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#2299: Tour guide in Haiti and Ile de La Tortue (fwd)
From: gilles hudicourt <email@example.com>
When I was last in Haiti in 95-97, the Pointe-Ouest airstrip at Ile de la
Tortue repaired, through a Canadian priest who lives there.
In 1996, a survey team from Condé Nast Traveler had seen the Pointe-Ouest
beach from an airplane and wanted to include it in a survey of the 10 nicest
beches in the Caribean. When the photographers and writer arrived in Haïti
on a very tight schedule to actually take the pictures the found out how
difficult getting there was. Renting a jeep to Port-de-Paix (8 hours if it
didn't rain, several days if it did), then chartering a boat for the 20
miles ride to Point-Ouest. The just could not fit such an expedition into
their schedule si left Haiti for their next shoot. After they left, Walky
Bussenius, owner of Hotel Mont-Joli in Cap-Haitian heard about this and
involed Maryse Pennet, then Minister of tourism. They contacted Condé Nast
and asked if they would consider returning if they got help getting to
Pointe-Ouest. They agreed and and a date was set for their return. They
had been at Pointe-Ouest an old grass airstrip built around 1970 by an
American company who attempted to lease the area from the Haitian
government in order to built a resort there. The project had fallen
through. The airstrip had not been used in years and was covered with
grass, brush and a few small trees. Walky contacted a Canadian priest who
lived in La Tortue and asled him to drive over in his Four wheel drive
vehicle (several hours) and hire a crew to clear the strip. He did that.
Then Walky hired me to fly over to Jamaica and fly the Condé Nast crew into
Cap-Haitian first, then Ile de la Tortue. The day before I was to do that,
I decided to fly over to La Tortue to make sure the strip was ready. There
was no communication between that area and Walky, since there is no phone,
no radios, no cars, no electricity, not even a town there, just temporary
huts where fishermen from St-Louis du Nord come to fish several weeks at a
time. I was operating a 1957 Beecraft E18-S, with a tail-wheel and huge
main wheels, perfect for rough strips.
The flight to Pointe-Ouest from Port-au-Prince took about 45 minutes. I
circled the strip several times and did a low pass at 80 kts that I timed,
in order to have an idea of the length of it. It seemed pretty short. The
timing indicated about 1400 feet. People from the area, mostly the workers
that had toiled onthe field showed up running from all sides as I circled.
Then I landed, stopping just 10 feet short of the far end, with all my
weight on both brake pedals the whole time. When I got out, I pulled my GPS
from the panel, installed a protable battery, and paced the strip to measure
it with the GPS. It was only 800 feet long. I talked to the people and
asked them to continue. Walky had promised me 2000 feet. They said the
money was over and that to continue they needed extra money. I had no idea
what arrangements had been made with or by whom but I told them I needed
extra length to bring the photo crew back the next day. As I took off using
the whole runway to the very end but I was very light sole occupant of
minimal fuel. As I circled one last time, I saw the crew get to work on the
end of the strip. Little did I know they would all go home as soon as my
plane disapeared over the horizon. On the way home I noticed that one of my
engines did not give full power. I flew back to Port-au-Prince and informed
my mechanic of this. He quickly found the problem : there was a dead bird
inside the engine's air intake located on the bottom of the cowling. The
feathers had spread all against a protective screen, partially blocking the
air intake. It was fixed in 5 minutes.
That evening, I was informed by someone at the Ministry of Tourism, that I
was to pick the Condé Nast crew in Kingston, fly them to Cap-Haitian to
clear customs, fly them back to Pointe Ouest for a rough survey, fly them
back again to Cap-Haitian for the night, the fly them again at dawn to
Point -Ouest for the real photo shoot.
The next day, I flew to Kingston to pick up the Conde-Nast Traveller crew.
There was a writer, a photographer, his assistant and lots of luggage. It
was all right room wise since the old Beech was a 10 seater but I needed to
be as light as possible to fly out of that strip. In Kinston we were
delayed by customs and air traffic control delays by about two hours.
En-route I quickly realised there would be no time to fly to Cap and clear
customs before going back to Point-Ouest and do the survey. Neither
Pointe-Ouest nor Cap-Haïtian (Haiti's second city and airport) had runway
lights for night operations. They only way to do the job was to fly
straight into Pointe-Ouest from Kingston, which we did. That would of been
highly illegal in normal times but this was a government chartered flight,
so I gave myself the right to do it. As soon as we got overhead, it was
clear that nothing had been done since I left the previous morning. I did
my lowest and slowest approach and touched down just a few feet from the
threshold and stood on the brakes after that but it wasn't enough. We
rolled past the end about 200 feet into waist high brush with rocks. I
tried to look as though it was normal and did this every day but I dont
think I did a very convincing job. I made a 180 turn and taxied back to the
cleared part of the strip. I told the Conde Nast Crew they had 45 minutes.
The writer got out and paced the arear while the photgrapher and his helper
vitually ran around the area, scouting for the next day's photo shoot. They
all came back to the aircraft exactly 45 minutes later in sweat.
We took off again, but this time we were 4, had a couple hundred pounds fo
luggage and equipment and several hundred pounds of fuel. I probably
overran the end and into the bush by a few hundred feet before succeeding in
nursing the aircraft into air. We arrived in Cap just before sunset and
cleared customs, inbound from Jamaica.
That evening, the Minister of Tourism official called me and informed that
President Rene Preval would show up in a Canadian Forces (UN service)
helicaopter during the photo shoot to emphasize to Conde Nast the importance
of this article for Haiti. I told the official about my decision to land In
Pointe-Ouest without clearing Haitan Customs first. He told me I had done
teh right thing.
The next day we all got up in the dark and drove to Cap-Haitian airport and
took off fot Pointe Ouest at the first light of dawn.
The photo shoot whent very well. Around 11 am, two Canadian Forces Bell 212
helicopters painted white with big UN letters landed on the beach and out
came President René Préval along with Minister Maryse Pennet. The Condé
Nast crew was stunned. Why was the president going out of his way for just
a photo shoot ?
They later asked him if he would pose in the water. He said no, had no
bathing suit. The writer mentionned that one of the greatest pictures of
all time was of Mao Tse Tung crossing the Yang Tse. President preval said
he also remered that of Idi Ami Dada crossing his swimming pool, nearly
drowning his ministers in the process. He then agreed. The photographer's
assistant had a spare bathing suit in his suitcase. I ran to the airplane
and got it. I provided the towel that was used to shield President Preval
as he changed. He went for a swim, at the photographer's delight.
Point-Ouest made the cover of the Condé Nast Traveler of November 1996.
It was the first time in ages a travel magazine had mentionned Haiti