Like all of the Bahamas, the approach into Staniel Cay is filled with breathtaking views. Crosswinds are frequent, so over-flying first is key.
There's no place on Earth like The Bahamas. It almost seems like the entire chain of 700 islands was imagined and created by some ancient pilot with a passion for intense beauty and tranquility. While Tahiti, Fiji and Polynesia have their stunning beaches and coral reefs, no other place else on Earth can match the accessibility, beauty, friendliness and affordability of The Bahamas. If you add unmatched snorkeling, fishing, diving and boating, you begin to see the place for what it is: paradise.
A lot has been written about this chain of islands that dot the mesmerizing emerald and turquoise waters southeast of Florida, and there's a reason they appear in aviation publications around the world. In layman's terms, they're tailor-made for general aviation; there's no better way to experience these unbelievable islands.
Some 54 landing facilities cover 100,000 square miles of shallow, swirling blue water strewn with more islands than Polynesia or Hawaii, including 2,000 pristine inlets and cays (pronounced "keys"). Five percent of the world's coral reefs live here, with sea life to match. The people of The Bahamas have wisely fostered a deep love affair with pilots and airplanes, and have created a burgeoning and friendly infrastructure that beckons them. A small airplane here's like a Super Cub in Alaska: right at home.
But there remains an enormous percentage of active U.S. pilots who have never ventured to The Bahamas. For West Coasters in particular, the idea of flying general aviation to these postcard islands seems like a faraway possibility, a kind of pipe dream that might be added to the bucket list someday, but probably won't happen. It seems too expensive and too daunting.
That's precisely what I thought until I landed in Nassau, on the Bahamian island of New Providence, in 2010, to assist with earthquake relief for Haiti, which had been nearly leveled a few days earlier by a massive temblor. Flying over the surrounding islands, I discovered places that looked like what I had seen in travel posters and coffee table books. I could have been in Bora Bora, Seychelles or the Maldives. But I was here, only 70 nm from Miami, yet a millennium away. I took notes and vowed to return. A whirlwind "familiarization" trip a year later sponsored by the Bahamas Tourism Board cemented my resolve to return. With pencil and computer mouse in hand, I began concocting the ideal aviation journey.
The Cessna 182 was perfect for four people and limited baggage.
The Basics: Planning
The trip would involve four adults for a nine-day island-hopping adventure using general aviation to allow us to experience several islands and locations. Except for Nassau (MYNN) and Freeport (MYGF), there are no authorized IFR approaches, so this would be a VFR trip. I don't own a four-place airplane, so I'd need to rent, borrow or beg for an aircraft.
Unless you own a fast turbine aircraft, flying to the Bahamas from the West Coast just isn't practical. My budget was limited, so travelling 2,500 miles each way from my home in California in a rented airplane was out of the question. We'd fly commercial to Florida and launch from there.
Island hopping is convenient, a lot of fun and saves money over taking inter-island commercial flights.
Today, there are a number of FBOs in Florida who'll rent to pilots wanting to fly to The Bahamas. This is ideal because many of them function as "Bahamas Gateway" FBOs, or are affiliated with them, meaning they have specific knowledge of Bahamian operations and can assist with things like life-raft rentals and customs forms. A current listing of these FBOs can be found on www.bahamas.com/fbos.
The key to the idea of renting in Florida is advanced planning. I discovered Flight Training Professionals (FTP) in Orlando and contacted Manager Ed Comisky nine months prior to our trip. A stellar FBO with a solid reputation, they have an excellent G1000-equipped Cessna 182T that they make available for Bahamas rental. All FBOs who rent internationally have increased requirements with regard to piloting experience, insurance, currency, etc. A trip like this isn't realistic for a newly minted pilot, because PIC time requirements hover around 500 hours. Some FBOs also require an instrument rating. Start your search early, so you can get your ducks in a row well before your trip.
FTP requires a thorough written check-out, an aircraft checkout, time with the G1000, logbook copies, identifying information and other paperwork. Ed was a breeze to work with, and I began the process immediately. To help meet the requirements, I rented a Cessna 182T at home and got a complete checkout, as well as flew it around for several hours. Though I was familiar with the G1000, I used the King G1000 course, as well as Sporty's desktop software, to really dial in my skills.
All FBOs I spoke with require an in-person checkout in the airplane prior to flying it to the islands. After ensuring everything was complete and approved, I scheduled my checkout for the morning we were to leave for the islands. In retrospect, that was a bit aggressive, and I should have allowed an extra day. Florida is known for its afternoon thunderstorms, so launching for the islands early in the morning (instead of waiting for a checkout) would have been ideal.
Entering the Bahamas and dealing with Customs is a simple and pleasant experience.
Schedules Or Seclusion?
There are really two Bahamas; the first is the one most people know, with cruise ships, luxury resorts, shopping, sightseeing and great restaurants. And the second is what Bahamians call the "Out Islands." These are a handful of islands that are "out there," away from the bustle of the more popular destinations. The calling card of the Out Islands is seclusion and quiet. Yes, there's snorkeling, but it's done on your own, not with a group. Restaurants are small and tend to be people's homes, with limited menus and hours; "resorts" are little cottages on the sand with the Caribbean's warm, crystal waters lapping up on pristine, pink shores. Beaches are empty and vast. These are the Islands of Eleuthera, Cat, The Exumas and San Salvador. These are The Bahamas' jewels.
General aviation provides the only practical way to experience several islands on a single trip. Without GA, the only way to go from one island to the next is via an expensive island-hopper airline that originates in Nassau, itself requiring a round-trip ticket from each island.
If you're not up for the craziness of Nassau but prefer something less secluded than the remote Out Islands, consider Abaco, Andros, Treasure Cay or Bimini. You won't go wrong with any of the main Bahamian islands, and each one has its own vibe and rhythm.
Since my wife Clea and I would be flying the trip as couples with our best friends Brian and Carrie, we met several times beforehand to select the destinations that would encompass what we all liked to do. Our aviation odyssey would center around Governor's Harbour on the magical island of Eleuthera. Eleuthera has some of the most beautiful beaches anywhere, with pink sand that originates from different coral worn down by eons of sea currents. Brian is an avid snorkeler and sea life aficionado, while his wife prefers relaxing in the warm, shallow aquamarine waters.
From Eleuthera, we'd explore the famous beaches of Harbor Island, then venture down to Staniel Cay in the Exumas chain to rent a small boat. We'd use it to dive the famed "Thunderball Grotto," head to Compass Key to swim with nurse sharks and then visit the swimming feral pigs on Big Major Key. An airplane would allow us a day or two on remote Cat Island with the incomparable Fernandez Bay Resort and its renowned restaurant and postcard beach. The Hermitage (the highest point in The Bahamas) is a must-see, as is the famed Blue Hole, and numerous shipwrecks. What we would see the least of is other people.
French Leave Beach on Eleuthera is just minutes from Governor's Harbour Airport.
Instant Engine Roughness
Launching out past the Florida shore in a single-engine aircraft isn't for the faint of heart. Nearly a year of planning had me feeling good about our preparation, but nothing prepares you for all that water. I had to keep reminding myself that these trips are made every day by sport pilots in light-sport aircraft without incident.
A peculiar engine roughness appeared as we passed the shore and climbed to 7,500 feet, with a rhythmic vibration every few seconds. Everything looked good, so we forged ahead, dodging the building cumulus typical of May afternoons. For novices, the best time to fly The Bahamas is December to April, when thunderstorms are rare. One interesting trait of these islands is that VFR is the rule and not the exception. Clouds dot the sky at about 2,000 feet in the morning, building up toward the afternoon, but staying scattered and mostly over land. Experienced pilots here say you can spot the islands because that's where the clouds build in an otherwise empty sky.
Because flying The Bahamas is international, certain steps have to be taken and specific tasks done in advance. One of those is filing the eAPIS (Electronic Advance Passenger Information System). eAPIS merits an entire article, but the basics are simple. The process is all done electronically from your computer. It consists of a Notice of Departure (from the U.S.) and a Notice of Arrival, and lists you, your aircraft and your passengers. eAPIS filing can be done months or weeks in advance of your trip and will require private information from your passengers, including dates of birth, passport numbers, etc. AOPA has an excellent eAPIS tutorial available at http://flash.aopa.org/asf/eAPIS/.
GPS navigation eliminates much of the danger posed by magnetic anomalies in this part of the ocean.
Over-water flying is something you either do or don't do, and this article won't sway you to either side. Suffice it to say that we mitigated the risks in several ways. First, the water off The Bahamas is famously shallow (sometimes only waist-deep). Ditching here isn't as treacherous as in true open ocean. Second, we carried personal locator beacons (PLBs), quality life vests and a life raft with provisions. Lastly, I requested Flight Following and stayed in contact with Miami Center, Miami Radio and Nassau Approach the entire flight, so I could transmit a mayday instantly. I had also filed an international flight plan.
An indispensable item both in planning and in the cockpit was the Bahamas Pilot's Guide, which is published by Pilot Publishing, Inc., (www.pilotpub.com/) in Indio, Calif. The best Bahamas resource I've seen by far, the book is substantial and contains everything you'd ever need as a pilot flying the Bahamas (and under $35). They also sell a Bahamas VFR chart, which was the item I used the most during the trip. Also useful is the free pilot's guide put out by The Bahamas at http://www.bahamas.com/private-flying.
Once you get past the first 75 miles or so of ocean, the numerous islands of the Bahamas fill your windscreen along with the iridescent blue of the ocean that surrounds them. It's easy to stay within gliding distance of land. Past Freeport, all the Out Islands are within reach, and it's just a matter of flying into an Airport of Entry and clearing Bahamian Customs—a ridiculously easy task that takes just minutes.
All About The People
To me, The Bahamas are all about the warm, friendly people there. Bahamians are famous for their smiling personalities and the effort they put into making sure guests are taken care of. They quickly become your friends. One morning, we set out for The Exumas in the trusty Cessna, and we were a bit late getting back. Cindy, the airport manager at Governor's Harbour, was still in the office as we arrived—odd considering the sun was setting. "We were worried about you guys," she said, looking relieved. "It was getting late, so I stayed to make sure you landed okay."
Our time on the islands was filled with all the wonder one can imagine, and it was general aviation that made it all possible. All told, the cost of flying ourselves versus the cost of flying via commercial airlines was about 25% less, which surprised all of us. It was an adventure, a learning experience and a testament to what our "little airplanes" can do. And the best part? Any pilot can do it.
25 Bahamas Flying Tips
|1. File inter-island flight plans when traveling between islands. In case of ditching, someone will look for you. Also, in many areas, you can be out of reach of radar, so if you go down, nobody will know.
2. Purchase the Bahamas Pilot's Guide and Bahamas VFR charts. These contain frequencies, fuel and runway information, phone numbers and much more. This has been the Bahamas "bible" for decades.
3. Call ahead for fuel. Fuel in The Bahamas comes to airports via barges. Restocking can sometimes take weeks or longer. Even if an airport is supposed to have fuel, they may not, so call before you fly to make sure they have avgas. Also, fuel is about $1 more per gallon in The Bahamas.
4. Crosswind technique. Most airports in The Bahamas face North-South, whereas the wind is almost always East-West. It can blow pretty hard, so be comfortable with crosswinds.
5. Carry FSS phone numbers. The "blue phones" in every Bahamian airport that are supposed to connect you with FSS are frequently not working. Finding the phone number can sometimes be difficult, so carry it with you.
6. Bring your own chocks and tiedown ropes. The islands can get windy, and there are no ropes or chocks to be found. Hardware stores are few and far between.
7. Print and bring along extra copies of the C7A form. The C7A form is the inward declaration and cruising permit specially created by Bahamas Customs for GA pleasure flights. Procedures vary from airport to airport, and sometimes they keep the form, sometimes not. So, print several at home and pre-fill them in.
8. Fly above 7,000 feet. Radio reception as you get farther away from Florida can be iffy. Flying high ensures that Miami or Nassau will hear you.
9. Bring your own oil. Oil is expensive and sparse at different airports. Carry a few extra quarts to save yourself some headaches (and money).
10. Be aware of "Island Time." Things move slower here than in the U.S. Bahamians call it being on "Island Time." Allow extra time for all tasks: fueling, customs, radio calls, etc. Don't expect U.S.-style speediness. People aren't in a hurry here.
11. Give your right-seater a task. Your right-seat passenger can help with navigation, traffic, fueling, keeping charts organized, frequencies, customs forms, etc. It will ease the pressure of an unfamiliar flight to an international destination.
12. File the outbound and return eAPIS at the same time. Internet access in the Islands can be spotty or nonexistent. File both legs from home and avoid a last-minute hassle.
13. Bring life vests from home. Life-raft and life-vest rental is expensive. For the price, you can purchase your own quality vests. Rent the life raft in Florida, but not at an FBO. There are several around town.
14. Carry a "customs bag." Island hopping requires the same forms and identification over and over. Keep a small bag with all the forms and your identification, so you can grab it and go without searching. It saves time.
15. Confirm flight plans. Even though you file and open a flight plan, it may not actually get done when you file with Nassau FSS. Make a second call and confirm the flight plan is filed and opened.
16. Observe local traffic patterns. All airport traffic patterns are to the left. Don't fly straight-ins and exotic pattern entries. Stick to the basics.
17. Review ditching procedures. Ditching is survivable here. Review ditching procedures and techniques well before you go.
18. Carry cash for fuel. Not all FBOs take credit cards, so bring some cash for fuel.
19. Sticker shock. Groceries, gas, hardware, supplies and restaurants are more expensive because everything is barged in. Be prepared.
20. Rent private homes. Rather than stay in hotels, use Homeaway.com to rent private homes. With four or more people, you'll find it's usually more cost effective by a good margin.
21. PLB. A Personal Locator Beacon is essential equipment for over-water flying. It will save your life.
22. Flying Ambassador Program. The Bahamas in conjunction with American authorities have designated 12 individuals as pilot ambassadors. These are pilots with extensive experience flying The Bahamas, and they'll answer your questions directly. They are an excellent resource. A list is available at www.bahamas.com/flying-ambassadors.
23. Pet permits. You can bring your pet to the islands, but you'll need a permit by calling Bahamian Agriculture, (242) 325-7502.
24. Avoid an intercept. When returning to the U.S., don't forget to contact Miami to get a discreet squawk code before penetrating the ADIZ.
25. Pilot Discounts. Extensive discounts on fuel and accommodations are provided by the Bahamians for pilots flying there. Get the latest official deals at www.bahamas.com.
|FROM U.S. TO THE BAHAMAS:
• File a VFR or IFR Flight Plan
• File an eAPIS manifest (do outbound and inbound at same time)
• Must have a Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person onboard
• Activate Flight Plan with FSS before leaving Florida
• Prior to landing in The Bahamas, close your flight plan with Nassau radio on 124.2 or 128.00 or by phone with Nassau at (242) 377-7176.
• Must land at a Bahamian airport of entry (AOE) to clear customs
• Need to turn in three copies of the C7A declaration form and Bahamas immigration card for each person
• Must pay "Customs Processing Fee" of $50/aircraft on entry
TO RE-ENTER THE U.S.:
EQUIPMENT REQUIRED FOR FLYING TO THE BAHAMAS: