Over water worth the risk?

March 1, 2011

Tom HainesBy the time I leveled off at 11,000 feet, a quick glance at the Garmin 530 showed that I was only 20 minutes from Freeport, Bahamas—20 more minutes of deep blue Caribbean below me. My Bonanza is a headwind magnet, but today we were tooling along with about 20 knots on the tail, so the miles to dry land were ticking by quickly. Interestingly, at 113 nm from my mainland departure point of Vero Beach, Florida, the Freeport VOR was exactly half way to my destination of Nassau.

Setting cruise power, I reached over and patted the yellow inflatable raft strapped to the co-pilot seat. On top was a handheld transceiver. In a bag next to it I had placed a handheld GPS (fully charged). A Leatherman tool bulged in my pocket—to deflate the raft should I in the confusion of getting out in a ditching mistakenly inflate it inside the airplane. I was already wearing the Coast Guard-approved life jacket—ready to inflate. Should the big Continental out front decide this was the time to take a powder, how would I react, I wondered? Could I manage a smooth water landing, bringing the old airplane to rest on the surface and not plunging into it? Could I get the raft outside the airplane and myself into it before the airplane went to a watery grave? The Miami International Flight Service Specialist had asked me when I filed the IFR flight plan whether the Winslow raft had a cover. “I don’t know and hope not to find out,” I replied.

“That’s what most people say,” he confirmed.

I wasn’t particularly nervous about the flight and, in fact, found the challenge of planning and then flying an overwater flight to a foreign country a fun exercise. I’ve flown across Lake Michigan many times, a distance of about 86 nm, so the leg to Freeport and then to Nassau was not appreciably longer—and the water appreciably warmer! I could have departed the United States from Miami and made the first waypoint Bimini, which is only 50 nm from the shore.

A few years ago an AOPA member was apparently tracking my airplane on FlightAware and noted that I had crossed Lake Michigan half dozen times that summer. He e-mailed me wondering how I justified the risk of flying a single-engine airplane over vast expanses of water; he lived in Florida and wouldn’t fly to the islands. I didn’t have a great response, other than to say that I have considered the risks, take reasonable precautions, and know the airplane well. I fly high enough that the actual time of exposure should the engine completely fail is just a few minutes. And, really, how frequently do engines completely fail while at cruise? It certainly happens, but at least as likely is some sort of a problem that causes a reduction in power—perhaps leading to a complete failure, but at least you may buy some time.

Risk assessment is a personal decision. I would not criticize anyone who elected not to fly over open water—and I know several pilots who fit that category. I don’t ride motorcycles, but I wish well those who choose to (but, please, wear a helmet).

My trip to Nassau was to accept the Cacique Award for Travel Writer of the Year. The Caciques are the Bahamian equivalent of the Academy Awards, with the “Oscars” given at an elaborate ceremony in a large theater—all taped for television. I was honored to be recognized and accepted the award on behalf of the entire Media team at AOPA who routinely creates great content about flying in the Bahamas. The Out Islands in particular are a pilot’s paradise—small resorts on remote islands with great weather and remarkable fishing in that incredibly beautiful teal-colored Caribbean water. The Bahamian government has worked hard to make it simple to fly to the islands and the Bahamian people are known for their hospitality.

While I’ve made numerous trips to the Bahamas, this was the first one where I had done the planning, first where I was flying solo, and first time in a single-engine airplane. AOPA provides numerous resources on its website to make the planning a snap. Bahamas Tourism at www.bahamas.com posts a private pilot’s bill of rights, assuring smooth sailing into the country. Another great resource is the Bahamas & Caribbean Pilot’s Guide.

The biggest hassle, but highly manageable, is dealing with the U.S. government. The Customs eAPIS process is tedious, but doable (be sure to take the AOPA Air Safety Institute online course). You must file an international flight plan leaving and returning to the United States, and get a squawk code from Miami Flight Service before penetrating the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone inbound. All of the resources provide detailed instructions. I sailed right through, including returning to the United States via a stop at Customs at Fort Pierce, Florida, where the stoic agent dutifully stamped my paperwork and urged me out the door in less than five minutes.

With winter still gripping much of the northern United States, a trip to the Bahamas promises both a good flight planning exercise and a chance to catch some Vitamin D. A recent Bahamian Tourism promotion provides a $300 discount to those arriving via private aircraft at many Out Island resorts for a four-night stay or longer, with travel through June 30. It’s a deal you shouldn’t pass up.

Editor in Chief Tom Haines flies a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 for business and pleasure. E-mail the author at [email protected]; follow at twitter.com/tomhaines29.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.