Often, the memorable things about traveling are things you wouldn’t want to repeat; the things that go wrong or nearly go wrong.
San Pedro, Belize is on an island so to get here you either need to come by boat, using the water taxi, or by small airplane. After taking the bus ride from Cancun to the Mexican/Belize border the only way to arrive in San Pedro the same day is to take the plane. So that’s what we have always done. [Update: Now there is an international water taxi.]
It’s not uncommon for people to be a bit nervous getting on a small plane – and by small I mean a Cessna that carries about 10 people – but the local airline we use has Cessna Grand Caravans. Caravans are a legendary plane in the Third World because they are more durable than a pick-up truck, can fly in and out of almost anywhere and they are powered by a very reliable jet engine that is connected to a propeller – this is known as a turboprop. A truly great aircraft.
However . . . when we arrived at the little Belize airport there was no Caravan waiting for us. Instead there was a much smaller plane called a Cessna 172 SP. That plane holds only four people and has a comparatively small – and orders of magnitude less reliable – piston engine. I only mention reliability because Belize is not a country known for its exacting maintenance. It’s not Germany. It’s not Switzerland. It’s ‘bailing wire for now and fix it better when the parts get here from Guatemala.’
Now I have a lot of trivia rattling around in my 50-something head but I don’t happen to know the exact weight and balance numbers for every aircraft right off the top of my head. But I know a 172 isn’t a heavy hauler by a long shot. And I know what I weigh, and I have an idea what Connie weighs, and I know our bags they’re piling in the empty seat weigh 130 pounds and I can see that the pilot has been eating well.
So I ask the pilot. “Hey, is there any chance we’re overweight? You know, I’m a pretty heavy guy”, I say, stating the obvious. “No problem.” He says with a confident wave of his hand. “Wait,” I say, “the fuel tanks aren’t full are they?” It’s a 30-minute flight and we don’t need the extra fuel weight. “Not quite full,” he says.
After I shoehorn my fat ass and 6’ 3” frame into the front seat I see we are carrying 80% fuel in both tanks. “Wait,” I say, “we’ve got nearly full fuel, what amounts to 2.5 passengers and 130 pounds of luggage plus a pilot. Maybe we’re overweight.” “No problem,” comes the smiling reply.
I’m not a private pilot but I have a good idea what happens when you overload a small plane on a hot day. It can’t take off in the length of the runway. Or it takes off but can only climb to about 40 feet and can’t be turned around without nose-diving into the jungle. Either way, we’re in the jungle.
A voice in my head is saying, “Pete, get out of this plane and wait for a Caravan.” Another voice is doing a math problem and asking, “can a 172 carry that much? Maybe. I think it maybe can. It might.”
By now we’re roaring along the runway toward the jungle. The plane slowly lifts off the runway but climbs like a tree sloth. I look back at Connie. She’s videotaping. Good. The kids will know what happened. As we clear the palm trees I look out my side window and I swear I can clearly see two caterpillars mating on a branch. The bigger one is smiling.
The engine screams as we make it to 1,000 feet over the ocean and mush our way to San Pedro. Every minute of flight means we are getting lighter with less fuel and landing is not a worry so I start to breathe again and the purple leaves my fingernail beds.
A week or so later I visited the Cessna website and looked up the relevant specs. Yup. We were more than 200 pounds over what the engineers say is safe. You pay your money, you take your chances. But strangely, these risky times are when you can really feel alive. It’s adventurous. It’s calculated risk.
Anyway, once you get to San Pedro it’s really welcoming and wonderful and it’s customary not to hold a grudge against the local airline. They’re doing the best they can.