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Rob F. Sanderson
724 Edgewater,
Portage, WIS

Tropic Flight to Cuba
by- Rob F. Sanderson

          Artie let the ship weathercock into the wind, and shoved home the throttle. The pontoons skimmed across New York’s Mill Basin between plumes of silver spray and the ninety prancing horses behind the straining propeller pulled our eager Luscombe skyward. Reaching for altitude we circled once around the basin above the spotless white hulls of moored yachts, took a last look across the east River at the Manhattan skyline, and climbed away to the south.

          Certainly life’s greatest moments include the wonderful sense of new-found freedom that intoxicates all who climb into a small cockpit with a pocket full of maps and brief case full of baggage and set out to conquer the horizon. If the season is the dead of winter and the destination sun country, the thrill is complete. As the Statue of Liberty fell away below and behind us, Artie and I felt that, whatever it was we had been doing until now, at last we were really living.

          Leveling off over Sandy Hook, Artie re-set the throttle for the cruise down the New Jersey coast. Below us passed mile after mile of lonesome beaches, cluster after cluster of deserted summer hotels. Gradually the dreary overcast sank lower and lower, and south of Atlantic City wisps of cloud whiskers began to fill in blew us. The lower deck of scattered was forming at less than five hundred feet and thickening. Artie shook his head, closed the throttle, and dropped through a hole to skim and stop on the channel behind Stone Harbor. At a nearby restaurant we phoned Philadelphia for the latest weather and warmed up on a hot bowl of local clam chowder.

          Passing frontolysis, the weatherman said. A wait of two or three hours. We sighed. The New York forecast at take-off was not too optimistic, but with a seaplane along the coast you can often slip through anyway with the assurance that a sheltered sheet of water will provide a safe airport almost anywhere you decide to cut the gun. While waiting we topped off the tank with boat gas and were now ready fro a 340-mile non-stop to Roanoke Island seaplane base.

          Three hours later we were upstairs again, over Cape Vay at 1,000 feet, then cruising down the eastern shore of Maryland, passing the sheltered harbor behind Ocean City where we had originally planned a refueling stop. Keeping a supply too far, we skittered into Manteo with twenty-five minutes reserve. Our consumption was 6.13 gph.

          Refueling at Roanoke Island is not an easy feat. When we had finished with the can carrying the conversation, well over an hour had passed. With one eye on our watch and the other on the bashful winter sun, we decided to overnight at New Born, N.C., a little over an hour away. Experience has impressed us that selecting a snug overnight harbor, beaching the ship and tying down securely, takes time. We found our harbor on the south side of the Trent River not far above the bridge, and by the time we had walked across the bridge and found lodgings, the streetlights were on.

          Fog on the water the next morning delayed our departure. While we waited for the sun to burn it off, we filled the partially used tank with boat gas (boat gas of 80 octane with not over ½ c.c.of lead per gallon) and listened to the yarns of grizzled waterfront characters until about 9 a.m. when visibility lifted and we became airborne after a long flat-water take-off, destination Georgetown, S.C. via Wilmington, N.C.

          The Standard Oil Dock at Georgetown is at the river edge in the S.E. extremity of the town. High docks and piling cause wing worry during seaplane docking, but extremely co-operative personnel assist in every possible way. In departing, since the river does not afford unlimited take-off run, we taxied down stream and took off from the bay. As our next scheduled stop we planned Jacksonville, Fla., 260 miles down the coast.

          Over the entire route the snug harbored villages and intrepid small fishing boats along the seacoast are interesting “cockpit movies” passing under the wing strut. But from Georgetown southward the particularly wild and remote nature of the country creates a special atmosphere. Huge off-shore islands, such as Poe mentioned in his famous “Gold Bug” mystery tale, are complete wilderness laced by sinuous tideway’s. Other islands have deserted fields and abandoned plantation buildings and wharves. On one island only the stone foundation outlines of the old manor house and slave quarters were visible form the air. Between Savannah and Jacksonville we passed over the largest expanses of coastal island wilderness, and we regretted there passing when we spied the smoke plumes from Jacksonville’s tall chimneys pillared against the haze to the south.

          We found two good seaplane bases in Jacksonville, on the Northwest corner of the largest bay, in the southwest part of the city. Both have convenient docks and good service, and we were soon off the water for the 340 mile haul to Miami, in good spirits because the latest forecast gave us a tailwind in place of our former cross wind. From St. Augustine we followed the coast, the white beach passing under us like a wide chalk mark fringed on one side by surf and on the other side by palms. Our weather worries were over and the cockpit ventilators open as we passed Daytona and Palm Beach, and at last, the “Gold Coast” of North Miami Beach itself.

          Miami is a mighty fine town and we enjoyed it for several days. But there is no reason why a man with an airplane should end his trip the same place a man with a car. Everyday we did some flying, usually flying out to swim on some protected beach in southern Hiscayne Bay. And every time we flew, that southern horizon above the Gulf Stream caught our imaginations and we began to think of islands to the south.

          Artie had friends living in Jamaica and before long we were plotting wanderlust liens across Cuba and south to Kingston. We soon discovered that the paper work was not merely a matter of maps. Since we could not reach Jamaica without using Cuba as a stepping-stone, we had to get into Cuba first. This proved very educational.

          At the Cuban Consulate in downtown Miami we completed two forms. One form is airplane information, the other a passenger-crew list. In a two-place ship, such as our float equipped Luscombe, everyone aboard is a crewmember. From the information supplied by the two forms, the consul composed a cablegram requesting entry permission for our ship. This was sent to the Cuban Air Minister after we paid the cost of the cable and the answer (about $7.00 in our case). Until the answer arrived, granting permission to our particular plane for a particular day, we were politely advised to cool our heels.

          Ordinarily this permission arrived by the third day following, unless an intervening Cuban holiday closed the government offices for a day. If we were not prepared to arrive on the day specified in the return cable, we would need to begin the consul-cable business all over again. While we waited for our entry permit, we assured our port health statement. This is obtainable at the U.S. Public Health Service office in the Miami post office building-promptly and free of charge.

          When our cabled entry permission arrived, the consul, for a consideration of $5.00, issued our entry papers in triplicate. With this permission to fly to Cuba, and with quantities of manifests stowed away for Havana customs, immigration, and health officials, we considered ourselves properly diplomaed by the Cuban consulate in Miami.

          Our last visit before take-off was to the U.S. Customs of the port of Miami. From their office at the end of a steamship pier just south of the County Causeway we got a clearance from the Port of Miami, dated the day we left, and showing our destination as Havana. We also had to sign a statement swearing not to sell the plane or any of its component parts while abroad, and registered our foreign-made cameras and binoculars to facilitate their re-entry on the return flight to the states. All these papers were gratis.

          We also had entry papers for Kingston, Jamaica, and Nassan, Bahamas as we planned to reach Kingston and to return via Nassau. In contrast to our Cuban operations, these papers were obtained in a few hours without expense or wiring. The British Administration makes every attempt to facilitate entry and has cut red tape to a minimum.

          At last, with everything all net - our brief ease and fuel tanks full - we picked up the telephone and filed a VFR flight plan to Havana. We were assured that if we did not close our flight plan with Havana’s Rancho Boyeros control within an hour of our scheduled ETA, the Coast Guards would be alerted for search operations. One pilot failing to close his flight plan was presented with charge of an unnecessary search in his behalf. Naturally, any pilot legitimately needing rescue is not charged for search operations.

          Our little ship picked up take-off speed slowly. The baggage compartment, as well as carrying our clothes and cameras, contained a life raft, several containers of emergency food and water, an anchor, a sea anchor, 180 feet of rope, provisions, fishing tackle, and other supplies. It was along take-off run. At last, with a final upward surge, the ship broke from the water, climbed over the palm-girted causeway, banked gently over the tall white hotels along the beach, and headed southward for a foreign island.

          Once airborne, aloft in the sunshine between the opalescent clouds and the soft blue Gulf stream, paper work was forgotten. The airmen above the Florida Keys is privileged a kaleidoscopic view of tropic-colored water. Below, the shallow seas change all colors - white, light turquoise, dark blue, and all shades of transition. Following the curved chain of keys for 150 miles to Key West, the surface highway with its long causeways looks like the string of an island necklace threading form key to key.

          At Key West (known to Cubans as “Key of Bones”) we climbed to 3000 feet, checked both mags, and set the tach on an easy 2250 for the overwater hop. Below us on the deep colored Gulf Stream I noted cloud shadows hurrying westward and ruddered on an addition left wind correction. With no radio to tide the outbound Key West beam, we dead reckoned 184 degrees on the compass with cautious precision. When finally I remembered to turn for a last look at land, it was gone.

          By and by the overwater miles closed toward our destination and at last we sighted the haze-blued wedge of Cuba’s shore above the southern sea. It was land for sure this time and not the acceptive cloud shadows that often deceive the land-hungry eves of over-water airmen. The massive dome of the “Capitolio”, world’s second largest capitol building, cleared out of the haze. Closer to us, at the entrance of the harbor, the towers of Morro Castle fortress still sentinalled the city against pirate ships sung long ago.

          As or wings banked gently over the harbor entrance, our eyes followed up the wide, tree-centered prado, the famous Champs de Klysed of Havana. At the far end of this famous boulevard we glimpsed the Presidential Palace and the large central plazas of the city’s heart, plazas trimmed along the edges by European style sidewalk cafes. Not for nothing is Havana called the “Paris of the Indies”.

          But the hinterland of the island of Cuba interested us most. Over seven hundred miles from tip to tip, and every mile sun-drenched, we wanted to see all of the island. Especially, we were anxious to visit the remote provinces where, owing to bad surface roads, few tourists penetrated.

          We circled one around the Rancho Boveros airport just southwest of the city, to let them know we had arrived; ad then dragged the harbor looking for a suitable landing place. We preferred an anchorage near the regular maritime customs house, but the best shore proved to be the southern, and passing over the Mauritania at anchor, we swooped down for a smooth landing on the sun-glistened water. Helped by dozens of hospitable waterfront workers we beached and secured the ship, then stepped ashore to phone customs. Their launch, we were told, would be over directly.

          The first launch contained the port doctor. They took our Port of Miami certificate, and gave us a receipt. Next to chuff up was the immigration launch. These inspectors took the receipt, manifests, and enough other papers in general to make an impressive bundle. Lastly came the customs. All were courteous and amiable, and most interested in “los piloltos de Los Estados Unidos y el hydro-avion”. They admired the little plane at length, wondering how a thing so small could come so far in so short a time, until irate toots form the huge ocean liner reminded all that we were delaying the final sailing papers of the Mauritania. Whereupon we all rode the launches out to the steamer while the last papers were exchanged and the ship’s anchor hoisted. We completed all our own formalities without incident, except that my cap blew into the harbor as I leaned out of the launch to photograph the departing steamer.

          Customs called a text for us and soon we were comfortably registered in a spacious-roomed hotel of quaint Spanish architecture. Hotel rates and means we found to be about the same as in our own country, although we were assured that in other parts of the island rates were about half Havana tariffs.

          As we leaned out the shuttered windows of the Hotel Lafayette and watched the tropic twilight filling the streets below until the street lights flicked on, only one anxiety shadowed our anticipation of a wonderful stay in Cuba - we had discovered our permit was good only to Havana. It did not entitle us to fly to other points in Cuba. Local pilots claimed Cuban officials to be so restrictive that an airplane of Cuban registry was detained over an hour by the local military in another part of the island on the slender pretext that written authorization to “fly” anywhere in Cuba did not include authorization to “land”.

          Early next morning we applied for our internal flight permit through the office of the Tourist Commission, and then we set out to see the attractions of Cuba’s great first city. It is a beautiful and historical old colonial city with buildings dating back to the sixteenth century. But most interesting to us is the way that Cubans live to day. We visited the central market place, watched the fishermen coming from the sea, saw the stevedores at work, and enjoyed the spontaneous nightlife for which Havana is justly famous. However, we had many other parts of the island yet to see, and on Saturday, nothing having arrived in the way of a flight permit, we became “sky happy” and eager to see other parts of the island form the air.

          Tanking up with gas, we flew westward along the coast. We crossed rough mountains, passed over the edge of the Pinar del Rio country where the world’s finest cigar tobacco is grown, and saw vast fields of tropic green crops polka dotted by the white shirts of native workers. Returning along the south coast, we skirted the shores of primitive fishing villages, then turned inland over great flat fields of unripe bananas and watched the long graceful leaves ripple in the breeze and shine in the sun.

          The shadow of our plane sped over great sugar and pineapple haciendas, across pastures of hump-backed Brahma cattle and palm trees. We longed to land and walk about in the primitive pastoral beauty. But lack of official papers deprived us of this treat. Disappointment weighed inside us despite the intriguing tropic galaxy below, and we had to be content with an air panorama of the many quaint and fascinating sights of Cuba’s picturesque interior.

          On Sunday we took another sky-view trip. This time we flew eastward above the sparkling surf and along the steepcliffed shore. At the historic old seaport of Matanzas we circled several times, then flew off to see the nearby limestone hills famous for subterranean caverns and spectacular underground formations. Flying low to the eastward we skimmed huge fields of sugar cane, passed tell-chimney sugar mills and long lines of wagons piled high with green cut cane. At length we arrived over the most fashionable bathing shores in all Cuba, Veradero Beach.

          Although the Veradero airport fronts a lagoon directly behind the beach and we ached to land for a swim and a stroll, we dared not risk the consequence of landing without official papers. With a sign of self-denial, Artie game me a “this hurts me as much as it hurts you” look, and banked the ship to the south for the return leg to Havana.

          Thus we did see quite an area of western Cuba from the air, enough to wet our appetite for more. Here and there we passed over landing strips on the Haciendas, and everywhere on the flat lands wore places where a slow landing ship could stop for a look-see. We wondered if the owners of the haciendas had as much trouble with flight permits as we were having.

          Sunday night we re-reckoned our time. A week from the start of our permit hunt in Miami, we were still in Havana. We feared the same delays trying to reenter Cuba from Jamaica, and we did not have enough gas to overfly Cuba (or we willingly would have, both ways). We faced the stark truth - Cuban red tape and paper work had licked us, and the Jamaican trip was cancelled.

          So we reluctantly winged our way out of Cuba, not to the east toward other tropic islands, but to the north to ward Miami. We thought sadly that Cuba, who spends thousands of dollars every year to attract tourists, and who has made great efforts to facilitate the entry of the tourist and his auto, had vexed us at every turn with delays, extra charges, official barriers and dilly-dalliances. And paradoxically, since many of Cuba’s roads are poor and or provinces isolated, we as visiting airmen were the best equipped to enjoy her country and give an enthusiastic report to our buddies up north.

          Undeniably, Cuba is a natural for the U.S. flier on winter vacations. The sun-bleached weather is ideal; the hinterland is speckled with old towns that look like relics out of the past centuries, and everywhere is a backdrop of tropic visits unduplicated in our own country. But to a south-bound pilot on a limited vacation, who needs full cooperation and official expediting, Artie and I recommend the British Islands of the Bahamas group, or Jamaica if you have the fuel range. For, stripped of official red tape, any of those West Indian islands can be a charming hostess for a couple of sun-starved winter airmen!


© 2003 Chronicles of Bob