The Flight to Vieques Island, Puerto Rico

Fifth in a series on Puerto Rico.

Vieques Air Link BN-2 Islander at VQS
Vieques Air Link BN-2 Islander at VQS

To Isla Grande

Charlie Rental Car provides a shuttle service to nearby Isla Grande Airport from their Condado rental facility.  After a series of delays during check-in and the shuttle driving being detailed to other tasks for half an hour, we were surprised when the front desk lady just gave us $20 to catch a taxi from the stand at La Concha Hotel, rather steeply reducing their profit on the $47 rental!  On the way to the airport the cabbie casually remarked in Spanish that the authorities were salvaging a plane that had crashed into the bay yesterday.  Indeed, a small twin engine aircraft was sitting on some grass by the water surrounded by fire apparatus near the bridge connected Condado with Old San Juan.  Good thing I’m no longer a nervous flier.  Well, not that nervous…

Flying Vieques Air Link out of Isla Grande (officially Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport, or SIG) was a completely new experience for me compared to large scale commercial aviation.  The small airport is exempt from watchful gaze of the TSA.  There is no security screening, no metal detectors.  Surprisingly, I didn’t even have to show ID, just the itinerary document.  For balancing purposes we had to provide our weights and have all luggage including carry-ons weighed.  The luggage allowance on VAL is only 25lbs a person including carry-ons, so we ended up having to pay a $25 overweight fee ($1/pound). Since it’s based on actual luggage weight and it’s for a small plane where weight management is critical I found this baggage fee a bit less aggravating than those on most larger domestic airlines.

SIG's terminal viewed at takeoff
SIG’s terminal viewed at takeoff

Outbound Flight

There’s a certain elegant simplicity to flying out of SIG- you simply wait for the roll call of passengers before the flight.  VAL employees escorted us outside to the aircraft sitting on the apron, a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander.  It was by far the smallest fixed wing aircraft I’d ever flown in.  Even our carry-on luggage had to go into the cargo hold before boarding.  We were directed to specific seats- I had the one right behind the empty co-pilot seat.  It was certainly an interesting experience being able to see all the instruments and the view out the front windscreen.  The safety briefing consisted of: buckle your seatbelt, here’s a life vest, enjoy the flight.  A few minutes taxiing and we were at the start of Isla Grande’s single runway.  The handling characteristics of small aircraft really are something.  I’d be surprised if we used more than a quarter of the runway before hopping off the deck.  The views were quite good as we passed the convention center and flew east along the coast and over SJU.  Larger commercial flights ascend quickly to altitudes where haze obscures some of the scenery, but the VAL flight didn’t go higher than 1,500′.

Punta Piedrita
Punta Piedrita

Stability aboard the Islander was significantly less than on larger jetliners.  North of El Yunque we flew through a rain cloud which entailed a lot of chop.  Water streaming in the cabin from ports in the windows certainly was unexpected.  We also weren’t particularly high above a range of hills a few hundred feet below.  There wouldn’t be a lot of recovery time if anything happened.  I shot Rachel an uncomfortable glance as we rattled around the cloudbank.  Rachel was used to flying in smaller aircraft and sort of laughed at me, unconcerned.  I’m pretty much used to women who aren’t scared by turbulence making me look bad.  Back in 2005 on my first long distance flight, to Japan, when I was anything but a confident traveler, our B777 flew into some moderate turbulence.  I glanced at my seatmate.  I really hoped that she was more nervous than I was.  Heck, maybe she’d be so scared, I’d comfort her.  “Pretty nasty turbulence,” I remarked to my seatmate.   “Not really,” she replied nonchalantly.  Ooooo, emasculated.  (Being a volunteer firefighter now, I feel like I can laugh at my own irrational fears without losing too much dignity…)

Vieques Airport on approach
VQS on approach

The sun came out as we approached the east end of the main island of Puerto Rico and crossed the strait towards Vieques.  The island was hillier than I realized- Mt. Pirata (Pirate Mountain) at the west end of the island is almost 1000′ tall.  Our pilot brought us in for a smooth landing at Antonio Rivera Rodríguez Airport (VQS).  We were not allowed to collect our luggage planeside and had to wait about 15 minutes for it to be unloaded onto what must surely be the world’s smallest baggage carrousel, a loop maybe 10′ in length loaded directly from the other side of a roll-up door!

Ricky from Avis picked us up and got us checked out in considerably better time than Charlie.  All the tourists on Vieques are issued Jeep Wranglers, either because regular passenger cars don’t hold up well on the island’s rough roads or so that locals can spot tourists coming a mile away.  Ricky seemed chill about the prospect of the Jeep picking up more scratches on the doors as there doesn’t seem to be anyway to drive on any but Vieques’s main routes without scraping some foliage!  It was at least comforting that there would be no wild goose chases looking for fuel the morning of our departure, since the only two gas stations left on the island were right next door!

Old San Juan seen on approach to Isla Grande Airport.  The blue mansion at top is La Fortaleza, completed in 1540.
Old San Juan seen on approach to Isla Grande Airport. The blue mansion at top is La Fortaleza, completed in 1540.

Return Flight

Our return flight the morning of Friday March 13, 2015 was considerably smoother than the outbound flight…enough that Rachel even managed to fall asleep despite the loud engine noise.  We got outstanding views of Old San Juan as we looped around the Atlantic side of the island with great views of Castillo del Morro before descending over San Juan Bay approaching SIG from the west.  Unlike at VQS, we collected our luggage planeside before heading out to catch a taxi.

Series about Puerto Rico


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