Pilotage

Boys to the Bahamas

July 1, 2004

Mark R. Twombly recently bought into a partnership in a Piper Aztec affectionately called "The Aztruck."

The year is developing nicely. Not quite a third of it had passed before I'd made three international overwater trips in light aircraft.

OK, so Florida to the Bahamas isn't quite the same extreme flying adventure as a transatlantic crossing, but it'll do. Especially when there is scuba gear stowed in the baggage compartment. Flying and diving — effective medication to treat the headaches of life on the surface of the Earth.

The most recent trip involved nine guys. The organizer, Don Abbott, billed it as "Boys to the Bahamas." We traveled in three airplanes, landed on six islands, stayed at three different resorts, dove in the waters off a couple of islands, and had a fine time.

Eight of the nine had traveled together before, but never in a light airplane and never to the Bahamas. I was the new guy. I figured I was invited because they only had two airplanes, Abbott's Beechcraft Debonair and Al Lane's Piper Aztec. Abbott needed a few more seats for the group to stay within the comfort envelope, and I guess the ones in my Piper Twin Comanche looked attractive.

It didn't take much to persuade me to offer my airplane and my services as a pilot and dive buddy. Like I said, anything to avoid the surface of the Earth. So it was decided: With the addition of the Twin Comanche we'd have five engines, 26 cylinders, and 1,080 horsepower carting the boys to the Bahamas. Then, a couple of weeks before the departure date, I sold my interest in the Twinco and it left town, permanently, for its new home in Kansas City, Missouri.

Since I had committed to providing a third airplane for the Bahamas flight, I now had to come up with plan B. It came to me in the guise of a cherry, 145-horsepower, Continental O-300-powered Cessna 172.

It belongs to Bill Traum, one of the Bahamas boys. Traum hadn't considered taking his airplane on the trip because he'd not yet flown to the Bahamas, and was unsure of the procedures. I volunteered to ride shotgun and show him the ropes if he was up for it. He jumped at the chance.

The plan was to depart Fort Myers on a Friday morning and fly to the Berry Islands to clear Bahamian customs and immigration before proceeding to Norman's Cay in the Exuma chain for lunch. From there we would fly to Stella Maris on Long Island and our first overnight.

Day two called for a very brief hop over to Hawk's Nest on the "toe" of boot-shape Cat Island, and our second overnight stay. On day three we planned to fly to North Eleuthera, and take ground and water taxis over to quaint Harbor Island. Day four would be devoted to the flight back to the United States.

With but 39 gallons usable fuel, Traum and I decided a more prudent outbound itinerary for us would be to stop in Nassau to fill the tanks, and clear customs there. We had enough to make Stella Maris, which has fuel, but when you're cruising around the Bahamas in an airplane of modest performance and range, it just doesn't make sense to overfly a perfectly good gas stop.

Leaving Fort Myers, Traum and I established a pattern that would dog us throughout the trip: We took off first, and landed last. It was to be expected, given the hefty speed advantage of the Debonair and Aztec. But boys will be boys, and the competitive juices were flowing.

Traum was especially keen to get there — anywhere — before Abbott. It's a complicated story, but Traum bought his Skyhawk from Abbott. Characteristically, Abbott had loaded it up with maximum gadgetry. There just didn't seem to be anything left to do to the airplane to imprint Traum's personality on it. Beating Abbott's Debonair to one or two of our Bahamas destinations would help, and that became our consuming goal.

It sure didn't happen at Norman's Cay, our first rendezvous. Lane and Abbott stood on the ramp and watched Traum make the approach and landing on the windswept runway. Following what may have been the best cheeseburger lunch ever, Traum and I sprinted for the Skyhawk and charged off to Long Island before the rest could react. If we'd made straight for Stella Maris we might have been first to arrive, but we couldn't resist flying low along the incredibly beautiful Exuma chain of islands to Georgetown, then across the water to Stella Maris Airport.

We heard the Debonair and Aztec make position reports as they approached Stella Maris, and we knew it would be close. Lane landed ahead of us, but we scored our first triumph over Abbott by beating the Debonair to the ramp.

The next day we took off first for Hawk's Nest, landed last, took off first the next day for North Eleuthera, and landed last there as well. On Monday, Traum and I left for Palm Beach International Airport an hour earlier than the others. Sure enough, we taxied to the U.S. Customs ramp behind Lane's Aztec — but just ahead of Abbott. The final leg to home base was no contest. Traum and I left last, and arrived way last.

I spent 10 quality flying hours touring the Bahamas with Traum in the 172. It was hugely slower than the other two executive transports but used less fuel. I also think we had a much better sightseeing experience — we flew lower, and with an unobstructed view, thanks to the Cessna's high wing.

We may never have arrived anywhere first, but we beat Abbott twice, and for Traum, that alone was worth it.

Topics Bahamas, Travel