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.
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……
What are some of your highlights from this exciting experience?
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!”.
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.
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!
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.
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?