I’ve always loved aviation, I think it started when I was a kid. Star Wars X-wing fighters, then the space ships of Buck Rogers, and of course, Battlestar Galactica (the original). I couldn’t get enough.
As a kid I wanted to go to one of the service academies but, having left home at sixteen with marginal grades, this wasn’t an option. Instead I enlisted in the Navy to become a SEAL. I had a brief stint as a helicopter aircrew search and rescue swimmer (there was no easy path to BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training but, I finally got my orders in 1997. I wouldn’t learn to fly until 2004.
You are who you hang out with.
Fast forward, and I was a 29 year-old Chief and a course manager for the SEAL sniper program in Coronado, CA.
I went flying one weekend with my friend Glen Doherty who was a commercial pilot and a close friend. He let me take the controls on one of the take-offs, and pulling that little Cessna off the deck was one of the best aviation memories I’ve had, I was instantly hooked. Most know Glen as one of the SEAL/CIA contractors that gave his life in Benghazi, Libya as featured in the movie “13 Hours”.
Glen forever altered my life with that nudge, and I’ll never forget him for it. We’d both go on to have some crazy flying adventures throughout the years right up to his last deployment to Libya.
My friend had rubbed off on me in positive way, and I had my pilot’s license less than two months after he allowed me to take the controls. Three months later I had my instrument rating.
I couldn’t get enough.
Over the next few years I racked up about 500 hours the hard way (Cessna and Piper time). Then I ran into another aviation influencer. I met “Bones”. The next thing you know I bought a Yak 52, and was flying with a group of experienced military pilots who loved formation and BFM, mostly the latter. I was hooked.
A couple years later I had an FAA FAST formation card, and was a rookie getting varsity flight training with some of the best pilots in the world who’d taken me under their wing and into their underground “Fight Club”. The guys I was flying BFM with have won Red Bull, Reno, and flown combat missions over Vietnam, and the Middle East. I got my FAST card sign off from one of the original founding instructors of Top Gun, “Condor”, the same guy who actually asked his heart surgeon, before bi-pass surgery, for a 9 G rated heart valve.
I’d finally found another home for wayward boys after leaving the SEAL Teams in 2006.
Roll the film forward some more.
After briefly contracting in 2006, I started a business, lost a business (and my life savings), my and wife divorced me but, I always had aviation to fall back on. So I did what most military guys do who get kicked down, I picked myself up, dusted off, and reinvented myself.
I found I had a talent for writing, and started blogging. I would later go on to found my own digital media business in 2012, today this is Force12 Media. The company has allowed me to live a great life, and it has fed my addiction for aviation. But I had a big problem, I moved to San Juan, PR in 2015 and didn’t have a plane to fly.
I owned an RV6A, and was partners in a Yak 50 (I owned a Yak 52 for two years as well) and needed some wheels in Puerto Rico, something that would haul a load, and my surfboards when I was away from my home office in Manhattan. This was how I found myself in the Bermuda Triangle in May of 2016.
I was up late one night binging on airplane porn on Barnstormers and I came across this beautiful Japanese Fuji LM-2. After some research I learned that Fuji had licensed plans from Beechcraft to build a four seat version of the T-34. My Fuji was imported in the 80s under the experimental category by a USMC pilot named Jack.
I like experimental airplanes because I can work on them myself, and they are cheaper to maintain, both engine and avionics work costs much less.
I called the owner Jack, and after some haggling we agreed on a price, it was obvious he just wanted a good home for his baby.
I sent a mechanic friend down to do the annual inspection and also had him install a new Garmin radio (GTR-200).
I had another problem, I needed to get the plane to Puerto Rico, so I called my original flight instructor, John Carey. John and I have remained friends over the years, and he’s occasionally helped me out with flying errands. So I called John up, and asked him, “want to take 1960s war bird to Puerto Rico?”, “Why the hell not?”, he replied.
We’d end up having to wait a couple of months for the stars to line up with my business, family commitments and the weather but in May we finally had our window.
The Fuji was based in Jacksonville, Florida. John flew in before me on a red eye from Vegas, and later that night he and Jack snatched me up at the international airport at 2200 local. Our plan was to meet at airport the next day, and turn-over with a thorough pre-flight, and an hour in the air doing stalls, slow flight and steep turns. I had no idea what was in store for us the next day.
Preflight complete, gassed up, I followed the checklist with Jack and fired up the Fuji with a loud engine rumble only a warbird pilot knows. Then we taxied out to the north runway, I did my run up, took the active, and pushed the throttle to the firewall. The old girl put me back in my seat a little, which put a smile on my face, I rotated at 65 knots, and I started my climb out at 120. I pulled back the throttle and prop, then Jack very calmly (the way seasoned pilots do) reported over the ICS that his legs were soaked with fuel from a rear firewall fuel leak, not a good thing.
An inflight fire has to rank as one of the worst nightmares for any pilot.
I checked right and left, then banked hard to left set up for a short approach back to the field for an immediate landing.
Turns out the fuel pressure gauge line had cracked and would spew gas when pressure was applied to the system. Jack took me over the the local mechanic and he dug through a pile of hoses and popped up with exactly what we needed to replace the broken fuel line, it was a small miracle we found the right hose which was good because the idea of staying in Jacksonville in a crap shared hotel room with John was not growing on me.
Jack and I had the new hose installed in short order and we were off for round two without incident. We landed, topped off the main tanks, and I was ready to start the long trip south, southeast with John. We planned to fly south to Banyan FBO in Ft. Lauderdale where we would meet my friend John Bush for dinner at his new restaurant “Talde” in Miami Beach, then get up the next day to fly southeast across the Bahamas, and over to San Juan.
Up early the next morning I’d file to Stella Maris, Turks and Caicos, then San Juan. What I filed would be different from what we actually flew but I’ll explain that part in a bit.
I’m a rookie when it comes to flying internationally but was surprised at how easy it actually was. The hardest part was getting my U.S. Customs EAPIS electronic form to stick in the system.
Note to single engine pilots: just list your copilot as a passenger, the system doesn’t want to recognize an additional pilot with a SEL airplane. That should save you about 30 minutes of pain.
I would later learn that my biggest mistake was not filing my EAPIS all the way through to San Juan. I figured I’d file the rest when I was in Turks and Caicos. That would cause me some grief later on.
We departed Ft. Lauderdale headed for our first stop Stella Maris. Miami approach activated our flight plan and most leg was uneventful, other than a brief transponder issue that was fixed cycling the power.
I do have to admit something at this point of the flight. Deep down, there was this primal fear, I won’t speak for John but I think he felt it too. Something about flying single engine overwater, and into the dark heart of the Bermuda Triangle was just a little bit unsettling.
A few minutes over water and John and I both laughed nervously as we made small talk about the infamous missing flight of Avengers as we chugged along at about 155 knots over the Atlantic ocean. Fuck it, we were committed I thought.
The flight was relatively smooth until we were forty miles out from Stella Maris, we had a lot of towering Nimbus and light scattered showers building. We used up some gas dodging around some of the larger cells. The Fuji has about 2:45 of fuel with a comfortable reserve, our leg was 2:25, add some storm cloud dodging and it makes for an interesting flight.
30 miles out from initial I ducked around and under the last big cloud formation and the screen was sprinkled with light rain as I started a 1000 FPM descent down from cruising altitude of 7500 feet. The colors of the ocean in the Bahamas was mesmerizing, especially paired with the desolate island terrain.
The approach, and landing in Stella Maris was relatively uneventful but I couldn’t help notice the wrecked plane at the end of the runway. A small reminder to all who landed that the Triangle won’t stand for pilot complacency.
We shut her down, then checked in, and closed our flight plan. Then I had a chance to ask two guys in a Grumman about fuel at Grand Turk. The flight guide I purchased said they had fuel but I knew better, and wanted to ask someone more experienced.“Better off at Provo, better services and they have a ton of Avgas”, said the Grumman pilot. Judging from the gold watch and New York accent I’d guessed he was a former Wall Street guy.
Provo tower was, in the Turks and Caicos, was just over an hour from Stella Maris. John and I did some quick calculations and determined (with some sound advice from the Grumman pilot) that a fuel stop there, followed by a stop in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic would be the most conservative plan. One thing I’ve learned, especially over water, and where weather services are limited, is to never take an optimistic approach to headwinds and fuel planning. There’s just no place for it in this type of flying environment.
Underestimate headwinds, burn more gas than you think, and you’ll likely go down as another minor blip in the jaws of the Triangle.
Part 1 of 2.