Pilots love to fly places, and in the spirit of the hundred dollar hamburger, the location usually doesn’t matter. Any excuse to immerse yourself into the flying culture for a time will often do. The smell of AvGas, the sound of the engine roaring to life, and the feel of the wheels leaving the ground make flying to even a dinky strip with little more than a vending machine worthwhile. Sometimes, though, using the airplane to go somewhere unique is the ultimate combination of passion and vacation.
Over on the Clayviation YouTube channel, we’ve been on a seven part flight from Augusta, Georgia (near the Clayviation headquarters), down to the Bahamas. It’s a bucket list flight; the kind that many pilots dream of taking, so we’re doing it in the simulator to take full advantage of the power of X-Plane 11. You can join the action for the final flight over the ocean below, or catch the whole series here.
There are two big reasons that a flight out to the Bahamas is a bigger deal than the hundred dollar hamburger down the patch, and those reasons can best be summed up with two words: Ocean and Customs. Flight over water, and to a different country, brings about new precautions and considerations. These considerations are important but not overly difficult. With some research and preparation, the flight can be made with the same ease as any other hundred dollar hamburger. Having planned and flown the route in the sim had me excited about researching the flight in real life, so I wanted to compile as much as I could on the topic. I’m no expert on flying to the Bahamas, so I enlisted the help of someone who is – a friend of Clayviation and a great pilot, Jason Schappert of MZeroA.com. With some wisdom and guidance from Jason, who takes students to the Bahamas regularly, this blog is a pilot’s resource toolkit aimed at getting you started with the right guides, links, and resources to start planning your flight to the Bahamas without having to start from scratch on your own.
The Paperwork & Customs
There are a few extra steps to take to make sure you have the items you need to fly internationally, fly across the ocean, and clear customs. Keep in mind that these are items beyond what you would normally need to fly. Consult an official source like this AOPA guide before you plan the trip to ensure you have everything, but here’s a checklist with the things you need to fly to the Bahamas, including some helpful links to get you right to where you need to be (up to date as of the time of writing):
-Passport (work on this well ahead of time if you don’t have yours in order)
-eAPIS manifest (register online well ahead of time for logon credentials)
-Three C7A forms (Inward Declaration & Cruising Permit)
-US Customs Airplane Decal
-Letter of authorization if the airplane is not registered in your name (find an example in the “Borrowed, Leased Or Rented US Aircraft” section on page 12 of this AOPA flight planning guide)
-Make sure you have 12 Inch registration marks on the airplane (Your N number; use tape if needed)
-Make sure your pilot certificate specifically reads “English Proficient” (some older ones might not)
-Bahamas Immigration Card (Completed at Customs in the Bahamas)
You’ll want to call customs, both at the Bahamas and on your return trip, at least one hour before you arrive. You can call up to 23 hours prior to arrival once you have a good ETA. Be sure to look ahead for the customs hours of operations and plan accordingly. The Bahamas website offers great up-to-date resources for pilots flying in, including a checklist and a FAQ page. Take a little time to explore it. They even have a live chat available to field your questions. Before you head out over the water, you’ll need to file a Defense VFR (DVFR) flight plan and activate it in the air. This will then get you a squawk code to successfully cross the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that you’ll see charted on a sectional. Then don’t forget to close your flight plan. It’s recommended to close it in the air due to the potential lack of telephones. Jason advises us to bring some cash for the various fees you’ll encounter as well as your own chocks, as the airports there likely won’t have any.
So where do you stop in Florida to fuel up before heading out over the ocean? You can get creative and plan your own route, but if you are looking for some guidance on a preferred route, Jason tells us that “PBI (Palm Beach International) is great as they do this everyday. However it can get quite busy and you’ll often find yourself number 8 for departure on your way out. Fort Pierce (FPR) is a much smaller airport that might be better for a first Bahamas flight.” Then on the Bahamas side, you need to first stop at an airport of entry (marked AOE on a sectional chart) but South Bimini (MYBS) and Grand Bahama International (MYGF) are two good choices. From Jason’s perspective, “MYBS is the easiest as it barely even meets the 50nm cross country classification. However my favorite is MYGF.”
The trip out over the ocean requires some additional considerations, like life jackets. Jason recommends wearing the life jackets – here’s why. He also likes to bring a window punch, seat belt cutter, and closed toed shoes. It’s a good time to brush up on some emergency procedures, like ditching. While it’s unlikely that you would lose your engine, that’s usually the biggest fear, since it would have much more serious results over the water once you are outside of gliding distance to land. Foreflight’s glide advisor is a great tool to estimate that point where land is no longer in gliding distance. Jason advised me to “spiral climb above Florida to get to your altitude before heading over as ATC will just send you direct and you’ll find yourself at 2,500ft over the ocean real quick.” Naturally, the higher you are, the further you can glide, if you were to need it. When talking with Jason about a good altitude, he suggested to fly “9k or 10k – I love altitude.” While a good pilot builds in margins for error and makes good preparations for something like an engine failure over the water, Jason remarked that “yes I fear the engine failure but remember the airplane doesn’t know its over the water… just the pilot does.”
Planning For Fuel
In the states, we might be used to having fuel at the majority of airports we travel to, but in the Bahamas, it’s important to plan ahead. There are some airports that don’t have fuel. In fact, there are only nine listed that do have fuel. You can look at the list here, but Jason advised me to “get fuel in Florida or at a BIG airport in the Bahamas. Remember fuel can go bad if it sits and little airports like MYBS don’t sell a lot so the fuel sits and octane decreases.” It’s said that you are never more than 20 minutes flying time from fuel, though, according to the Bahamas FAQ page, so a touch of planning – along with not arriving anywhere on fumes – will go a long way.
This is just a starting point to get you planning your trip to the Bahamas. You can pick up a full guide from AOPA here or even download the app for free. Jason has a great podcast where he sheds some wisdom from some of his flights over to the Bahamas, so give it a listen the next time you are in the car.
Have Some Fun
Once you’ve cleared Customs and have the papers you need, you can either hang out and relax or go island hopping to explore the islands. One of the must see attractions are the swimming pigs at Staniel Cay (MYES). Apparently they like to eat watermelon rinds. Nobody knows for sure where they came from, but you can stop in and give them a visit. Have you been on a General Aviation flight to the Bahamas or flown it yourself? I’d love to hear about your experience and any tips you learned along the way in the comments!
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