‘Ban’ seems to be a very popular word lately…….
It appears that in the coming weeks, certain policies will be reversed that had allowed Americans to travel to Cuba.
The US State Department is reviewing the depth of the changes and the timing of enacting them. The biggest impact as far as I’m concerned will be the return of the travel ban that kept Americans from traveling to Cuba. Even though the current policy requires us to align with one of 12 reasons for traveling to Cuba, it is fairly easy to qualify for permission. That is about to change if the old rules are put back in place.
According to Washington, it appears that the reconsideration of our policies towards Cuba stem from Cuba’s lack of progress on human rights and the fact that a ‘Castro’ is still in power.
So if you have dreams of sipping Havana Club’s 15 year old Rum while drawing on a Cohiba as you watch the wonderful classic cars of the 50’s parade around Havana, you better get there, and fast!
Based on what I read, it appears that it will be only a matter of weeks before changes will take place.
Related: First American all-female general aviation ‘crew’ flies to Havana.
In late June of this year, 2 female pilots took off aboard their Cherokee 140 and unknowingly were flying into history when they pointed the propeller to Havana, Cuba. Only after their return to the USA, did Angela Boehler Homoky and MaryAnn Claret find out that they were the first all-female general aviation flight crew to fly from the USA to Cuba.
Thanks to my wife who is friends with one of the pilots, I was able to reach out to ask them if they’d like to share their story and details from the groundbreaking trip with insights only possible from a pilot’s perspective. For you ‘avgeeks’, you’ll enjoy all the details that went into the flight planning, the flight itself and their experiences while on the ground in Cuba.
Cleared to Cuba! Angela Boehler Homoky (l.) and MaryAnn Claret make history!
Here is Angela’s perspective from the trip…..
I had asked Angela about how they discovered that they were the first all-female general aviation crew to fly to Cuba……
We didn’t realize that perhaps we were the first all female flight crew to fly a general aviation plane to Cuba until someone showed us a news article in a Tennessee newspaper about 2 other female pilots who were claiming to be the “first”. They had just flown there and back in August 2016 so we knew we were before them. There was also another possibility of a GA plane with only females on board that flew in November 2015 however, they went with a group of about 30 planes at the same time and they landed somewhere other than Havana. I have been told since by two individuals that said that they had talked to the FAA and apparently we are at least the first and ONLY all female flight crew to land and/or depart from Havana, Cuba, ever.
What are some of your highlights from this exciting experience?
Having this cross country entry in my logbook as well as getting that “CUBA STAMP” on my passport are certainly highlights! In fact, at the Cuban airport customs desk the customs official asked me if I wanted my passport stamped and I very excitedly, and with a huge smile on my face said, “Yes, please!!!!” and then proceeded to spin around and do a “happy dance”. She giggled at me and also with a big smile on her face, stamped my passport! And having recently discovered that we may be the first all female pilots to fly a general aviation airplane to Cuba is just icing on the cake.
Tell us about your background as an aviator…..
I have a 1967 Piper Cherokee PA-28-180 that I just bought in March 2016. I had started my lessons on a Cessna 172 but I have found that I think I am more of a low wing girl. It has been a slow road for me getting to my PPL. Not only am I a single mom to an almost 16 year old son, but I am also a full time dentist (D.M.D.) and I manage my own private practice. Keeping my house clean, my son on top of his homework, my patients taken care of, my staff happy, content and feeling appreciated, and finding some quality time to spend with my amazingly understanding boyfriend often doesn’t leave me much time to devote to flying. Although, I really really love flying and I wish that I could have much more time for it. And often when I do have the time, the weather isn’t cooperating. It makes it seem like I take 2 steps forward and 1 step back in my lessons. But at least its still progress forward. And MaryAnn is an absolutely amazing teacher, mentor, example and most importantly, incredible friend. She is also a single mom with a full time job and she understands how challenging getting flying time in can be. She is always encouraging. And she shares my love of adventure and of empowering young women. We truly pilot well together. I don’t think this trip to Cuba would have been half as amazing with anyone else. Her strengths compliment my weaknesses and I think she would say the same about me. She is the yoke to my rudder pedal!
I rarely say no to new experiences. Every adventure is opportunity for lessons learned, enriching my life, and an appreciation for the world that God has offered to me. So, when MaryAnn asked me if I wanted to fly to Cuba with her I didn’t even hesitate. With 100% sincerity and an “all-in” attitude I answered “HECK YA!”.
What went into the planning?
I have to give MaryAnn 99% of the credit for preparing for this trip. She would keep me in the loop and sometimes ask my opinion about certain aspects but it was mostly all her in the preparation. I would follow her lead on things and I was also getting permits, licenses, insurance, etc. for my plane as well so that we would have it as a backup if something should happen to the plane we were intending to take. Perhaps I should add here that MaryAnn and I have affectionately nicknamed our respective planes. Mine is named Gabe and she calls the Cherokee 140 that we flew James. There is something about giving the planes their own names that feels comforting and makes them also a part of the “team”. We always thank Gabe and James when we are done flying for the day for keeping us safe. And it is so special that Sarasota Avionics allowed us to take James to Cuba. They are quite a special group of people and I have been thankful to get to know them.
How was the flight? How did it feel as you approached this ‘once prohibited’ destination?
Going across the 90 miles or so to Cuba with only water below us wasn’t as scary as I had thought. Perhaps its my inexperience as a pilot, maybe it is my confidence in MaryAnn’s abilities, maybe it’s my trust that James will keep us safe, or maybe a combination of all three. However, when we first saw the glimmer of land and we knew that it was Cuba I felt like it was such an honor. It was like seeing Cinderella’s castle at Disney for the first time. THERE IT IS!!!! ITS REALLY CUBA!!!! I knew it was a sight that few American’s have ever seen and from the air, no less. It was so much more tropical looking and greener than I imagined. I was once again thankful for MaryAnn and her ability to speak Spanish. Even though Cuban ATC was speaking English they had a very strong Cuban accent and if understanding ATC isn’t already difficult for the newbie pilot, this was almost impossible for me. I did my best co-piloting on the trip however by preloading and switching frequencies as needed. Switching transponder codes and listening for ATC calls. Getting water, snacks, forms and maps from the back. And being reassurance, entertainment and all around best friend!
What is your perspective of Cuba, now that you’ve seen it for yourself?
Cuba is a treasure. I can’t wait to go back and take my son. I think my favorite part is the people. They are so welcoming, so friendly. I felt incredibly safe and protected by the locals. The fact that we were taken care of by a delightful lady who happened to also be a dentist was also quite the coincidence. Her experiences as a dentist in Cuba versus what I experience in the US was shocking for both her and I. I think its important for everyone to see their occupation through someone else’s opportunities. I know it makes me more grateful for what I have when Monday mornings roll around.
I will add that if you are planning to visit Cuba, some things to bring are: plenty of water, especially in summer as it is incredibly hot! I live in Florida but still felt that Cuba was toasty. Also, toilet paper is not always available in public restrooms so bring a roll. Washcloths: When we asked for one so that we could wash our faces after a long, sweaty day of walking you would have thought we had asked for something only found on the moon. These are apparently not a “thing” in Cuba. So, bring a few with you. WIFI and Cell Service. This is very difficult right now. You can purchase a one hour pass for wifi to use at some of the larger hotels but as a whole it is not available. Plan on this and make arrangements for communicating to back home in some alternate way. I had the SPOT satellite personal tracker hooked onto my backpack at all times and my family and friends were able to watch my movements the entire trip and I could periodically send “I am ok” messages back to them. No wifi/cell service was also an issue when it came time to fly back as we did not have any ability to contact US customs before we left or also to get weather information for our flight.
Plan on staying in a local Bed and Breakfast. They are everywhere and I don’t feel that you will truly get the Cuban experience by staying in one of the larger hotels. Our BnB was one of the highlights. We were served an outstanding breakfast each morning which included freshly made juices of Mango and Papaya. These fruits were lifted up to our second floor by a rope and basket each morning from the balcony. How cool is that? This also really helps add to the income of the local people.
Tell us about what was involved when it was time to fly home?
When leaving Cuba plan on it taking a lot more time that you might initially think. At least when we were there General Aviation seems to be somewhat of a mystery to the airport system. Having a plane with no passengers was perplexing to them so we defaulted to MaryAnn being the flight crew and I was the passenger. The fact that MaryAnn wasn’t in a uniform was also strange to them. And the fact that I now appeared to be a single passenger with my own personal small plane and personal pilot was eyebrow raising as well. We joked that perhaps they assumed I was a “has been” 80’s rockstar who now travelled through the Caribbean performing at local hotels, no longer able to afford a private jet. They even requested I present my “boarding pass”. When we explained that I didn’t have one, they actually made one for me. Lucky for me I was seated in first class for this flight in seat 1B.
When I think about this trip I can’t help but smile. I often get asked what I did this summer by my friends and patients and I can’t control the grin that comes across my face and the twinkle that I am sure blinks in my eye as I, perhaps with my chest a little puffed out, say, “Well, I flew to Cuba in a single engine Piper with my best friend”.
The next series of questions were answered by MaryAnn…..
First off, please tell us about your background as pilots and what motivated you to set course for Havana?
Well my co-pilot is Angela Homoky D.M.D. , a dear friend of mine and a student pilot. We have known each other for about 2 ish years and have become quick friends. I , Mary Ann Claret, am a CFII and have been flying since 1983, I graduated from ERAU ’87 and have been in aviation since then in one form or another. I work now at Sarasota Avioinics at the Venice office, I have a couple of students on the weekends and fly several times a month as a pilot for Mote Marine Laboratory on their Manatee survey flights.
My dad is from Cuba and I had been reading a lot of articles of pilot groups that were going and I wanted to go! I didn’t want to be left out of this piloting experience. At first I thought I would use a service to make sure I would do all the paperwork correctly, but then decided I wanted the challenge to figure it out.
What were some of the preliminary details that needed to be sorted out before the flight? The planning involved? Any special requirements or permits?
I read a lot of articles about pilot groups that had gone before,I attended a seminar at Sun-n-Fun of a service that does the paperwork for you.We started to research the Department of Treasury and Department of Commerce requirements, things were changing and I wanted the most up to date information. Insurance was a little issue, and required a rider, some policies don’t. I needed an account with eAPIS , our customs sticker and I got a bit more instrument proficient. By chance my daughter saw a local newscast about a missionary group, that went on a trip to Cuba I know several people there and spoke to them about how they did the paperwork, etc. They go under a different reason than I would but they had a contact that I reached out to and was able to secure my permission landing number after emailing Cuba the necessary paperwork. That part can not be highlighted enough, that contact was key to me knowing the process on the side of Cuba. With that Cuban permission number we could land in Havana and I could file my ICAO IFR flight plan.
Can you provide some of the details behind your flight?
We went from June 23-27th 2016. The flight was about an hour from Key West, we left Venice early morning to get ahead of the tropic weather systems that build up so so quickly in the summer. At Key West, we fueled up so we didn’t have to worry about fuel in Cuba and could easily go to Havana and back, also opened our IFR flight plan to Havana.
What aircraft did you fly?
Sarasota Avionics allows us to use the airplanes used for demo, I used a pretty tricked out avionics-wise Cherokee 140 N6949W
As far as on-board equipment is concerned, what was necessary to execute the flight?
I don’t even know where to start on this one, GTN 650 allowed me to load waypoints for route, NGT9000 transponder helped with weather, and traffic avoidance, Dual Aspens helped with navigation, position awareness avoiding t-storms, traffic avoidance. Spot – allowed us a back if we had to ditch, we had family and friends following. JPI engine instruments gave me peace when we were over the water, Garmin radio to catch all the ATC calls!
Lining up for landing on Runway 6
Where did you land and can you tell us about the experience at the airport upon arrival?
We landed at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport. When we landed were marshaled to Terminal 2, GA terminal, next to the approach end of the landing runway 6. There was an armed guard just at the end of the runway standing on a platform, that caught us by surprise.
As we were getting out of the plane we were greeted by a staff that had the paperwork we had sent beforehand and they asked us about how long we would be there, asked us to fill out our flight plan for our departure. One person was there to help us with our luggage, we were traveling super light, given the plane and we would only be there for 3 days. We filled out a health form for a doctor, then paid for a visa, went through Customs and then had our luggage checked. We were the only ones there at the time and it seemed like a lot of people had to be called in to do this for us. I speak Spanish and that was helpful to understand what might have been super confusing if I didn’t, Im sure they spoke English but I wanted to practice my Spanish. We exchanged money and called for a taxi to pick us up, the one we had arranged did not show up. While we waited we spoke to a gentleman that showed us his Helicopter license he received in Russia 30 years prior and spoke about it like it was yesterday. He talked about the charts and navigation while flying a helicopter and the challenges that posed. We showed him the Garmin app on our phone and how it could go from VFR to IFR charts and Approach plates and he was in awe of the changes and that it was on my phone and not in those old black cases. That experience was special, to share your love of aviation with a stranger from another country and from a country that doesn’t have general aviation at all!
What aircraft did you see at the GA Terminal an on the field?
There were 3 other N-registered aircraft at the General Aviation terminal we were at. There were other terminals, plus the Commercial one that had a lot of planes but too far from where we were.
How long did you stay?
3 days in an AirBnB apartment. We became friends with the owner who happened to be a Dentist too! Crazy coincidence, she and Angela had a lot to talk about.
What was your impression once ‘Land-side’ and beyond the airport?
It was amazing! The architecture was beautiful and kept up the best that could be given limitations they must have. The government is very much a presence there, that was a bit of a surprise, I don’t know why it was a surprise, it was just everywhere. Maybe I didn’t think it would be as much as it was, maybe I was looking for it too. Everyone was very friendly but not in a way where they are vying for your tourist dollar but like family happy to see you. There was not a lot of Americans, I thought there would be more. The history was something we enjoyed seeing, with monuments and museums that did not disappoint.
Rum lovers delight!
Classic Havana….an amazing time capsule.
Vehicles that time forgot……many of these have been rebuilt and restored thanks to the ingenuity of Cuban mechanics. So ingenious are they, that some of these cars are powered by boat engines or washing machine motors!
What about the flight home? Customs/Immigration?
There are specific airports for re-entry we returned on a Sunday and passed through customs and immigration at Marathon Key, which is in a new beautiful facility. Always good to travel and great to come home too!
What were the highlights of the trip for you?
That is a tough one. Planning the flight, going with a friend, having a string of new experiences the whole time. Seeing something few people from the US have seen despite it being so close.
Absolutely I will, next time we may take Angela’s plane or the company Saratoga so we can take our kids and friends too. We may go to another airport in Cuba, there are a lot to choose from, but knowing the process now, I want to see more of Cuba.
So, in closing?
I am over the moon that we did it, looking back it seemed like a lot of things had to line up just right so that I could accomplish it safely and without violating US or Cuban travel requirements.