A Pilot's Blog
There are thousands of flights I’ve forgotten and a few that I will never forget. The one I will tell you about was one that’ll stick in my brain for quite a while.
I flew the Cessna 421C to the Dominican Republic, the same week it was purchased, to have it stripped and painted. A less experienced pilot flew along for the experience. The owner of the company, a qualified pilot himself, flew another 421C on the same trip at a lower altitude and just a few miles behind us. This trip was uneventful until the last ½ hour when ATC was extremely late in giving us instructions to descend. We descended sometimes near 3000 fpm and then shot a GPS approach close to minimums with heavy rain and wind. We cleared customs at one airport and then flew the two planes to the paint shop located at a military base. After talking with the paint shop owner the aircraft owner and we flew to Punta Cana where we spent the night.
This 421C had a wing locker fuel tank located behind the left engine which was topped off. We needed this extra fuel to make it non-stop to Opa-Locka. When the left wing fuel gauge showed about 2/3 full we put both fuel selectors to the right tank and turned the transfer pump on. As expected the left fuel quantity gauge showed increasing fuel and 50 minutes later the transfer pump light illuminated, indicating that the wing locker tank was empty and the transfer pump should be turned off. We turned the transfer pump off and then put both fuel selectors on the left tank to even out the fuel load. When both tank quantity gauges read equal the selectors were pointed to their respective side’s main tank. What happened next surprised us.
The fuel quantity gauges began indicating a decreasing amount of fuel at a rate faster than expected. We began checking and re-checking the gauges against the time to destination. Now it looked as though we would not have the fuel to make Opa-Locka with any significant reserve. Looking at the chart I noticed that Bimini was an airport of Entry for the Bahamas. I told the owner that we could just land there if needed. When he let me know that there was no fuel on the island, our only option was to turn back to Nassau for fuel which we did. By topping off and talking to the line crew, we found that the wing locker was only 3 gallons under full when we landed! How could that be?
This did not make sense to us until we talked to Tony Saxton later. Having topped off we filed another IFR flight plan to Opa-Locka and landed there with a huge reserve but now the final adventure began. Customs and Border protection took a great deal of interest in us. They questioned are all the people passengers, after all – there are only two pilot seats in the aircraft. Yes, we know that there are only two pilot seats. One pilot sits in the passenger compartment when the other two are up front. Going through our small amount of luggage, after all we were gone less than 48 hours.
One customs agent amused himself with reading some of the notes I had written myself on a piece of paper that was in my suitcase. Next, they took our cell phones and separated us into three different rooms and wouldn’t allow us to communicate with each other. I got a good rest for the first 45 minutes but the whole ordeal was four hours, what a boring time. Fortunately I had a copy of The Twin Cessna Flyer and read through it. While waiting for Homeland Security Inspectors to accomplish their inspection, an HSI interrogated us separately. Using our keys, they searched through all the compartments. Of course, they found nothing suspicious. But, was that the end of that? Not quite.
Since they didn’t find anything when all compartments were open to them, they got a mechanic to come out and open up inspection panels looking for whatever was on the other side. And what was on the other side of the panels? Just cables and normal parts of the plane. Okay, can we go now? No, we’re going to X-ray the whole airplane. Are you kidding us? Again, no! So, another 20 minutes and of course, again they found nothing. During all this time we were not able to call our loved ones and tell them we were back in the country. We received no food. Fortunately my wife had sent some power bars and I shared them with the other two pilots one of which hadn’t eaten since we’d taken off that morning. Now that the HSI were satisfied that we weren’t attempting to bring anything illicit into the country they wanted fist bumps! I was very hesitant since they had not treated us as normal US citizens but as criminals. The owner was magnanimous and showed himself friendly. I wondered, if we were Honduran citizens and came through Mexico would we have had a much friendlier welcoming with much less questioning since the Biden administration is in charge.
What set off this investigation? Our backtracking to Nassau and two of their dogs alerting to - who knows what - around our airplane. Instead of treating us like criminals maybe they should retire those errant dogs. Oh, and what caused the fuel to not transfer from the wing locker tank to the left main tank? When the wing locker tank had been resealed, a drop of sealant landed right on the outlet, closing off the opening. Why did the transfer pump illuminate after 50 minutes supposedly indicating an empty wing locker tank and not right away when the pump couldn’t pump fuel. I don’t know.
Many times I’ve returned home after flying a particular airplane that I’d never flown before and when my wife asks how did it go, I say “interesting”. Yes, this was another interesting flight.