Trouble in Jamaica

Flying and diving usually means one set of circumstances to most divers who only fly commercial. Having access to a private airplane changes that term drastically. Being able to tell an airplane when to go and where to go can present all sorts of options otherwise not available. I have had that option many times and more times than not, an adventure came with it. I was involved for several years in a program called “Cayman Caravan” and it was a hoot every time. Back then I flew a lot with a friend who wrote for the magazine I worked for and though he was known in the dive world, his real fame was in aviation and in that field his writing made him a rock star. We had a standing deal, in the airplane he was PIC, or Pilot in Charge and I did as I was told. Set the GPS, take the yoke while he rested his eyes, whatever it was, I jumped to it. When we were on the ground in a dive destination, he carried my bags. It was a great deal…
This particular year my friend and pilot Mark was teaching a “Over water” class at the gathering spot in Key West where we departed from. The next morning all 145 airplanes took off two minutes apart on a course to Grand Cayman.  It was an awesome sight to watch  and to be a part of . In Grand Cayman the government put on an airshow and all sorts of fun stuff. I’ll write about some those adventures later but this is about leaving Cayman and not the Caravan.
The plan was that we would leave Grand Cayman and continue south. We would head to Turks & Caicos for me to deal with a few things. It charted out that Montego Bay, Jamaica was the best spot to land and refuel, then on to Provo.   If only it had been that easy! We took off at Owen Roberts the Grand Cayman Airport ,  got on our flight plan and started to kick back. Beautiful day, good weather, smooth air and not much bouncing around. The airplane on this trip was a twin engine Comanche made by Piper Aircraft. It had a  small cockpit and couldn’t carry much more weight than two medium size guys, a  couple of small suitcases and a dive bag.  It was perfect. So we’re telling jokes and laughing about how great it was. Time went by quickly and soon we were descending to approach Montego Bay International.
Airplanes from the states have what’s called an “N” number on the tail. With that number you can look up who’s who in connection to that airplane, so when we landed, the guys in the tower knew Mark was listed as PIC and knew exactly who he was. After we got the plane parked we were asked to come up to the top of the tower to meet the controllers. It was great to watch the admiration these guys had for Mark. Rock Star status certainly applied here. After the accolades we headed down to get fuel… not that easy as it turned out.
We had a small amount of US currency, and quite a few Cayman dollars. We went to pay only to find out that due to the fact fuel was government subsidized, they only took Jamaican dollars. Cool, give them a Visa card and we had a few of those. Nope, no credit cards. “What do we do ?” was the question we radioed up to the tower. Mark’s fans were all over it. They assigned what in aviation is called a handler who takes care of such issues for planes coming through.
When we saw her walk out to the parking area where our planes were parked we first thought that leaving was not so important anymore. She was truly a Jamaican beauty. She explained that she would arrange for us to leave the airport without all the customs and immigration issues and we could go straight to the street and into a cab she had arranged. The cab would wait for us and  take us downtown to an ATM that we could use our several Visa cards to get the $900 US that we needed.
The driver would then bring us back; we fuel and get on our way. Cool! Worked perfect as we got past all the government issues and the cab driver picked us out and loaded us up. Off to downtown Montego Bay, a place I had never been.

I wasn’t ready for what we found in downtown. It was Rasta Heaven and I think I even saw a T shirt that said, “Buy Ganja here!” The ATM was across the street about a block from where the cab had to park. So here are two white guys, obviously from the states, headed down the block. We were like a neon sign and I could have bought any amount of weed in half a block. We made it to the ATM, which was right outside in the open and proceeded to access cash in Jamaican dollars. Exchange rate was 39 to 1. Okay to do the math that’s 900 X 39. In twenty dollar bills, that’s still a lot of bills. We stood at that ATM with cash flowing out like an endless stream. We were stuffing it into any pocket we had as fast as we could grab it out of the machine but by the time we got half way through, we had been spotted. When we left to go to the cab, we had a whole crowd of ganja merchants that thought they had found the big buy. Awash in a sea of ganja selling dreadlocks would have been a dream in the sixties but right now it was a pain in the tail and a bit scary. Back at the airport I headed in to find our handler and wondered where Mark was. I retraced my steps to find him arguing with the cab driver. When asked what the problem was Mark said the guy wanted an extra $22 and he wasn’t going to pay it. When I explained to Mark that was in Jamaican dollars and we are not talking about even one US Dollar, he was a bit embarrassed.
We got escorted back through to the tarmac where the plane was parked and fueling began. According to our flight plan we still had plenty of time to make Provo in daylight. We went up to the tower to turn in our flight plan in person and all the guys were sad to see us go. We had made their day.
On the field the plane warmed and we did what is called a “Run Up” to make sure all the gauges are alive and all look good. With no problems we requested permission to take off. Beginning our roll down the air strip I was already concentrating on the flight plan for the rest of the flight. When I looked up I saw a concerned look on Mark’s face. As we climbed and I studied the panel and I saw the concern, we had lost all oil pressure in the right engine. The meter was pegged at zero. We looked at each other and Mark grabbed the mike, “Tower we have a concern and want to go around and come back down to check it out”. We were pointed out to sea and could not see the airport. We did a turn to do what is called a “downwind leg” to set up our turn to “final approach”. We got down wind, turned to set up our final approach and as we set up the landing we both noticed that the tower had scrambled the biggest two fire engines I have ever seen in the Caribbean and two ambulances. More emergency equipment than you would send for a plane ten times our size. As we flew just over the top of the emergency vehicles they chased us down the field. It was on one level totally comical and on the other comforting. Rock star status could be of use!
That wasn’t the end of it, but more later in another episode of  this blog.

Beer, Jamaica. Jerry Beaty

Red Stripe Beer

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