Answers For Pilots: Flying to the Islands

Before you take off, make sure there's a place to land

November 1, 2011

Bahamas

The Bahamas took a beating in August from Hurricane Irene, and while some airports sustained flooding and damage, most were restored to service within a couple of days. The airports provided a valuable service to Bahamian residents, as government officials flew to Cat Island, Acklins, Inagua and Long Island to assess the local damage. General aviation played a vital role in bringing food, water, and supplies to many who suffered tremendous loss. Organizations such as Bahamas Habitat responded quickly with disaster relief airlifts, then followed up with longer-term restorative efforts in the islands.

While all airports should be fully restored by now, you should check on the condition of the community, lodges, and beaches at your destination.

In addition to that, here is a rundown of the requirements for a general aviation flight from the United States to the Bahamas. All travelers will need passports, and the pilot also needs a pilot certificate with an English-proficient endorsement, a current medical certificate, and a restricted radiotelephone operators permit.

Your aircraft must have a standard airworthiness certificate, permanent registration certificate, radio station license, operating limitations, and weight and balance. If the aircraft is registered in a name other than your own, bring a notarized letter allowing use of the aircraft.

If it’s been a few years since you’ve flown to the islands, you are now required to use eAPIS (effective May, 2009) — CBP’s Electronic Advance Passenger Information System. The CBP Form 178 is no longer a valid form and is not required for arrival into the United Status. The Air Safety Institute has a free online tutorial: “ Understanding eAPIS - A Pilot’s Guide to Online Customs Reporting” and some of the frequently asked questions are online. You can file both your outbound and inbound manifests at the same time before you depart the U.S.

ICAO requires an approved life vest flotation device for each occupant for flights in the Bahamas, and it’s recommended that you also carry a life raft. All U.S. registered aircraft must have an ID data plate and 12-inch registration marks when flying in the ADIZ.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requires a $27.50 annual user fee decal. Normally, private flights do not pre-clear with CBP; however, non-U.S. citizens may have pre-clearance requirements, so if this applies to you, be sure to contact the appropriate CBP office.

You must be on an activated IFR or Defense VFR flight plan on departure for flying through the ADIZ, and your first landing in the Bahamas must be at a Customs airport of entry. Call the FBO or Customs to announce your planned arrival time.

Flight plans are recommended for island flying, though you may need to open and close them from altitude if phones are not available. For island hopping flexibility, obtain a cruising permit at your airport of entry. VFR at night is prohibited except within the airport traffic areas of Freeport and Nassau.

When it’s time to head home, you must return your immigration tourist card and cruising permit, as well as pay a $25 per passenger departure tax. U.S. CBP requires advance notice of arrival—no less than one hour and no more than 23 hours, and you will need to file a defense VFR or IFR flight plan and activate it. If you didn’t file an eAPIS manifest for your return trip to the U.S. before you left, you have to do that at least one hour before departure.

You must land at the first airport of entry after crossing the U.S. border. Be on time—a little late is better than early, as CBP will allow a 15-minute window for your arrival time.

For more tips and access to travel resources, visit AOPA’s international web section or call the AOPA Pilot Information Center, 1-800-USA/AOPA (872/2672).

Kathy Dondzila

Kathy Dondzila | Manager, Technical Communications, Pilot Information Center

Technical Communications Manager, Kathy Dondzila, joined AOPA in 1990 and is an instrument-rated private pilot.