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A Wild Ride

After waiting all day at the Utila airport for the airport in Roatan to open and begin to accept arrivals we finally got the good word and were ready to launch for Roatan. Passengers had been waiting all day for this to happen. Mary and I had been at the airport since 8:30 just waiting. I announced our departure to Roatan and was immediately swarmed by passengers that had booked their flight to Roatan with someone else but were eager to go with us. In minutes I had a full airplane. As many know, we fly a twin engine Britten Norman Islander, a commercially designed and built regional commuter. The weather was no match for our bird. Flying along our direct route to Roatan we experienced 35 knot (41 mph) winds with some strong gusts thrown in for good measure. We made it to Roatan in 11 minutes. We had a tail wind going. When we arrived to Roatan we had to make a 180 degree turn to land on runway 25. That's when the real fun (for me) began. In the few minutes to make the turn those hellacious winds gave us teeth rattling turbulence. Fortunately that only lasted for seconds. We lined up with the runway and I made one of those elusive greaser landings that we pilots remember for years to come. I made a note of the conditions and the landing in my logbook. I'll be able to relive this flight in my mind for years to come. I got my passengers unloaded and was so relieved that the one passenger that had only minutes to make his international flight was able to make it. I had communicated with the tower prior to arriving about this passenger's situation and the tower operated then communicated with the American Airlines Captain who said they would make sure my passenger would not miss his flight. He didn't. Thank you American Airlines.

The flight back to Utila, again with a full load, was even more eventful. We now had a head wind which not only made for a longer flight but we had turbulence for the entire flight. I had the approach to runway 25 all dialed in. It was perfect; descending at 500 feet per minute (fpm) right at 80 knots indicated air speed. That was until we got close enough to Pumpkin Hill to feel its' affects of the air swirling around the hill. On short final I felt a wind shear at about 300 feet above ground level (agl). I lowered the nose, added power and arrested the sink rate. The winds were terrible, blowing with gusts from the North West. I planted the right main gear tire on the runway first to keep the upwind wing from rising, rode that gear down the runway for maybe 100 feet and then lowered the left main gear tire to the asphalt and we were down. What a great day of flying. I got to use 36 years of flying experience on these two flights. That is what training and experience does. And let's not forget, a really great airplane. That's the way it's done.






This is a true story told without any embellishments. 


Without question, Saturdays are the busiest day of the week for flights in The Bay Islands of Honduras.  Saturday is roll over day for the resorts so last weeks guests leave as this weeks guests arrive.  And that all takes place on Saturdays. 


Most Saturday mornings I get out of bed at my usual 5 AM.  I have my coffee, maybe eat a bagel and by 9:30 I’m dressed, showered, shaved and packed for my day shuttling passengers back and forth.  My assistant and wife, Mary, is ready to go and help prepare the airplane for the day’s flights.


The majority of my Saturday flying is between the island of Utila, where I live, and Roatan, where international flights arrive.  I leave Utila by 10:30 AM usually with a full load of passengers that most often I brought to the island the previous week.  We arrive on Roatan, the passengers disembark and I unload their luggage.  They make their way to the counter of United, Delta or American Airlines and check in for their flight homeward.  I then wait around until the international arrival flights start coming in and collect those passengers going back to Utila with me; again, usually with a full load.  Normal departure time back to Utila is 2:30 PM and 4:30 PM.


These passengers are here for vacation.  They start their vacation the moment they arrive at the Roatan airport; some vacationing harder than others, if you get my meaning.  By the time we get to the airplane with their luggage we’ve become friends.  I make it my duty to insure that my passengers are having fun.  To that end we’re kidding and joking as we load the airplane.  Since just about every one of these tourists is a diver with their heavy and bulky dive gear we limit our load to a maximum of seven passengers instead of the nine the airplane can carry.  By the time all the luggage has been stored I know how I’m going to seat everybody so that the airplane is properly balanced. 


On this one particular Saturday something happened that left me laughing so hard I was afraid I was going to wet my pants.  As I put the last of the bags on board one of my passengers approaches me and asks if he can sit up front with me and fly.  He assures me “that he has read all the books.”  This is a new one for me and while I’m digesting what he just told me his wife comes up to where we are both standing and assures me that “he really has read all the books.”  I have to be honest here and tell you, dear reader, that I had no idea how to respond to that one.  So I told him we’d let the rest of the passengers make that decision. 


I gathered everyone by the rear passenger door and before I go into my pre flight briefing I explained to the balance of the passengers that this fellow wanted to sit up front with me and fly.  I repeated what he and his wife had told me about having ‘read all the books’.  So I asked, “What do you think?  Should we let him?”  A unanimous no resounded as I shook my head and feigned sorrow that I couldn’t sit him up front and fly; the passengers have spoken. 


We load up.  I seat this passenger way in the back, the seat furthest from the controls. Just for safe keeping, not to be mean.  I go around making sure everyone has seat belts on and closing all the doors.  They all have their vacation game faces on for real now.  This is the last leg of their journey and they are ready to head off into the wild blue and get to Utila so they can get to the Deep Blue.


Utila is only a fifteen minute flight from Roatan.  On a clear day we can see Utila the moment we lift off from Roatan.  It literally takes more time to load passengers and luggage than it takes to actually fly to Utila.  Because it so hot and humid I want to get all my guests in the air ASAP so we can all enjoy some cool air.


I keep my check list in a special pocket built into the front bottom of the pilot seat so it’s easy to get to when needed and yet out of the way.  Before I start the motors I always check with ground control to make sure there won’t be a ground hold or any delay.  Once ground confirms no delays I go ahead and engage the starters.  But today I just couldn’t help myself.  I pulled out my check list from its storage pocket.  I opened my check list to the “Starting Engines” section.  I turned around to the passenger seated in the row behind me and then said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Would you please start reading from here?  I haven’t read all the books yet.”  Yes, your vacation begins when you fly with us.

Island Air, we are the operator flying the big blue twin engine Islander with the dolphin on the tail.  We make getting there as much fun as being there.





“I’m not in jail and I don’t think they’re going to arrest me.  I’ll call you when I get done with this nonsense.  I’ll be spending the night in a hotel here and will fly back to Guanaja in the morning,” I told my wife.  Could things get any worse?


Finally, after five hours of being interrogated, the dog and its handler arrive.  I feel like I’m being interrogated but the officer is smiling telling me, “No, this is not an interrogation; it’s just an informal interview.” 


It was the day of my first charter flight in Honduras; seven passengers had paid me over two thousand dollars to fly them a distance of ninety five nautical miles.  Maybe I should start at the beginning of this story.


As a result of the economic tail spin in the industry I spent so many years working in I started an on demand charter company in The Bay Islands of Honduras.  So I sold the MU-2 that I had owned and flown for the last eleven years and bought a Britten Norman Islander.  Then I moved down to the little mountainous Caribbean island of Guanaja and was ready to join the ranks of those that fly for a living.  Finally I will be a professional pilot. 


I got that first call late in the day.  It was to be a charter from San Pedro Sula to Roatan.  I would then fly empty back to Guanaja.  All in all it would be just under two hours of total flying time.  It was important that we make it back to Roatan early enough in the late afternoon to allow me to fly to Guanaja before sunset.  Guanaja has no landing lights and is only authorized for day time operations.  Not bad for my first charter I thought.  Heck this crazy idea of mine might actually work.  


I had no trouble finding my passengers when I arrived at La Mesa International airport in San Pedro Sula.  They were waiting for me at the agreed upon location and they promptly paid me in crisp US one hundred dollar bills.  We collected their luggage, passed through security and headed to the airplane. 


The moment we step out from the terminal onto the ramp one red headed burly man from the Ministerio Publico grabs me by my right arm while another equally officious but not nearly as demonstrative individual from the Policia Nacional grabs my left arm.  There was a cadre of police officers on my left and another group from the Public Ministry on my right.  They then began to discuss who would ‘interview’ me first.  Their discussion soon got louder and then pistols were drawn.  At this point I’m beginning to get seriously nervous.  I’ve been in Honduras less than a week.  This is my first charter and I’m going to end up in jail or worse, shot.  Finally, the Public Ministry wins out.  I think their guns were bigger or maybe it was just that Red shouted louder and he certainly appeared more committed to the endeavor.  There were more of them, that’s for sure.  The next five hours are spent being interviewed by Red from the Public Ministry.  The only interruption comes from my passengers wanting a return of their money and information on where to catch a bus.


After five hours of this I’m told that my airplane needs to be searched using a drug sniffing dog.  I have no problem with this.  But the dog and his handler are 45 minutes away in a town called Progresso.  So, we wait the 45 minutes until they arrive.  When they finally do arrive I tell Red, who has taken charge of the whole situation, that only the dog, his handler and myself would approach the airplane and that I would only unlock one door at a time.  He questions my concern and assures me that they have no intentions of planting any drugs in the airplane.  I agree that I never thought they would do anything like that but just to be on the safe side we’ll proceed as I had explained. 


The Islander has three passenger doors and one cargo door.  It took us maybe thirty minutes to let the dog do his sniffing routine.  Once nothing was found Red informs me that I must pay the dog handler for his time and travel expenses.  I’m told that I owe the handler the equivalent of $100 US.  Well that doesn’t sit well with me.  Let’s see I lost over two thousand dollars in revenue, would have to pay for a night in a hotel and I’m being asked to pay the dog handler.  “No way,” I tell Red.  “Not going to happen.  I didn’t call for the dog, that was your idea.  You pay him.”  We spend almost an hour arguing this point but when Red realizes I’m not backing down the handler leaves without pay, or at least without pay from me.


We’re done now and I want to get on my way to the hotel.  Only one problem, I don’t have my passport.  During my interview Red sends my passport off with one of his lackeys to be photo copied.  I’m told that my passport is in the office of the Capitan de la Policia.  And since I have to go see him before I’m allowed to leave the airport anyway I can pick it up from the Captain.  I find the Captain sitting in his office with his feet perched atop his desk.  I mean right out of an old Humphrey Bogart film.  A tiny cubicle of an office filled with metal desks, four or five police officers drinking stale coffee and enough cigarette smoke in the air to most definitely fill my lungs with every breath.  I’m a real committed non smoker and upon entering the office my eyes begin to tear and my lungs start a coughing fit loud enough to challenge the airport PA system.  By now the Captain is tired of all the foolishness, realizes that I’m just an innocent by-stander to all this and shows pity on me by handing me my passport and apologizing for the loss of my passengers.


I wasted no time departing the smoke filled tomb and head outside to find a taxi to take me to the closest hotel.  I’ve only been in San Pedro once before and only know of the one hotel I had stayed in with my daughter a year or so earlier during one of our research trips to Honduras.  Fortunately they had a room and it was close enough to the airport to make it really convenient.  My plan is to get up early and make it back to Guanaja as fast as I can.  I’ve had enough of San Pedro Sula.


The next morning I am up bright and early and make it back to the airport by 6:30 AM.  I file my flight plan, fill up with fuel and am in the air by 7:30.  It’s a one hour and 12 minute uneventful flight back to Guanaja.  I’m pleased with the boring flight.  The best flights are the boring ones.  I land at Guanaja before 9 AM and before I’m able to put the airplane in the hangar the airport police come up to me apologizing for what they already had heard took place the night before in San Pedro.  This really is a small country. 


My next charter is the following Saturday; a group from Guanaja to Roatan.  Upon landing in Roatan I’m met with the same apologies from the Roatan airport police and immigration officials.  It’s confirmed, Honduras is a very small country and everybody knows what’s going on with everybody else.  Note to self – the only way to keep a secret in this country is to tell nobody. 


Flying here is much different than flying in the US.  There are no Flight Service Stations making weather information hard to come by.  Flight plans are only filed when departing tower controlled airports, of which there are few, regardless of weather conditions.  IFR regulations seem to apply only when landing at one of those tower controlled airports, again, regardless of weather conditions.  Avgas is only available at certain airports.  It’s taken me a little time to get to understand the system and how to work in it but after two years I feel like my baptism by fire has been completed.  I’ve learned where to find internet weather sites that provide good reliable weather information and to get to know the tower operators at the airports I frequent most often.  But like everywhere else I’ve flown pilots form a close bond in little time and before long I know every pilot flying in and out of the airports I frequent and I am accepted into their fraternity; a fraternity that differs from ours in the US only by the language spoken.  And my wife says I look ‘dashing’ wearing my four stripes.


By Angelo Lagonia






What I am about to reveal is a true story.  Pilots reading this will not believe it but I promise you, this is not made up.  This occurred some months ago but I still get angry every time I think about it.  It’s taken me some time to calm down enough to write.


It was an IFR day.  Aircraft were shooting approaches to minimums one after the other.  On a few occasions they went miss and came around for another try.  The controllers at this airport are awesome.  They handle an amazing amount of traffic squeezed into a very short period of time and do it well.  They switch back and forth seamlessly between English and Spanish and never miss a beat.  I believe their job is a tough one and their performance is exemplary. 


I was flying the VOR Runway 07 approach into Roatan.  The minimums are 800 foot ceiling and 1.7 miles viz.  I was cleared for the approach which starts 10 nautical miles out at 3,000 feet.  When I broke out and called runway in sight I was right at 800 feet and not much more than the minimum 1.7 miles out.  But my view was confusing.  The sight I was seeing had me totally confused.  Not a feeling you want during the final minutes/seconds of an IFR approach.  After thirty seven years as a pilot I am fully capable of interpreting the full complement of runway lights that we find at airports with instrument approaches.  In addition, I have flown in and out of this particular airport hundreds of times, many of which were in IMC conditions.  I called the tower and asked them to explain what I was seeing.  “I see the runway lights.  The runway is in view but I also see a single stationary light in the middle of the runway about half way down the runway close to the VOR.  What am I looking at?” I asked.  After a moment, the tower didn’t answer but a pilot responded.  While on my approach I heard the tower clear a Cessna 206 to back taxi to the end of runway 25 (the opposing runway I was landing on) and hold in the “gota”.  The gota, which in Spanish translates to drop as in rain drop, is an area at the end and to the side of the runway large enough for an airliner to be parked there and be safely out of the way of any incoming aircraft.  The pilot responded by saying, “It’s me”.  I recognized the voice.  I asked if he was having any problems and he responded, “No, just waiting for you to land.”  So I called a missed approach, side stepped the runway to the right so that I wouldn’t fly directly over the parked Cessna and requested that the tower clear the runway, allow me to do a 360 to the right and come around and land.  The tower complied.  The Cessna 206 was instructed to immediately clear the runway and return to the ramp which would leave the runway clear for me to land.  You could tell that pilot was miffed.  He requested an immediate take off clearance but was again told to return to the ramp without delay, shut down the aircraft and call the tower on the phone.  I had a feeling I knew what was going to happen next.  We completed our circle and landed without further incident.


After I shut down the engines and unloaded my passengers I called the tower and asked how that had happened.  The tower accepted total blame since even with the weather they were able to see the airplane parked on the runway while I was on short final to land.  They went on to say that they issued the back taxi and hold in the gota clearance to the pilot of the Cessna 206 and expected the pilot to comply with the clearance.  They then focused their attention on my approach and landing.  I disagreed with their assessment as to who was to blame but let it go.  After my passengers were out of ear shot I approached that pilot of the Cessna 206 to have MY conversation with him.  I couldn’t believe it but he let into me as if I were the culprit that caused this problem.  I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of his lack of common sense, his judgment and how dangerous that situation could have been.  After not very long I realized that discussing this with him was like wrestling with a pig in mud.  It doesn’t take long before you to realize the pig likes the mud.  But the more I thought about what had just occurred the more I disagreed with the tower’s assessment and the angrier I got with that pilot.  Thank goodness that by now he was cleared to leave the ramp and was no longer close enough for me to get my hands around his neck.  I had heard the clearance the pilot received from the tower.  I clearly heard that pilot correctly read back his clearance.  And as a pilot for more than 37 years that meant to me that that pilot would do exactly as he was cleared to do.  So I called back to the tower and told them that the more I thought over the incident the more I disagreed with their assessment and that the fault did not lye with the tower controller.  I told the controller that I had heard the clearance given the pilot and his read back and acceptance of that clearance.  After a short very amicable debate with the tower controller he advised me that a report to the aviation administration in Tegucigalpa would be made by the tower controller and that the pilot of the 206 was also told to report his actions in writing to them as well.  I was told no further report or explanation on my part would be necessary. I know I made my point with that pilot because to this day, about a year after this took place, he still has trouble looking me in the eyes. 


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