available. I keep several copies in the airplane, including proof of our 406 ELT registration and FCC Radio Station License, even though no one has ever asked to see the later in our 34 years of international flying!

Mexico requires the purchase of a single-use or multi-entry aircraft permit. The price ($1699 Pesos (2019)),  is the same for either version, so always opt for the multi-entry version. Pre-fill a worksheet with your information  (make/model, owner name and address, pilot (certificate type/number, address) ) before you go and simply hand it to the Commandante at your first Mexican AOE.

While most airports will accept credit cards (M/C and Visa), sometimes the credit machines do not work.  I always take enough Pesos to pay all of my initial charges, including fuel in case I run into issues. I generally get Pesos through my local bank, however you should check. I was surprised recently to find out that every BofA branch in San Diego was  unable to provide Pesos since the exchange staff at each branch were on vacation!

Effective 2010, they will not accept U.S. currency for payment, though you may find exceptions. If  you can’t pay by credit card, and you don’t have Pesos, it may require you go into town to obtain the necessary cash.  It is also advisable to call your credit card company and let them know you will be traveling to Mexico to avoid disallowed charges.

Flight plans

You can file your international flightplan through the FSS, Fltplan.com, Foreflight, DUAT/DUATS, or a host of other providers. In Mexico in addition to using  V(ictor) and J(et) airways, they use their their own nomenclature for U(pper) routes e.g. UJ, UT. If filing through Fltplan.com, Foreflight, and others,  you will see recent and recommended routes which will include the Mexican Airway nomenclature, even if you are flying VFR it is a very handy reference.

You can write ‘ADCUS’ (advise customs) in remarks, however it appears to be archaic, and I never rely on it as a way to advise customs.

U.S. Customs

Establish an APIS account , if you don’t already have one.  Our government, and now others, require approval of your crew and passengers before leaving the country, and returning. You will need to file a flight manifest at least one hour before you leave the U.S. as well as  a return manifest at least one hour before you re-enter the US.  Mexico has started the implementation of their own version, and you must file before entering their country.

After your first U.S. APIS filing, you will find it much easier on subsequent trips. You can enter your manifest through the APIS site or use one of the commercial sites, such as Fltplan.com, Baja Bush Pilots,  or flashpass.net.  The U.S. APIS site (which is free) allows you to store crew information for future flights, but not passengers.  All except the U.S. APIS site will also simultaneously file the required Mexican APIS report.  If you fly frequently, especially with the same folks, the other providers allow you to store all of the information and make the process extremely easy, for a small fee.

I frequently file both outbound, and return APIS manifests at the same time, since you can always update them if your plans change.

The Flight

You open your IFR flight plan when you depart and are simply transferred to Mexican ATC when crossing the border. On this trip we left KMYF (Montgomery Field – San Diego) as we would on any IFR flight. MYF tower cleared us for takeoff, then handed us off to SOCAL Departure. just prior to entering Mexico, we contacted Tijuana Approach, then we’re handed off to Mexican ATC Center and cleared to FL270.

If you are flying VFR, open your flight plan with the FSS and I suggest you use flight following which is one of the easiest methods of transitioning to Mexican ATC. I always asked our ATC to help with the process, and it goes smoothly. Just make sure you contact the Mexican ATC before entering their airspace.

Flying IFR is simple and usually you are quickly cleared to you requested altitude or flight level. Typically when within 40 miles of your destination you are told radar service terminated and contact airport approach.  Approach control generally don’t have radar, so you are usually asked to report your position, both on arrival and departure. Frequently they want reports at 25 and 10 nm.  The airport approach control person may also be the tower, and ground controller. Also don’t be surprised to find ATIS if they have one) out of service.

If you are flying VFR, you typically will be on your own after the initial contact with Mexican ATC near the border.  If you are flying to a towered airport contact them at least 25 miles out. For a non-towered airport, use common frequencies to announce your intentions. In any case, don’t expect anyone to look for you if you fail to show up or close your flight plan. There are no automatic search and rescue services for overdue VFR flight plans, another good reason for an adequate survival kit.

After landing

Remember to be flexible, and patient.  Some of the processes below may be handled differently at some airports.  A smile and relaxed attitude will make the process easier!

There are handlers (typically the FBO) that can help with the paperwork, for a service charge of $300-400 for a light turbine and substantially more for jets. They smooth the process, however I enjoy doing the process myself and interacting with the airport personnel, which is relatively easy.  If you have two pilots on board, they can both be listed as crew which has the advantage of lower  visa fees, in some cases.

There are five entities that you interact with upon an international arrival:

  • Customs
  • Immigration
  • SENEAM (Mexican ATC)
  • Commandante (Commandancia de Aeropuerto)
  • Airport operations cashier
  • Fuel
  • Military

On domestic flights omit the first two.

After opening the cabin door on your international arrival, you are greeted by the armed military soldiers who register each landing. After showing them  your pilot license, you will write your name, aircraft information, departure airport, and souls on board on his clipboard. The soldiers typically don’t speak English, however the process is simple and they are very cordial.

Customs may meet you at the plane with a K-9 member of their force to check for contraband. The dog will briefly sniff inside your plane and maybe your luggage. On this trip the customs officers inspected our luggage at the airplane, however passengers on an adjacent aircraft had to take their luggage into the terminal. In either case it is an efficient process.

K9 Officer Guarding Our Passengers at MMCN
K9 Officer Guarding Our Passengers at MMCN – with her ball!

Process Steps

Visit SENEAM and close your flight plan. You will complete a short Mexican flight arrival form (Cierre De Plan De Vuelo). At the same time you can file the flight plan (Plan de Vuelo) for your next leg, if applicable. If you have two pilots on board, provide their certificate information on the forms since crew do not pay visa fees if staying for less than 8 days.  You then take these forms to obtain stamps from:

  • Immigration
  • Customs
  • Commandante
  • Airport Operations Cashier

 Immigration. A simple process, show the officials your passports and fill out the immigration forms for crew and passengers. A recent change is you pay for your visa upon arrival – 306 pesos ($24 USD) per person, except of course crew if your visit is less than one week. Upon departing Mexico you will pay a small fee for each person ($61 pesos), again the same exception applies to crew.

Customs.  Since you probably cleared customs earlier,  they will stamp your flight plan forms.

Visit the Commandante.  The Commandante will need to see your pilot license, medical,  insurance, and entry permit before stamping your forms.  If this is your first visit to Mexico in the calendar year you will need to obtain a single use or multi-entry permit ($1383 Pesos – just increased in 2014). They are both the same price, so I always opt for the multi-entry version.

Cashier. You will pay a landing fee (also called wing tax) based upon the size of your aircraft.  We paid (162 Pesos – $12.62 USD) for our Meridian on our last visit.  In addition you will pay ATC fees and an hourly charge for parking, with the first hour included in your landing fee. The ASA (Aeropeurtos y Servicios Auxiliare) cashier will collect the fees, including fuel if you purchased any, then place their stamps on your forms.

Fueling. I suggest you fuel after landing rather than before departure to avoid any delays before your next flight. Mexico is no longer the lowest price in North America. Expect to pay 100LL prices similar to home, however Jet-A1 is somewhat less expensive. I use contract fuel services when flying turbines in Mexico which provides the best price and avoids the credit card surcharge of 4%. I always carry enough Pesos to pay at least a load of fuel, in case the credit card machines are inoperative, especially since they will not always accepts foreign currency.

You return your stamped flight plans to SENEAM and either start your visit or hop in your airplane for your next flight.

Puerto Vallarta 

The flight from Ciudad de Obregon to Puerto Vallarta was beautiful. 25 nm out from PV we were cleared for the VOR DME 2 RW22, which is an interesting DME arc with multiple transitions.

Puerto Vallarta VOR DME Approach
Puerto Vallarta VOR DME Approach


G500 - MMPR VOR DME Approach
G500 – MMPR VOR DME Approach

Upon landing we parked in the GA transient area, closed our flight plan, and immediately refueled the Meridian. It is an easy walk to the main terminal to pick up a rental car.  Driving in Mexico can be a bit hectic, however it was a blast navigating some of the narrow streets.

Puerto Vallarta is one of our favorite large Mexican cities. Great beaches, reasonable hotels, good food and beautiful scenery.  There are more beaches than you could explore if you stayed a month, from good surfing spots to idyllic calm waters along the bay. To the north approximately 30 km, Sayulita is a quaint beach town with warm water and good surfing. As with many small beach towns, the parking is scarce on the narrow streets so we recommend you park a few blocks away and walk. We rent a table and umbrella from one of the vendors and then enjoy the swimming and fresh food and cold coconuts!

Westin View Puerto Vallarta
Westin Resort View Puerto Vallarta

To the north approximately 30 km, Sayulita is a quaint beach town with warm water and good surfing (some times!). As with many small beach towns, the parking is scarce on the narrow streets so we recommend you park a few blocks away and walk. Some tourists decided to take a short cut!

Sometimes the Shortest Route is Not the Fastest
Sometimes the Shortest Route is Not the Fastest

We rented a table and umbrella from one of the vendors and then enjoyed the swimming and fresh food and cold coconuts!

Sayulita Mexico
Sayulita Mexico

There are also some great beaches on Punta Mita which is south of Sayulita, however you either must have a reservation at the Four Seasons or St. Regis or talk your way in, as we did by obtaining a reservation at a restaurant. They have an incredible golf course and several restaurants with good views.

The Gang at St. Regis Punta Mita
The Gang at St. Regis Punta Mita

Closer to PV are dozens of beaches, ranging from good surf locations to glass smooth water in Bucerias. One great beachside restaurant is Mare y Sol, in the center of the village.

A visit to Old Town PV is definitely worth the time.  Located 20 minutes south of the airport, they have a lovely Malecon along the water, with several night clubs, many restaurants, and a number of street artists.  Sometimes you can see tourists climbing the sculptures!

Jane Climbing the Sculpture at PV
Jane Climbing the Sculpture at PV

Returning to the US

Departing PV is easy, especially since we stopped in Obregon (MMCN) to obtain fuel, and clear outgoing immigration. SENEAM picked up our flight plan from fltplan.com and we used that information to create our intra-Mexico flight plan.

At Obregon we followed virtually the same process we did upon entering Mexico, except this time we paid the passenger exit fees at Immigration, showed our documents, re-filed for  our AOE in the US (Brown Field, San Diego – SDM) with SENEAM.  Since we were flying IFR, the transition from Mexican to US ATC was seamless.  Over Tijuana, our ATC took control of our flight, directed us in position for a visual approach, and we landed at Brown.  If you are flying VFR, ensure you contact both Mexican ATC near the border, then U.S. ATC when directed.

U.S. Customs/Immigration was expecting us since we had file our APIS prior to leaving the U.S. and I had called them by cell phone in Obregon to update our arrival time – just in case!

Citation CJ3 Type Rating

ProFlight Citation CJ3 Simulator Personal Wings

I enjoy flight training, whether as a CFI for over 35 years or as a student. I always learn from the experiences, and believe we can always improve our piloting skills.  After obtaining 5 jet ratings, I thought what the heck, time to add another one. My Aero Vodochody L-29 and L-39 (AV-L29, AV-L39) ratings are defined as Experimental Authorizations by the FAA, a term used for large vintage and experimental turbine aircraft which require special checkrides and approvals.  The EA-500S (Eclipse 500), CE-500 (Cessna Citation 500 series) and CE-510S (Cessna Mustang Single Pilot) are type ratings, required for certified large piston (> 12,500 lbs) and all turbojet aircraft.  In many countries outside of the U.S. a type rating is even required for smaller piston-powered aircraft such as the Piper Malibu series (PA-46) .

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Adding the Cessna Citation 525 series of jets to my license seemed like a great idea. The Citation 525 (CE-525) includes: Citation Jet, CJ1, CJ1+, CJ2, CJ2+, CJ3,  CJ4, and the newest 525 – the M2.  The ‘+’ indicates the CJ1 or CJ2 model incorporates FADEC – Full Authority Digital Engine Control, which is included standard in the CJ3, CJ4, and the M2.

Citation CE-525 Type Rating

A type rating can be obtained under FAA Part 61 or Part 142.  Part 61 generally involves flight training and checkride in the aircraft.  Part 142 approved programs use full motion simulators (Level C and D) which are so capable,  you can log time and take your checkride in the devices, just as if you were flying the airplane.   My goal was to obtain the Single Pilot type rating – CE-525S. In previous type ratings, I’ve obtained 4 (L29, L39, CE-500, CE-510S) under Part 61 and 1(EA-500S) utilizing a Part 142 course. For the CE-525S I chose Part 142, and researched a variety of offerings from Flight Safety and CAE Simuflite to newer entrants in the market.

One of the newest centers is Proflight, LLCt , just north of my San Diego home in Carlsbad CA. (Update 2014 – Proflight was acquired by Textron Aviation and is now part of their new division Tru Simulation + Training – Trusimulation.com )

Visiting Proflight, I was impressed by their training methods, and curriculum.  Proflight has been doing Cessna Conquest  training for many years, and their new jet program focuses on the CE-525 series with a CJ3 Sim, which was also a bonus for me. It was clearly ahead more traditional schools, using the latest Learning Management Systems (LMS) and an extremely high fidelity Level D CJ3 simulator. Officially the course is 17 days, with two Sundays off.  In actuality, you start the learning process before even setting foot in the classroom the first day.  I started studying at least 2 weeks before, using information provided by Proflight and other resources.  Proflight does an excellent job by offering an online LMS that takes the student through 16 modules, from pre-flight inspection to detailed systems in pneumatics, power plant, hydraulics and more.   Along the way you answer nearly 200 questions on quizzes to check your knowledge uptake!  The proverbial firehose of information was aimed directly at me, and while intense, it was a blast.

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For those pilots who were attending a jet course for their first type rating, the FAA would only allow the issuance of a crew rating (CE-525) if the checkride is done in the simulator.  The only way to bypass this limitation is for them to do the checkride in the actual aircraft. Since I have a few others, my checkride in the sim would be for a Single Pilot rating (CE-525S).


Every day we had at least 4 hours of presentations, either new material or review of what we had learned earlier in the LMS.  Building upon our previous completion of the LMS, Chris Clevering was our primary instructor.  Chris’ systems knowledge is encyclopedic, and practical, so it was extremely thorough and the time passed quickly.  Proflight uses a guided instruction method, utilizing high quality animations which we could then activate under normal or abnormal operations.  My review with Dave Love the second week helped to cement the knowledge in conjunction with our simulator sessions.

Situational and Systems Integration

Proflight takes extensive advantage of their non-motion Flight Training Devices (FTD) for the ground training.  Proflight utilizes a very powerful Next Gen CJ3 trainer as well as a fixed Level 6 CJ3 simulator, all of which are built by Opinicus. For the first 7 days we ‘flew’ the FTDs.  For 3-4 hours each day my training partner and I would brief, then fly scenarios that included full checklist reviews as well as all aspects of flight. The Next Generation trainer is a FTD that uses high resolution screens to represent the cockpit instrumental panel, and actual throttles and FMS (Flight Management System) keyboards.  The visuals, while not the same as the Level 6 or Level D, are outstanding.

Chuck Hosmer, a Proflight instructor, flying the Next Gen CJ3 FTD
Chuck Hosmer, a Proflight instructor, flying the Next Gen CJ3 FTD

The Level 6 FTD is a non-motion version of the Level D simulator, with a full cockpit replication.  The wrap around visuals provide a totally immersive experience.

CJ3 Level 6 Cockpit
CJ3 Level 6 FTD Cockpit

Just to keep us on our toes, every session included numerous emergencies ranging from aborted takeoffs, engine fires, hydraulic failures, explosive decompression, to icing and wind shear.  Our instructors would incorporate these events just when we thought it was time to relax!  While these were non-motion devices, you forgot that aspect when confronted with failed engines, ice induced stalls, and no-flap landings.  These were excellent experiences to prepare for the full-motion simulators. Frequently I would stay after the class for a few more hours to use the FTDs.  It was great being able to easily repeat certain aspects of training.  After one of the classes I was flying our Cirrus SR22  from Montgomery (MYF) to Los Angeles (LAX)  to pick up a friend, I used the FTD to pre-fly the route just to get familiar again with the procedures.

Motion — at last!

Proflight Level D CJ3 Sim
Proflight Level D CJ3 Sim with Fixed Level 6 Sim in back

On day 9, my instructor Tom Wood and I headed for the first official motion sim flight in the Level D CJ3 simulator.  The beauty of using the other Proflight FTDs, is that they all use the same control software so the transition was easy.   We had practiced many of the same operations before entering the Level D, so it made the transition much easier than using more traditional methods. For the next 6 days, either Tom Wood or Dave Love would serve as my instructors, subjecting me to a wide variety of scenarios with an assortment of emergencies.

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Holding in position on Runway 18R at Memphis (MEM)
Holding in position on Runway 18R at Memphis (MEM)

One of the new FAA training requirements is a stall on the auto pilot while above FL410.  The  aerodynamics at high altitude are substantially different than lower and it takes more altitude to recover. The aircraft was more sensitive to control inputs and to a secondary stallI and I was able to recover with an altitude loss of 500 feet. Each session would build on the experience of the earlier ones.  After each 3 hour sim session, we would analyze our flight then head to the classroom for a few hours of systems review.  The days were long, however it was a blast!

The Day

It was now time for the type rating oral exam and checkride, which reminded me of my graduate school thesis defense, except a lot more fun! Early at 7 a.m. on day 17, I met my Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) Russ Defrancesco for the ground portion of my test.   Russ did a great job explaining the process and putting me at ease.  As the FAA evaluator, he is not there to conduct any instruction but rather to assess my potential ability to operate as PIC of a 14,000 pound jet airplane using ATP standards. The oral exam is just not a recital of the limitations (over 120) and abnormal checklist memory items (20), but scenario-based questions that thoroughly probed my knowledge of systems and the inter relationships.

For example: If the bleed air overheat annunciator illuminates, what might be the issue, how does the bleed air system operate, and how do you respond to the issue in flight?

The bleed air is hot air that is extracted from the high-pressure compressor to operate various systems. The highest temperature air is used by engine anti-ice, then cooled some for the wing and windshield anti-ice, then cooled further for pressurization (normal and emergency), pneumatic controllers, rudder bias, and tail deice boots.  It initially leaves the engine at nearly 1000oF, then passes through heat exchanges/coolers that lower the temperature for the other systems.  It the annunciator illuminates it indicates the bleed air at one of the controllers is > 560oF. This may be caused by either a controller issue, bleed air leak, or high demand.  Using the Emergency/Abnormal Checklist, tells the pilot to reduce the affected throttle, if practical.

After 2 1/2 hours of similar questions and scenarios, it was time for the practical test in the CJ3 simulator. With few exceptions, the practical maneuvers would be in IFR conditions. Russ would act  as ATC during the flight, directing me to the next procedure and of course invoking all sorts of emergencies along the way!

After a low visibility taxi (1/4 sm in fog) on 18R at Memphis (MEM) I was cleared for take-off.  After moving the throttles to full takeoff thrust, the airplane accelerated through 70 KIAS, then WHAM!  I had lost an engine.  I completed the Rejected Takeoff (RTO) by retarding throttles, full braking, and speed brakes – then was electronically repositioned by Russ for another takeoff.  This one went smoothly, and I climbed to 10,000 MSL to start the air work.  After steep turns, unusual attitude recoveries, and a high altitude clean stall it was a rapid descent at 4,000 FPM to 2,500 MSL to complete the stall series. A great warm-up for what would follow.

The first landing was the easy one, an ILS 27 with a circle to 18R, all of course at minimums. Cleared for my next takeoff, I accelerated, confirmed the instruments, at 97 KIAS announced V1 (decision speed) and then WHAM!  I had lost the right engine  and had to continue the takeoff, rotating at Vr – 100 KIAS. With 2780 lbs of asymmetric thrust at takeoff it takes full rudder to keep the plane going straight. After gear up, I confirmed I was climbing at V2 – 110 KIAS, then continued the climb to a safe altitude (1500 AGL) and accelerated to V2+10 before retracting flaps. After telling ATC I had lost an engine, and following the checklist, I asked for a vector back to MEM. ATC obliged with a ILS 27, however the weather was worsening and might be below minimums shortly. With only one engine you increase the Vref  by 10 knots  for the final approach.  For our weight, the new Vref would be 113 KIAS.  After configuring the plane, the approach was perfect — except for the weather.  At minimums, I had to execute a missed approach and it was full rudder again!  Of course, the missed approach had to include a hold, with a single engine operating.  While in holding ATC notified me that perhaps my failed engine was okay, and try a re-start.  Remarkably it worked!

For two more hours, I encountered an engine fire, failed PFD, failed Auto Pilot (twice), wind shear, hydraulic failure, brake failure, gear extension failure, missed approaches, and finally we ended with  a no-flap landing. After completing some paperwork, with a fresh CE-525S type rating it hand, it felt good to have completed such a rigorous training program.  The folks at Proflight did an excellent job, not just training for the type rating, but using practical flight scenarios that will be useful when flying the Citation.  Hopefully I won’t encounter as many emergencies in the real aircraft!

Training is Never Over

As pilots we know that we should always be training, and turbine aircraft are no exception.  One of the reasons that there are fewer accidents in turbines, especially jets, is the rigorous requirements for both the initial rating and recurrent training.  In order to act as PIC of a jet after obtaining the type rating you must have had a valid proficiency check (FAR 61.58). The 61.58 check must be completed in that make and model every 12 months, unless you fly multiple jets, in which case you can alternate between 2 of them every 24 months. Even if you don’t fly turbines, you still need to manage the risk of flying.  It is important to participate in frequent training, not just to keep current under the minimum FAA requirements, but also to take scenario-based instruction and practice a variety of emergencies.  Having flown over 8500 hours, and visited 700 airports, and encountered several in-flight emergencies I know first hand that you simply can’t train for everything, however preparing for the inevitable is valuable.

Update – 2014

In 2014 True Simulation + Training, a Textron company, acquired ProFlight.  Textron which also owns Cessna and  Hawker Beechcraft expects to offer additional training opportunities through ProFlight and their simulator acquisitions, Opinicus (who makes the ProFlight sims) and Mechtronix.

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