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Reports San Juan, Puerto Rico - Frederick, MD

Monday, October 26, 1998.
This was the day I would be flying home. While the trip until then had been a wonderful adventure, I was looking forward to seeing my family again after almost two months on the road. I couldn't wait to get going!

The night before I had called the FAA Flight Service Station in San Juan for a thorough preflight briefing, and for the first time since leaving Hawaii I got a complete briefing on weather and NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen; these are government published notices about almost anything that can effect the safety of flight and which is not already noted on printed charts or in published regulations). Having spent most of my flying career in the US, I had been used to getting these excellent briefings by telephone, fax, or computer modem at no charge, courtesy the American taxpayer. On the trip, however, the briefings I got in many countries were far less comprehensive and were often badly outdated by the time I received them. Sometimes I also had to pay for this less than desirable information. Still, considering the standard of living in those places, I was more than satisfied with what I got.

In my telephone discussion with the FAA briefer I explained my intent to fuel up two of my ferry tanks and to fly nonstop from San Juan directly across the Western Atlantic to my home airport of Frederick, Maryland. That would save me over 400 miles and a few hours of flight time over the conventional route typically flown by small planes, which would have involved island hopping back to southern Florida and then proceeding northeastward toward home. The briefer asked about the plane's range and my trip so far, and we had a fun chat about the whole adventure. He then gave me a briefing on the entire route, which included no significant weather problems or NOTAMS for me to worry about.

On Monday morning I called the Flight Service Station again for an updated briefing, and all was still calm and looking great for my last leg of the trip. It was going to be a milk run!

That feeling began to disappear almost as soon as I slipped into the Mooney and called the tower controller requesting my IFR clearance for the trip. The controller read back to me the much longer conventional route. I responded that my requested route was the direct transoceanic one, and I asked for a revised clearance. I waited in the hot, sun-soaked cockpit for over 30 minutes, but still I had no clearance. When I lost my patience and inquired about the delay, I was told there were "legal problems" with my requested routing. The exact nature of these legal problems was not explained. I then asked about converting my flight plan from IFR to VFR (essentially placing the responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft solely in my lap and absolving ATC of having to provide separation for me). The clearance delivery controller immediately agreed to that proposition and he promised to activate the VFR flight plan for me upon my departure. He further suggested that I contact the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center after takeoff to negotiate a change in flight plan status from VFR back to IFR if I wanted to.

With that issue resolved, I called ground control and asked for taxi instructions. Again, delays held me up. I was allowed to taxi out to the same long runway on which I had landed the previous day, but I was held there for perhaps a half-hour or so before takeoff was authorized. This seemed very slow to me at the time, but I wrote it off to the slower pace of a Sunbelt airport.

When the time finally came, the takeoff went smoothly. I had only filled the front two ferry tanks, leaving the rear 55-gallon tank dry. At this reduced weight the Mooney performed very well, even in the hot Puerto Rican sun, and I was quickly headed out to sea for my last transoceanic flight of the trip.

When handed off by the tower to the departure controller, and then again later when handed off to the Miami Center controller, I was told that conversion of my VFR flight plan back to IFR would not be possible unless I accepted the longer land-based route. So, I just kept plodding ahead VFR. That raised some interesting issues for me to address, though. For example, as I flew along at 4,500' (a VFR altitude) instead of the 6,000' where I had flown most of the trip so far, I began encountering low hanging cumulus clouds that were becoming more and more difficult to avoid. Under VFR (Visual Flight Rules) you're supposed to remain outside of clouds whenever in controlled airspace so that you can see and avoid conflicting air traffic. In this situation I had an interesting loophole in the law that kept me legal. When away from shore over the oceans, controlled airspace starts at 5,000', or more correctly, FL050. Everything below FL050 is uncontrolled. In uncontrolled airspace VFR flight inside clouds is technically permitted, provided the airplane and pilot are appropriately qualified for instrument flight (we both were). Normally I would consider this legal loophole a risky one to take due to potential traffic conflicts, but out in the middle of the Atlantic I had little concern about other airplanes, especially at this low an altitude. I just continued at FL045 as I moved out of San Juan's radar coverage area, and I called New York Radio on the HF to begin making my oceanic position reports.

It then occurred to me that New York Oceanic Control might be willing to offer me an IFR clearance, so I asked them for one. As is typical whenever requesting ATC changes over the Atlantic by HF, the New York Radio operator asked me to "Stand By" while he inquired about it. About a half hour later he came back, and once again I was offered the same old out-of-the-way routing, only this time I'd have to back track almost 300 miles of the distance I'd already flown to intercept that course! Needless to say I declined their IFR offer, but by now my curiosity was getting the best of me. For the past 28,000 miles I had ALWAYS been "cleared as filed" by ATC, no matter where I was. Why not now? I couldn't resist asking the New York radio guy for an answer. He obviously had no idea himself, but he obligingly connected me by phone patch directly with a New York Oceanic controller. That's when I got THE NEWS. The entire Western Atlantic Ocean was currently involved in a major military exercise code named "Raven", and I was flying right through the exercise area! The blocked airspace extended from Long Island on the north to Nassau on the South, and from the East Coast of the US on the West to Bermuda on the East! The exercise was to last for 5 more days. To say I was shocked and furious would be an understatement. Absolutely no NOTAMS on this situation had been issued as far as I could tell. In two FAA flight briefings I had been told nothing about this, and the faxed weather briefing sent to me by Jeppesen (which also included an exhaustive NOTAM list) made no mention of it. Apparently the military never bothered to issue a notice to airmen, since the top of the airspace involved was at just FL230, and they probably assumed that anyone flying the Atlantic would be doing so in jets well above 23,000'.

Now what? I grabbed my charts and started doing some fast calculations. I was already hundreds of miles inside this "hot" area. It was technically legal (although obviously ill advised) for me to be there, as I was flying in uncontrolled (i.e., unregulated) airspace thanks to my low altitude. Still, the prospect of becoming entangled in some practice dogfight between two unknowing F18's was not my idea of fun (I don't think the Mooney would do very well in such a standoff!). I had two options: turn around, or keep going. Turning around would only take me back through the hot zone for still more hours, while in the same amount of time I could almost make it through by plowing straight ahead. The latter made the most sense to me, so I remained at FL045, and stayed on course for Frederick, MD.

Another hour or so into the flight New York called with a highly unusual question. The HF radio operator wanted to know if I had arranged for Customs at my destination. Again, I was confused. I had already cleared US Customs in San Juan, and both Jeppesen and the San Juan US Customs officials had assured me that a nonstop flight back to the States would be treated as a "domestic" one, with no requirement for another Customs inspection. After all, that was the only reason I had gone through Puerto Rico in the first place! I explained that to the New York operator, who responded that he would pass that information along.

Given all the detail of the above, let's now fast forward to my arrival back home. My milk run had turned into a very challenging flight indeed, and I was reminded of the fact that the level of civilization in the American sphere has both good and bad points. I could drink the water and eat the food without worrying about my health, and I could get excellent weather briefings, aircraft maintenance and medical care for the pilot if needed. But, the price I would have to pay for these First World amenities would be rules, traffic restrictions, and more rules. And of course, there's our national paranoia about the arrival of illicit drugs from foreign sources being delivered by private aircraft. I had forgotten about the latter until I taxied up to the small terminal building at Frederick airport about 11 hours after departing San Juan.

It was approximately 8pm in the evening local time, and in the dark I could just make out a number of figures dressed in dark uniforms. Before I had shut down the engine, 12 armed government agents, some wearing bulletproof vests, circled the Mooney. Their hats and jackets sported the label "US Customs" in bright yellow lettering. Their leader moved over toward the cockpit door and flashed his badge and ID to me as I opened up. For some reason I immediately decided that the situation was so obviously ridiculous that I would not allow myself to be intimidated by it. I thrust out my hand in an offer to shake the hand of the boss, and with a smile I introduced myself. He seemed a bit surprised at my cordiality, but he politely shook my hand and introduced himself and his colleagues.

In the twenty minutes that followed, the confusing events of the entire day suddenly began to make sense. Six of these fellows had been dispatched from their Jacksonville, Florida drug enforcement headquarters to intercept the pilot of the Mooney who had departed San Juan irrationally insisting on flying a long, overwater, low altitude (read: under radar coverage) route to Frederick straight through a military exercise area. Assuming that the only possible reason someone would take such risks in a small airplane would be to pick up a load of drugs somewhere and deposit them for sale right near the nation's capital, these guys hopped into their King Air turboprop and raced up to Frederick to arrive there ahead of me. To assure that they would beat me home, they had arranged for me to be delayed by the controllers in San Juan. Not wanting to be left out of a big "collar", six more agents from the local Baltimore office drove over to join the party. Best of all, a US Customs P-3 Orion aircraft had been dispatched to fly above and behind me for my entire crossing of the Atlantic to ensure that I was never out of sight. I had been flying along for hours, fat, dumb, and stupid, while a highly trained crew of aircraft trackers watched my every move from their flight deck perched high overhead and behind me. They had been flying with their radar transponders silenced so that my TCAD air traffic-alerting device wouldn't detect them (It didn't).

The agents asked to search the plane, explaining that my routing had been one that fit a certain "profile" requiring their investigation. They did so, and a drug-sniffing dog was brought over to check things out. Thankfully again, the horror stories I'd heard about DEA and US Customs inspections couldn't be substantiated by my case. At all times the agents were courteous, and their inspection of the airplane, while thorough, did not result in a single scratch to the Mooney (unlike my experience in Abidjan). We even shared a laugh about the tremendous commotion that I had inadvertently caused within the US drug enforcement establishment, resulting in 12 overworked agents all missing dinner with their families that night! In just 20 minutes they were headed back to their respective home bases, and I was reunited with my family after a two-month adventure of a lifetime.

But what a way to end the trip! I only wish I could have taken a photo of the Fed's that night, but I respected their wishes that I not do so. Apparently some of them do undercover work, and having their faces show up on this website wouldn't do much for their longevity!

On the ride home in the car that night a thought did cross my mind, though. Over the past 30,000 miles of flying I had passed through 15 countries, several of which had reputations as places of political and civil unrest. I crossed security checkpoints at many international airports, and cleared customs and immigration everywhere I went. Yet nowhere had I seen a single firearm until I got home to the States. In San Juan the US Customs inspector carried a sidearm, and in my little hometown airport of Frederick I saw not one, but 12 guns! A sad commentary, I think, on modern American society.

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Epilogue

In July of 1999, a full nine months after returning from my trip, my father and I were walking around the flight line at the annual EAA convention airshow held at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin airport. My attention was immediately drawn to one exhibit: a massive P-3 Orion aircraft chocked into place and labelled with a large sign as a US Customs surveillance plane. Hmmmm, I thought. Could this be the bird that followed me across the Atlantic that late October night? The suspense was unbearable! I walked over to the table set up at the foot of the plane's airstair and introduced myself to one of the uniformed Customs officers standing there. No sooner had I mentioned my name then the agent brightened into a big smile. "So YOU'RE the guy!"

"Were YOU, and THIS plane, the ones who tracked my flight" I asked?

"Well, I was the flight controller on board, and yes, we did follow you all the way from the Caribbean to the mainland coast." He wasn't sure whether or not this was the actual plane they flew that night, though. Customs owns four of them. He introduced himself as W. L. ("Windy") Ruegsegger, a senior US Customs officer who was at the Oshkosh convention in his role as a national recruiter for the service. (Windy is shown at far left in the picture above, shot by my father to commemorate the occasion. The other two officers shown flanking me were attending the exhibit with him that day, but Windy was the only officer at Oshkosh who had actually been on the "Reed tracking" flight itself.)

In the next hour I learned a lot more about our previous encounter and the capabilities of these remarkable airplanes. Plucked from the Navy's "bone yard" of retired aircraft, this Lockheed P-3 Orion was one of four that were factory refurbished by the US Customs Service as part of its front line efforts against illicit drug smugglers. The AWACS style radar system is particularly impressive, with a closet sized klystron RF amplifier generating a megawatt of transmitter power. "It'll fry an egg a mile away!" Windy claimed.


The airplane normally carries a crew of two pilots, a flight engineer, two radar operators, and two off-shift back-up personnel. There are a couple of bunks in the rear compartment for the off-duty guys to catch a few winks. The bunks are highly valued by those on board, as the aircraft have a 13 hour endurance, and a typical mission profile might stretch for 12 hours nonstop. They cruise over the US offshore waters scanning the skies for "suspicious" aircraft.

In my case, they had spotted a small plane on their radar at a distance of about 80 miles in front of them, but they had no idea who it was, or why it was there. Because of the shape of my low wing Mooney, my bottom-mounted radar transponder antenna (located there for maximum exposure to ground-based ATC radar) was masked from their view by the fuselage. They thought they were "painting" a plane with its transponder switched off. Since flying with a silent transponder is a common tactic employed by radar evading drug smugglers, and since I was suspiciously flying out in the middle of nowhere, Windy and his team chose to track my entire flight. Unfortunately for them, the P-3 they were flying that day was one of the two in their fleet that did NOT have a high resolution, down-looking telescope that they use for aerial identification. Had they been in one of those telescope equipped planes, they could have peered down on me from as far as a dozen or so miles behind and above, and hopefully could have read my "N" number (the aircraft identification number placarded in 12" high letters on the side of every US registered aircraft). Armed with the N number, a quick radio call to FAA air traffic controllers could have established my identity and the fact that I was flying on a known flight plan. Windy indicated that had they known that, they would have broken off their tailing, and I might never have caused all the brew-ha-ha that I did. However, lacking a telescope, and without an identifiable transponder reply to their radar's interrogating pulses, they were obligated to chase me all the way to the coast, at which time FAA ATC radar was able to pick me up and keep an eye on me from there to Frederick.

It was a lot of fun visiting with Windy and the rest of his crew. We had previously shared an eight hour mutual period in our lives, although anonymously. Breaking that anonymity, and putting faces to the names and airplane ID's was a genuine pleasure!

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