This article has been modified since originally posted. —DJ
These days you can go to Cuba. You can even fly to the island nation. Yet 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.
They were also the first-ever gyroplanes to arrive in Havana.
John was joined by his three gyro friends — Dayton Dabbs, Mike Baker, and Jonathan Prickett — in a pair of Magni Gyro tandem two seaters, both M16 models. The gyroplanes were accompanied by two SportCruiser LSA, a pair of Bonanzas, and a Cirrus SR20.
For the faster, fixed wing 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.
It was a bigger deal yet to cross an expanse of ocean in 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?
John 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 Dallas’ Love field, to Santa Monica, to New York’s La Guardia, and back to Dallas. That continental criss-crossing in a open cockpit aircraft flying less than 100 miles an hour 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?” John explained the name is a adaptation from Friendship 7, the famous John Glenn pioneering flight into space. John Craparo said, “This was a people to people tour, to show Cubans that Americans are good people.” At that goal, the group seemed to succeed with big smiles, shaking of many hands, and warm embraces from Cuban people. Even state officials were receptive to their visit. “We were assigned no government ‘handlers’,” added Craparo.
The visit to Cuba was about both the destination and voyage. Since you’ll be able to read more and more about the island nation, this article focuses on the flying of light aircraft. Some challenges are obvious; others less so.
Rights of Passage
Although governments have eased the permissions required, the task is still rather daunting. John enlisted the aid of AirRally.com, a Canadian company that handled the effort of assuring the right steps were taken.
The group had a tight schedule. Their special visas required they fly over on May 19th with mandatory return on the 22nd. 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 John Craparo. The 100 nautical mile 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 the fixed wing airplanes, we lacked sufficient fuel to make the round trip.” John and the gyro team discussed the task beforehand and elected to go. Yet they didn’t know about the headwind or the air traffic control experience when they made this decision.
The straight line distance was only about 100 nautical miles but with ATC vectoring, it was closer to 130 nautical.
“We were told we had to cross the ADIZ by 10 AM or turn around and go back,” John 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,” explained John. “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 uncertainty with ATC after advising them we could not do IFR flight,” John clarified. Like controllers around the world, the Cubans spoke English but the pair of gyroplanes had to work things out in the air.
John’s Magni got on the ground first and successfully, but after waiting anxiously, still had no word about the other M16 gyroplane.
“They had been put in a holding pattern and were ignored for a time,” related John. It was only minutes but, given the situation, seemed like hours. 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, exclaimed John!
John 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.
These 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 their supply.
Being safe on the ground is good but clearly the gyro team needed to negotiate some fuel and only Jet A was commonly supplied 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 with help from the AirRally people. 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 it seemed a good value,” John said. Payment had to be in cash; credit cards are not used in Cuba. John and 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 the flight of seven. Friendship 4 will no doubt replay the trip in their minds for years to come, especially the rather tense arrival.
"Thanks to everyone who cheered us on," finished John.