Photography by Chris Rose
Last winter was wretched in the mid-Atlantic. There’s no other word for it. Snow; ice storms; strong winds blasting out of the northwest. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The single consolation for at least one group of East Coast pilots is that they could point their birds south and head to the Bahamas.
The 24 pilots and passengers who formed the flock all were loosely connected to Aviation Adventures—a flight school in Manassas, Virginia—which has organized fly-outs to the Bahamas since 2012. The fly-outs are intended to encourage aviators of all levels to stretch their wings and try something new, said Aviation Adventures owner Bob Hepp.
Participation has grown from three airplanes the first year to 10 in 2014, including expatriats Larry and Ruth Sooby, who moved away from the Virginia area to a hangar home at Stearman Field in Kansas—but enjoyed their previous junkets with the group so much that they wouldn’t think of letting a few extra nautical miles (try 924) get in the way.
“It’s just the greatest trip ever,” Larry Sooby said. In the weeks prior to the trip, he and Ruth Anne joined the group’s flight planning sessions via Skype.
LEAVING WINTER BEHIND. The 10 airplanes—a Beechcraft Bonanza, a Diamond DA42, a Piper Twin Comanche, a Cessna 206, two Cessna 182s, two Cessna 172s, a Piper Arrow, and a Tecnam Sierra Light Sport aircraft—launched the week of January 31. Several departed on the same day, stopping for fuel and BBQ in South Carolina before ending a long flying day in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Rain threw up a last-minute atmospheric roadblock for some. Rob Dean and his father, Richard Dean, could get no farther than St. Simons, Georgia, in their VFR-only Tecnam. Unable to catch up to the Aviation Adventures group, the Deans waited out the weather and then spent several days enjoying the Florida Keys.
TIME TO GO. Meanwhile, the remainder of the group overnighted in Fort Pierce, Florida, rendezvousing at a Red Lobster to conduct one final flight planning session. The grubby late-winter snow and ice on the East Coast melted to a dim memory as sunshine and blue skies in Florida offered a promising start to the next leg of the journey. Cat Island, one of the many out islands that form a chain stretching to the southeast, was the final destination.
Filing a DVFR international flight plan or instrument flight plan and a manifest via the Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS) are two of the steps unfamiliar pilots seem to dread about the process. The Foreflight users were delighted with an updated version of the flight planning software that made things easier.
“I didn’t even have to talk to flight service,” said Dave Passmore, of Great Falls, Virginia. “I was able to file electronically an ICAO international flight plan using Foreflight.” Passmore and his wife, Susan, flew their Diamond DA42, marking their first trip to the Bahamas by general aviation.
No such shortcut was available for the eAPIS. “You’re nervous doing that eAPIS the first time because it’s tedious, getting all that information in there, but that’s the hardest part, really,” said Linda Knowles, of Falls Church, Virginia. Knowles and pilot friend Lakshmi Vempati were Bahamas veterans, having made this trip in a Cessna 172 on two other occasions.
What many pilots don’t seem to realize is that while you must complete and submit your manifest at least one hour before you depart, there’s no maximum timeframe. You can complete and submit it well in advance of your flight, which takes some of the last-minute stress out of the process, especially if no computer or W-Fi is available. More information and an online course to walk you through eAPIS are available on (AOPA Online).
BLUE AND TURQUOISE. If the prospect of flying over water—even dazzling blue and turquoise water—is bothersome, you’re not alone. Ruth Sooby joked that a Cessna 172’s engine seems to make a different sound over the ocean. The leg from Fort Pierce to Grand Bahama Island is 106 nautical miles, which sounds like a lot—but in reality, the island appeared on the horizon a short time after wheels up from U.S. soil. (And you could trim that overwater trip by about 30 nm if you were to launch out of Palm Beach International.)
The Cessna 172 pilots stopped at Nassau to clear Customs and purchase fuel; the rest flew on to New Bight Airport on Cat Island. Hepp, piloting Aviation Adventures’ Twin Comanche, kept track of the pilots as they checked in—first with Miami Center, then Nassau Center.
The white-bordered runway at New Bight Airport stood out in stark contrast to the green vegetation that covers the island. Visiting pilots can clear customs here, because it is an airport of entry. No fuel is available—you must fly over to Exuma, Long Island, or one of the other islands with airports that sell fuel. As long as you plan appropriately, this isn’t an issue. The Bahamas & Caribbean’s Pilot’s Guide is a great tool to help you find FBOs and contact information.
WELCOME TO FERNANDEZ BAY. The base camp for the Aviation Adventures group was Fernandez Bay Village, a European-flavored cluster of villas and cottages owned by Tony Armbrister. A passionate private pilot, Armbrister has owned several airplanes and uses his current ride, a Beechcraft Baron, to pick up supplies in Nassau and Florida.
He was in Florida during the group’s stay, but the biggest conversation starter of the week—an unopened iron chest said to be 300 to 400 years old—sat front and center in the main lodge, inviting all to speculate about its contents and subjected Armbrister’s daughter, Tameron Armbrister-Barry, to many joking threats to “run and get a crowbar” to end the mystery.
While the ocean-facing accommodations encourage visitors to do nothing more taxing than choose a beach chair for the day, the group had other ideas. After all, who finds an adventure lounging on the beach?
The next few days dawned with the pilots and passengers gathering at breakfast to make plans, then heading out to New Bight Airport for island-hopping excursions. You must obtain several copies of the Form C7A cruising permit at any customs office to travel among the islands.
SWIMMING PIGS, COLUMBUS’S FOOTSTEPS. Dianne Coffman said her 5-year-old grandson didn’t believe her when she said she was going to see swimming pigs on her trip. “He said, ‘Grandma, pigs don’t swim!’”
They do in Staniel Cay in the Exumas, and no flying trip to the Bahamas is complete unless you touch down at the island’s airport, rent a small boat, and see for yourself. The wild pigs live on an uninhabited cay off the main island, but they’ll swim out to beg for scraps of food the moment they hear a motor. Coffman and her husband, Roger, who live in Manassas, Virginia, got plenty of photographic evidence for the grandchildren.
“I think they’re wonderful,” Coffman said of the pigs making industrious circles in the water near her boat.
The Coffmans joined Troy and Nikki Marshall of Catlett, Virginia, in their Beechcraft Bonanza. CFII Roger helped Troy, an instrument pilot-in-training, log some actual and shoot an instrument approach into Fort Pierce. Nikki Marshall said she had initially been somewhat nervous about the overwater trip, but a CFII in the right seat eased her concerns.
Another highlight of a stop at Staniel Cay is to go snorkeling at Thunderball Grotto, whose insides teem with tropical fish. It’s named for the James Bond film, which features a diving sequence filmed here. The popular Staniel Cay Yacht Club is a lively place to enjoy conch fritters or conch salad. Though there’s no fuel available at Staniel Cay, Grand Exuma is close.
It’s tough to top swimming pigs, but a fly-out to San Salvador—about 54 nm from Cat Island—provided plenty of sightseeing drenched in history. Touching down on San Salvador’s 8,000-foot runway, the pilots were puzzled as to its length compared to other airports. They discovered that an Airbus A330 arrives daily to discharge a load of visitors to Club Med.
While you can purchase a day pass to that resort, the pilots and passengers opted to rent motor scooters and a car to explore the island, particularly the site where Columbus is said to have landed in search of the new world. A late-afternoon flight to Long Island for fuel concluded the day’s adventures, bringing the group back to Cat Island well before sunset—there’s no nighttime VFR flying in the Bahamas, and only two airports have instrument approaches.
“The Bahamas are a great treasure because they’re so close to the United States,” said Robyn Witschey. She and husband John have visited the islands on numerous occasions, but this was their first trip via GA. “They have a wonderful climate; beautiful nature; lovely people; and you can really seek out quiet, relaxing places that really get you out of the hubbub of the major cities of the East Coast very quickly.”
Most pilots would agree that flying to the Bahamas is a special experience. For Hepp, there’s the aspect of “traveling here in your own airplane, being able to hop around to the different islands, seeing what the different islands have to offer.” Experiencing all of that with a group of other pilots “just makes it one of the best things you can ever do,” he said.
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The Aviation Adventures pilots took care of their own flight planning, hotel reservations, and associated responsibilities. Another way to go is with the assistance of a concierge company that will do everything except fly your airplane for you: file flight plans and eAPIS manifests, set up itineraries, make hotel arrangements, and even accompany a group from start to finish. Here are a few:
» Air Journey (www.airjourney.com)
» Caribbean Flying Adventures (www.caribbeanflyingadventures.com)
» Caribbean Sky Tours (www.caribbeanskytours.com)
One would think that having to ditch an airplane would be the worst thing that could happen to a pilot on a trip over open water. But throwing the life raft overboard only to watch it float away would be much worse. Avoid that with these easy steps:
1. Attach the raft to the aircraft. Every raft comes with a lead line. Attach this to the aircraft prior to throwing the raft overboard.
2. Inflate it. Once the raft is a safe distance away, give the line a quick tug to inflate it.
3. Hop in. Follow the lead line out to the raft and hop in. Stay with the airplane as long as possible to make a bigger target for search and rescue.
On Big Major Cay in the Exumas (also called Pig Island) you’ll meet some big, hairy, pushy, and somewhat entitled pigs. About two dozen feral pigs live on the cay and there are several stories of how the pigs got there, which was about 30 years ago. If you go swimming, keep your hands away from their mouths.
1. Hungry sailors. One story says that the pigs were dropped off on the island and planned to return for a pig roast, but never did.
2. Survivor: The Pig Story. The pigs survived a shipwreck and no one was invited off the island.
3. Stinky sty. A farmer on nearby Staniel Cay raised the pigs on his island but the smell was too much for his neighbors, so he put them over on Big Major Cay and went over when he needed some bacon for breakfast.
Be cognizant of the fees associated with flying in the Bahamas:
» Processing fee of $50 per aircraft.
» Twin-engine aircraft pay additional $4 to $15.
» Private airports may charge landing/parking fees, usually $4 to $15. The FBOs in Nassau and Freeport may charge ramp fees as well.
» All persons pay a $29 departure tax, including pilot and co-pilot.
» Landing fees are waived for single-engine aircraft at all government-owned airports. See www.bahamas.com/private-flying for more information. Some resorts and hotels offer discounts or fuel credits for pilots.
Flying in the Bahamas means a laundry list of requirements for pilot, passengers, and airplane.
The airplane must have:
» Permanent registration. If the airplane is not registered in your name, a letter of authorization.
» Standard airworthiness certificate.
» Radio station license.
» Weight and balance and operating limitations information.
» Life vest or flotation device for each person.
» An ID data plate.
» 12-inch registration marks.
» Transponder with Mode C.
» Customs and Border Protection user fee decal.
» A Form 337 on board, if fuel tanks are installed in the baggage or passenger compartment.
The pilot must have:
» Pilot certificate with English-proficient endorsement.
» Medical certificate (except sport pilots).
» Sport pilot certificates permitted.
» Restricted radiotelephone operator’s permit.
Everyone must have:
» Current passport.
» Children traveling with one parent must have a notarized statement of approval from the absent parent stating the dates of the trip.
More information is available on AOPA Onlin) or by calling the Pilot Information Center at 800-USA-AOPA.
Vidoe Extra: Fly along with Aviation Adventures in this online video.