Bound for the Bahamas

Answering the Islands' call

December 8, 2009

When it comes to nearby destinations with a faraway feel, few spots can compare with the Bahamas. With its nearest airports just a half hour off the Florida coast by even the smallest general aviation airplane, the Bahamas offer a wide range of locales spread among its 700 or so islands. The Bahamas Tourism Office figured that general aviation pilots—most of them based in Florida—brought some 476,000 visitors to the Bahamas in 2008. New Providence Island, where the capital city of Nassau is located, attracted 125,335 of those visitors. Grand Bahama Island, where gambling and high-end shopping are big draws in the main city of Freeport, got 34,642. But most GA flying—with 316,616 visits—was to the Out Islands, where a rustic, perpetually chilled-out atmosphere prevails. Many of these islands are accessible only by general aviation airplane (and yachts), so GA pilots will instantly be among like-minded friends.

The principal destinations in the Out Islands are on Great Abaco, Eleuthera, Exuma, Long, Cat, Andros, and the Berry Islands. Each island has at least one airport, and by and large they feature well-maintained runways and always-improving infrastructure. And all of the islands have an airport of entry—meaning you can fly directly to them from the United States, and clear customs and immigration both inbound and outbound.

Gateways

Over the years, the Bahamas Tourism Office (BTO) has been working to boost the number of general aviation visitors. It’s a task that’s become a bit more challenging since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and new requirements to file inbound and outbound manifests via the Internet have definitely made things more vexing. This is U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s electronic advance passenger information system, or eAPIS for short. We’ll address this shortly, but the main thing right now is to reassure yourself that you can conquer its formalities—and move on to have the time, and the flights, of your life.

The BTO recently hosted a swing through the Bahamas to help familiarize four of its Florida “Gateway” fixed-base operators, plus two tour operators, with both the arrival and departure procedures as well as some of the more popular resorts. The FBOs were Banyan Air Service at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport; Galaxy Aviation at Palm Beach International, Orlando International, and Stuart’s Witham airports; Volo Aviation at Fort Pierce’s St. Lucie County International Airport; and Miami Executive Aviation at Miami’s Opa-Locka Executive Airport. The Gateway airports provide on-site information and advice to pilots flying to the Bahamas, and smooth the way through the bureaucratic hoops.

It was tough duty, but photographer Chris Rose and I went along on this whirlwind tour through four Out Islands. Our group totaled 30 people, flying in 12 airplanes. Most of the group left from Fort Lauderdale Executive, and a half-hour later we were all on the ground at Grand Bahama International Airport (MYGF) at Freeport on Grand Bahama Island. There, we cleared customs inbound and had a briefing from several Bahamian government officials. The gist of it was that the Islands have suffered during the economic slowdown, there is a need for more GA tourism, and the government is willing to listen to recommendations that would help raise the number of visits—especially to Freeport and the rest of Grand Bahama Island.

Flying through four

The next stop on the Out Islands portion of the tour was to Long Island. From Freeport to Long Island’s Stella Maris Airport (MYLS) it’s about 290 nm, or about an hour and 45 minutes in the Bonanza we flew. Along the way, we had flight following from Nassau Radio on 121.0 MHz and Miami Center on 127.22 MHz. Stella Maris, like Freeport, is an airport of entry, and has a 4,000-foot runway, fuel, and shuttle buses to take you to the Stella Maris Resort.

The resort was established in the 1960s and enjoys a great reputation, with its combination of 32 cottages, apartments, and villas. A dining room and bar are centrally located, and scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and kayaking are offered. The villas overlook the Atlantic shore, and come with pools and knockout views. I spent the night in the Rainbow villa, which featured a saltwater pool perched on a cliff overlooking the crashing waves below. With no light to speak of, the night sky was alive with so many stars that, save one or two, no constellations were readily apparent. But the Milky Way was. By the way, it’s the same on virtually all the Out Islands.

Next stop was Cat Island’s New Bight Airport (MYCB), a mere 45 nm or so north of Stella Maris. New Bight is also an airport of entry, but it has no fuel. No matter; we topped off at Stella Maris and had enough to take us through the next two stops. After our Transire (obtained on arrival at Freeport, and also called a cruising permit) was stamped, it was off to the Fernandez Bay Village.

Fernandez Bay Village is run by Tony Armbrister and family, and is distinguished by its beachfront cottages and villas. Spread before the entire complex is one of the best beaches in the world, with sand as fine as sugar and tranquil, shallow waters. Armbrister used to fly his nonpilot guests in from Nassau, using first his Mitsubishi MU-2, then a Beech Baron. Now, commercial airlines serve Cat Island, and so do charter operators. But pilots and their companions still come to Fernandez Bay Village via their own airplanes, and fly near the resort on the pattern to New Bight’s Runway 9.

Cat Island offers prime scuba diving, snorkeling, and fishing. The highest point in the entire Bahamas—at 206 feet msl!—is on Cat Island, and is the location of the Hermitage, a monastery built in the 1940s by a Jesuit priest. Cat Island has a remote feel, and while Fernandez Bay Village remains my favorite, there’s another resort at the south end of the island—Hawk’s Nest (which has its own runway). At the north end of the island there’s Sammy T’s new resort, which is situated on a beautiful beach, and close to the 7,000-foot-long Arthur’s Town Airport (MYCA).

The next leg took us to Great Abaco Island and Marsh Harbour International Airport (MYAM), 185 nm to the northwest. Abaco is a sailing and fishing spot, but it has its great beaches, snorkeling, and scuba diving too. A big Abaco attraction is Hopetown, a small town on Elbow Cay—a barrier island reachable only by water taxi or private boat. We stayed at the Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour in Marsh Harbour, and visited the Hopetown Harbour Lodge on Elbow Cay. On the way back to Marsh Harbour we anchored our boat at a couple of snorkeling sites, spotted several huge starfish and some giant coral heads, then headed for home.

Back to the States

Procedural duties took over before we could begin our 190-nm trip back to Fort Pierce, Florida’s St. Lucie County International Airport (KFPR). First comes the telephone weather briefing and flight plan filing. There were scattered thunderstorms along our route, but nothing that couldn’t be circumnavigated with the help of XM WX datalink weather and our eyeballs. I could have used the hotel telephones or my cell phone to do these jobs, but this is the Bahamas and, well, no conventional telephone services were working that day. But a friend’s Skype-equipped cell phone saved the day. Using this Internet-based phone service, several in the group filed their flight plans, got their weather, and made that all-important advance-notice call to the U.S. Customs facilities at their airports of entry. Meanwhile, my eAPIS manifest for the return had been filed long ago—before our departure from Fort Lauderdale.

Goodbyes finished, it was back in the airplane and off to Fort Pierce. I activated our flight plan in the air with Nassau Radio on 124.2 MHz, then it was time to weave around the storms, take some videos, gaze at those clear waters, and ring up Miami International Flight Service on 126.7 MHz to give the minimum 15-minute advance notice of our crossing the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) boundary. We got a transponder code, and soon thereafter the Florida coast came into view. Then it was touchdown at Fort Pierce, and clearing Customs. The lone officer on duty swiped our passports, looked over our baggage, and then waved us back to the airplane.

Did he receive our eAPIS manifests, I wondered. “Oh, sure,” came the answer. He actually seemed pleased. Probably because the information on the eAPIS relieves him of the responsibility to check on the stops made during the trip. And what about my call from the Bahamas to tell him we’d arrive later than originally planned? He was equally blasé. “Just so you get here the same day,” he said.

We were home. Sure, there were bureaucratic hoops to jump through. But in retrospect it wasn’t all that bad—and certainly worth it. The hurdles shouldn’t prevent anyone from missing out on a Bahamian adventure. I’m planning my next trip as this is being written.

E-mail the author at tom.horne@aopa.org.

eAPIS

The best tutorial for learning about eAPIS is offered by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation online. This gets you familiar with the forms and shows you how to fill them out. You’ll need passport numbers, passport expiration dates, dates of birth, and residence information for all aboard, plus pilot certificate information for yourself.

To use eAPIS—and it is required for both outbound and inbound flights—you must first enroll at the eAPIS Web site, obtain a “sender ID,” and make up a password. Once enrolled, the system recognizes you each time you log on for a flight.

You can file eAPIS manifests outbound and inbound simultaneously. If your arrival time at a U.S. airport of entry will be early or late, you must call U.S. Customs at that location and advise them. But if you will be returning on a different date, you must file a new eAPIS manifest. That can be a big problem if there’s no Internet access.

If you’re like me, your first try at filing will take a couple of hours—entry errors are unavoidable for the neophyte, but eAPIS will prompt you if you goof up or omit a needed entry. My second try took just an hour. Some pilots avoid the hassle by letting private services do the filing, for a fee. Flightplan.com is one such provider. Go online for more information, or call 888-358-3375 to enroll. The cost is $249 per year, for unlimited eAPIS and flight plan filings. Tour operator Air Journey LLC has an eAPIS service that costs $99 per year.


In-flight checklists

Stella Maris Resort posts a complete procedural checklist online for outbound flying and Abaco Beach Resort online has a checklist for flights returning to the United States.

In a nutshell, pilots flying outbound from the United States must file a flight plan, file an eAPIS manifest (you can file an inbound manifest at the same time), activate the flight plan before leaving Florida (on 122.4 MHz for the Palm Beach area; 122.20 MHz for Miami/Fort Lauderdale; or 122.55 MHz for Fort Pierce), then close your flight plan when landing in the Bahamas. You can use Nassau Radio on 124.2 MHz or 128.0 MHz, or the blue phones provided free at each airport of entry.

En route, flight following is available from Miami Flight Service on a variety of frequencies. Ask your briefer for those that work best in the area where you’ll fly.

Finally, when clearing Bahamian customs you need to fill out three copies of the C7A form, or general declaration. This form simply asks for your and your passengers’ names, plus the airplane N-number and departure and arrival airports. An immigration card also has to be filled out.

For the return trip, the procedures are similar, but before takeoff don’t forget to call your Customs stop with your estimated time of arrival. As you near Florida, call Miami Radio on 126.7 or 126.9 MHz before crossing the ADIZ boundary for a discrete transponder code. Got questions? Call AOPA for the answers, 800-USA-AOPA (872-2672).

Things to know when you go

Not so many years ago, flying to the Bahamas was an uncomplicated affair. You filed a flight plan, activated it, and then closed it before or during your customs and immigration stop at a Bahamian airport of entry. All that changed, post-9/11. Here are some requisites to bear in mind these days. For the detailed lowdown, go online (www.aopa.org/members/pic/intl/bahamas) for more information.

  • Passport. All visitors must have valid passports. The driver’s-license days are over.
  • Pilot certificate, medical certificate, and restricted radiotelephone operator’s permit.
  • Aircraft documents. This includes the airworthiness certificate, registration, radio station license, and a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) decal.
  • Survival gear. Life vests for each occupant are required, but it makes sense to also have a suitable raft, plus canopy, water, and signaling devices. Bahamas Gateway FBOs can rent you survival gear, but check on availability ahead of time.
  • If you’re flying a rental or borrowed airplane, it’s a good idea to have a letter authorizing your use of the airplane, signed by the owner or a representative.
  • Charts. WAC charts CH-25 and CJ-26 cover most of the islands. Night VFR is prohibited in the Bahamas, so IFR charts may be needed—but instrument approaches are few and far between in the Bahamas.
  • Pilot Publishing’s Bahamas & Caribbean Pilot’s Guide is an excellent source of expanded airport and resort information. It even includes aerial photos of each airport (www.flytheislands.com, 800-521-2120).
Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne | "AOPA Pilot" Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1970s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.