|Tropic Air - Flying High With Caravans in Beautiful Belize!|
|For Tropic Air, a domestic airline in Belize, something simple sealed its commitment to flying Cessna Caravans:|
Once the company started flying the 208B aircraft, it started making money.
Steve Schulte, CEO and co-owner of the Central American airline, says he launched a personal campaign to get the Caravan after joining founder Johnny Greif III in the business in 1991. At the time, Tropic Air flew Twin Otters and had difficulty making money with the two-engine aircraft. Getting the airline’s first Caravan took until 1994 when a local businessman bought one and leased it to them.
“That turned the tide as far as making money,” Schulte says. “It was immediately apparent that the Cessna Caravan was economical.”
Caravan is Perfect Plane for Their Mission
Tropical, tourist-attracting Belize is just 180 miles from tip to tip, nestled along the Caribbean between Mexico and Honduras. Tropic Air flights are nearly all short hops, with missions running about 12 minutes, and the airline averaging 5.3 cycles per hour.
Most flights are to points dotted along the coast or on barrier-reef islands, as well as to the inland capital of Belmopan and to Flores, Guatemala. Outside of Flores and Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport serving Belize City, the strips it reaches are unimproved and just 3,000 to 6,000 feet long - a perfect environment for Caravans – Tropic Air flies nine, including two delivered in November.
“We fly into some pretty rugged, poorly maintained runways,” Schulte says.
“We needed its stall characteristics-
The Caravan is about the only modern, in production aircraft we can use.”
The international flights streaming into Goldson provide a tight window of operation, as they all arrive between noon and 4:30. That means the airline, operating day VFR, must get passengers up and down the coast quickly before sunset. Up to five Caravans operate on some flights, with up to 200 daily missions.
“One thing we didn’t realize at first was that the Caravan’s higher speed gave us more cycles to work with,” Schulte says.
For such a small country, Belize has incredible environmental diversity that draws sightseers from around the world.
“Our business is up 20 percent this year,” Schulte says. “Belize has retained its natural beauty, and is a destination for environmentalists and people in love with the sea. We have the largest living barrier reef in the world, and the water is crystal clear.”
Tourists can snorkel, sail, swim and fish in the blue waters off Ambergris Caye, the largest and northernmost of Belize’s 200 coastal islands, and its main town, San Pedro, is Tropic Air’s home. Caye Caulker, just south, is more laidback and less developed, a draw in itself, Schulte says.
To the north along the border is Corozal, which draws tourists backpacking from Mexico and Belizeans taking day trips to shop in Chetumal, Mexico. Belize City, a port, is the nation’s transportation, culture and economic hub.
Down the coastal highway lies Dangriga, called the “cultural capital of Belize.” The area is home to Sittee River resorts, which draw divers and travelers hoping to observe the world’s largest fish species, the whale shark. The coast has some of the country’s best beaches, and visitors can travel inland to a preserve and try to spot the elusive jaguar.
A bit farther south is Placencia, on a peninsula with miles of sandy beaches, diving and snorkeling on the nearby reef. Placencia also is a habitat of the whale shark, and is the fastestgrowing resort community in Belize. Tropic Air’s southernmost destination is Punta Gorda, which has native Mayan villages and cultural and fishing resorts.
In addition to those stops, Tropic Air also flies to Flores, Guatemala, a launching point for visits to the immense Mayan ruins at Tikal. Except for a Cessna 172 used for charters and two Gippsland Airvans, passengers fly on Caravans, and like it.
“Belize is a fairly new destination and is still drawing a lot of tourists who haven’t been to places where they have to fly in small planes,” Schulte says. “They say, ‘I never flew in a small airplane before but I’d rather fly in a small airplane than in a big one because I can see everything.’”
Growing an Airline
Schulte’s first trip to Belize convinced him to become a pilot. He’d gone through ground school when younger but hadn’t pursued his license until seeing the pilot of a Beech Baron become ill over the Gulf of Mexico. After that unsettling experience, he got his ticket back home in Moline, Ill.
Schulte ran a medical practice there but retired to Belize in 1990 – “and when I failed at that I got into the airline business.” A friend of the Greif family, he became co-owner in 1991 and found an airline quite like a medical practice.
“It was very similar to managing doctors,” he says. “It’s a time-sensitive service and if that time passes and nobody’s in that seat, the income is lost forever. It’s a service-oriented business and a high-tech business. And you’ve got about the same liabilities.”
The purchase of the airline’s next and subsequent Caravans came via Cessna Finance. “After we got the second Caravan, our two competitors chose not to buy Caravans. The Caravans were faster, more comfortable with better seats and nice windows to view the reef and sea.”
“Within a matter of four or five years, as we added Caravans, our competitors shrank away.”
On most flights Tropic Air uses one-man crews, carrying 14 passengers, including one in the co-pilot’s seat. “We’ve met a lot of Cessna pilots over the years. They say, ‘I’m a pilot, can I sit up front?’ We like to have fellow aviators in the right seat.”
Flying in Belize poses its challenges. The frequent cycles ask a lot of any plane, of course. Then there are localized storms and the extremely high-salt environment, especially at its San Pedro base, where it does its maintenance. Schulte says they’ve been amazed at how well the corrosion-proofing works.
Tropic Air is on its 16th and 17th Caravans, and currently operates nine. Recently it sold one with 50,000 cycles.
“We don’t really see a specific useful life of the airplane. Our only decision for replacement is technological,” Schulte says. “You’re buying something that will last our lifetime and the only reason you’d want to replace it is to upgrade the technology.”
For them, that new technology is the Garmin 1000 cockpit. Schulte and Greif are longtime converts to GPS – dropping out of the clouds on a charter flight, lined up with a mountainside, tree-lined airstrip will do that.
The Garmin 1000 takes technology and safety to another level with Terrain Awareness and Synthetic Vision, the field is on the screen while you’re still in the clouds.
The airline intends to extend its route into Honduras, to San Pedro Sula and Roatan, and would like to develop an inter-line agreement with La Costena, the Nicaraguan airline and Cessna dealer.
“Our expertise is in the Caravan and in small, emerging markets, and I see a lot of growth potential for that, without penetrating the mountain chain of Central America,” Schulte says.
And Tropic Air has just the equipment to serve its coastal niche. “We can attest that, at five cycles per hour, the Caravan is a nearly bulletproof airplane,” Schulte says.