For pilots living in colder climates this time of year, the idea of a quick jaunt to a tropical island for a few days would be the perfect holiday gift. But you don’t have to live where it’s cold to take some R&R in a tropical paradise. The Bahamas is a year-round destination for two clubs are based at Page Field (KFMY) in Fort Myers, Florida. The Sundowners and the Fort Myers Flying Club hosted their latest Bahamas Fly-Out the weekend of the Dec. 7 - 9.
The Sundowners were formed in 1965 by seven pilots who wanted to share expenses. But they were also boaters and decided to create a coastal search patrol, which continues to this day on weekends. The club has two Cessna 172s and a 182 that are used by its 92 members, a 50/50 mix of pilots and observers.
The Fort Myers Flying Club, originally known as the “Cub Club” has been around since 1959 and has a Piper Archer, a Cessna 172, and a Cessna 182. The club has approximately 130 members, with about 65 to 70 active pilots.
Although the two clubs worked together to promoted this recent event, anyone could participate, whether or not they are in the club. “This trip is not just for club members,” Mark Steinberg, the trip coordinator and a member of the Sundowners, said. “We put it out every which way we can and try to encourage participation from all quarters. And we get it.”
The Bahamian Tourism Bureau has an aviation group, headed up by Greg Rolle, and has created ambassadors, like Mark, who encourage and assist private pilots that want to go to the Bahamas. “They create these fly-outs with incentives to come,” Fort Myers Flying Club President Terry Voorhees said. “There are very attractive hotel rates, cocktail parties, dinners, lots of cool stuff. When you go on one of these [fly-outs] they treat you just royally. They really take good care of you.”
On Friday morning, six aircraft—an Aztec, Mooney, two Archers, and two PA-32s—carrying 24 people left the mainland for Nassau Lyndon Pindling International Airport (MYNN). From Ft. Myers the flight in a 172 takes about an hour and 45 minutes. Two Sundowner club members flew in their own aircraft and Bruce Ayala, a member of the Pompano Flying Club, flew one of the club’s two Archers. Greg, the chief pilot for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, was also on the trip as the official host.
The itinerary had a little bit of everything—whether you’re looking for the style and class of Monte Carlo, uncovering the city and its secrets as the locals know it, or some family fun. While most of the people on this trip range in their 40s to 60s, there are some members in their late 20s and 30s, and even families with preteen kids.
“The folks on the trip will have the experience of the glitz and world class FBO that we’re going to be stopping at, Executive Aviation, and the glitz of Atlantis,” Mark said. “Everybody likes the casino and the waterpark.” Some chose to go on a behind the scenes tour of Nassau that Mark led, while others did some holiday shopping.
On Saturday night the group dined at Montague Gardens, a restaurant that “looks like something that came out of the movie Casablanca,” Mark said. “It’s a place that tourists don’t go to. It’s where the refined Bahamians go, and not overpriced.”
On the way back on Sunday, the group took a hop over to a “typical out island,” Great Harbour Cay. The beach is about 150 feet from the runway and there is small bar and conch shack, where the group had burgers and conch salad for lunch before heading west over the Atlantic and back to Florida.
One of the benefits to the trip is learning what’s required for over water flights and traveling to international destinations. Twice a year the Sundowners have an in-house Islands Flying Course that anyone flying to the islands must take. It teaches the Customs and Border Protection Electronic Advanced Passenger Information System (eAPIS), what gear is required, and weather in the islands.
The course goes over anything new and refreshes pilots on general flying procedures, like opening and closing a flight plan. For pilots flying to the Bahamas for the first time, the club also works directly with individuals. “Often times people need to be coached on the eAPIS and we’ll give them one on one [support] whether we go to their home or do it on the phone,” Mark said.
The day before the flight there is a mandatory pilots briefing. They go through everything from making sure people have their passports and have filed their eAPIS, to the proper frequencies and planned departure times.
The social aspect is a big reason for this type of club event. The Sundowners typically have three or four major trips a year. The next one is in February and it will combine flying to Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas and then taking a three-day catamaran cruise. “We encourage sharing airplanes, sharing costs, and all that as the FAA allows, to get more and more people involved in the process, and in doing that it becomes a great family adventure,” Mark said.
The club trips gave Mark an opportunity to share his love of flying with his wife, who’s not a pilot, and make some lifelong family friends. “She enjoys the trips and helps plan them. We have a social network of other people through these trips the we’ve maintained for years,” Mark said. “These Bahamas trips that we do, and the many other trips—whether it’s for a weekend or a day trip for a picnic somewhere—the whole family is involved.”
For more information on Bahamas Fly-Outs, contact Mark Steinberg, Senior Flying Ambassador at 239/910-2360 or [email protected], or Rick Gardner, AOPA’s authorized representative for the Bahamas, Mexico, and Central America at 786/206-6147 or [email protected].