Did you know that, once upon a time, the “Islands” were under the control of the British? In the day, they were and strict rules enforced about when you could or could not leave the various airports, be it Freeport, Bimini, San Andros, etc. Why? Don’t know for certain, but I believe it had to do with safety, like not crashing into the “triangle”in the middle of the night, thereby becoming another statistic. The rule was simple: you were prohibited from flying in OR out between sunset and sunrise. End of story. Almost.
Let me explain. Laden with fresh, hot bagels and coffee early one bright and sunny Florida Saturday morning, Trish and I, accompanied by two invited guests — Don and his wife, Marie — opted to run over to Bimini — a short hop (about 62 nautical miles) from the Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale International airport. It was so close that, at altitude (about 5000 feet or so, nearly a mile up) you could see the tiny Bimini sliver of an Island floating in the Atlantic. We taxied out from the Alpha Sierra flight school. Bimini being our first destination of choice, we made a last minute decision to head for Freeport instead, gambling, the deciding factor.(None on Bimini.) I amended my flight plan en route and we were soon off into the wild blue yonder in the Cessna 210, with all intentions of returning before the sunset curfew, of course. Life at altitude in CAVU conditions, (clear air, visibility unlimited) is beautiful! The girls were snapping pictures of the Florida coastline, as we bypassed Bimini, while Don and I concentrated on air traffic commands from Miami departure control. We yakked and snacked like a bunch of kids. The flight was uneventful, and about fifty-five minutes later, we approached the Island of Freeport. Touch down was a breeze. We were soon in a “jimmy” for a ride to Paradise Island. For the record, I’m instrument rated. (Who cares, you say? Stick around — it gets better!)
Truth be known, I’m a pretty good and well disciplined pilot. I’d never knowingly subject my passengers nor myself to any condition that might prove to be hazardous. (Above all, I learned well, not to panic.) Yes, I knew a front was slated to come in off the Gulf, but not until well after sundown — the Island curfew — remember? Weather and wind conditions can sometimes vary — sometimes. We packed it in at the casino about four-thirty — or so. By the time we grabbed the Jimmy for the ride back to the tie-down area, it was about five-thirty. The sun was setting in the West — behind some building clouds, it seemed. The deadline was fast approaching. No problem. We boarded the Cessna. Strapped in, I clicked into ground control on the radio. “Ground? This is 7910 Charlie Whiskey — what are you painting over the Gulf?” “Charley Whiskey, we have a fast moving front twenty miles due East of Tampa. Suggest you follow the one-eighty radial, South to Bimini, then the two-ten to Miami. They’ll get you to Lauderdale. You should be OK, copy?” “Copy that, tower, and thanks for the heads-up” I answered. The controller new I’d have my hands full in a confrontation with mother nature and headed us away from potential danger. We almost made it.
Airborne on the one-eighty, we intercepted the two-ten radial just outside Bimini, but, unfortunately, not before the cutting edge of the aforementioned front — bad timing. I knew I couldn’t make Bimini — rules, plus — no runway lights! –, so I punched the throttle, full bore, and climbed for the cloud tops — too late. In an instant we were engulfed in an airborne Tsunami! I kept climbing, attempting to avoid the gathering, monstrous black clouds, trying desperately to outmaneuver them — to no avail! What to do? For openers — don’t panic — I learned that from my flight instructor, Jim Johnson, a veteran combat pilot. “Just fly the plane,” he’d say, “Just fly the plane!” I did. I relaxed my grip on the yoke and steered, toward the South 180, — gently as possible, under the circumstances, weaving in and out of the tumultuous, monster cloud formations, in a climb, finally intercepting the 210 painted on the dials — at fifty-two hundred feet. Straight and level as possible, I eased the throttle forward, as the 210 rattled and rolled, gingerly gaining altitude and control of the heavily buffeted airplane. Suddenly, we broke through — Miami International in sight. “Miami approach, this is Charley Whiskey 7910, do you copy? Static, confused the radio for an instant, then, loud and clear, “Charley Whiskey, we’ve got you five by five on our screen. Steer twenty degrees south of your present position — intercept the 200 degree radial — do you copy?” “I do, Miami, I do! Thanks for your help.” “No problem. Welcome back.”