Text And Photography By Lyn Freeman | Plane & Pilot magazine
In 1503, Columbus endured storms, famine and scurvy to finally discover the Cayman Islands. It’s much easier to visit the islands now, partly due to the help of Havana Center.
For the last 13 years, pilots and aviation enthusiasts have converged on the Cayman Islands in the British West Indies for “International Aviation Week,” an event that offers everything from educational seminars to air shows. In 1991, a group of general-aviation pilots decided to attend, but they wanted to fly themselves there. Two things made the trip unusual: the 331-nm journey was mostly over open ocean, and second, the course ran directly across another Caribbean island, Cuba.
Since that time, the trek across Cuba to the sunny Cayman Islands has become an annual event. Dubbed the “Cayman Caravan,” a hundred-plus airplanes—from two-seat homebuilts to Citations—launch out of Key West, Fla., each year and head due south for a week of tropical aviation. For many of the aircraft, the trip wouldn’t be possible without the help of the Cubans.
It comes as a surprise to many pilots, but Cuba is extremely accommodating to pilots using their airspace. They simply require that you prefile your request for an overflight and, like any other country, be cleared into the airspace. “We don’t have any problems with overflights from Cuba,” says David Frederick, deputy director of the Civil Aviation Authority in the Cayman Islands. “We help pilots arrange passage through Cuban airspace all the time.”
The Cubans allow civilian air traffic to flow through its airspace along three distinct “corridors”: the western Giron corridor, the central Maya corridor and the eastern Nuevas corridor. Havana requires pilots using those corridors to have overflight permits on file. They ask that the requests for permits be made at least 48 hours in advance, and they’re valid for an entire Zulu day.
In February 1996, the Cubans shot down two civilian Cessna Skymasters operated by Brothers to the Rescue. The aircraft were never cleared into Cuban airspace, didn’t have permits, ignored repeated attempts for radio contact by Havana ATC, and due to their mission, were considered “hostile” by the Cuban government. Even though the incident created tense relations between the United States and Havana, flight operations through the corridors remained business as usual.
After nine years of arranging overflights, officials of the Cayman Caravan have a solid working relationship with Havana ATC. “During our visit to Cuba four years ago, they told us the Caravan is a major event and the controllers actually look forward to it. They refer to it as the ‘rally,’ like a sports event,” says Caravan organizer Ross Russo. For two mornings in a row, Caravan pilots launch out of Florida for the Caymans. A few moments into the flight, they’ll hear an American controller say, “Contact Havana Center now, 133.7.”
Cuban IFR procedures are pretty straightforward. All altitudes in Cuba are referred to as flight levels—5000 feet is flight level 050—and the altimeter is always set to 29.92. Controllers are friendly and speak good English. The Cubans use a very sophisticated radar and data-processing system that certainly equals their American counterparts. Radio communications aren’t quite as crisp, however, and it’s not unusual for one aircraft to relay Cuban ATC instructions to another aircraft—or vice versa. Pilots in the Caravan will be cleared into the Giron corridor. Giron, by the way, is the Cuban name for the Bay of Pigs beach, over which the corridor used to pass. The infamous landmark is clearly visible off the left wing.
Short final for runway 8 at Owen Roberts Airport in Grand Cayman typically passes over clear, turquoise water, dotted with cruise ships and all varieties of pleasure craft. Customs in Grand Cayman is more of a “welcoming” than formal immigration.
For many, the peak of International Aviation Week is the air show. It’s the quintessential air show experience, with a heavy handful of Caribbean spice thrown in. The crowd comes early to enjoy a local fair of traditional Cayman delicacies, like a little salt fish and fresh fruit. The “grandstand” for the air show is anywhere you’d like to sit along the white sand of the famous Seven Mile Beach. Have a swim in the 85-degree water while you’re waiting for the air show to begin.
The centerpiece of this year’s show was a completely restored 1950 Grumman Albatross, which made several low passes before settling into the water and taxiing up to the beach. What followed was a well-pedigreed line of aero-batics champions who came from all over America to be part of the Cayman air show. “This is a one-of-a-kind event of which we are extremely proud,” says Thomas C. Jefferson, Minister of Tourism, Commerce, Transport and Works.
The U.S. Navy and Air Force lend the show some punch in the form of F-14s, F-16s and F-18s, plus the KC-135 support aircraft. Low-level passes with full afterburners turn a lot of heads. The afternoon “static display” gives air show visitors a chance to walk right up to the aircraft parked on the runway and chat with the pilots of some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world. Many of the pilots and flight crew donate personal time in order to make the Aviation Week air show such a huge success.
One reason that International Aviation Week continues to grow is that it offers a great venue for family members not completely consumed by aviation. Take a break from the airplanes for some scuba diving or a round of golf. Of course, you can get to get to the Cayman Islands without the help of Havana Center. Cruise ships are regular guests and Cayman Airlines offers 70-minute nonstop jet service from Miami. But if you’re a pilot, what’s the fun of that?