INTERVIEW WITH A PRIVATE CHARTER PILOT IN THE CARIBBEAN
Charlie Flying the Approach Into Saba Airport
Charlie Smith is a Commercial pilot flying for a regional airline in the Caribbean. We asked him a few questions about his career and how he sees his job as a private airplane pilot flying between the Caribbean islands all year round.
Private Flying Career
- Did you always want to be a pilot? And why the Caribbean?
Yes, it’s been a childhood dream. As far back as I remember I always wanted to become a pilot. As soon as I turned 18, I went to Florida and trained for my Pilot’s Commercial License. Then it took some time to find a job, but I finally managed to get my first job in a light twin-engine aircraft as a co-pilot. After a few years, I became a Captain and managed to obtain a position with a regional private charter airline in the Caribbean. So far, it’s been the career I always wanted. Flying between the islands and enjoying the variety of destinations in this part of the world is THE perfect job! I consider myself very fortunate to do this every day and even get paid for it.
- Where was your fist Caribbean Charter Flight (to and from)?
My first private charter flight in the Caribbean was from St Martin (French side of the island) to Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe). I flew over the beach of Orient Bay, saw St Barths from above, and then landed in beautiful Antigua. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget! The weather was beautiful with clear skies and unlimited visibility – the perfect conditions for a charter flight! From above, we could see most of the islands surrounding us – Anguilla, Saba, St Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat… my dream came true that day!
- What is your favorite aircraft to fly in the islands and why?
I now fly a mid-size turbo-prop airliner, but I really enjoyed flying the Piper Aztec. This light twin is the perfect private aircraft for the islands, capable of taking off and landing on short runways, equipped with powerful piston-engines and retractable gear. She’s also fast and reliable!
- Do you have an annual training schedule?
Yes – like all professional pilots do. Every 6 months, I have to go through recurrent simulator training. This is a requirement from the authorities. During the session, we have a chance to practice non-normal situations to maintain our flying skills up to airline standard. Additionally, we receive ground training and also review safety procedures once per year.
Advice and Thoughts
- Favorite airport approach, and why?
St Barths, of course! This airport is challenging and requires specific training in order to obtain a special authorization from the Civil Aviation Authorities. The runway is short and surrounded by high ground. On approach to runway no. 10 (the preferred runway), there is a hill (called “La Tourmente” in French, or “Storm”). I think the name speaks for itself! Strong turbulences on final approach make the ride a little “bumpy” – but the reward upon landing is up to even the highest expectations. A beautiful beach lies right at the end of the runway, where people sunbathe and swim in the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean. Each approach is a thrill – for both pilots and passengers!
- What’s your most memorable Caribbean charter flight?
I was assigned a special mission. I had to ferry fly an aircraft for a private owner from St Maarten all the way to Montreal in Canada. It was a Piper Cherokee Six, a light single-engine aircraft. The owner was on board and we flew over some of the most picturesque sceneries of the Caribbean: The Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, The Turks & Caicos, the Bahamas… to finally reach Fort Lauderdale in Florida. The rest of the trip was equally as nice, along the East Coast of the US, all the way up to New-York city. The JFK air traffic controllers even gave us permission to overfly the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan before continuing Northbound along the Hudson River.
- Your top flying tip?
Enjoy the view! The earth is so beautiful when seen from the sky. Not to even mention the unbelievable beauty of the popular island destinations in the Caribbean. Private flying just makes the whole experience so much better!
- What’s the best piece of flying advice that you were given?
Always think safety. Every decision you make must be a safe one – for both your passengers and your crew.
- As a pilot what question do you get asked the most?
Is it difficult to land the aircraft? As a matter of fact, it really isn’t. Just like everything else, when you first start doing something, practice is the key to success. Landing an aircraft is almost a routine task when the weather is good and when there are no technical problems. For the purpose of this interview, I checked my logbook and found that I have 3013 landings under my belt. Having said that, humility is one of the most important qualities for any pilot. For that reason, I approach every landing as if it were my first one, and devote my full concentration to the task. Again, safety is my number one priority!
- What do you love about your job?
Taking off at dawn and watching the sunrise from the skies of the Caribbean Sea! It’s always a moment of intense emotion that reminds me of how lucky I am to be doing this for a living. My office offers the best view available – and the best part is, I can share this great view with other amazing people that are my passengers during a charter flight!
Ask the Captain
- What’s in your pilot’s bag?
My pilot’s license, a bottle of water and a camera! This is to make sure I take pictures of the beautiful places I go to. The landscape is so diverse in the islands; from the white sandy beaches of Anguilla to the beautiful rainforest of Dominica… I have an extensive collection of pictures taken from above. The sceneries never cease to amaze me.
- What advice would you pass on to someone who wants to be a Private Charter Captain in the Caribbean?
Never let your dream down. This job is for passionate people and at times it can be difficult to achieve the objective of becoming a professional pilot. The training is long and expensive, and the job is difficult to get. It might take years until you land the first commercial pilot position – but hang in there! It will be worth every minute in the end.
- How about some advice to someone looking to fly a private plane themselves for the first time?
If you dream about private flying yourself, you should first get your medical certificate. Once you have that, there won’t be anything else to stop you! Visit your local flying club and book a flight with an instructor. You’ll have the chance to control the aircraft in the air straight from the first flight! If it gets you hooked, then after around 50 hours of instruction you’ll be able to obtain your Private Pilot License. This will allow you to fly light piston-engine aircraft by yourself and carry passengers (friends and family). Should the passion reach you, then you could always decide to continue your training and obtain your Commercial Pilot License – or even an Airline Pilot License! All pilots have started the same way – with a simple lesson at the local flying club.
- What has been the biggest change in Caribbean Aviation during your flying career?
It became more organized, and much safer. Radar service is now provided in most islands. This means a more secure airspace environment provided by air traffic control. New airports, runway improvements and modern aircraft have all made flying much safer.
- If you could fly anywhere today, where would it be – and why?
Here in the Caribbean! The diversity provided by island hopping fulfills my daily need of beautiful scenery. However, it would also be interesting to discover South America – particularly Amazonia and the Andes. Maybe this will also be fulfilled by a future job… who knows?
- Since you travel a lot in the Islands, what’s your favorite airport?
Mustique is definitely a top pick of mine. With its small terminal, friendly airport staff, and the great scenery that is all around, it is simply a very desirable place to be. Everything is so relaxed and laid-back; it feels like the Caribbean of the old days.
- What’s your favorite island?
Barbuda! For its beauty and wilderness. There isn’t much infrastructure on the island, which is why it is so untouched. You can find some of the most beautiful beaches of all the Caribbean on the West coast, where the sand is white and pink, with clear blue waters in the lagoon. The island also hosts a bird sanctuary. The access is limited though – only private aircraft or boats can bring you to Barbuda. But it’s definitely a nice day trip to go on!
- When you fly by scheduled airline, are you first in the check-in queue or are you last on the plane?
Last! I stay outside for as long as possible so that I can keep watching the airport action… particularly aircraft taking off and landing. Most of the times it also gives me the opportunity to quickly meet the pilots in the cockpit before the flight. I usually introduce myself as a fellow pilot – which is always appreciated between colleagues.
- What’s your least favorite thing about flying by scheduled airline?
Sitting in the back! I prefer to be sitting upfront in the flight deck because the view is better (humor). In fact, I like to fly in private airplanes – because most of the time there is no closed door between the cabin and the cockpit. The environment in a private aircraft is more open, and it’s always interesting to see what the pilots do!