Up until a few years ago Vieques was an unknown name. It achieved notoriety when some local demonstrators decided they had enough of the U.S. Navy using the location as a military shooting range. It is a small island located off the eastern shore of Puerto Rico in plain view of St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), but Vieques belongs to Puerto Rico. The island is 52 square miles in size and has been unspoiled by tourism for a number of years.
Vieques is famous for its Bioluminescent Bay, which, on moonless nights, gives you a unique experience since you will be glowing in the water.
I am happy to report that Vieques is part of the U.S. territory and you do not need any particular papers to fly there. A regular pilot’s certificate, medical certificate, airworthiness certificate and aircraft registration are all you will need. I would highly recommend that you bring your passport since you are going to be very close to other Caribbean destinations you might want to visit for lunch. I am also happy to report Vieques is an airport of entry and you have U.S. customs agents onsite. They are both professional and very friendly. If stopping enroute for fuel or lunch, remember to file an eAPIS inbound and call Vieques customs ahead of time to report your arrival time.
Flying to Vieques is very well suited for the Twin Commander. The island is located 970 miles southeast of Palm Beach, Florida, and believe it or not the longest leg over water with no sight of land is between the coast of Florida and the island of Nassau. For the rest of the flight you will be overflying the southern islands of the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, and then skirting the coast of Hispaniola communicating with Santo Domingo Center before reentering friendly U.S. skies with San Juan Center.
The flight plan filing out of Palm Beach is a very simple task. You will fly direct to Nassau using Bahamas Route BR54V (BR stands for Bahamas Route). After Nassau you will fly A555 (A stands for Amber) that will bring you all the way to Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico you will follow Route 4 all the way to TUUNA intersection, which is the IAF for the GPS approach to Runway 09. It is a very straight shot to the runway, which is 4,300-feet long, paved, and features a full-length parallel taxiway.
If flying offshore about 150 miles out is an issue, my advice would be to leave Amber 555 at Grand Turk VOR and proceed to the waypoint called SEKAR. That will allow you to follow the northern coastline of the Dominican Republic, and then from the eastern shore of the Dominican Republic to the western shore of Puerto Rico it is a mere 60 miles over water.
You will be crossing over Puerto Rico at Borinquen, which happens to be a VOR but used to also be a Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber base until the late 1970s. The runway is 12,000 feet long and is a nice experience. You also need to know this is the base where TSA and Customs train their agents, so if you decide to use Borinquen for an airport of entry, be prepared for a unique experience. If they are actively training you could have 20 agents zooming in on you and your airplane.
Depending on weather and ATC routing, you may be able to see the Arecibo Observatory, a radio telescope in the municipality of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. It was the largest single-aperture telescope from its completion in 1963 until July 2016. You may recognize it from the James Bond movie “GoldenEye.”
Vieques is busy with local traffic made up of Cessna Caravans and Cessna 402s, the commercial transport aircraft of choice in the region. They commute from Puerto Rico’s main airport to the island of Vieques, flying under the name Cape Air. In the summer months they transport passengers from the Massachusetts mainland to the island of Nantucket. There is no dedicated FBO at Vieques, and all passenger traffic needs to proceed via the main terminal.
WHERE TO STAY
The hotel choice in Vieques is somewhat limited between bed and breakfast establishments and the Martineau Bay Resort, which has been taken over by Westin and is now a W resort. It is located on the north shore on State Road 200. Wireless internet service is available throughout the property – even on the beach, where you can use your laptop to contact the office or family while soaking up the sun.
For a truly unique dining experience, I recommend a visit to the private home of Rick Gallup. A well-known chef in Puerto Rican circles who is semi-retired, Rick has a beautiful hilltop home in Vieques featuring a 360-degree view of the island. It is open for home-cooked private dining experiences. If you are staying five days or more in Vieques, it is certainly worth a visit. Rick’s mother-in-law is an artist in her late 70s and does beautiful true-to-life renderings of animals including leopards and penguins.
As I mentioned, the Bioluminescent Bay tour is a unique experience. Depending on the time of sunset, you will depart the hotel by van to Mosquito Bay. Experienced guides will give a safety briefing before you set out in individual kayaks to paddle across the bay. Millions of dinoflagellates will come alive and light up the calm waters of the bay, creating a greenish-blue halo in the water around the kayak.
Snorkeling and scuba diving trips are readily available through the local dive shops. You will find that Martineau Bay is one of the few— if not only—resorts in Puerto Rico with good snorkeling right off the hotel’s beach. Day trips for snorkelers also are available on large catamarans. Scuba divers will find world-class sites off shore.
Vieques certainly is one of the easiest place to return to the U.S. from. With your cell phone or hotel telephone simply dial 800-WXBRIEF and you are connected to San Juan Flight Service Center to file your flight plan. Of course, mentioning Amber 555 instead of Alpha 555 will show them you are a veteran of foreign travel. You can also file with Foreflight or FLTplan.com if you have an account. After refueling, which is readily available at the airport, you are ready to go home.
Since you are leaving U.S. soil going back to Florida, there is no need to call customs to let them know that you are returning. Obviously, if a stop enroute in the Turks and Caicos or Bahamas becomes necessary, then do not forget to file an eAPIS and call customs to ask for your two-letter code.
Thierry Pouille is the founder of Air Journey (www.airjourney.com), which offers aircraft owners and pilots escorted and concierge tours of destinations around the world.