Two nano-seconds after the hot Bahamian sun poured through the hotel window and slapped me in the face, my eyes opened and I saw the Homeric—the ship in which I’d come to Canada—floating in the harbour.
As it wasn’t there when I went to sleep (passed out might be more accurate, considering the amount of alcohol I’d consumed) I thought, “Oh, wonderful. Now I’m hallucinating.” But it turned out, the old Homeric no longer carried immigrants to “The new world,” it now carried tourists on Caribbean vacations.
As I staggered to my feet, I realized I’d just staggered to my feet. I was unquestionably suffering from a severe hangover—the worst I’d ever experienced (and why was I drinking again?) So it was with more than a passing interest that I asked Brandon what we’d be doing today.
Brandon said he’d decided our next destination should be … Puerto Rico.
“Very far, is it?” I asked off-handedly.
“If we fly hard, I think we should be able to get there by sundown,” said Brandon.
“Ah. So then it is far,” I responded.
Brandon grinned (enjoying the knowledge that I would unquestionably suffer for my alcoholic bravado).
Mike got our venerable Apache into the air in record time and Nassau was soon just a memory receding on the western horizon. For the next four hours, we flew over some of the most glorious scenery on the planet. The shallow seas around the Bahamian Islands paint the waters a kaleidoscopic symphony of turquoise, greens and paradise blues. The view was so spectacular, I actually tried to look at it from time to time. But most of my energies were involved in keeping the few remaining items in my stomach exactly where they should be.
It was a very long flight, and it’s hard to express how relieved I was when Brandon announced we’d be stopping for gas on South Caicos Island—just as soon as we chased the cow off the runway.
I pulled myself up from the foetal position I’d assumed for most of the flight, and discovered there was indeed a solitary cow standing in the middle of our landing strip. Brandon proceeded to do a low level run down the runway which sent the cow packing, followed by a steep, full-power pull-up that I (and particularly my stomach,) really could have done without.
After Duke crunched the poor Apache down onto the coral runway, we taxied up to an open shack, which turned out to be South Caicos International’s Terminal building. A pleasant local took care of the usual armload of customs and immigration forms, then asked how long we’d be staying. He seemed genuinely disappointed when Mike said we’d only landed for gas, and urged us to try and arrange a stopover on our way back to Canada. Once he’d filled our Apache and sold us some sandwiches, the friendly man stood by and waved in farewell as we chased the cow off the runway and prepared to take wing once again.
“Nice place,” said Brandon. “We should see if we can stop here on the way home.”
Wortsie and I agreed, but Duke didn’t hear us. He was too busy blaming the Apache for his lurching take off.
As we left the Caicos Islands, I looked at the map and noticed it was going to take the best part of another four hours to reach Puerto Rico—all of it over very deep Ocean waters. I asked if we couldn’t track south, then fly along the coast of Hispaniola. “Not a good idea,” said Brandon. “Haiti’s a dictatorship, and the Dominican Republic isn’t very friendly these days. Besides—a pilot in Nassau warned me there are Russian Migs all over the place.”
“Russian Migs?” I responded.
“From Cuba,” said Mike. “They’re still pretty upset about that missile crisis—not to mention The Bay of Pigs—so they take any opportunity to claim Americans are violating their air space.”
“But we’re Canadians,” I countered.
“And I’m sure that will make all the difference in the world …” said Brandon, “if they notice before they shoot.”
I settled down to watch the unchanging green ocean unfurl below us (if indeed, we were going anywhere).
When I woke up, it was night … again. I looked out the window and was surprised to see we were flying along the coast of a very large Island. And from the strange position of some of the lights down there—this one had mountains.
“Puerto Rico,” Brandon said. Then he pointed to a concentration of lights out the windscreen and said, “That’s San Juan on the nose.”
Our landing at San Juan turned out to be much more of an ordeal than we had expected. As this was American territory, and as we were inbound from the rough direction of Hispianola—and Cuba—we were subjected to more than the usual bureaucratic inanities. We were shunted from one office to another with our armful of forms, And as we had to walk through the bowels of the airport—unescorted—on more than one occasion, I had to wonder exactly what good they thought all of this was doing.
“As long as everyone gets the forms they’re supposed to get, they’ll stay happy,” said Mike.
So we continued on with our tour of the airport for a good hour before we were finally admitted to the U.S. Protectorate of Puerto Rico.
The next morning, we took off early and headed off to our first re-fuelling stop in the American Virgin Islands. As Duke slammed the Apache’s tortured landing gear onto Charlotte-Amelie’s solitary runway, I looked out the window … and saw Paradise!
It didn’t take long to see why they called this place “The Virgin Islands.” Most of the Island was an untouched Garden of Eden. This wasn’t lost on Brandon, and although we had to keep moving to reach our destination by nightfall, Mike made time to speak with some of the local pilots.
As we took off, he gave us the fascinating news that the nearby British Virgin Islands were in dire need of a regular commercial air service.
“Really?” I said, as I looked off our wing towards the BVI islands, glittering like jewels in this azure sea.
“Maybe we should look into that, Pre-Pubic,” said Brandon. “I think you’d really fit in there.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Well, you’re British, and they are called the British Virgin Islands …”
I glowered while the others laughed.
Particularly as the bastards were right.
But the laughter didn’t last long, because it was right about then that I saw a very troubling sight out my window.
Uh, Mike … I think we may have a problem,” I called out nervously.
“What?” he answered, with annoyance.
“Um … I think we have an oil leak,” I stammered, pointing at the right engine.
Brandon gave me a bad look, turned to look at the engine—then turned white.
“Whoa! My plane,” said Brandon as he took the controls from Duke and banked the Apache sharply back towards Charlotte Amelie.
All four of us now flipped our attention between the long black streak running down the right engine’s cowling and the oil pressure and temperature gauges, which would tell us when the engine was going to seize. I was surprised at how worried the others looked and pointed out that we really didn’t have to worry as we had two engines.
“SHUT UP,” all three responded in unison.
I didn’t say anything, as I must have missed some important point—though for the life of me, I couldn’t think what that might be.
We were only about ten miles out from Chalotte-Amelie, when Wortsie suddenly had a thought that seemed to quite distress him.
“Um, Mike …” he said.
“I’m busy,” Brandon replied—eyes glued on the slowly rising oil temperature needle.
Wortsie nodded—but after a beat, I could tell he really wanted to say something.
“It’s just that …”
”What?” snarled Brandon.
“You haven’t told Charlotte Amelie we’re coming back.”
Brandon’s eyes snapped to the radio—which he’d turned down as soon as we’d left American airspace. As he cranked up the volume, we immediately heard a very tense Air Traffic Controller pleading with the inbound aircraft to identify itself immediately.
As Brandon began to do that, I asked Wortsie why everyone seemed so upset.
“This is an American Defence Zone,” he answered. “And it’s a very bad idea to penetrate a US defence zone without telling them.”
As I tried to take this in, I heard the Controller warn Brandon to continue flying straight and level and not make any sudden moves. When I asked Wortsie why the man would say that, I discovered my seatmate had his head cranked around in a desperate attempt to look back over the tail (which was difficult as the Apache has no rear window.)
You see him?” asked Brandon.
“No,” said Wortsie.
“See who?” I asked.
“The guy behind us in a fighter—with his finger on the trigger,” Brandon snapped back.
I pulled my shoulders in, trying to present as small a target as possible while Brandon tried to convince the folks on the ground that we were returning due to an in-flight emergency.
Eventually, the Controller called back and said, “Okay, Canadian Civil Lima, Lima Victor.
You’ve been positively identified and are cleared for a straight-in approach to runway 09.”
“Positively identified,” I said to Wortsie. “How’d they do that?”
Wortsie pointed to a contrail streaking vertically upwards from behind us.
We were later told we’d had a very close call.
Watch for Episode 9 of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,” “Volcanoes in Paradise,” on Sunday, May 23rd.
About the Author
Glenn Norman is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.