Homeward bound but still a long way to go.
Our handler, Julie, meets us at the curb at Martinique airport as promised. She walks us through security where once again they search us for weapons. Even though we were flying our own airplane we are subjected to the same screening as if we were riding the airlines. I fear that this level of security for private aircraft is headed for the U.S. Every airport that we flew out of outside the U.S. required us to send our bags through a scanner as well as walk through a metal detector. They also require you to “ask for permission” for engine start. Every aspect of aviation is controlled by the government in these foreign lands. It won’t be long before we have to get scanned for weapons just to take the kids on a sightseeing flight around Lake Waco. Maybe this is what the terrorists were hoping to achieve; take away all freedoms enjoyed by Americans. How long before this “security” is expanded to include crossing state lines and even going city to city in your own car? Impossible you say? Before 2001 how many times did you have to remove your shoes and walk through total body scanners that look through your clothes? Benjamin Franklin once said; “Those who would trade in their freedom for their protection deserve neither. Those who give up their liberty for more security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
It’s a beautiful clear day with only a few puffy clouds as we take off out of Martinique and turn the Caravan to the west. Our flight planned route will take us over Puerto Rico and, Grand Turk and on into Providenciales, Caicos Island some 782 nautical miles away. This will be the longest leg of our trip and we will be stretching the endurance of the plane to the max. Weather along the route is forecast to be generally clear with high clouds, light winds and a few thunderstorms here and there.
Within an hour or so we realize that the headwinds are for stronger than forecast – nearly double. Plus looking at the fuel gauges and the fuel receipt, we realize that we were under-fueled by at least 20 gallons on the right wing tank. “Why the heck didn’t we see this before we left Martinique?” I muse. I start doing some hard recalculations on fuel flow, fuel remaining, ground speed, track, course, weather and other variables. We determine that the headwinds add nearly 20 minutes to our flight and the under-fueling takes another 20 minutes off our range. That leaves us with just enough fuel to make Providenciales but with only a 20 minute reserve – maybe. In all my years of flying, there is one rule I have never broken; leave yourself a comfortable fuel reserve – especially in the middle of the Caribbean where airports with fuel are hard to find. Twenty minutes reserve won’t cut it; I want a minimum of 45 minutes and preferably an hour and that is only if the destination weather is good and an alternate airport is close. Although there are several alternate airports within 40-60 miles or less of Providenciales, none of them have fuel.
We go to plan B.
A quick check of the performance charts and we determine that either we climb to 20,000 feet for a lower fuel flow or we land at San Juan, Puerto Rico for fuel, which is about 15 minutes ahead of us. The problem with landing at San Juan is that US Customs requires a minimum of a 1 hour notice before you arrive in order to clear customs. Failure to notify customs an hour ahead can result in a $10,000 fine. So rather than deal with the U.S. authorities, we request a climb to 20,000 feet and put our oxygen masks on since the airplane is unpressurized. Once at 20,000 feet, we are generally in the tops of some high clouds and actually picking up ice, even in the Caribbean. We ask for, and are granted, 21,000 feet to get above the clouds and out of the ice. We set course for Providenciales Island and we are pleased to see our fuel flow is now nearly 15 gallons per hour less than it was at 14,000 feet and our ground speed is up slightly. We now have about 55 minutes reserve and the weather at our destination is clear.
After an hour Mike, who is sitting all the way in the back, asks over the intercom how much longer till we land. I reply; “two hours” and he makes a strange groaning sound. Chris and I look back and see that Mike is very pale; white as a ghost. I ask; “Mike, are you ok?” He mumbles. I ask again; “MIKE! ARE YOU OK?” He says; “I don’t feel good, I’m having very bad chest pains.” Chris says we need to get the other mask on him. Flying at 21,000 feet is ok as long as you are on oxygen. We all three have “cannula” type oxygen masks on that fit in your nose and Chris and I are fine. The other mask is a full face pilot mask that works better at altitude. I strip off my headset and oxygen mask, unbuckle my seatbelt and grab the other mask out of the drawer. I climb over flight bags and computer bags and head to the back of the airplane.
Reaching Mike, I check his mask oxygen flow and find it to be working properly and check to see if he has any kinked lines in the oxygen hose. Finding nothing wrong I quickly plug the pilot mask in to the oxygen port and check Mike’s vitals. His lips are not blue, nor are his fingernails, which would indicate that he was hypoxic or oxygen starved. He is very pale and clutching his chest. I strip off his headset and the cannula oxygen mask and fit the pilot mask to his face. He is nearly passed out and very disoriented. I have been off oxygen for a couple minutes now and beginning to feel the effects of hypoxia coming as my hands are tingling and feel clammy. Mike is clutching the mask to his face as well as his chest and clearly doesn’t understand what is happening. I ask Mike to look at me so I can see his eyes. He doesn’t respond. Chris yells at me to put a mask on before I pass out. I grab Mike’s cannula mask and plug it into the seat next to Mike and inhale strongly. I realize that I was very close to passing out myself as I feel an instant alertness. I once again check Mike’s oxygen flow and see that he is getting ample oxygen.
I again ask Mike if he is ok and to look at me but all he says is that his chest hurts and his arm is tingling, feels numb. He also says that he can’t see. Sounds like a heart attack brought on by hypoxia but how can that be? He is on the same oxygen as we are and we feel fine. Once I determine that Mike is breathing ok and his color seems like it’s starting to return I go back to the cockpit. I tell Chris “We need to land ASAP. Mike may be having a heart attack.” Chris asks where I want to go. I tell him that Punta Cana is closest at 50 nm southwest of our position so, without hesitation, Chris keys the mike button; “San Juan center, this is N961TP, we have a medical emergency onboard and we are requesting an immediate deviation to Punta Cana and a descent to 10,000 feet or lower.” San Juan complies immediately and clears us unrestricted to descend to 10,000 feet direct to Punta Cana. Chris asks me for a heading to Punta Cana to which I give him a best guess while I punch up the airport on the Garmin GPS and we turn 40 degrees left towards Punta Cana. I load the approach procedure and frequencies and set up Chris’ flight instruments for the approach into Punta Cana while Chris focuses on getting the airplane down and completing the approach and landing checklist.
The ambulance is waiting at the FBO when we taxi in. We get Mike into the ambulance and incredibly they won’t take him to the hospital until he clears customs and immigration! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! I have to dig through Mike’s computer bag to find his passport and immediately run it into the Customs agents while the Medics attend to Mike. I try to explain the situation but they speak little English and finally get the idea and stamp his passport. I tell Chris to go to the hospital with Mike and I will stay here and deal with the Dominican officials.
Two and a half hours later Chris calls me and said Mike’s EKG and blood tests are good with no signs of a heart attack, but they want to keep him overnight for observation. Mike is having none of that and checks himself out of the hospital and they head back to the airport. I want to make sure Mike is ok so we decide to spend the night since all customs facilities throughout the Bahamas will be closed anyway by the time we get there. That night we talk about the flight and Mike says he doesn’t remember anything from the time he asked how long we still had to go until he woke up in the ambulance. He didn’t even remember walking to the ambulance. I offer to fly Mike home on the airlines but he says he is fine and wants to finish the trip with us.
That’s about all the drama I needed for one day so I head off to bed. Sleep doesn’t come easy for me that night. I am worried about Mike. He has worked for me for over 14 years. I pray his problem was just the altitude and vow to force him, if necessary, to get a full medical checkup when we get back to Waco.
Saturday will be a long day as we plan to fly over 2000 miles back to Waco – nearly the same distance from Maine to England. We want to make it back before a line of thunderstorms hits the Waco area on Sunday morning. Hopefully the last two legs will be uneventful.