By John S. Craparo, EAA Lifetime 752480
Myself and three fellow gyroplane pilots completed a historic expedition on May 24, 2017. Flying a gyroplane round trip from Florida to Havana, Cuba, is a feat that has not been accomplished since 1932. That year, Capt. Lewis Yancey piloted a Pitcairn Autogiro, christened Miss Champion [now on display at EAA’s Aviation Museum – ed.] for the spark plug company, from Miami to Havana at the start of a Yucatan archeological expedition.
My group had a different mission — a social one. A people-to-people cultural exchange made possible as travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, have eased. While it is still illegal to fly to Cuba for the purpose of tourism, this flight was approved under current regulations due to its people-to-people goals.
I led the tour, which also included pilots Dayton Dabbs, Mike Baker, and Jonathan Prickett. Several challenges had to be overcome before the expedition could be launched. The two most daunting being that experimental-amateur built (E-AB) gyroplanes are not recognized as aircraft in Cuba, and that all flights in or out of the country must operate under instrument flight rules (IFR). The former would be tough as making the flight in gyroplanes was integral in recreating Yancey’s flight. The latter was a non-starter as IFR certification of the aircraft and pilots would be impossible under U.S. regulations.
Around the time of our flight, the Cuban aviation authorities were planning to celebrate the anniversary of pioneer aviators Domingo Rosillo del Toro and Augustin Parlá. On May 17 and 19 of 1913, respectively, the rivals flew the longest over-water flights of their era from Key West to Havana. A U.S.-based group, Cuba Air Rally, was given permission to lead a group of fixed wing airplanes from Marathon, Florida, to Havana under visual flight rules (VFR) as part of the celebration. I contacted that group and after some extended discussions, the sharing of engineering data, and proving that my group’s pilots are capable aviators, the IACC (Cuba’s FAA counterpart) accepted us as suitable for flight in Cuban airspace.
The window for our flight and stay was set by the Cuban government. Our aircraft had to arrive on May 19 and leave on May 22. To make that window, our gyroplane team, dubbed “Friendship Four” in honor of the late Sen. John Glenn and the spread of renewed friendship with Cuba, had to leave central Texas on the 16th to make the arrival window. Our team ensured that all required paperwork was filed with both governments and made preparations for overwater flight, including ocean-rated life vests and satellite tracking and beacons.
Friendship Four left for the Florida Keys only to fight headwinds through the Gulf States and all of Florida. Ground speed for the flight of two aircraft averaged 50 mph with an indicated airspeed of 95 mph. After several setbacks including a flat nose wheel tire, the team landed in Marathon during the early evening hours of the May 18. Flight plans were finalized and customs forms were filed electronically. Just before bed, we learned two pieces of bad news. First, the airport authority in Cuba only stocks jet fuel; there would be no fuel available for piston engine aircraft. Our gyroplanes have a fuel capacity of 19 gallons. This provides a range, under good conditions, of between 250 and 300 miles or 2.5 to 3 hours of flight time. The second bit of news concerned forecasts of high headwinds during the crossing. In the end, we decided to make the flight and turn back before reaching the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), if necessary.
We took off over the Straits of Florida at 7:30 a.m. the next day. High, scattered clouds and 10-mile visibility were forecast. The expected winds turned out to be nearly calm. Dayton, as pilot in command for the crossing leg, and myself made landfall after flying 164 nautical miles in 2.5 hours over open ocean. The distance was a bit longer than planned as Cuban ATC assigned several fixes and turn requests en route. We set down at José Martí International Airport (MUHA) in Havana with five gallons of fuel left onboard. As for our second gyroplane, controllers put them in a holding pattern to allow four passenger jets to land. Concern mounted as Mike and Jonathan did not appear after the jets cleared the runway. Dayton turned the radio transceiver on and could hear our teammates asking to be allowed to land immediately. The controller cleared them for Runway 6. Inspection of the fuel level revealed that little more than 1.5 gallons remained.
The Friendship Four spent the next two days exploring Havana. We had at least 100 well-wishers greet us at the airport, including airport workers, military personnel, and government officials. Pictures were snapped and small gifts exchanged including U.S. flag keychains, postcards, and even harmonicas. We had been warned that government officials and employees are cold and ordinary Cubans standoffish to Americans, but found none of that to be true.
Although frozen in time, sun bleached, and deteriorated, Havana is remarkably clear of any litter or graffiti. We spent most of our time there walking and meeting people in the public squares, restaurants, bars, and along El Malecón, the 8-kilometer esplanade and seawall. There, young people horsed around in the ocean, musicians played, and fisherman lined the wall. We feel accomplished, socially and technically. Personally bonding with dozens of people, under active communist rule less than 100 miles from the U.S. shoreline, was the primary objective of this social expedition in mutual understanding. Our team was part of the first VFR flight in and out of Cuba in more than 60 years and piloted the first two E-AB aircraft ever to fly into Cuba. We were also only the second and third gyroplanes to make an international landing in Cuba since Yancey in 1932.
Before departing, the airports authority of Cuba was able to provide 100 octane gasoline for our trip back across the Straits of Florida. The return flight to Key West was faster, about 1.5 hours.
The Friendship Four team members are most grateful to the Cuban people and both governments for the opportunity to spend time as neighbors and friends.