Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Flying Into Isla Grande

A doctor accomplishes a childhood dream

After arriving in Puerto Rico, I went to the Isla Grande Flying School to rent a Cessna 172. As is the custom, the first time you go up at a new establishment, they send someone with you. A good idea, since we were right in the San Juan International Class B airspace.

Taxiing to the runway brought back all my memories of DC-3s. I lined up with centerline, pushed in the throttle, and off we went. The 172 lifted off smoothly, and I was flying over my old home!

I made a left turn to avoid the Bravo airspace, and it took us over Old San Juan, with all of its familiar streets and beautiful pastel colors. Next, I flew right over El Morro Castle, the last bastion that scared off Sir Francis Drake, El Draco, when he tried to invade Puerto Rico. I could see the glistening white of the Governor’s Mansion and the dark blues of San Juan Harbor. We were quickly over Dorado Beach and heading west. The palm trees, the lush greens and the sparkling beaches presented a kaleidoscope of sights.

The island is so small that we were at its western end in no time. I saw a huge runway below: Rafael Hernández Airport. Its runway is 11,700 feet long. My instructor informed me that B-52s used to fly out of there with nuclear warheads during the Cold War. Now, most of the traffic involves FedEx bringing in a much more benign cargo. After entering the pattern for a touch-and-go, we continued to fly around, admiring the beauty of the island. Everything looked so peaceful from the air.

We started back east, and passed over Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radar dish. (Some may remember it from the James Bond movie, GoldenEye.) It’s built into the mountain, and the southern side of it is just a sheer cliff. But before I knew it, my time was up, and we headed back to Isla Grande.

Something made me want to make the final landing perfect. Maybe there was another little boy looking at the runway, his head full of dreams. It was a straight-in approach right over the water of San Juan Harbor. I slowed down, put down the flaps and tried to remember all of my speeds. I saw the runway and focused on the numbers: I wanted to nail this one.

As we got closer, I kept those numbers fixed. I went right over them, touched down within 100 feet and greased it! After shutting down the engine, I realized it had all gone by too fast. What a privilege we have in this country to enjoy such a fantastic activity.

I thought about the dreams of a little boy watching those planes fly in and out. Now, I had accomplished my dream. I had flown in and out of Isla Grande Airport, not as a passenger, but as a pilot.

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