I do not know about you, but when I decided I wanted to be a pilot, it was for a precise set of reasons. Primo, I wanted to travel all over the world and get paid for it. Segundo, I did not want to be stuck in an office all day looking out the window wishing I were somewhere else. Tercio, I wanted to do something exciting and challenging while being regularly given increasing responsibilities. Well, I am proud to announce that, so far, I have had a 120% return on my investment.
After working for 1 ½ year both as F/O and Captain on a Navajo on Canada’s Wet Coast, I decided it was time to make good on my goals of flying overseas. The Caribbean sounded pretty good at the time, after months of getting soaked through while loading cargo in driving rain at 6 a.m. at Vancouver International; only to spend two hours frozen solid at 11000 feet with two inches of ice on the wings en route to an approach down to minimums somewhere in Central BC. I was in dire need of warm sunshine and sandy beaches. Don’t get me wrong, BC was by far the most valuable flying experience I have been through. To use a common expression, “Everything I learned about flying, I learned it in BC on a Navajo.”
Therefore, the Caribbean had to be my next step. Nowadays, the Internet makes finding jobs a lot easier, especially when looking far from home. So I began a search of companies that were based in Caribbean nations that accepted either the Canadian or the FAA license (in the States, license takes an “s” instead of a “c”). In addition, it had to be a place where my Canadian citizenship would be accepted for a work permit. The search turned up several companies ranging from the single aircraft operators to the major regional airlines (LIAT, Caribbean Star, Bahamas Air, etc…)
After sending out résumés, I received several offers from various operators. One of them was FLY BVI, a V.I.P. charter service based in the British Virgin Islands, 90 miles East of Puerto Rico. After considering all variables, it seemed like the best opportunity. They operate under FAA’s Part 135 IFR, which is the equivalent (save a few exceptions) to CAR’s 703. Moreover, they could get me a work permit without too much hassle. The only thing I had to work out was the transfer of my Canadian license to FAA, and write the American ATP exam (there is only one, it’s easy). I didn’t have to do the ATP check ride beforehand since I would have to get checked out down there on their aircraft and the ATP rating would work in those rides (with the FAA you have to do a ride for the ATP). In a one-day trip to Seattle, I was able to get the Private FAA license over the counter and write the ATP exam. Piece of cake…
By September 20, my girlfriend (which became my wife down there) and myself were ready to pack our bags and go beach hunting down south. By a lucky coincidence, my new company had just purchased a BN-2A Islander in Edmonton and needed someone to ferry it down to the BVI’s. What a great way to move to the Caribbean. We flew to Edmonton, took possession on the bird and got on our way South along with another pilot/mechanic and his wife. What an adventure it was; crossing the US at 9000 feet and 130 kts. It took two weeks since we were stranded in Ft-Lauderdale for several days in the middle of severe tropical storms and tornadoes. At one point, there was 14” of standing water everywhere in Ft-Lauderdale, including our hotel lobby. After the storms, we set out across the Bahamas, then out to the Dominican Republic where we did a very expensive fuel stop (if you don’t give a bribe to the Immigration officer, you might spend a night or three while they take your airplane apart looking for God knows what). Then it was on to the BVI where a reception committee of all the employees of the company greeted us.
The BVI’s. “Part II”
We started enjoying the benefits of the job on our very first day. The director/owner of FLY BVI gave us a C-172 to go off to a small coral island 20 miles away to spend the day on a pristine beach to snorkel in emerald waters with sea turtles and stingrays and to enjoy a wonderful Anegada lobster lunch at a beach bar called the “Big Bam Boo.” It was a sign of things to come in the BVI’s.
At least once a week, sometimes three days in a row, you get the “Anegada” charter and if there are no other charters to fly that day, you get to spend the day on that island. It is up to you to occupy yourself. Here are the choices: Spend the day snorkeling and enjoy a lobster lunch before taking a long nap in a hammock, or spend it fishing for bonefish or shark along the shallow flats that surround the island, or ride along with the locals that run the hotel shuttle around the island. Pretty hard day!
The islands’ motto is “Nature’s little secret.” It couldn’t be more appropriate. The big international five-star resorts that crowd most of the Caribbean have spared the BVI. There are no golf course here, no jet-skis, no parasailing, and all that gimmicky Puerto Vallarta stuff. People come here to get away from it all. The main attraction is sailboat charter, with or without crew. So most tourists land here, take a cab to the marina, and disappear on a boat for a few weeks, thus leaving the islands quite uncrowded. The locals are some of most welcoming people I have known. It is considered rude not to wave to people in the street, or not to toot your horn as you drive by other cars. Any business or casual dealings with people always start with “Hi, howzit goin’?” And best of all, tourists and expats pay the same price as anyone else for goods and services, unlike other tourist destinations.
As far as the company goes, the staff is composed of people form all over the world. In the administration and maintenance departments, there are Americans, Canadians, Tortolans, Trinidadians, also some from St-Vincent, Guyana and Dominica. The pilots are from France, Denmark, Canada, USA, and an “old” surfing ex-champion from Puerto Rico. We are quite an international crew all with one thing in common; we love the sun and the beach.
Where the flying is concerned, it is strictly VIP charters. The bulk of the operations consists of transporting people to and from the gateways of the Caribbean to Tortola, the main island of the BVI. Antigua and St-Marten are the gateways to Europe, and San Juan, PR and St-Thomas, USVI are for the USA. We also offer a day trip package to Anegada with lobster lunch as well as sightseeing tours. Customers range from families that charters a plane as opposed to buying separate seats on a commuter airline, to celebrities or Arabian princes. No matter who they are, we treat them as VIP’s. One of our regular customer is Sir Richard Branson himself, Mr. Virgin Airlines and Virgin Records. He bought a virgin island a while ago to add to his empire and we fly him regularly to and from Antigua where his Virgin B-747’s fly in. He is always a great passenger to have on board since you can count on him to come up front to sit in the co-pilot seat and chat with you.
The flying is rather easy for the most part, except for some short dirt strip with a 90 degree/25 kts crosswind wedged between a cliff on one side and the water on the other. The temperature is also a factor to consider since on a cool day it is usually around 30 Celsius. Otherwise, it is straightforward; all night flights are IFR since there is no land to use as reference. The tough part is the paperwork since all flights are international; each country/island has its own set of forms to fill and procedures to follow. Once you think you got it right, they change the forms and procedures to make your life a bit more interesting. It sometimes takes a great deal of patience and diplomacy to get through the day and keep your sanity.
The FAA regulations are quite similar to the Canadian ones. However, you must renew your IFR every six months and the PPC every year for each aircraft you are rated on. Since I flew four different aircraft (C404, BN-2A, PA-23 and C-172), I had more check rides here in a year that I have had in my whole life; and most of them were with the FAA inspector for Puerto Rico and he doesn’t give any freebies.
Work becomes pretty intense during the winter season when most visitors come the islands. From December through March, you can count on maxing out your flight time and not being able to remember your name at day’s end. All this in dark pants, shirt, and tie in 30 plus temperatures. Furthermore, you must realize that the AirCon in piston aircraft works just as poorly as the heater in a Navajo in minus 30 temps in BC. Afterwards it tapers off to sometimes 25 hours per month, which is when you really enjoy the life under the sun. In the summer, you are mostly on call, which means that you can be anywhere within 30 minutes from the airport in case an unscheduled charter comes up. Well, in the BVI’s there are some 15 beaches within a half hour of the airport. So you put your pager in a waterproof Ziploc bag and head down to the beach to jump on the surfboard, the HobieCat, the windsurf or whatever works for you. The hard part is that you can’t have a beer until 6 pm, or until the battery dies. Life’s tough…
If you have the time between two flights (all you need is 30 min.), you can change real quick and run down to the beach across the runway for a quick dip, hightail it back to the hangar for a shower, jump back into your uniform and get going on another charter. By the way I built the shower in the hangar myself for that very purpose.
As far as my girlfriend is concerned, believe it or not, she got tired of doing the beach all day everyday, so she got a job teaching at a private school on the island. It turned out to be a great experience for her. We met some of our best friends on the island through her work. We also got enlisted to house sit some magnificent houses for friends that usually leave the island for the summer (hurricane season). We decided to get married at one of those houses overlooking the water where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. Wonderful event!
Nightlife is quite exciting on the islands although it happens mostly on weekends. A great opportunity to enjoy the local rum concoction, the Painkiller, which I swore to keep the recipe a secret. Take my word for it; after only a couple, you feel no pain…
For all of you out there who have the travel bug and are ready to try new adventures, the Caribbean is full of opportunities. Ja Man!