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Pilotage: Cape Air 884 to St. CroixPilotage: Cape Air 884 to St. Croix

Mark R. Twombly is a charter pilot on a Citation II based in southwest Florida.

Mark R. Twombly is a charter pilot on a Citation II based in southwest Florida.

Capt. Len and I watch from inside the terminal at St. Croix’s Henry E. Rohlsen Airport as the epaulet-equipped pilot walks out onto the ramp and begins preflighting the piston twin. We had flown an airplane and its owners in the day before and are leaving it there for a couple of weeks while the owners play. Consequently, we’re headed back to the States on the first scheduled flight of the day, Cape Air 851, a 6:30 a.m. departure for St. Thomas where we will connect to an American Airlines flight to Miami.

Walkaround done, the pilot signals that he is ready, and we are shepherded onto the ramp and over to the Cessna 402 bearing the Cape Air logo—a white seagull soaring across a blue tail. Before I can speak up, Len claims the right-front seat. I draw the back-of-the-bus position next to the clamshell cabin door, and pass the time on the 25-minute flight to St. Thomas’s Cyril E. King Airport enjoying the beautiful view.

The return hop to St. Croix a couple of weeks later on Cape Air 884 is a night flight. I scramble in first and settle into the copilot’s seat at St. Thomas. A moonless, black sky and dark cabin seem to discourage conversation, so I sit quietly and watch the pilot, Christopher Yanni, fiddle with this and adjust that before firing up the engines. The airplane hasn’t been sitting for long—Cape Air’s island turnarounds can be as short as 10 minutes—but Capt. Yanni has no hot-start issues. “He’s done this before,” I think to myself.

Yanni dons a headset, and since there is not one for me I continue to just sit and watch him do his thing. We taxi out to Runway 10, the lights of expensive homes stacked up the hills just to the north of the airport.

The long taxi gives me time to survey the impressively wide panel in the 402. The airplane is well equipped, with King digital avionics including dual transponders and ADFs, and a fresh-looking S-Tec Fifty-Five X autopilot. The only anachronistic feature is a standalone monochrome radar display, but it seems to work just fine.

I hear Yanni read back the takeoff clearance—“Right turn to one-eighty”—and then the engines surge, the props begin to whine in unison, and we are rolling.

I am a partner in a light piston twin, so flying in one is nothing new. Flying in one as a paying passenger on a scheduled flight—this is a new experience for me. Cape Air has been shuttling passengers around southern New England since 1989, southwest Florida since 1993, the Caribbean since 1998, Micronesia since 2004, and more recently communities in New York, Vermont, and Indiana—some 722,000 passengers last year alone—but until now I’ve never had an occasion to fly on one of the 49 402Cs they currently operate. I’ve been missing out.

The flight is a hoot. After clearing the hills east of the departure runway, Yanni banks right and takes up the southerly heading. He climbs slowly to 2,300 feet above the black hole that is the Caribbean Sea, and levels off. The lights of St. Thomas fade behind us, and St. Croix is not yet in view. Shadowy shapes loom, and we are momentarily engulfed in reflective mist. Other than the scattered clouds, we are alone in a vast ocean of darkness.

Inside the airplane, all are silent. It would be intrusive to pierce the weighty darkness with small talk, so we fix our attention on the commanding aural and tactile presence of 12 turbocharged, big-bore cylinders and six spinning propeller blades earning their keep.

An hour earlier I had been sitting in a mid-cabin cheap seat in a Boeing 767, pounding away on my computer and silently cursing the person sitting just ahead who had reclined his seat nearly into my chest and had fallen into fitful, snorting slumber. I’m hardly aware that we are flying. Instead, I’m thinking about the people around me, the lack of legroom, and the shrinking package of peanuts I’ve just been handed.

On the other hand, in this Cessna twin suspended above the unseen Caribbean it is all about flying. It is impossible to ignore the feeling that I am an integral part of the airplane and its environment. Every small ripple in the air and rumble in the engines courses through my body. I’m feeling much more alert and alive than I was in seat 17C. The Boeing is transportation. This is flying.

Soon the horizon reveals itself with a soft glow—St. Croix’s north shore. Yanni slips between two tall hills framing the coastline, and sets up for a base leg to Runway 10. He delays flap deployment until short final, and stays high on the VASI to land long and thus avoid a long taxi on the runway to the turnoff point.

We passengers maintain silence until Yanni shuts down the engines, turns around, and announces in his best captain’s voice, “Welcome to St. Croix.”

I linger a moment to chat him up. “Great flight!” I say as I turn to exit the airplane, and mean it.

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