Aviation links between The Florida Keys and Cuba go back a long way !
It seems that the first pilot to set the record of longest over water flying leg was Canadian Legend John McCurdy in 1911, onboard a biplane fitted with pontoons. He reached an altitude of 1,000 feet and a speed of 48 miles an hour. As he passed over each successive torpedo boat contributed by US navy for his safety, he could hear the sailors blowing their whistles. After 2 hours, he sighted the Havana El Morro Castle , black with people and hundreds of small colored sailboats. Then McCurdy’s engine died.! Living no other choice but to land on the water. The water surface was smooth and the pontoons did their job of keeping the plane afloat until the USS Pauling arrived to the rescue, 1:30 hr later just in time before the three 14-foot tiger sharks circuling below took care of McCurdy. “I didn’t even get wet feet,” McCurdy said. The plane was a dead loss.Once he reached land,without changing clothes, he jumped onboard another aircraft shipped ahead to Havana and started the airshow over the Malecon to please his admirers..
McCurdy did not succeed, but Domingo Rossilio, Cuban pilot did ! in May 17 1913, onboard a Morane-Saulnier monoplane, followed by the flight of Agustin Parla one day later on May 19, from Key West to Mariel and Havana.
Cuba was very open to GA in the Golden years of aviation with many airfields on the island and spectacular celebrations taking place every year in the streets of Havana.
May 18,2017: Marathon General Aviation FBO, Florida Keys
1949 Fairchild 24, two LSAs Sport Cruisers from Florida,
SR22 Cirrus from Michigan, Bonanza crew from Georgia and Bonanza crew from North CArolina met at the Marathon International Airport (KMTH), to prepare for the first in over 60 years VFR flight to Havana !
Two experimental aircraft GYRO MAGNI pilots from Texas registered for the Cuba air Rally!!! taking everyone by surprise making the first VFR crossing even more spectacular and unique than expected. See video
For John Craparo and Dayton Dabbs, GYRO pilots it was a unique opportunity to add another record breaking flight, after setting three world records and a national record for a two-seat open-cockpit gyroplane for flying 5,365 statute miles.
For the Sports Cruiser Teams, Oscar and Tom, Erin and Bob, Sports Cruiser Aircraft Inc. representatives from Sebastian Fla. It was a moment of pride. Sports Cruiser Aircraft president, Tom Schrade worked hand in hand with International Air Rally to make this happen besides, being the first LSAs allowed to make the VFR crossing to Cuba.
Thursday May 18: Flight preparation briefing was set for 4 PM. The GYRO teams were not familiar with eAPIS and International Flight planning. They stayed up till late at night helped by Jerry and Air Rally team to get this done, there was no way around it.
Meeting was important ! Specific information provided by the FAA special Operations and the Cuban Civil aviation was to be communicated and made clear as there was no margin for error… by 9:00 PM everyone was set and ready for the next morning.
Making this flight a reality was not a simple task. Unfortunately, at the beginning it was to be a spectacular crossing involving Cuban paramotor glider Luis Garcia accompanied by two vintage aircraft contributed by no other than Kermit Weeks and Greg Herricks ,
The event was announced at Oshkosh EAA Airventure in July of 2016, with Cuban Luis Garcia accompanied by Cuba Club de aviacion president Ernesto Adlum.
It took International Air Rally from Jackson Wyoming, over a year to get the permits. After 4 meetings with Cuba Civil Aviation technical team, the event was cleared. A date was set but then cancelled twice due to various events including the death of Fidel Castro which put an undetermined hold on . Finally, early May, written notice was received, but with only two weeks to organize, the originally set goals : number and type of aircraft initially expected could not be met.
May 19, 7 AM ! an amazing morning! Dense scattered clouds but still a VFR flying day !
Marathon General Aviation ladies opened up early bringing coffee and donuts ! a wonderful touch very much appreciated! a reporter from the Florida Keys made a point to be there to cover this historical happening.
The first departure was set at 7:30 for the first GYRO and 5 minutes later, the second GYRO. Then followed by the first Bonanza at 8:00 scheduled to arrive first in Havana. The Cirrus was next and everyone else departed with a 5 minute take off spread. The take off timing was set to insure everyone including the GYROS would land in Havana on or before 10 AM. This was not an issue for all to the exception of the GYROS dependent on the winds. The 140 NM from Marathon, would take around 1 hour at the most, however for the GYRO PLANES, with a speed of 85 knots average, the wind factor was a determinant of the ability to perform this flight.
The GYROs had an autonomy of 3:30 hr. By the time they reached the ADIZ Cuba border point they had to decide if they would pursue or turn around back to Key West.
After take off, for 5 NM, we had 2000 feet ceiling and Then the skies opened up to CAVU ! unlimited visibility all the way to Cuba. The flight for the Bonanza lasted 1:15 from Marathon to Havana.
Pilots were asked to communicate through a common frequency: 122.75 and to report position along the way. After 30 minutes just about reaching the ADIZ (93 NM from Marathon) we heard the GYROS reporting position. It was good to hear them. We were relieved to see some boats along the way aswell …!
Flying into Havana in private aircraft was something none of the participating pilots had done to the exception of the Air Rally crew. The pilots were instructed to follow US waypoints of KEYW (Key West) and MAXIM (24° 0′ 0N 82° 31′ 8W) and then being handed off from Miami control to Cuban controllers at FARAC (N23° 11.07′, W82° 36.02) before finally reaching MUHA (Jose Marti International Airport, Havana). Once past FARAC, the pilots could see the coastline of Cuba, awaiting the direction given by the Cuba Civil Aviation Authority (IACC).
The group landed without incident and were greeted warmly and with fanfare by their hosts at MUHA José Marti (Havana International airport). All of us insisted to stay on the tarmac, sheering every landing. The first GYRO was spotted ! the slowest GYRO was still unaccounted for however we were quickly reassured that it had reached Cuba, just waiting for clearance to land. We explained the concern to the tower as the GYRO only had about 15mintes fuel autonomy at that point. All made it safely !
Cuba handlers ECASA, Cuba Civil Aviation and Cuba Club de Aviacion representatives greeted the participants, insuring all needs were answered including the supply of 100 LL fuel for the GYROs and the need for a cover to protect the open cockpit craft from the expected abundant rain. 100 LL was made available and delivered to the GYROs on the morning of departure.
The buses were waiting to take us to the terminal 5 were we were able to change Euros and dolalrs for Cuban Currency CUC. Most of us had learned the lesson, do not exchange USD bring Euros to avoid a 13%surcharge.
Everyone safely landed … time to enjoy Havana ! starting with a typical lunch at the famous Aljibe restaurant to try the best Cuban food : Frijoles negros y pollo, Taxis waiting patiently while we enjoyed the food accompanied by mojitos and cigars.
International Air Rally took care of all the formalities surrounding the flight and the Cuban permits, facilitating lodging in Havana at the beautiful Sheraton Four Points, first American hotel to welcome guests to the island nation since the 1959 revolution .
The hotel was built in 2010, formerly Quinta Avenida located in the quiet residential district that housed much of the city’s elite, now, the site for a number of embassies, and just a 20-minute drive from the Old City.
We were very pleasantly surprised. The hotel has been undergoing extensive renovations and obviously Sheraton made every effort to bring it back to the chain standards. The rooms are huge, the mattresses are bran new and of great quality. Large balconies overlooking a large pool and well attended grounds. We saw a number of major European airline crews such as Iberia, staying at the hotel,
Every participant was responsible for covering costs on site including hotel, transportation, meals, etc… The 3 day program was structured to obey the OFAC People to People educational general license limitations and restrictions.
May 20 & 21 : After a great breakfast buffet at the hotel (included) we dedicated the day to people-to-people exchanges, familiarizing with the vibrant sights, smells and sounds of Havana.
Ernesto Adlum, President of the Club de Aviacion de Cuba met with the participants to discuss Cuba’s interest to revitalize general aviation in Cuba. The president was happy to announce that the Aiport of Kawama, only a few miles from the Varadero International airport, had just been officially turned over to the Club to establish the headquarters to organise activities for the members, at this point limited to parachute jumps, paramotor flying and flight simulators. There are absolutely no small aircraft on the island. Helicopter MI 8 and Antonov 2.are used for sky diving also for agriculture needs.
We were invited by Commodore Esrich to celebrate 25th anniversary of the Hemingway Havana Yacht Club ceremony. To our surprise, we found this celebration to meet the standards as the most exclusive, posh yacht Clubs in North America : yacht men dressed in white pants and navy bleu blazer, luxurious cars/limousines dropping off diplomatic personnel and an impressive buffet.
There we met another bunch of crazy guys: The Havana Hobie CAt challenge racers : Three out of five originally planned 16-foot Hobie Cat catamarans sailed from Key West to Havana, on 90 NM of shark infested waters. One of the sailors from New York, still under shock, told us how many had to abandon ship, seeking safety onboard a few supporting motorboats. He was surprised he made it alive. Out of 5 boats, only three made it. One sank 42 miles away from Havana. the big waves and the strong winds destroyed some vessels in the open sea.The crossing took 10 hours. Oh well, we were a bit disillusioned, GYRO crossing was not as spectacular anymore !
DAy prior to departure all the flight planes were delivered to the ECASA handler by the Air Rally committee. After a three-day visit in Havana, the group made its way back across safely to clear customs at KEYW Key West. GYROS made the crossing this time in a record time: 1:30hr.
The annual VFR Air Rally to Cuba is just one of the special experiences proposed by International Air Rally always in search for exclusive experiences. Air Rally has built a great community, bringing pilots with same interests together to experience exciting destinations in a very unique way.
The International AirRAlly is about Exploring destinations with a goal to promote the great benefits of general aviation and increase the traffic of private aircraft in less frequented regions of the Caribbean, Central America Canada and United States, generating awareness and familiarizing pilots with flying procedures.