Bahamas, Sun ‘n Fun & The Atlantis Shuttle Launch!
Written by Sue Ramsey
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Departing Peterborough March 27, 2002, we started our trip south by first having to dig our aircraft out of the hangar by removing at least a foot of new snow ! Once extricated, though much of the snow had already been cleared by our ever vigilant Airport manager, the taxi-ways and runway were not only snow covered, but slippery because of the 0 C temperature ... which made for an interesting run-up.
We had filed IFR for 10000 feet, broke out at 9700 ft and remained above solid overcast conditions all the way to somewhere over Virginia, "viewing" conditions improving through scattered to clear. Our projected Customs AOE was Winston-Salem (INT), N.C, where we were met by a balmy 10C and a punctual Customs official. Expecting a strict inspection, we were pleasantly surprised at the Inspector’s cordial and helpful attitude, requesting mainly the documentation that proved who the plane belonged to and who we were - before "Welcoming us to the US" and sending us on our way.
Though remaining IFR from Winston-Salem, conditions were mainly VMC though with increasing haze as we progressed southward, even so allowing for some great video footage (missed on previous trips because of IMC conditions) of that interesting and busy coastline all the way down to Cocoa Beach. There, we landed Merritt Island (COI) which sported a balmy 27C, a bit of a shock after the 0C and snow that we had left behind that very morning. We spent that night with our friends in Cocoa and we all left the following morning for Walker’s Cay, Bahamas. Since we could not fit the 4 of us and baggage into our Arrow, our friends drove to Ft Lauderdale for the hop-over to Walker’s with the Island’s own shuttle Airline.
We departed Merritt VFR for a 20 minute flight to Ft Pierce where we planned to pick up a life raft. Upon arrival there, we soon discovered how well Ft Pierce (FPR) is geared in every way imaginable to facilitating travel to the Bahamas for private Pilots ; in addition to an excellent restaurant, the "Airport Tiki", they provide all the usual aircraft amenities, weather, services, maps and supplies, and must be especially commended for taking the time to complete the required paperwork for you, including both entry and exit documents to and from the Bahamas.
Once again filed IFR at 7000 ft (6000ft being the IFR mea), it was about a 50 minute jaunt for us from Ft Pierce to Walker’s Cay (MYAW) over open ocean, most of which we could not see due to quite some cloud cover beneath us, until we broke out just prior to reaching Walker’s. Walker’s Cay is literally a 100 acre private Island situated at the most northerly end of the Bahamian chain, thus easily accessible from the mainland. It being the Easter weekend, both boat and Air traffic was plentiful. The accommodations were spacious and comfortable with all amenities, including 2 pools and a well equipped dive shop, scuba diving being the main reason for us to be there (I wont mention trophy fishing here!).
Since I am not a Certified Diver, I opted for the Resort Course, wasting no time by beginning my "training" that same day, using the salt water pool under the vigilant instruction of one of the Dive Masters, Barry. Though as it turned out I was the only "diver" in our group, the next day we all departed with the Dive boat, our friends opting for snorkeling from the boat whilst a rather large group of us dove to about 40ft. Much under-sea wildlife is visible around the reefs with a plentiful array of colourful fish of all sizes that include "flocks" of tiger Ray, lobster, barracuda, reef and other varieties of sharks. Of the 4 dives that I was part of, I was lucky to be able to participate in two where the Sharks (and other fish) are fed from a pre-prepared ball of frozen fish trimmings (left over from the fishermen) tied to an anchor that is dropped from the boat, during which the divers can actively interact with the Sharks and other sea life brought in by the feeding session **.
Other than diving, we snorkeled at the local beach, watched the Grey and Nurse sharks being fed on one side of the Island, were "boated" by Hilton to "Rosie’s Restaurant" on outlying Grand "also-known-as-Funny" Cay, where about 400 people live, including many of the employees of Walker’s. From there, mixed in with some engine trouble that resulted in a boat change just for the flavour, Hilton dropped us off on Seal Cay for an afternoon of swimming on this tiny Island with a beautiful beach and blow hole ... a veritable Robinson Crusoe setting just for the 4 of us. Add to this, two complimentary and informative receptions pertaining to flying the Islands of the Bahamas graciously hosted by Greg Rolle, Chief Executive, Aviation, Bahamian Tourist Office, for the some 25 pilots staying at Walker’s that Easter weekend, of which we were the only Canadians.
Our slated departure date of April 3 saw our friends return to the mainland via Ft Lauderdale in Walker’s personal Grumman Mallard, with quite the thrill of an actual sea departure. As for us, we went back the way we came, IFR to Ft Pierce, this time with a clear view of the spectacularly shallow seascape beneath us.
Arriving Ft Pierce, once again US Customs proved themselves professional and courteous, interested mainly in our documentation. We turned in our raft and departed VFR back to Merritt, arriving there well before our friends since we needed to be on the ground prior to the IFR taking effect for the Shuttle Launch scheduled for the following day, April 4th , Merritt being well inside the launch IFR. Since the Shuttle launch for the 4th was scrubbed because of a fuel leak, we decided to stay in Cocoa for a few more days and take our friends to Sun 'ns Fun, just a 20 minute flight away (3 hours by car).
It was a tough start for Sun 'ns Fun, the media reporting numerous incidents.
On the Friday before Sun 'ns Fun actually opened, two aircraft collided over Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport . Two people were hospitalized, one in critical condition and one who later died of his injuries. A televised eyewitness report indicated that the accident occurred as both aircraft were approaching to land on LAL's Rwy 27R. This accident was actually the second of the day. It occurred just a few hours after a previous accident in which an experimental aircraft reportedly suffered a "hard landing."
Saturday wasn't much better with three additional accidents reported, several aircraft being allegedly significantly damaged, but luckily injuries were listed as minimal. The 4 of us attended on the opening day, Sunday, and on the recommendation of the folks at Merritt Island, we decided not to attempt flying in to Lakeland itself but rather to land at nearby Bartow (BOW), an exceptional ex-military Airfield with a tower, lots of parking already filled with Sun 'ns Fun participants and attendees, efficient, courteous, helpful and (as we subsequently found out) most resourceful personnel. At the venue, meeting up with some of our compatriots - from Peterborough yet - who had actually flown in to Lakeland, we concluded that we had made the right decision to land at Bartow !
Reputedly the 3rd largest Air Show in the world (after Oshkosh and Paris, France), despite the evident Security at the numerous entry points, access onto the grounds was relatively easy, the main slow down on that opening day created by the impressive line ups at the ticket wickets for those (like us) who did not have a pre-purchased arm band! The weather perfect, the grounds attractive, the show itself was quite impressive with just about everything aviation represented, lots of choice in foods, even an ATM, as well as ongoing organized transportation compliments of John Deere that shuttled people to parking and camping areas, the different static displays, Air Show observation areas and commercial exhibits. However, our problems began when one attempted to leave the grounds ! Arrangements had been made with our shuttle from Bartow to meet at a pre-arranged time exactly where we had been dropped off. We were there ahead of time ... but no pick-up. We subsequently discovered that Security and the Sheriff’s office had closed off all access routes but two – and where we were was not one of them! We were literally shunted on foot from gate to gate to supposed pick-up area to be informed by Security to go back to where we had come from because no vehicles were allowed in. In short, for nigh on 2 hours, our pick-up was driving around outside the perimeter being prevented from entering the grounds by Security - and from stopping by the efficient Sheriff’s men ... and all the while, we were walking around inside the perimeter, exacerbated and tired, being shunted from place to place – and n’ere the twain could meet ! The conclusion to this episode was that Eunice, our resourceful and persistent pick-up driver from Bartow, managed to corner an unwilling walkie-talkie operator to radio around until she located our position. Telling us to "stay put", some time later, she arrived at our location where we were standing on the side of the road outside the gate, the ever vigilant Sheriff ‘s Officer at that gate allowing her only a U turn over the curb with a stop just long enough for us to jump in ! Thank you Eunice and Bartow Airfield !
The 8th April dawned looking perfect (to us) for the Shuttle launch, the IFR was in place right on schedule which meant that our aircraft was once again grounded at Merritt. So we spent the morning on the beach with many who were there to observe the activities, such as the nuclear sub patrolling off the launch site and military & sheriff’s department helicopters flying overhead.
Throughout the day, we followed the surprisingly overt, minute by minute coverage of the lead up to launch on NASA’s own TV channel, and from early on, it was proving to be a veritable "cliff hanger". Because of all of the factors that must fit into the "limited window" required for a successful launch, even "minor" incidents could impact the count-down. The winds and weather at Canaveral as well as in Spain and Arabia had to be just right in case any problems dictated an unscheduled return ... then there were the 2 small aircraft incursions into the IFR that had to be "escorted" out by F16s ... then the ship that blundered into the Booster Drop zone that had to be escorted out by the Coast Guard ... and in the very last minutes to launch, a program "glitch" that had to be corrected ... leaving us all on tenterhooks right up to the last 30 seconds of the final count down!
The full impact of a shuttle launch must be experienced "live" to truly appreciate all the factors involved ... and we had the enviable observation position of being just about 5 miles away, in the comfort of our friends’ own living room, with the ongoing launch commentary right there in the background from the TV. Though our friends have seen 8 shuttle launches from their living room window, this was a first for us ... a truly memorable experience!
Concluding these few weeks in the Sunny South, the next day we proceeded homeward IFR, spending the night in Florence (FLO), South Carolina to avoid encroaching severe weather. This passed over us during the night and we proceeded northwards the next morning, in IMC conditions for close to an hour, then SKC all the way to our next fuel stop, Johnstown (JST) PA. Then, another first for our spring returns to home base, SKC all the way back to CYPQ!
Some pertinent web sites :www.flying.bahamas.com www.pilotpub.com www.scubadiving.com www.sharks.org www.sun-n-fun.org www.nasa.gov
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