After the last guy in office decided Cuba could be visited by Americans, a growing flock has been doing so. Europeans have been going for a long time; now Yankees can, too.
One thing no one has been doing is flying VFR to Cuba. According to John Craparo, this was the first time in at least 60 years.
Who is John Craparo? He is one of four Yankees who flew a pair of gyroplanes to Cuba, VFR, of course.
Friendship 4 to Cuba
Craparo was joined by his three gyro friends — Dayton Dabbs, Mike Baker, and Jonathan Prickett — in a pair of Magni Gyro M16 tandem two seaters. The gyroplanes were accompanied by two SportCruiser Light-Sport Aircraft, a pair of Bonanzas, and a Cirrus SR20.
For the GA aircraft the 100-mile crossing was not a major challenge. However, any water crossing where you fly out of sight of land in a single-engine airplane will earn your rapt attention.
Understandably, it was a bigger deal to cross an expanse of ocean in a pair of open cockpit gyroplanes flying less than 100 miles an hour with 19 gallons of fuel on board. Doing so into a strong headwind added a further complication.
Then, you have Cuban air traffic controllers who had never handled a VFR arrival. Besides circuitous vectoring, one of the gyros was assigned a holding pattern with fuel diminishing by the minute. See how this got interesting?
Craparo is no stranger to long distance flying in his gyroplane. He and partner Dayton Dabbs earned several FAI and NAA records for gyroplane flying.A recent expedition took them from Love Field in Dallas, to Santa Monica, to New York’s La Guardia, and back to Dallas. That continental criss-crossing in an open cockpit aircraft flying less than 100 mph convinced them the flight to Cuba was quite achievable.
Indeed, the trip from home base in Texas to the jump-off point of Marathon Key Airport (KMTH) in Florida was a much longer trip than the final leg to Cuba.
Why “Friendship 4”? Craparo explained the name is a adaptation from Friendship 7, the famous John Glenn pioneering flight into space.
“This was a people to people tour, to show Cubans that Americans are good people,” he said.
At that goal, the group seemed to succeed with big smiles, shaking of many hands, and warm embraces from Cuban people. Even government officials were receptive to their visit.
“We were assigned no state ‘handlers,’” he added.
The visit to Cuba was about both the destination and voyage. For the voyage some challenges were obvious; others less so.
Rights of Passage
Although governments have eased the permissions required, the task is still rather daunting. Craparo enlisted the aid of AirRally.com, a Canadian company that greatly eased the effort of assuring all the right steps had been taken.
The group had a tight schedule. Their special visas required they fly over on May 19 with a mandatory return on the 22. Those were the assigned travel days and weather could not be an excuse for delays.
“We flew at 85 knots, but fought a 30-knot headwind,” recalled Craparo.
The 100 nm trip, plus maneuvering for traffic, would consume more than two hours and the majority of their fuel supply. Therefore obtaining fuel in Cuba was a must.
“We wondered if 100LL fuel or any alternative was available as, unlike with the fixed wing airplanes, we lacked sufficient fuel to make the round trip.”
Craparo and the gyro team discussed the task beforehand and elected to go anyway. Yet they didn’t know about the headwind or the air traffic control situation when they made this decision.
The straight line distance was only about 100 nm, but with ATC vectoring, it was closer to 130.
“We were told we had to cross the ADIZ by 10 a.m. or turn around and go back,” he noted, adding another pressure point to the plan.
Crossing that much water is a serious matter. They prepared. Each aircraft had two GPS units, dual radios, life vests, personal locators, Spot trackers, flare guns, and even a knife to attempt fending off any sharks or other predators.
Gyroplanes are not designed to carry a lot of baggage, so after the safety gear, “we packed very light,” he said. “We had two pairs of underwear, socks, and shorts. We planned to do laundry on the island.”
Arriving Over Cuba
Other than the headwind, the crossing was uneventful, but remember, the controllers had never handled a VFR flight, so vectoring and being directed into clouds resulted.
“We had five or 10 minutes of tension with ATC, telling them we could not do IFR flight,” Craparo clarified.
Like controllers around the world, the Cubans spoke English, but the pair of gyroplanes had to work things out in the air.
Craparo’s M16 ship got on the ground first, but after several anxious minutes, there was still no word about the second gyroplane.
“They had been put in a holding pattern and were ignored for a time,” he related.
It was only minutes but, given the situation, seemed like hours, he recalled.
After pleading their fuel predicament to Cuban controllers, they were finally given clearance to land.
“When the second gyroplane shut down, 1.5 gallons — 15 to 20 minutes worth — of fuel remained,” he reported.
Craparo recorded his time from engine start in Marathon, Florida, to shutdown in Havana at 2.5 hours. To compare, with calm winds on the return to America, the flight was only 1.5 hours.
Rotax engines burn between four to six gallons per hour depending on the power setting, so two and half hours equates to 12-15 gallons used. With 19 total on board, a return flight was not possible. The second gyro, delayed longer by Cuban ATC, consumed more of its fuel supply.
Being safe on the ground is good but clearly the gyro team needed to negotiate some fuel and only JetA was offered on the airport.
After lengthy discussions — including the possibility of siphoning fuel from one or more of the GA airplanes who were not fuel challenged — a solution was found. A fuel truck was procured and the gyroplanes were fueled with what was described as 100 octane fuel at a modest price.
“All things considered that seemed a good value,” Craparo said.
Payment had to be in cash. Credit cards are not used in Cuba. Craparo and his partners were prepared, thanks to their own study and advice from AirRally.com.
“We ran the engines for a time after uploading the fuel,” John indicated, but the fuel turned out to be good and the flight home went without incident.
The experience in Cuba was excellent and interesting, according to Craparo.
Friendship 4 will no doubt replay the trip in their minds for years to come, especially the rather tense arrival.
Having broken the mold with this first VFR flight to Cuba, one imagines more will follow.