Fancy some sunnier climes for the holidays? Florida Sailor reminisces.
It was the afternoon of 28 December, 1980 when my friend Jim and I decided how we would celebrate the New Year. With only four days left to us we had a choice of sailing at five knots on my sail boat to someplace near home, or flying on his private aeroplane at 130 knots with a considerably wider choice of destinations. At dawn the next day we were at the airport filing a flight plan from Saint Petersburg, Florida to the Bahama Islands via West Palm Beach.
With our flight documents filed we proceeded to the hanger, and Jim moved our plane onto the apron. Unlike the sleek aeroplanes around us with aluminium skins sitting on three wheels clustered about the front, our plane consisted of canvas stretched over a tubular metal fame with two wheels extending from the point under the wing struts and a squat wheel at the at the back under the tail and rudder. Jim explained that she was a Cessna 140 that had been built in 1947, but her airworthiness certificate was up to date. We placed our luggage in the small compartment behind the two seats and parked our cars in the hanger before shutting the giant doors.
We entered the aeroplane with Jim in the left hand seat as is proper for the ‘pilot in command’ and I settled myself in the right hand seat designated for the co-pilot, navigator or passenger. Before the single engine was started I was given a head set with a boom mike and Jim carefully explained that once the engine had been fired up there would be too much noise for normal conversation, but we could communicate via the intercom unless he moved the switch to 'broadcast' in which case any conversation on either microphone would be broadcast to the air traffic controllers. I said I understood, he nodded, flipped a few switches and the Cessna roared into life. Jim flipped the radio switch to broadcast and requested permission to taxi to the western end of the runway as the wind at that hour was out of the east. As the last two numbers of our FAA registration were 69 we were known as 'Cessna 69er'.
We flew across the state, over Lake Okeechobee, and approached the international airport at West Palm from the east. We were instructed to land on runway 27 left (the shorter one, the runways are numbered by the first two numbers of their compass heading - 27 means 270 degrees, or due west.). As we came in on our final approach the air traffic controller kept asking if we had sighted the other aircraft on final for 27 right.
The controller threatened to abort our landing if we did not sight the other aircraft. As I was sitting in the seat nearest to the other plane's approach I turned and look back through my side window (there is no rear window in a Cessna 140). Contrary to orders I pressed the key on my microphone - 'Tower, this is Cessna 69er, have aircraft in sight - please confirm this is Boeing 747'. Jim turned and looked at me as I pointed to the huge plane to our right that was landing at twice our top speed. We continued our approach and landed without any problem.
We rented a pair of inflatable life vests from the private terminal and re-fuelled for our crossing of the Gulf Stream (FAA regulations require life vests if you are more than your glide distance from land.). We then took off for Freeport, Grand Bahama island. We landed and filled out our entry forms, including a 'Trans-Air' where we declared ourselves - a private aircraft - in ballast (no cargo) - one pilot - one passenger. We then filed a new flight plan for Marsh Harbour, Abaco Island. We were cautioned that we had to land before dark, as night flying is strictly prohibited by the Bahamian authorities.
We landed at dusk and tied the plane to some cinder blocks to keep it safe. We then asked the people in the control tower to find us a room for the night. They not only found us a room in the new local hotel, but also offered to drive us there. I climbed into the passenger seat of an old VW 'micro-bus' (minivan) just like the ones I had ridden in the US and we sped down the narrow road with 10 foot tall grass growing along both sides. Just before we reached the 90 degree to turn into town, a car came around the corner from the other direction. When the driver casually veered to the wrong side of the road, I expected to be killed instantly. It was only when the other driver also veered to the left I realized that we were in a country with strong British heritage - they all drive on the left hand side of the road.
After checking into our room and cleaning up we went to find a bar / restaurant. We found a large screened room overlooking the marina. The ceiling was hung with a vast array of yacht club flags and the walls oozed atmosphere. It was one of the most romantic places I have ever been.
When we asked if we could order dinner the owner became very distraught. 'We serve our food in our new restaurant, up on the highway' I heard him mumble as he returned to the bar 'I don't know why everyone one wants to eat here when we have a new, modern restaurant built for them'.
The restaurant proved to be a clean modern building that could have been in almost any city in the world. It had almost no atmosphere at all. The food was not bad, and the next morning we flew to Nassau for New Year's Eve.
Nassau is not only the Capital city, but the centre of culture and history in the Bahamas. If you cross the bridge to Paradise Island, just to the north of the city you enter a world built for tourists populated with casinos and luxury resorts.
Our hotel was on the main island, at almost at the extreme western end of the city. As the sun began to set on the last day of the year the hotel's guests began to gather at the tables next to the pool. We were almost all strangers as the sun set - by midnight we would all become close friends.
As the sun set we all began to exchange our stories. Jim and I were the only two Americans, there was an Australian couple who had moved to western Canada, and a Canadian couple from the Toronto area. The largest part of our group was several students from West Germany, celebrating their Christmas break. They all spoke excellent English. (At this time the Berlin Wall was still standing).
Stories were shared and bawdy songs were sung. Whenever anyone else knew the words to the song they would join in, singing as loudly as possible.
It was about 9:00pm that the constable stopped by, for the first time, to tell us we were making a disturbance, and we should really try to quiet our group down. One by one we took the officer aside and assured him we would take control of the others. As soon as he left the area the party returned to full volume. This went on at about once an hour for the rest of the evening, with the same result.
At the first stroke of midnight one of the German students explained that it was their custom that we each needed to be pushed into the swimming pool to properly welcome the new year! The pushing and shoving commenced immediately, and before the New Year was a quarter of an hour old we were all very wet.
After we had changed clothes it was time to head downtown for the big parade.
The next day was spent catching up on sleep and enjoying 'island time'.
Early the following morning, 2 January, we returned to the airport to start our flight home: it was time to return to work.
We plotted our course and made a note that 15 minutes into the flight we should spot the northern end of Andros Island (the largest island in the Bahamas). When after 20 minutes in flight, no large islands were in sight, I grabbed the air chart and began looking for landmarks. At last I spotted a small airfield on an island in the Barry group and managed to also locate it on my chart by the arrangement of its landing strips. We had to make a course correction of about 15 degrees to compensate for the cross-wind we were flying through. For the rest of this leg I kept taking lines of position every time I could spot a recognizable feature that was on the chart. Our only 'electronic' navigational instrument was an
Receiver with a 60 mile range of identification. Even in the Bahamas 60 miles is a pretty small circle.
I was relieved when we picked up the faint signal from Bimini.
After we had landed it was time to clear customs for our return to the US. As we waited I listened to the planes ahead of us go through the procedure. I soon learned that the Bahamas, unlike the United States, had a two day holiday for both Christmas and New Years. We were departing on the second day of the New Year holiday! I took Jim aside and insisted he ask for a new 'Trans-Air"
and alter the manifest to show 'One plane - in ballast - two crew, pilot and navigator - no passengers'
Sure enough when we got to the front of the line the pilot in front of us handed in his 'Trans-Air' - One plane - one pilot - three passengers - that will be $225.00 dollars departure fee ($75.00 dollars for each of the passengers.
When we approached the counter the agent glanced at our new 'Tans-Air' and said 'have a nice flight home.' There was no departure fee as we were both listed as crew.
The flight home had little of note, except perhaps clearing customs back in West Palm. We landed about 15 minutes before the change of shift. When the agent pointed at the large plastic bag in our collection of luggage, asking 'What is that?' We casually told him it was only a box of cigars In their hurry to go home no one bothered to look more closely so we got to keep some very fine Cuban cigars, the possession of which was highly illegal at the time (and still is.)
When we had at last returned to our home hangar and pulled out our cars to make room for the plane, Jim presented me with the air-chart containing his marks, and my own as a souvenir of the trip.
I shall never forget those few days spent on the 'Islands in the Stream'.