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Getting Back to the Mainland

Charlie Schroeder

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Culebra Beach
(Robert Schroeder)
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Labor Day provides another three-day weekend. Some people take advantage of that extra day in unique ways. Rob Schroeder loves to travel, and over one recent three-day weekend, he satisfied his bug with a trip to Culebra, a tiny island just off the coast of Puerto Rico. Schroeder hiked, snorkeled and just plain old relaxed. Everything went according to plan. That is, until he got to the airport. His son Charlie brings us his story.


The day my dad was set to fly home from Culebra, he got stuck at the airport. The weather was bad, all flights were delayed. So he did what everybody else did; he waited. But after a couple hours, he started to worry that he'd miss his connecting flight in San Juan.

"So I ducked outside to get on my cell phone to call my airline," he says. But the airline couldn't change his flight. So he went back inside where he struck up a conversation with another stranded passenger.

"At one point, he spies this gentleman coming in the side door of the airport," my dad tells me. The man was dressed like a pilot. He wore a white shirt with epaulettes on the shoulders. So the passenger my dad was speaking with went over to him. A few minutes later he came back. The man would fly them to San Juan.

My dad weighed his options. He could stick around, which would mean he'd probably miss his connecting flight in San Juan, and have to spend yet another night in Paradise, or he could hop a flight with a guy who just walked into the airport and agreed to give him a lift in weather major airlines deemed too dangerous to fly in.

It was a no-brainer.

In a matter of minutes, he and four other people had paid the pilot $150 each and slipped out onto the runway.

"No security, no nothing," my dad says.

Then, they boarded what my dad describes as a "Volkswagen in the sky."

"Like a '57-'62 Volkswagen. Little rattletraps," he says. "I figured, well, you only go around once, and the pilot was no more interested in losing his life than I was mine," he says.

It takes about 20 minutes to fly from Culebra to San Juan, so the planes never really get that high off the ocean, but because of the bad weather, this Volkswagen my dad was in, flew, well, about as high as a Volkswagen.

"Very low, I can tell you that," he says. "What seems like several hundred feet above the water because the cloud cover is so low."

It didn't take long for the plane to make its way to the international airport, where it got in line with 747s and 757s and Airbuses.

"It was quite an experience coming in between all these large planes," my dad says.

Then the little plane landed.

"The pilot taxied around the back of the airport. We had no idea where we were going. At this point, we were just along for the ride, into an area where there didn't look like there was anything. But there was this single door, and we taxied over to within maybe 100 feet of that. He shut down the plane, we hopped out, grabbed our bags, followed the pilot over to this small door, he opened the door and we are literally inside the airport. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen."

Three hours later, my dad was back home in Pennsylvania.

For my dad, this was a great adventure. But for me, it raised a lot of troubling questions. Like the whole clandestine way it went down. No security in Culebra, secret door behind the airport. So I called Nico Melendez from the Transportation Security Administration to find out if all this was legal. Did my dad breach security by hitching a ride in an air taxi? He says, "No."

"Air taxis or those kinds of tools that are used in places like Culebra are very common," Melendez says. "Flying from Culebra to Puerto Rico, everything happened as is normal."

So my dad didn't breach security, because there isn't any security when you ride in an air taxi. That secret door? Just the air taxi's entrance. But here's the real kicker: This isn't just normal in Puerto Rico; it's normal in the United States. It's just that my dad didn't know about it until he went away.

So on your next three-day weekend, if you're headed to St. Louis and get stuck in Chicago, you can, according to my pilot friend, Jeff, just flag down a pilot in another part of the airport.

"You could go to 'Joe's Charter Service,'" he says. "And write them a check, give them your credit card and fly you to your destination."

It'll cost you more than the $150 my dad coughed up, but if you can round up some other people who need a ride, maybe.

  • Music Bridge:
    Untitled Bright Format V2
    Artist: Kiln
    CD: Ampday (Thalassa)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By chris james

    From cleveland, OH, 08/31/2008

    1 prop Cessna Caravan, turbo prop
    2 prop 9 passenger Britten Norman Islander Aircraft
    3 prop 18 seat Britten Norman Trislander
    according to Air Flamenco and Vieques Air Link

    By patrick cullumber

    From vancouver, WA, 08/30/2008

    Great story except one blaring oversight: What kind of plane was it?? Some of us aviation buffs are dying to know.

    By Michelle Saint-Germain

    From Carlsbad, CA, 08/30/2008

    In 1985 we were stranded by bad weather on Corn Island off Nicaragua. After 10 days of nothing but lobster (they have a packing plant there) we flagged down the pilot of a 3-seater plane who had landed to drop off some scuba divers. The next day he flew us home, informing us he had to fly extra high to avoid the SAM missles of the Contras. Despite the lack of cabin pressure or heat, we were just glad to get a ride home.

    By Raul Duke

    From CA, 08/30/2008

    What kind of plane was this?

    By chris james

    From cleveland, OH, 08/30/2008

    And your point in sharing this supposed
    lack of security with the whole world is what?

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