Tom Gutmann Jr.’s Flight Design CTLSi with beautiful composite Clamar floats rocks gently in the shallow surf of a lagoon between two uninhabited islands, a few miles flight south of Bimini. LSA that are water capable get an additional 110-pound weight allowance (1,430 pounds total) from the FAA.
Many things draw people from around the world to the 700 islands that make up the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, off the southeastern coast of Florida. For me, it’s the water, the sky and how an LSA flies through it.
Always, there’s the sea that wears the islands like jewels. The waters astonish in their clarity and gradations of stunning color, from palest crystal aquamarine, through teal and rich shades of turquoise, to settle finally further offshore over deep seabed chasms into notes of profound cerulean and indigo that reverberate through your soul like a chorus of symphonic bass notes.
The Bahamas are, for a photographer like myself, like an astonishing set of paints to play with. You can imagine my frustrations then when nagging clouds kept my camera on the ground for a good part of our trip. Even now, on our third day of the four-day LSA flyout from Florida, I stand amidst a famous ruin instead of plying the skies above: It’s still cloudy.
Ernest Hemingway lived right here in room #1 of the Compleat Angler hotel. Now, all that’s left of that favorite watering hole for large-living fishermen like “Papa” are a few burned-out fingers of crumbling cement, reaching into the leaden sky over Bimini Island. This landmark hotel, where the great writer and swaggering “man’s man” of his day wrote stories and portions of the novel, To Have And Have Not, burned to the ground on Friday the 13th of January 2004.
But the island the literary lion loved, and upon which he wrote a good portion of his legend, is alive and well and beautiful as ever.
The Big Flyout
Our trip launched at 2 p.m. the last day of the 2013 Sebring Sport Aviation Expo. Strong winds, cloudy skies, and some rain and winter storms to the north kept some visitors and vendors alike from attending.
Mike Zidziunas, (“Mike Z” as he’s known), began leading LSA flyout gaggles to the Bahamas in 2010. The first big trip, a rousing success, visited the islands 17 LSA strong. You can read how he made it happen in my story in an upcoming issue.
Taxiing across a pristine shallow bay to meet up with an amphibian SeaRey on a sandbar.
|Dan Nickens and Tom Gutmann (right) chat as only seabirds can: after a water arrival.|
Nine aircraft flew: a Beech B58 Baron, mid-restoration straight-tail Cessna 172, and seven LSA, including two amphibians (SeaRey and SeaMax), a floatplane (Flight Design CTLS) and four land-only birds (Flight Design CTLSi, Paradise P-1 and two Breezer IIs).
The CT cranks and banks near Bimini.
After a thorough pilot’s briefing by Leonard Stuart, Aviation Manager for Bahamas Ministry of Tourism who works closely with Mike Z, everyone scrambled around making final preparations.
Mike Z, who had been a very busy boy running his dealership booth, flying a Breezer formation of four aircraft for the evening air shows and coordinating the flyout, grew frazzled at midday: Some pilots hadn’t shown up at the briefing and were scratched. A couple others inexplicably failed to post their required e-APIS Flight Manifest online, and now it was too late. Our initial group of 13 aircraft shrank to nine.
A contributing factor was likely the ominous, blustery gloom of an approaching storm front. But Mike Z had an ace up his sleeve: sailing friend Chris Parker, a crackerjack marine-weather forecaster.
Depending on who you talked to, the weather was: “Just fine, mon!” (from a native Bahamanian); “Not flyable for two days,” (from an American LSA pilot/dealer) or, “No problem,” (from Chris Parker, who predicted overcast-but-good flying weather on all four days.) Chris Parker turned out to be dead right.
So it was that 18 pilots, spousal units, relatives and friends/colleagues lined up at air show center for the big loudspeaker announcement at 2 p.m. But a light drizzle deterred any public from attending: so much for the big send-off.
Dan Johnson gets the up-close and personal treatment by Mort Crim, former ABC journalist, who’s making a documentary of the trip.
This flyout, directly from Sebring to Grand Bahama’s 11,500-foot airport runway, was the third annual chapter of the post-Sebring event. Mike Z was ably supported throughout by Jacob Peed’s Aviators Hot Line publication, which helped with sponsoring, disseminating important flying and lodging information to pilots, and securing much-welcome discounts from hotels on Grand Bahama and Bimini.
And off we all went. Departure fortunately was uneventful, the threatening weather was spot-on as Parker said it would be, and within an hour and a half, we were all down safely at Grand Bahama International.
In The Islands, Mon!
After unloading and carting our bags to customs, Leonard Stuart introduced us to members of Bahamas Tourism and their lovely reception with refreshments.
We drove a short way to the Grand Lucayan hotel, a vaulting and well-appointed destination with many welcome amenities, including quality restaurants, a cigar bar for the pilots to brandish their best Schwarzenegger brio and a resplendent serpentine pool—600 feet long, with water the same temperature as the nearby ocean (with a private beach, to boot).
The sleek composite SeaMax south of Bimini.
From our room, my wife Tomma and I drank in the luxurious burning blues and greens of sky and water and sunset golds that lit up the day’s-end cloud cover. The pace after the busy show began to slow.
I dared not ask anyone to fly a photo mission on our first full day. It was kickback time. Right across from our hotel, the Port Lucaya Marketplace served up a colorful bazaar of shops with all the shopping-worthy amenities you could want. Several restaurants made choosing where to eat a real challenge. There was even an open courtyard for dancing that we enjoyed one night after dinner.
The next day, an athletic young island man performed the limbo there. He magically contorted his body under a bar resting delicately atop two island-staple Kalik Gold beer bottles six feet apart, just eight inches high, without once touching the ground. Those bottles should have been Guinness: That was one record-worthy performance!
Our group enjoyed a genuine bonhomie sufficient to bring us together every night for shared meals. Wine and beer flowed; sumptuous ocean-caught meals disappeared from our plates.
After one full day, we climbed aboard our planes to head to the Bimini Big Game Resort, a comfortable lodging place right on the interior bay of Bimini Island.
Pilots and airport staff in Grand Bahama.
I began to fret that the air-to-air shooting I craved might never happen when another overcast departure—this time with Dan Johnson in his new four-partner-owned CTLSi—scratched my hopes for photography. Grrr!
Bimini is a smaller island than Grand Bahama but has its own airport with a commuter plane-capable 5,409-foot runway. Wicked 90-degree north crosswinds spilled over the trees lining runway 09 that afternoon. Everyone gathered later at the hotel bar for another cheery reception from Bahamas Tourism and to share some war stories of challenging landings.
Johnson pulled off our landing with great skill, but it was a nasty roller-coaster ride the last 50 feet to touchdown. Others reported at least one go-around; it doesn’t get much tougher than that day.
The next morning was cloudy again, so Leonard Stuart led us to some island spots. We met his brother who prepared a delicious fresh-harvested conch salad (pronounced “conk,” this shellfish is a mainstay of the Bahamas) in his little restaurant shack on the beach, right next to a mountain of conch shells.
Another highlight: a visit to boatbuilder Ansil Saunders, an elderly Bimini-born bone-fisherman with world-record catches to his credit. A born storyteller, Mr. Saunders mesmerized us with his accounts of fishing and guiding Martin Luther King Jr. through the island waters of Bimini, when Dr. King worked on the speech that would earn him the Noble Peace Prize.
Friends Of A Feather
At last, my photo ops came. And now my takeaway memories from our stay in the Bahamas wear the faces of six of our group who made possible the photos you see here. These pilots shared their time, aircraft and superb flying skills with great generosity in the final (sunny!) 18 hours of our island stay.
Dan Johnson flew his CTLSi for the camera and as high cover. He also flew copilot Mort Crim, renowned ABC news anchor from the heyday of television news journalism. Crim had flown over in his Paradise P-1 (perfect name for the islands!) to film a documentary on Bahamas flying.
Bahamas daydreams at the Grand Lucayan hotel.
Water, sand and sky the CT way.
Tom Gutmann Jr. of Tulsa’s Airtime Aviation (the top U.S. Flight Design dealer) flew superb formation in his float-equipped CTLS in the only golden-light period we had, the evening before we left for home. He also flew the CT as photoship when we chased Dan Nickens and Adam Yang in their SeaRey S-LSA and a SeaMax piloted by Richard Rofe and dealer John Rathmell, to a small, uninhabited island south of Bimini.
Nickens parlayed his 4,000 hours of SeaRey time to my great advantage with terrific formation flying. I flew in the SeaRey and the CT on floats, made several water landings, and find myself wondering, yet again, how to afford an LSA seaplane. Flying over water with floats or an amphib hull beneath you removes the anxiety factor.
You can set down anywhere. And taxiing in crystal Bahama waters only a foot deep is a special joy, trust me. Just make sure it’s deep enough to “land!”
Final dinner gathering at the Bimini Sands Resort.
Rofe and Rathmell spent a lot of money getting the SeaMax over just to be part of the action. Weather had prevented Rofe from flying the SeaMax to the Expo. He went home, flew the SeaMax to Florida from his Long Island, N.Y., home, filed his first flight plan ever in the process, and joined us the last evening we were there. Talk about determination.
Such stories weave common threads into the tapestry of pilot lore. These flying brothers happily and without complaint, banded together for my camera. Each demonstrated how versatile and nimble LSA are for close work, and reminded me how important good flying skills, constant communication and a willingness to be part of the fun are part of that special bond pilots share. To them I say, thank you, one and all.
Home, James, And Quickly
Returning to the U.S. aboard a Beech B58 Baron, owned and superbly flown by Mark DuCorsky and his wife Paula, we landed at Ft. Lauderdale after a 30-minute flight and breezed through customs.
Later, we cruised toward Sebring above the vastly different landscape of central Florida’s Everglades and immense farmland rectangles. My mind drifted back to those islands in our slipstream, to the amazing colors of the water, to these wonderful LSA we’re privileged to fly.
Do yourself a huge favor: Take an LSA trip to the Bahamas one of these days. Find out what sport flying is really all about.
Bahama Flyout ABCs
|When I first contemplated flying to the Bahamas, the very idea of all that imagined paperwork was daunting. Mike Zidziunas and the Bahamas Tourist Office have made it a non-event.
In truth, other than needing to get permission to fly around in Bimini’s large interior bay, which Leonard Stuart did in time accomplish for us, everything was straightforward.
Here’s a brief rundown of what’s required to slip the bonds of our national airspace:
1. File a flight plan.
Returning to the U.S. is pretty much the same drill: File the e-APIS manifest and file a flight plan. Next, call U.S. Customs at an AOE (Florida has 11, including Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and Orlando) from the islands by phone before you take off. Then, leave the Bahamas from an AOE and activate your flight plan. Next, get the discrete squawk code by radio and land in the U.S. Last, clear customs and close your VFR flight plan.
Although returning to the U.S. requires a little more scheduling precision, such as filing your flight plan within an hour of your actual takeoff, no one on our trip had the slightest problem.
For complete information on how to join the fun, including the latest 2012-2013 Private Pilot Guide, Bahamas VFR Flight Planning Chart and more, visit the Bahamas Tourist Office online at www.bahamas.com/flying and contact LSA Flying Ambassador Mike Zidziunas at www.breezeraircraftusa.com.