An American, who owned a grocery store on a small island in the Caribbean named Saint Maarten, decided he could make a bigger profit by having his groceries brought-in by air, rather than relying on the slower delivery by sea. He chose Overseas National Airways to be the carrier and ONA decided the DC-9 would be perfect for the once-a-month Miami to St. Maarten round-robin. Someone in scheduling assigned me to fly the run on the weekends I laid over in Norfolk; I was delighted.
A balmy spot of land jointly shared by the French, (St Martin) and the Dutch, (St. Maarten) is located just past the British Virgin Islands. After building a resort hotel for a big corporation from Holland, the American opened the store. He was a likeable guy in his forties who loved to accompany his cargo and regale us with stories of his adventures in the Caribbean.
Leaving Miami I pointed the nose towards Andros Island, then we flew down the Bahama chain, leaving Cuba and Dominica to starboard. It was easy to dodge around the cumulous clouds that grew to huge, threatening thunder-bumpers on our return trip.
Abeam Puerto Rico we started our descent to his island. The runway was relatively short between a big mountain on the left and a small hill on the right. However the approach was over water, and a beautiful beach with topless sunbathers. If the weather turned inclement one could either circle a few minutes for the downpour to pass, or try and get lucky with an ADF. It was fun, seat-of-the-pants flying reminding me of how it used to be in the Congo and Vietnam.
Normally, it took a couple of hours to offload the plane since it was all bulk cargo, each crate and box had to be hand-carried by the local laborers. I didn’t mind this, because the customer always treated us to an excellent lunch where the view from his porch was spectacular. In addition to the sun worshippers there was a perfect little bay begging to be explored by snorkel.
After three trips, I couldn’t resist any longer; Chuck Howell was my copilot, I knew he loved the water as much as I did so, when I called him to bring along his flippers, snorkel, and mask, for our next trip south he was ready and willing.
Leaving Alameda, we flew nonstop to Indy, then on to Norfolk, and a tail-end ferry to Miami, where we polished off the evening at Bryson’s 39th Avenue pilot-hangout. The next day was a typical Miami morning; the sun used the puffy clouds for an easel to paint colors impossible to duplicate with a brush. The plane was loaded, the customer waiting, the weather perfect, off we flew for some skin-diving and feasting. Sometimes I couldn’t believe I actually got paid to do this.
Two hours and twenty-five minutes later, I was maneuvering towards a visual approach and landing on the exquisite jewel that seemed to magically materialize from beneath the low puffy clouds clinging to the surrounding mountains. After landing we turned around and taxied back on the runway since the airport wasn’t big enough for us to use the taxiway. I parked not fifty feet from the lagoon we were going to investigate. Chuck and I changed into our swimming trunks in the plane telling the customer where we could be reached if he needed us.
The water was a delight; nearly the same temperature as the air. There was a reef, and all manner of tropical fish swimming around; it was like being in a giant aquarium The fish were as curious about us as we them, they’d swim right up, touching my hand, looking me in the eye before dashing back a few feet to decide whether or not I was an acceptable guest. Chuck and I were having the time of our lives when the customer shouted out to us that the plane was off-loaded.
I looked at my watch; it had only been an hour and a quarter since we landed. I wondered how he had managed to empty the plane so fast. We swam to shore to greet our benefactor.
“Hey you guys, are you going to have time for lunch?” he asked as we staggered out of the water.
“No, we’ve got to get the plane back; how’d you finish so fast?”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, I bought a small powered hand truck that really speeds things up. We emptied that sucker in less than an hour. You looked like you were having such a good time I didn’t want to bother you, but I thought maybe I should after your company called to ask how it was going.”
“I told them we were still off-loading – you want to have lunch?”
“Thanks anyway, we better get back before the shit hits the fan.”
“How about a shower first?”
“No, if Customs doesn’t mind, we’ll clear in our trunks and change in the plane once we get airborne.”
So sandy, with hair all askew, carrying our snorkels, flippers and mask the amused Customs officer passed us through, “Captain can you fly wearing those flip-flops?”
“The plane doesn’t mind what we fly in.” I laughingly responded.
Walking out to the bird Chuck was wearing an ear-to-ear grin, “Case, you sure know how to make a trip fun – this was the best”
“It was fun; you close the cargo door and get the clearance while I kick the tires.”
The ride back was uneventful. The only comment I received was from our mechanic in Miami, “Where’d all the sand come from – it’s all over the floor?”
“I don’t know maybe one of the loaders…”
“Jeez, I gotta sweep it up before it gets down in the E&E compartment. Those guys are pigs. Dave, close the cabin door next time; you never know what switches they might flip.”
“Good idea, thanks.”
It was about three months later, I was back at headquarters, sitting for a recurrent ground school, when walking down the hall I passed Steedman Hinckley, the owner of the airline.
“Hi Dave, how’s it going?”
“Good; oh Dave, have you got a moment?”
“Dave, I think our uniforms look good; they give us a professional appearance that sends a positive image with the public – don’t you agree?”
“Yes sir, I like the uniform.”
“Good. Would you try to remember to wear it when you’re flying with us? Flip-flops and swimming trunks really present a poor image; don’t you agree?”
“Yes sir, I…”
“I’m glad we had this little talk – you’ll be late for class. Have a nice day and call me, Steedman.”
“Yes sir – uh, Steedman.”
What a guy! He could have reamed me a new grommet, or worse yet I could have been suspended. I was mortified; I thought I was being so cool. I never did discover who snitched, after that I never flew in anything but a uniform.