A flight of four AT-6 Texans arced gracefully overhead in impeccable formation, working as one to draw familiar shapes—hearts, arcs, and circles—in airshow smoke. The orange-and-white AeroShell livery is as recognizable as any on the American show circuit today, but this setting was perhaps a little more exotic than most.
Grand Bahama Island on May 20 was united in a love of aviation.
The Grand Bahama Island Air Show was back, the second edition of what appears likely to grow as an annual event, not to mention a triumph for organizers and residents of an island not far removed from the unusually lingering visit of the devastating Hurricane Matthew in October. About 50,000 Bahamians call this island home, and those who turned out seemed eager for a party, with a love of aviation that comes naturally in a place where airplanes and boats share a singular importance.
Bright smiles broke out in flashes of white teeth as the AeroShell Aerobatic Team formed up high above with smoke on, encircling the skydivers of The Chuters parachute team, who touched down with the Bahamian flag in tow as a local student choir sang their national anthem.
The aerial roster also included John Black in his Super Decathlon and Paul Schulten, whose Christen Eagle added color to an already colorful tableau as he wheeled and spun through an azure sky. It was a relatively small lineup, perhaps, but with encore performances and a few pit stops for fuel and smoke oil, they turned it into an afternoon that stretched into twilight (and beyond, as the musicians took over at nightfall), and clearly delighted many in the crowd.
“Oh, I’m in heaven,” a man’s voice proclaimed with obvious delight as the AeroShell team split their formation to create a chandelier of smoke. Schulten’s Lomcovak drew audible whoops. For those in the crowd who have seen more than a few airshows, the reactions gave a fresh buoyancy and vibrancy to familiar tricks and staples of the aerial art. Not to mention that an afternoon spent on any Bahamian beach beats so many alternatives.
The show had grown in both audience and lineup from the inaugural event in 2016, organizers said. Coinciding with a kite festival and aviation career fair for youth, as well as an Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles event, the show itself capped a very busy weekend for many of the American visitors. Mike Zidziunas, a Florida-based pilot who serves as one of the island nation’s official Flying Ambassadors, told Bob Raskey of Florida Aviation Network that more than 60 children got their first airplane ride during the Young Eagles program held before the show, nearly triple the 2016 tally. Those who were present reported several of those kids got their first ride in an AeroShell AT-6.
“We have a lot of young Bahamian pilots now, and there’s great interest and passion in flying,” said Betty Bethel, the Ministry of Tourism director on Grand Bahama Island, who was joined at the show by the newly elected Deputy Prime Minister K. Peter Turnquest. Bethel said the effort and participation of the American pilots and other aviation team members who gave the kids an inside look at what professional aviation can be like were much appreciated by all.
“They were very encouraging to the youngsters,” Bethel said. “We’re very excited about the youth opportunities in the aviation business."
Wayne Boggs split air boss duties with John Walsh—the two are partners in John-Wayne Air Cavalry, and support dozens of shows a year (including AOPA Fly-In events). They said it was not particularly challenging to recruit pilots willing to hop across the roughly 50 miles of ocean separating Florida from the Bahamas archipelago and fly a show, hosted as they were in the elegant accommodations of the Pelican Bay Hotel, located within the Grand Lucayan Resort.
“The hospitality is just, you can’t beat it. It’s outstanding,” said Boggs.
Walsh said one thing that makes this show special is that the sound of aviation motors is interspersed through the program with music performed by local artists, a combination that also helps keep the crowd entertained while aircraft make their way between Grand Bahama International Airport and Taino Beach, where the festival was located.
“It’s not your conventional airshow, there’s interleaving entertainment in between, because the Bahamians like to dance, they like to sing, but they also like to be entertained in the sky,” Walsh said.
It takes time to build a show from scratch, but in the Bahamas organizers found an appreciative crowd ready to gather.
“The noise of the airplanes brings them to the beach,” Walsh said, noting the pre-show practice brought about 250 to a beach where only a handful had been present before the practice session began. Much like America’s barnstormer days, an airplane engine is itself a potent marketing tool. “People just hear the airplanes, they run to Taino Beach and go see it.”
Boggs said the appreciation is mutual between performers and the audience, and it is not expected to be difficult to recruit more acts for 2018.
“The good thing about all of this is the word’s going to spread. We’ll have more people wanting to fly in this airshow than we have money to spend,” Boggs said. “That’s a good thing.”
Organizers met the day after the show with Bahamian officials to begin planning the 2018 edition, the dates of which will be announced later.
The May 19 and 20 programs and events followed a day after the Bahamian government announced it now welcomes American pilots flying under BasicMed, a development that promises to make attending the 2018 show easier for many pilots. That fact is not lost on officials whose nation relies on tourism dollars and still working to recover from Hurricane Matthew. A recent press release provided to the American media contingent that was hosted by the Ministry of Tourism noted that major hotel properties remain closed for repairs, including the 545-room Breakers Cay at the Grand Lucayan Beach Resort, and the 482-room Memories Grand Bahama Beach Resort. Those two hotels represent 40 percent of the island’s accommodation inventory. The Treasure Bay Casino also remains shuttered by storm damage.
But rooms, pools, and the convention center at Pelican Bay were all shipshape, and visiting pilots were offered discounted accommodations to entice them to make the trip. The arrival of BasicMed acceptance by the Bahamian government was well-timed, if a little late to grow the crowd for the 2017 show.
“Our main focus has always been to make it easier to visit and experience the islands of the Bahamas, and we think this is one thing that will definitely make it easier for private pilots and aviators,” Bethel said of the BasicMed decision.
To learn more about general aviation travel to the Bahamas, AOPA offers a detailed briefing.